Why 2013 Was the Year Fiction Got Political Again

Politics Matters to Novelists Like Rachel Kushner and Dave Eggers

Catching Fire: With her National Book Award finalist ‘The Flame Throwers,’ Rachel Kushner put the ‘lit’ back in political fiction.
Lucy Raven
Catching Fire: With her National Book Award finalist ‘The Flame Throwers,’ Rachel Kushner put the ‘lit’ back in political fiction.

By Joshua Furst

Published December 29, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There was a time, not so long ago, in the 1960s and ’70s, when being a serious fiction writer required not just a talent for evoking nuanced moments of lived life, but a consciousness of the intellectual and political context in which our lives were being lived. Writers — many of them Jewish — as disparate as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Richard Farina, William Styron, E.L. Doctorow and sometimes even Philip Roth, wrote, if not with explicit political objectives, as though political engagement (and I’m not just talking about easy, lazy liberalism) was an essential part of their literary projects.

These writers weren’t mere propagandists. They were serious artists who understood that individual experience couldn’t be fully understood in a vacuum, that a consciousness of class and its attending issues were necessary to clearly diagnose society’s state. They wrote as though the great issues of how to be had not yet been decided, as though they might play a role in influencing these decisions.

But for too many reasons to fully go into here — Ronald Reagan, the cudgel of late capitalism, the lionization of the wrong writers for the wrong reasons, neoliberal economics, the misapprehension of identity politics as a tool for social mobility, the end of history and the takeover of publishing companies by their marketing departments, for starters — serious novels haven’t been political and political novels haven’t been serious since that time. There are exceptions, of course — Don Delillo’s corpus; Robert Stone’s great novel of Israel, “Damascus Gate”; Nicholson Baker’s “Checkpoint” and Thomas Pynchon (obviously) — but note the age of these writers. When writers of my generation approach the political at all, they do so either with the complacency that one might expect from overweening upper-middle-class liberals or as a historical curiosity about which they, by the evidence of their prose, have no compelling opinion. We’ve been living in an environment where the sentimental platitudes of Jonathan Safran Foer and his ilk can be confused for political seriousness.

This trend is beginning to change. In 2011, Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones.” Last year saw Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” and Dave Eggers’ return to fiction with his political fable, “A Holograph for the King.” All four of these books aspire to a new political urgency. This year a handful more books have come out that undermine, complicate or otherwise attempt to challenge the political status quo. There’s another Eggers fable, “The Circle”; Susan Choi’s “My Education”; Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs”; Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens”; James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird” (this year’s National Book Award winner) and my pick for best book of the year, Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers.”

Many but not all of these books are written by Jews, but that’s incidental. What’s crucial is that they’re written by people who have realized that fiction is capable of doing much more than just entertaining or comforting a small, entitled segment of society looking to be told that their lives are redeemable. They’re written by people who understand that art is capable of provoking and influencing how we understand who we are as a society, and what that implies.

Here’s hoping that in 2014, more writers learn from their example.

Joshua Furst is the author of “The Sabotage Café.” He is a frequent contributor to these pages.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.