So, aside from compulsion and a need for self-expression, why write at all? More specifically, why write fiction that is overtly political in scope and nature, as well as highly entertaining and aesthetically beautiful? Should we not feel frustrated by the lack of impact that the work of the greats has on society at large? How do we go about writing books that are meaningful and manage to simultaneously entertain and speak truth to power? Is this an ambition even worth having, or is it hubris to even entertain the thought?
It’s hard to know what the world would look like if 1984 had never been written. Maybe it would be exactly the same, but maybe not. The issue with the hypothesis that things are still bad even with the plethora of political literature that has been written over the centuries is that we don’t know what the world would look like if nothing had ever been written. My hunch is things would be even worse.
I think it is definitely hubris to write something and expect it to spark a revolution or even make a dent. It’s not hubris to write something and realize that it has a low, yet nonzero, chance of contributing to positive change, even if it influences just one person who later goes on to improve the life of just one other person. It is, perhaps, most realistic to think of every intellectual effort as part of a wave of intellectual effort on the part of millions of people which, individually, may not make a discernible difference but which, in concert, can change the face of the world.
Going back to measurable changes, I do think the world has improved overall since the 1440s, when the Gutenberg press first started printing books in earnest. How much of it is because of (or in spite of) literature is anyone’s guess, but one metric we use to measure a country’s development is the literacy rate, and those have been on a steady upward trend, with the gap between men and women narrowing. Regardless of the value of written words, people do seem to crave having the ability to read. And, of course, being able to do so empowers one with the option to pick up a piece of political fiction and decide for oneself if it is worth a damn, instead of having to rely on someone else’s opinion. Not everyone in every part of the world will have access to every book or even be allowed to express their opinions about the books they are able to read, but at least they can think for themselves about the ones they do read.