Emerging writers are breaking through the barriers of the literati. RUTH HUNT explores
A FEW years ago, political fiction tended to be written by well-established authors, journalists and politicians. However, in recent years, as self-publishing has grown and more independent presses are willing to take risks, we are beginning to see more novels, short stories and non-fiction by activists on the ground. In many cases the books they produce are directly in response to the past coalition and the current Tory government.
Rupert Dreyfus’s first novel, Spark, was inspired by the 2011 London riots and is a black comedy about a computer.
Dreyfus describes his second book, a series of short stories titled The Rebel’s Sketchbook, as “transgressive black comedies offering a scathing commentary on modern life, covering subjects as diverse as drug laws, climate change, the media’s portrayal of benefit claimants and hacktivism.”
He wants his books “to provide an alternative to like-minded people because the world can be a lonely place for dissidents. If they challenge perspectives on certain issues then this is a bonus. I write about these things because I care for them, and also want to capture something of the changing world.”
He maintains: “Over the next five years political fiction speaking out on socio-economic factors is going to expand as we endure Tory rule and watch the damage they cause.”
One part of that damage has surely been in the area of welfare cuts. Tara Lighten Msiska, who identifies herself as an intersectional feminist, wrote Jobcentre Undercover, a non-fiction account of her time working undercover at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on a work placement.
Msiska says: “It was the way the DWP were treating benefit claimants which motivated me to act. I can’t do much to improve the situation, so my book is a small contribution to the collective effort.” She hopes it will “open people’s eyes to how the current DWP system results in benefits being stopped because of clerical errors and staff incompetence. Instead of helping people back to work, the DWP plunges them into even deeper poverty and exacerbates existing mental health problems.”
Likewise, Paul Howsley, author of dystopian novel The Year of The Badgers, used it to highlight the failings of austerity. It is, Howsley says, a “reaction to the vilification and demeaning of the poor, by politicians, the media and some parts of society. I looked at how our society is becoming increasingly divided and how the rhetoric that poverty is a direct result of laziness and lack of aspiration is permeating every part of our lives.
“I wrote this story to offer those people a voice, to show how damaging being vilified for something out of your control can be, how destructive it is to the mind, and that what you read isn’t always reality.”
However he is clear that “no matter how bleak it becomes there is always a crack for the light to get in, and one of those cracks I try to highlight is how much compassion there is out there from so many people, helping and doing all they can to turn the insatiable greed and self-interested politics.”
All three authors recognise the growing importance of the internet for campaigning and activism, with Howsley using his blog to focus on topics such as “politics, mental health and the impact of austerity and also to give a platform to those who are fighting back.”
Msiska also acknowledges that “social media, YouTube and alternative news sites have allowed marginalised communities to gain a platform. Instead of writing a letter to the editor or waiting for a sympathetic journalist to give us a voice, ordinary members of the public can spread their own message, gather support and share information with others facing the same issue.”
“The internet,” thinks Dreyfus, “is proving to be a useful tool for speaking out, organising, protesting, campaigning and networking with like-minded people. I’ve also noticed a change in reporting. People are realising that everyone is a journalist now.”
Indeed, it was the internet which helped to change the publishing world and has allowed all three authors to release their books. Dreyfus explains: “I think there’s always been political fiction around, but we don’t necessarily identify it as that because, apart from a few exceptions, it’s mostly been a product of the Establishment. “Market forces have suppressed dissident fiction because, from a business point of view, it tends to come with a higher risk. If it wasn’t for self-publishing and independent presses, these books simply wouldn’t exist.”
Spark and The Rebel’s Sketchbook can be bought from lulu.com. Jobcentre Undercover and The Year of the Badgers are available from amazon.co.uk.
Ruth Hunt is author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).