Where is the Orwell for Our Times?

When Anna Burns, author of last year’s Booker prize-winning account of the Troubles, Milkman, was asked whether writing was a political act, she was taken aback. “Honestly? This is the sort of question I don’t know what to do with. It’s not how my brain works.” Eventually she allowed that if politics was about power then yes, OK, her work was political. Such qualms did not deter the judges of the inaugural Orwell prize for political fiction from awarding Burns another trophy. Chair of judges Tom Sutcliffe praised Milkman’s “account of how political allegiances crush and deform our instinctive human loyalties”.

Like the rest of the Orwell prize shortlist, Milkman has a theme rather than an agenda. Always capacious, the genre of political fiction can now accommodate authors such as Ali Smith, Rachel Kushner, Paul Beatty and Jonathan Coe. As George Orwell wrote: “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Much harder to find, however, is an example of what one might call the campaigning novel: that subset that includes classics by the likes of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola alongside fiction-cloaked manifestos, memoirs and works of reportage. What unites them is a passionate desire to use character and narrative to draw the reader’s attention to some social ill and to galvanise efforts to remedy it. As Sam Leith, Orwell prize judge, describes the approach: “Look at this, isn’t it awful?”

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