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Politics in Fiction: The Best Political Novels to Read & More


liz cheney oath and honor book cover
Liz Cheney, a Staunch Conservative Republican, Held on to her Morals and Integrity Against Incredible Pressure

I admit it: I’m a political junkie. I read political novels, nonfiction books about politics from both sides (and other sides not really included in the political process in any significant or material way), biographies, news articles from all sides, watch State of the Union (SOTU) addresses and political documentaries, read newspapers from around the world (in their language when I can) to see how other countries view us but also to gauge how things are going in other countries, etcetera. It’s a bit of an addiction, and, perhaps, a bit much in terms of what it leads me to post on social media regarding my thoughts. I don’t see myself changing, as I am one of those people who gets frustrated at what is, to me, a system in the U.S. that has morphed from something promising to something frightening. In this post: Politics in Fiction: The Best Political Novels to Read & More, I've tried to provide a small intro into one writer's view on the more important aspects of why I write.


I’ve been working on a novel for the past eight years that deals with a specific aspect of politics and how we, as a people, elect our presidents. I won’t get into the plot or the angle or the themes I deal with in the novel, but I work on the novel every day, seven days a week, for somewhere between 5-8 hours a day. I think I’m on edit one billion, give or take a few dozen million. I’m making progress. Things are falling into place. I’m happy with where I’m at—but I know I still have some work to do before I share it with my agent and, hopefully, send it out into the world.


That said, I want to share a few of the books I’ve read over the years that I found helpful to understanding how politics works, or, at least, how particular authors, both novelists and nonfiction writers, believe it works. Some of the authors write from experience. Others are scholars. The fiction writers I include are a mix of both, and obviously add intrigue into their novels that help sell books and that may be, in certain ways, complete fiction and not at all based in reality. But as a fiction writer, I look for the story, and novels are about stories and people, so I allow for some leeway in terms of credibility when it comes to fictive portrayals of political situations.


Before I get into the list, I want to explain this post. As I mentioned, I’m obsessed with politics. Not simply because I am a partisan—I admit I am. But that’s not to say I won’t vote for someone from another party, because I will, if I believe they have better policies than the candidate from my party does. But that doesn’t happen too often. Not that the representatives from the party that I’m affiliated with are perfect; they aren’t. But if I agree with one representative/candidate’s policies 75% of the time and only 25% of their opponent’s policies, it’s an easy choice for me who to vote for, and so that’s what I do. I vote for them.


Images of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm
George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm Showcase Orwell's Gift for Highlighting Political Strife

Back to novels. Novels, for me, are an important tool in the recording and interpreting of history. Not all novels, of course, as many novels don’t have larger messages or themes they’re trying to communicate. There are plenty of novels written every year as entertainment and nothing more. Which is fine. I have nothing against those novels or the people who write or read them. Rather, it’s the novels that tackle the aspects and moments in our history that certain authors are trying to capture in their works to contribute to our political discourse that get my attention. It’s the novelists and novels laying out for readers what it means to be living through aberrations in the influence our governments have in and over our lives, the works that have me asking questions about right and wrong (whatever that means philosophically), the works that anger and enlighten me, that scream of injustice, that call attention to the human condition, that help clarify for me why people in government do what they do and why the populations they rule over react as they react.


Image of a man holding a Not My President sign
Not My President Can Apply to ANY President. But That's Not How it Should Work in a Functional Republic/Democratic Country

These novels are the desserts and main courses I long to devour. I find they’re also the novels and works that endure over time, because they tend to be concerned with universal subject matter that returns to us as reliably as the tides to the shore, the sun to the sky.

I believe in writing for many reasons. I believe it’s how we, as authors and as people, contribute to the society we live in. I believe in having a shared history, but also a history that acknowledges that not everyone living in the same society at the same time view everything the same way, because we don’t. Each and every one of us lives their own reality. Brothers and sisters from the same families have different realities. Husbands and wives have and live different realities. People of color (POC) live and have different realities than the lives and realities lived by people who are not members of minority groups. Men have different realities and live different lives than women. I’m not taking a political position here—I’m simply stating a fact. Everyone—neighbors, siblings, minorities, non-minorities, tall people, short people, in-shape people, out-of-shape people—we all live different lives and realities. That’s just fact.


Writing, for me, allows us all a level playing field to tell our stories, stories we should tell because they are important. They help us understand the similarities we share rather than introducing the differences we then allow to get in the way of what could be opportunities to constructive interactions between us. Writing is a tool for us to communicate how we feel and how we see the world. From a political perspective, it allows us to pull the curtain back on what it means to feel hopeless and hungry and afraid of living under men (and political leaders are, for the most part, men) that often execute agendas in direct opposition to remedying the issues felt by the people who are hopeless and hungry and afraid. Yes, this is a blog about novel writing, but the writing of correspondents and political scholars and pundits, the writings of political dissidents and political prisoners and their affected families, this is also writing critical to understanding our shared histories, and they should be written and they should be read. As novelists, we should reference and utilize the knowledge these writers provide us. Their writings and insights should be the fodder that builds the skeletons of our fictive works, for they hold the cellular compositions that become the letters and words, the paragraphs and chapters, of our works. I digress, but you get the point.


Everyone should write what they want to write. If you want to write about a wizard who battles a dragon, go for it. If you want to write about a love story between a princess and a unicorn, more power to you. The world needs you as much as we need doctors and lawyers and teachers and farmers and mechanics and every other person contributing to the health and intellectual wealth of all of us. The novels I’ve chosen to write revolve around difficult relationships between men and women, between careers and happiness, and, often, between the goals set out by politicians and political operatives and the populations of cities and countries beholden to them and the laws they create. It’s what I enjoy writing, and I don’t see that changing, because, besides a few donations and volunteering here and there, writing fiction about manipulation and injustices perpetrated by the government and its players is how I, in my mind, contribute to a better world. It’s how I make sense of the things that don’t make sense. It’s how I hope to communicate ideas about politics to readers in ways they may not have thought of previously. It’s okay if I fail—that’s part of writing. Fail, fail better. But I’ll keep on doing what I enjoy doing, which is giving it my all. We live in perilous times. I hope to contribute to making it a little less perilous through the words I put on the page.


Here are some novels I recommend that deal with politics:

  • All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

  • 1984 – George Orwell

  • Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

  • Primary Colors – Anonymous

  • It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis

  • The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

  • The Quiet American – Graham Greene

  • A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

  • The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

  • The Manchurian Candidate – Richard Condon

  • A Man of the People – Chinua Achebe

  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

  • Prophet Song – Paul Lynch

  • Animal Farm – George Orwell


Here are some political non-fiction books I recommend:

  • A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

  • Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism – Rachel Maddow

  • Oath and Honor – Liz Cheney

  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – Timothy Snyder

  • My Own Words – Ruth Bader Ginsburg

  • Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland – Patrick Radden Keefe

  • Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann

  • The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War- Gerald Brennan

  • How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them – Jason Stanley

  • My Beloved World – Sonia Sotomayor

 

Cully Perlman is a novelist, short story writer, and Substantive Editor. He can be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com

 

 

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