Ann Pancake on Activist Fiction


Ann Pancake, the author of STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN (Counterpoint 2007),  has a wonderful essay in the Fall 2013 issue of the Georgia Review.  You can read the full essay here.

She says about what we at this blog call Politerature:

“I well know there are excellent reasons to be cautious when approaching explicitly political material as a literary artist, and especially as a writer of literary fiction. Nonfiction can directly reflect on ideas, present information, and even advocate for a “side” without violating the promise the genre makes to the reader. Fiction is another story. Treating politics in fiction is hard to carry off without violating the novel or short story’s “vivid continuous dream”—John Gardner’s term for the spell the best novels cast, a spell too often broken by overtly political works. Of course, fiction can take some liberties—we do have novels of ideas, though they are less popular today than in the past, and there are postmodern experiments that deliberately flout that “vivid continuous dream.” But generally speaking, in realist fiction a mere whiff of the didactic or polemic, any glimpse of the work’s creator stepping in and directing the reader about how to think or feel, can shatter the world the writer has so painstakingly constructed and unravel the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

“This is true also of much poetry and certain kinds of creative nonfiction. Integrating into any literary genre the facts, information, and context a political subject often requires is very difficult without undermining the art, and making the job even harder is the reality that contemporary American audiences are less familiar with encountering politics in literature than are audiences in other countries. I can also tell you from personal experience that writing political fiction doesn’t make you very popular with commercial publishers. It’s no mystery why American fiction writers today are actively discouraged from pulling advocacy politics into their work—except for identity politics, which are a natural match for character-driven fiction and many times aren’t recognized as politics. Certainly political literature presents myriad challenges to the writer, and I know there are places in my own novel where I stumbled into exactly the traps I’m pointing out here. But is the fact that such work is challenging a reason to avoid it altogether?”

She ends her essay this way:

“I believe literature’s most pressing political task of all in these times is envisioning alternative future realities. My biggest disappointment with my own political novel is not the missteps where I strayed into polemic or awkwardly integrated information. My biggest disappointment is that my novel does not provide vision beyond the contemporary situation in central Appalachia. I have learned that it’s much easier to represent a political situation in literature than it is to propose alternatives—to dream forward—without lapsing into Pollyannaism or cynicism. But I’ve come to believe that the greatest challenge for many twenty-first-century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward which is not based in idealism or fantasy, which does not offer dystopia or utopia, but still turns current paradigms on their heads. I now feel charged to make stories that invent more than represent, that dream more than reflect. This is not to say that I have more than glimmers of what such fiction will be, but I carry a burning urgency that it must be done.”

Go to  and read the whole essay!

     MSW & SE





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2 responses to “Ann Pancake on Activist Fiction

  1. Nanette

    I just discovered your site and am on my way over to read this essay, but wanted to send you my kudos for what you are doing.. As a veteran activist and erstwhile writer, I’ve struggled with this issue for years. It’s like finding family here!

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