Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with polemics in literature. Some of the best, most important books are inherently political, and overtly polemical. I’m thinking for example, of Salman Rushdie’s Step Across This Line, or the essays of Arundhati Roy. But neither Rushdie nor Roy employ polemics in their literature. That isn’t the same as saying that their literature isn’t political. The politics in both Rushdie and Roy’s work forms a powerful underlying theme – as can be seen by the political impact their books have had on those who’ve attacked these writers based solely on their fiction. But neither of these writers are present as mouthpieces in their fiction, which is one of the reasons their fiction is at least as powerful as their nonfiction. As a reviewer and manuscript assessor, I often come across work which has been written to make a point. It’s a kind of fictionalised polemic, where the author is arguing politics through character, plot and setting. Probably one of the best (worst) examples of this is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I’m not (here) arguing against “objectivism”, but rather Rand’s use of characters as a sounding board for it. It makes for bad fiction. Her character Howard Roark is presented as an “ideal man”, but of course there’s no such thing (nor an ideal women) – just compelling characters with flaws that may or may not be endearing, and desires which may or may not be safe. Instead we have a wooden, unbelievable character using wooden, unbelievable dialogue, moved like a puppet along a contrived plot. We have a similar situation with Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist, where the author’s argument takes precedence over characterisation, good plot, and multi-dimensional characters. Flanagan, and Rand could very easily have written excellent polemical nonfiction – both are clearly capable of it. And it would no doubt have been terrific, thought provoking work. But instead they created bad fiction.
Of course not everyone will agree with me on this point, and both Rand and Flanagan have many admirers (I actually love all of Flanagan’s other novels, none of which are even remotely polemical, although they still manage strong political messages). However, I feel quite strongly that there is no place for authorial argumentation in fiction. That isn’t to say that the author can’t have a political theme – even a strong controversial political theme – the best fiction often does. But simply that a novel's theme has to be driven naturally from characterisation and not the other way around. You simply cannot create a story and characters to present a political (or any other kind of) platform. It always comes out stilted and the characters become unrealistic sounding boards. The truth of the novel has to begin and end with the characters and you just can't have characters speaking the author's mind if you want the fiction to work, otherwise you lose the fictive dream entirely. The fiction forms its own truth and the story has to work with that truth.
Break the bond of trust between the reader and the writer – that is, the fictive plausibility of the character, the plot, and their interaction, and you break the fragile thread that holds the whole fictive process together. The fictive dream involves sympathy, understanding, reader involvement, identification, inner conflict, and character transition—all those things that make for excellent fiction. But it has to work naturally, and the work itself has to create a kind of inner truth that may well transcend the author’s own polemics. So be it. He or she can always revive those in the genre of nonfiction.