October 22nd, 2012 / 7:28 pm

Why does 99.9999999999999999% of political writing seem to have such a short shelf life?


  1. Brooks Sterritt

      i almost changed ‘political writing’ to ‘writing about politics’ to ‘political art’ to ‘journalismetcetera.com’

  2. A D Jameson

      Politics is always changing. That’s why a lot of folks consider scholarship and activism such separate things. The scholar wants to work slowly and methodically, stating something definitive after much consideration. But politics is reinvented every day, as the situation on the ground, and the ever-dynamic balance of power, changes.

  3. Brooks Sterritt

      True, though the literary landscape is also always changing. I can’t exactly articulate why, but for some reason writing ‘about art’ or even ‘shit-talking/gossip about art’ doesn’t seem to become stale in the same way or at the same speed writing about politics does (for me).

  4. A D Jameson

      Some people are right in the current moment, true, but scholarship is usually more patient, and trailing behind. Scholars can’t really tell you what happened in 2012 in poetry—some can begin to describe it, but it takes some time to figure out what happened. Reading everything that’s come out, for instance, takes massive amounts of time (as does fact-checking, publishing). What were the most important new novels published this year? It’s hard to say, and I doubt anyone has a clear answer. (Who’s had the time to read every new novel this year?) What were the most important novels published in 1982? It’s much easier to make a claim for that (and for other informed people to debate it).

      Scholarship strives to be as objective and thorough as possible. Politics need not do that—indeed, it often depends on doing exactly the opposite. (Of course, “writing about something” need not be scholarship.)

      This is something I was trying to get at in the film posts I wrote earlier this year, like “How Many Movies Have You Seen?” and “The 248 Best Movies of 2011.”

      But anyway. I assume by political writing you mean stuff done describing the current moment? If so, I think it’s due to the ever-changing contingencies of politics. (But I find historical analysis, and political scholarship, pretty important.)


  5. Grant Maierhofer

      With American politics heading ever inward, becoming more and more particular with parties taking opposing sides of issues ad nauseam, I think the writing about it can’t afford to be as general as it once was. Political writers can’t afford to focus as much on political theory as they once could because speculation as to what’s better or what’s worse isn’t necessarily the issue in the news so much as who said what and when and why, again, ad nauseam. The best political books (the Mailer stuff, David McCullough, Gore Vidal, the Greeks, the revolt rags of the 60s still in circulation, etc. etc. etc.) do what they can to reach the general through all the muck of the figures and topics they define; and I think today, when politics have just as much a place in the tabloids as the Kardashians, an author’s task of digging through to the general (right and wrong on all political issues, even philosophical discussion of the role of government, things achieved in many a great political book) has become so difficult that most writers focus simply on what’s said, who said it, and don’t dig a great deal deeper or insert themselves into the narrative for the near impossibility of it making sense to any and all readers.
      As far as world politics is concerned, there’s perhaps a great deal less focus on fame as it relates to either party and the role of media on the whole, but the speed of political writing to political publications has nearly reached its peak and hence journalists hoping to stop and smell the roses with a more meditative piece don’t really stand much of a chance of surviving.

  6. John Minichillo

      I think your number is off. Why are so many contemporary writers afraid of political writing?

      Homer was political. Joyce was political. Kafka was political. Virginia Woolf was political. Vonnegut was political. Dostoevsky was political. Gogol was political. Alice Walker is political. Imre Kertez, Barthelme, Babel, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chinua Achebe, Joy Williams, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates, and on and on and on. They just weren’t political 100% of the time and they used metaphors more than topical reactions to current events, though they did that too. Major shelf life.

      And the poets list is considerably longer.

  7. Roxane

      I’d disagree. Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy is deeply political and is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.

  8. Brooks Sterritt

      In that sense all writing is political. Ulysses, to pick one example, is not “political writing” as much as it is a work of art that occasionally touches on politics.

  9. Brooks Sterritt

      I haven’t read that Walker, but would bet if it is powerful in any sense then it gives something more than political depth. The snippet (probably unclear) doesn’t refer to political novels per se.

  10. John Minichillo

      I don’t think all writing is political. That list would be much longer and populated with forgotten writers, minor writers, and a handful of greats. And while Joyce is more political elsewhere Ulysses is deeply political. If it hadn’t been it never would have been banned. But then even the slighter allusions – say the Irish fighting the Irish in the Boar Wars – something remarked on in a newspaper, or by pub patrons – shouldn’t be diminished. The persecution of Jews in Ireland, Stephen giving up religion, the mock mass, the control of sex and the body… Dude, did you read Ulysses?

