Does Literature Have a ‘Revolutionary’ Role?

I have heard people talk about literature being a ‘revolutionary’ genre. By this, they mean that it has a political role in society; the ability to carry and uphold social and political messages. Think about it — how often have you been reading a book and made parallels between the world of the characters and your reality?

Literature is undoubtedly a powerful force, but should it have a revolutionary role?

And does it actually have one?

Personally, I think that it can, but it’s not essential. It’s up to the author to make the choice as to whether or not they want to make a social/political statement. Authors are not obliged to cover specific topics. If they decide to use their work to make a statement then that’s great, but if not, then there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Some authors, such as George Orwell, are notorious for including political messages in their works. Orwell even stated that one of his reasons for writing was to ‘alter other peoples’ ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after,’ showing that he consciously had this agenda. Clearly he believed that literature should be revolutionary, and this belief was his source of motivation. Books like 1984 and Animal Farm illustrate this.

1984 George Orwell
When political messages go wrong…

Other authors may not be consciously weaving political messages into their work, but readers could still infer them. Any piece of literature is open to interpretation, so even if the author never intended a political bias, one could still be found if readers are that way inclined.

Orwell also said that ‘no book is genuinely free from political bias’ and ‘the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.’ Every story somehow fits into the political spectrum, whether it is meant to or not, and whatever we feel about this is a political feeling by its nature. So, in this respect, literature does have a revolutionary role by default. It will become entangled in politics regardless of whether it’s meant to or not.

My main motivation for writing this post came from reading this disturbing article on Cathy Cassidy’s blog a few months ago. Cassidy recommends a book called Hate by Alan Gibbons and explains how it is based a the true story. Sophie Lancaster and her partner, Robert, were brutally attacked in 2007 for no reason other than their fashion choices. Robert recovered, but Sophie did not. She was murdered, just because she was different. After speaking to Sophie’s mother, Gibbons was so moved that he decided to write a YA novel based on the attack. He did this in the hope of drawing attention to the prejudice against subcultures in our society, and how wrong it is.

In my opinion, if literature has a revolutionary role then it is for things like this.

Fiction has immense power to emotionally move people and provoke thought. Once readers become invested in a story, they care about it and will want to rally behind it. And if it’s supporting a cause, like Hate, then they will fight for that cause.

Sophie’s mother went on to set up the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, a charity to raise awareness of hate crimes and prevent others from suffering as her daughter did. One way she fundraised for this was to hold a creative writing competition, with the prompt being the word ‘difference.’ Winning entries were published in an anthology, so now they too can spread the word about Sophie’s death and her mother’s cause. This is literature in action, educating people and making a difference to the world, one reader at a time.

The Sophie Lancaster Creative Writing Book
The Sophie Lancaster Creative Writing Book, dedicated to drawing awareness to hate crimes.

By its very nature, literature is highly influential and therefore a valid way of conveying social and political messages. People share and discuss books, making them resonate throughout our world. With this in mind, it’s impossible for them not to have some sort of impact on social and political attitudes. They are what their authors write them to be, but they become what their readers want them to be. And it doesn’t really matter which one is right, only that they are read, shared, and then spread.


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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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