Doing things ideologically dredges up phantoms, snakes, saints, and sins. It spins political, cultural, and religious beliefs. It is not dinner-table-talk because ideology is a body of ideas looking for an argument. It is rarely polite and at a minimum, always pushy. When we write ideologically, we take ideological stands, lose friends, gain new ones, and step on odious piles of you know what. That said, it is a national sport designed to divide and conquer by seeking those who share our own prejudices, are easily swayed, and loose with truth.

                We expect politicians to swim in it, preachers to spout it, activists to activate it, marchers to stride proudly by in-step with it, and moderates to moderate it. But neither reader nor writer can avoid it in the age of power to the person—screw the truth. We believe what we want to be true but rarely fact check our personal beliefs—that is because our beliefs and our prejudices are indistinguishable.

Once, writers and readers shared a common understanding. Novels are fictional tales. Novelists make up stories—to entertain—not to inform. Readers read, knowing it’s made up, not real, not binding, not done in our family, or acceptable by our government. That was yesterday. Today we’ve moved up, or is it down, to a different “novel.” We write and read ideological novels.

Some writers believe that all fiction is political. They argue fiction, “Should be political, and even explicitly ideological. Yet we’ve all read bad ideological novels, where the setting and plot are so obviously tailored to suit the author’s beliefs that it makes it hard as a reader to get on board. So, what then makes for a good ideological novel? Is it simply about agreeing with the author’s ideology? Or is there something more—something about how the ideology relates to the world? To understand, look at two novels that are unabashedly ideological, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”[1]

Submission is described by Madame Wikipedia as “A novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq. The French edition of the book was published in 2015 2015 with German, Italian, and English translations. The novel imagines a situation in which a Muslim party upholding Islamist and patriarchal values is able to win the 2022 presidential election in France with the support of the Socialist Party. The book drew an unusual amount of attention because, by coincidence, it was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. It mixes fiction with real people: Marine Le Pen, François Hollande, François Bayrou, Manuel Valls, and Jean-François Copé, among others, fleetingly appear as characters in the book.”[2]

The Handmaid’s Tale is a futuristic dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood published in 1985. “It is set in a near-future New England in a patriarchal, totalitarian theonomic state known as the Republic of Gilead, which has overthrown the United States government. Offred is the central character and narrator and one of the ‘handmaids,’ women who are forcibly assigned to produce children for the ‘commanders’, the ruling class in Gilead. It explores themes of subjugated women in a patriarchal society, loss of female agency and individuality, suppression of women’s reproductive rights, and the various means by which women resist and try to gain individuality and independence.”[3]

The Kenyon Review “Has been in the heart of literature since 1939 when poet and critic John Crowe Ransom started the journal on the campus of Kenyon College. Among the writers who have appeared in our pages are T. S. Eliot, Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Thomas Pynchon, Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Bishop, Nadine Gordimer, Jack Gilbert, Jean Stafford, Edward Said, E. L. Doctorow, Ursula Le Guin, William H. Gass, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Hass, Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Barry Hannah, Derek Walcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Oliver, Lewis Hyde, Louise Erdrich, Ha Jin, John Ashbery, Carl Phillips, George Saunders, W. S. Merwin, and Rita Dove.”[4]

It carefully contrasted Submission with The Handmaid’s Tale. “Beyond its offensively reductive portrayal of Islam, Submission fails as an ideological novel because its vision of a dystopian future is completely at odds with reality. There is, after all, literally no chance that a conservative Muslim will become President of France in 2022, which make it clear that the political arguments advanced by the book are only meant to stoke xenophobia rather than depict a plausible reality. In fact, it’s far more likely that the Islamophobic and reactionary Marine Le Pen and her neo-fascist National Front. .. will win the next elections, plunging France and Europe into a twenty-first century version of 1930s Germany. An ideological novel about that grim future would be interesting, because it would feel possible. Submission, by contrast, is just the strange fantasy of a xenophobic reactionary who’s clearly upset that there are now Muslim people in France. It’s nothing more than a twenty-first-century version of The Camp of the Saints, that racist 1973 novel that everyone googled back in 2016 after prominent white nationalist Steve Bannon mentioned it, in which another bigoted French author fear-mongered to a racist readership about non-white immigrants.”

By contrast, The Kenyon Review’s presentation of The Handmaid’s Tale is an ideological novel that works, because its vision of a reactionary patriarchal future is one that, unfortunately, still feels like a real possibility. “The Republic of Gilead, Atwood’s fictional future state, a theocracy in which women’s rights are completely stripped away, is clearly her response to the growing conservatism of the 1980s. .. in which the political and cultural victories of the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s seemed in danger of disappearing. Unlike Houellebecq, whose dystopia is based on his own bigoted fantasy, Atwood bases her dystopia on actual political and social trends that continue to this day.”

So, two ethical norms can be extracted which establish a floor for ideological novels. First, they must be based on actual political and social trends. Second the political arguments advanced by the book must not simply stoke xenophobia by avoiding a plausible reality. Said differently you’re on safe ethical ground if you use accepted, actual political trends and you fail if your goal is to stoke xenophobia.

There is also a broader look at how ideology, fiction, and consumption work in an ethical framework. “For a generation of contemporary Anglo-American novelists, the question ‘Why write?’ has been answered with a renewed will to believe in the ethical value of literature. Dissatisfied with postmodernist parody and pastiche, a broad array of novelist-critics—including J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Gish Jen, Ian McEwan, and Jonathan Franzen—champion the novel as the literary genre most qualified to illuminate individual ethical action and decision-making within complex and diverse social worlds. Key to this contemporary vision of the novel’s ethical power is the task of knowing and being responsible to people different from oneself, and so thoroughly have contemporary novelists devoted themselves to the ethics of otherness, that this ethics frequently sets the terms for plot, characterization, and theme.”[5]

By expanding the question from ideological novels to ethical novels, we can see literature’s “ethical value” as an abstract proposition. “Ideology, and its study, have been subject to an interpretational tug-of-war among political theorists that, until recently, has devalued their status as an object of scholarship. Disputes have raged over the scientific standing of ideology, its epistemological status, and its totalitarian and liberal manifestations. Many political philosophers have eschewed its group orientation, and the more recent interest of students of ideology in ordinary political language and in the unconscious and the indeterminate.”[6]

That’s heady stuff and not well suited to blogs or clogs.





[5]The Novel and the New Ethics” Dorothy J. Hale Hardcover ISBN: 9780804794053

Paperback ISBN: 9781503614062. See also,

[6] Michael Freeden (2006) Ideology and Political Theory, Journal of Political Ideologies, 11:1, 3-22, DOI: 10.1080/13569310500395834. See also,

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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