Modern times

The novelist and the politician.

The novelist and the politician.

A Senior Federal Minister recently called on his Labor Party colleagues to be ‘’authentic and fair-dinkum storytellers’’ in order to win back voters. The art of electoral politics is to ensure that your party is author of the unfolding narrative and its leader the heroine or hero in the story. Can our political storytellers learn from the great art of the novel? 

Many of history’s most influential political figures have been prolific readers, but storytelling can take a variety of forms. Are other creative influences more appropriate to the current context? Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is said to watch over 100 films each year. As politics is also a visual medium, it shares with cinema the combination of language and visual elements. As American novelist Don DeLillo recently noted, “language is becoming visual”.

Has language also become musical? Paul Keating identified music as his primary source of inspiration, and likes to quotes E.T.A. Hoffman: “music reveals to a man an unknown realm… a world in which he leaves behind all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible.” Both music and cinema may provide inspiration for those politicians involved in the creative process of policy development. 

The novel has additional resonance because in politics, words are important and they endure. Their mastery is vital for leaders to expand the frontiers of political discourse. If it is true that literature civilises, can a renewed interest in literature civilise political discourse in Australia? A renewed interest in the novel may reverse the tendency to think of policy in economic terms alone, or to revert to simplistic messages on important issues of society or democratic civility. 

Is the art of the novel still relevant to the nature of modern politics that has been swept along with rapid changes in society and the media? It has been said in the past that political parties campaign in poetry but govern in prose. It seems that today, parties campaign on Facebook but govern by Twitter. Craig Emerson recently wrote an opinion piece in The Australian describing an exchange he had with ‘Tom’ about the real wage overhang. Emerson waxed lyrical about the ‘respectful civility’ of the exchange. Social media is an avenue for the public to engage in the discussion, often in a more direct way than has been possible in the past. 

Our political leaders’ growing engagement in social media and (perhaps related) increasing propensity to use language carelessly reflect a society that increasingly finds the superficial calming. Modern society is focussed on the immediate and yearns for small portions of digestible information. How to reconcile the complex nature of carbon change policy, for example, with an era that screams: “make things simpler!”? 

Authors of our political discourse have responded by simplifying the message, and the way in which it is delivered. Modern political messaging techniques differ markedly from those of the novelist who understands the need to show, not tell his or her audience. Whereas the novelist offers subtle suggestions and leads the reader to their own conclusions, modern politics demands that an exact formula of words is repeated at every opportunity. This often infuriates people. Whereas readers confronted with a mundane plot can put the book down, it is difficult for constituents to escape a narrow, poorly delivered or repetitive narrative in this age of media saturation. 

Even if modern political messaging must remain simple and be delivered in small, digestible doses, politics more generally, like the novel, embraces complexity. Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera often asserted that novels must explore the previously unconsidered possibilities of man (both good and bad). A political narrative should indeed be inspired by a vigorous consideration of the possibilities open to a nation. It should not merely stop at telling the story of what has been achieved but also illuminate a vision of where a party will take the nation in the future. The art of politics is to entice constituents to keep reading and to participate in the next part of our national story.

Despite their common underlying need to explore what is possible in human existence, political leaders and novelists are vastly different creatures. Flaubert once wrote that “the artist must make posterity believe he never lived”. Whilst not denying the place of ego in writing (think of Hemmingway), it seems that politicians are more interested than novelists in individual aggrandisement. 

Recent surveys focussed on the reading habits of our political representatives do not suggest that the novel is a great source of inspiration to them. They found that the majority of politicians surveyed predominantly read non-fiction, often biographies. This suggests a strong affinity with an individual’s place in history, rather than the movements they participated in. If the national narrative was less focussed on the storyteller, it may have far greater resonance with the Australian people. 

We need “authentic and fair-dinkum storytellers’’ to explain our unifying national project. Political discourse in Australia would benefit if those storytellers were better acquainted with great art of the novel. 


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