Go ahead and get a cup of tea, this might go on for a while.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the literary marketplace as a fiction writer and literary scholar, pondering questions like, does the buying and selling of art for money detract from aesthetics? What pressures does the marketplace put on writers? What types of fiction (in terms of form and content) will perform well on the market? Are literary gatekeepers (e.g., editors, publishers, marketing people, critics, agents, etc.) correct in their assessments about marketability? And so on.
One of the determinations and often-repeated truisms is that readers don’t like political books. It is believed readers won’t read about politics and, more broadly, they don’t like books that directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on.
This idea may be related to the stagnation in historical romantic fiction that’s been widely explored in the past month (see for example this recent post at Dear Author). A novel about upper-class white people in the Regency period tends to be seen as apolitical and thus preferable to a novel about upper-class white people in Africa in the early 20th century (which reeks of colonialism), for example.
I’d like to offer a response to the truism arguing for a different, more expansive, notion of the political. I’m invested in this question because the books I’ve written outside the mainstream vis-a-vis the political, but also because I think it’s pertinent to how we see the genre.
First, I’d define “political” as expressing an attitude about social relationships involving power. If power is the medium through and in which all people operate, then all human culture is political. Now, I realize this may seem too broad. If everything is political, then isn’t the term meaningless?
Maybe. But I’d rather discuss the political dimension to all cultural productions than to act like some are political and others aren’t — a phenomenon that I call “some politics get noticed, others don’t,” in which pro-status quo works are seen as neutral and reactionary or revolutionary texts set off alarm bells.
What does this mean for romance? A film like The American President is obviously political. It’s about Democrats and Republicans for crying out loud. People in the movie argue about public policy solutions, media strategies, and poll numbers. But the most significant level on which it’s political is what the film says about the ability of a powerful man to have a sexual relationship with a (less powerful) woman. What would that look that? How would it be negotiated? What sort of hope for equality could they have when the power imbalance is so stark? Etc.
Thus I feel like even the most innocuous-seeming romances tend to be deeply political in that they do cultural work on relationships. At their best, romance novels are deeply imaginative within the confines of the genre at exploring the qualities an ideal partner might possess, how different couples might address common problems, and under what circumstances, and how, one should change for a partner.
And that “stuff” is all highly political. So let’s stop pretending it’s not.
Next, there’s a lot of good scholarship on the 18th century novel, the moment when long-form fiction written in English became a dominant literary genre. This scholarship often considers literary history co-mingled with the economic history of the period. In other words, at the moment when a sizable middle class was emerging in Great Britain and the United States, the novel was becoming an acceptable and widely read genre. Since novels are so often about representing the subjectivity of a small group of (or only one in some cases) character(s), there does seem to be a relationship between middle-classness and the novel form.
And because the middle class has traditionally been moderate — by which I mean supportive of mild social change at a moderate pace — there is a tendency for novels, particularly commercial ones, to also be politically moderate. Which is why much of the scholarship on romance (notably Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance) argues that the form is usually fairly conservative. While women are allowed to be sexual in a (seemingly) subversive way in romance, the energy is funneled into marriage plots that make sexuality safe.
Now there is such a thing as the social novel and these tend to be progressive advocates for change. Writers like Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and so on all wrote such texts. But these are almost the exceptions that prove the rule. The very fact that we’d discuss the social novel (setting it up as a “different” category) indicates that it’s not normative.
So, what’s my point?
I think it’s difficult to write or market an obviously political book in a literary culture that denies the political dimension of most texts. If we’re pretending that a run-of-the-mill Regency or small-town contemporary is without statement about power or politics, it’s going to be very difficult for a novel that addresses inequity — across race, class, sexual orientation, nation of origin, etc. — to make it.
At the end of the day, I’d wish we talk about power and politics in every novel in more complicated ways, thus opening the market to the voices that are currently excluded.