  11. Brooks Sterritt

      I’ve read it more than once, yeah, dude. Ulysses is far more valuable (maybe not to you) for its language, and as an aesthetic object, than for its political value. There are overtly political characters, there are references to Parnell and x number of other things, but Ulysses is not a list of political situations/themes. The novel “isn’t about something, it IS something.”

  12. John Minichillo

      Joyce worked really hard to get that stuff in there and that distinguishes it. I don’t know which is more narrow, your definition of “politics” or your definition of “writing.”

  13. davidmmmorton

      I think it’s because of a few things. One, if you personally agree, the writing has nothing to offer you other than a slap on the back. Two, if you oppose the writing you have nothing but a feeling that the writer is ignorant and has nothing to offer.

  14. deadgod

      Sturgeon’s Law rephrased in hyperbolic terms for comedy (and perhaps polemical) purposes.

      A piece of political writing comes off the shelf when, through artistry, its horizon fuses ‘naturally’ with that of a reader–with the horizon determined by a reader’s concern with that reader’s “political” time.

      Ulysses–a composite text if ever one person wrote one–contains a perfectly political section: Cyclops. The Citizen (Joyce’s ‘Polyphemus’, at whom Bloom–you’ve heard this–brandishes a flaming brand) can’t be said not to be a portrait of the most bigoted Irish nationalism. For anyone who takes ‘nationalistic and/or ethnic bigotry’ as a pressing “political” concern. Cyclops is political writing, and if you enjoy Joyce and/or craic, it’s funny, clever, effective.

      –but Cyclops, how ‘Russia’ and ‘history’ are shot through War and Peace, Demons, Sentimental Education, The Scarlet Letter–these are just a few of the zillion books on the shelf.

      Most political books stay shelf-bound by lack of artistry, untimeliness, luck – the same ways most fishing stories, most sex writing, most military books only shortly (or never) are fit to come off the shelf.

  15. Don

      99.999etc% of all writing has a short shelf life.

  16. Brooks Sterritt

      “Sturgeon’s Law rephrased in hyperbolic terms for comedy (and perhaps polemical) purposes.” (very perceptive)

  17. Brooks Sterritt

      How do you know how hard he worked to “get it in there?” He was Irish, so the politics thereof were naturally part of his milieu. It seems you are willfully missing my point: there is a difference between a “political novel” and a novel featuring political themes (not to the exclusion of other themes).

  18. John Minichillo

      You haven’t even tried to define “political novel,” not one example of what, for you, makes the cut. Many novels try to contain everything. Ulysses is one of those novels. It can’t be done without work. And I think you are looking too much at the political allusions and not the broader ways a book like Ulysses is political. If all you see as “political” is party politics, then who really gives a shit? There’s not much to talk about and of course such a book would be fleeting. But Ulysses was banned and is still kind of shocking. That’s capital P political.

  19. Brooks Sterritt

      It’s a pretty easy point to make that the all-encompassing novel includes politics–by definition it would include everything. Politics is not the PRIMARY concern of the novel, which would survive the removal of all politic elements but not the removal of all stylistic elements.

  20. John Minichillo

      I’m seriously confused by your claims, questioning that Joyce worked at getting allusions in, but positing the primary concern of the novel? That’s kind of having it both ways, innit?

      If you don’t think a 900 page fuck you to the church and Ireland aren’t political, then you really are living on planet lexicon.

  21. Brooks Sterritt

      Let me try to reduce what I’m saying to its most basic: I think Ulysses is more than just a political novel. I think we can agree that it’s an amazing work of art, and I think we’re going round and round with different connotations of “political.”

  22. John Minichillo

      It sounds like you see the political as small or diminishing. You’ve suggested that the political could be removed from a great work of art. Which makes me wonder why you asked your original question in the first place. If you don’t can’t won’t see the possibility of political = art, then this seems a limited POV to me, both of politics and of art.

      Sometimes John Lennon wrote “Across the Universe” and sometimes he wrote “Revolution.” One reacts to the world in such a way that you have to at least kind of get it to make any sense of the song at all. The other, also art, but with no identifiable political intention whatsoever. One wouldn’t exist without politics. You can’t just remove the politics from Revolution, because a song, or a metaphor, or a book – they aren’t just sounds or melodies or styles – politics isn’t just added in, but politics was most likely the inspiration for creating the piece in the first place. Ulysses is like that, most especially because it can be placed in a career that was like that. The politics weren’t just added on or added in. And this is something that can be said of very many great works of art. Not all art. Not all metaphor. But a lot. A hell of a lot.