Politics in YA
09.12.13 | Melvin Burgess
What was the last political novel you read? The real thing, I mean—not fiction exploring political issues such as race or gender, of which there are at least some. I mean something that speaks about the state of our democracy or political system, something that makes you sit up and think, or give form to political ideas you hadn’t yet put into words?
I put the question to a publisher and a librarian the other day: both well-read, both passionate about books. The publisher suggested Nineteen Eighty-Four, only half seriously. The librarian shrugged. When I got home I checked for UK political novels (on Wikipedia, admittedly) and got Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lothair by Disraeli and Suffragette Sally by Gertrude Colmore, who died in 1929. Good grief.
Maybe readers can point me to something more recent, but you have to admit there is little or nothing out there. How come? Is our democratic system now so beyond reproach or misuse that we simply don’t have to worry about it any more? Maybe that’s why it’s so widely ignored come election time. Or are we as a society so redundant of ideas of any relevance that we simply have nothing to say?
YA, despite being such a young and vital genre, is just as bad as adult fiction in this respect. Issues of race, teen pregnancy, sex, drugs, gender and so on are widely discussed, but I can’t think of a single YA book that seriously tries to get to grips with the role politics has on the lives of young people—or of the role young people could play in political life in this country.
This despite the fact that many of the true political classics, including Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, have been widely read by young people for years and are regarded in many ways as forerunners of our genre.
It’s pathetic, isn’t it, this literary silence? It was interesting to see how many people were up in arms against Russell Brand and the fuss arising from his editorial in the New Statesman. He was much mocked for his arrogance, lack of concrete ideas and sheer gall in daring to suggest that democracy has become irrelevant. But how sad that we’ve had to leave it to stand-up comedian to create a voice for those who believe that democracy has nothing to offer them.
I think it’s time we redressed the issue. Orwell, Brecht and others showed us the way years ago, but so far we’ve failed to take up the challenge. YA fiction is all about breaking boundaries and making things relevant. Maybe this is an area where we can take a lead. At the very least, we can surely give the comedians a run for their money.
Melvin Burgess, a YA author, has won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for Junk