Recently in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister was told to watch the new film I, Daniel Blake. An award-winning film which has been described as portraying the ‘institutional barbarity’ of the benefits system. It is a film in which – without offering spoilers – a no-nonsense, rather charismatic Geordie struggles in the hinterland between ill health and benefit relief. Regardless of your political persuasion, when a film become synonymous with a certain issue, then a creative act has created a palpable concept that can provoke change. Ken Loach, with I, Daniel Blake, has written a script which does just that. When a Prime Minister is confronted with a piece of art in the hope that it forces them to change policy, or political approach, then that work of art has gone beyond the creative endeavours of artists. It has become a cog in the machinery of the real world and it can affect peoples lives. I, Daniel Blake shows how writing can truly connect with people. But how did it do it?
I often speak to writers who are just starting out and who understandably question the point of their endeavours. Will anyone ever publish my writing? And even if they do, will it ever get read? These questions can make it seem very unlikely that writing can connect with people on a mass level. But in my view the first step to connecting with people is understanding that the personal is political. Depicting characters in their personal lives can be a lot more political than might be appreciated.
Harold Pinter’s plays, for instance, often display the interpersonal struggles between people and the power politics therein. In The Caretaker he shows characters negotiating over which chair to sit in, and in one scene had one character standing over another to demonstrate how people can dominate one another in seemingly innocuous conversations. Even in domestic settings he shows how the personal is political, with one person often seeking the upper hand. His plays frequently showed the power play at work in people’s interpersonal politics without explicitly critiquing ‘the powers that be’ on a larger level. A writers work can have a political influence merely by uncovering, and through narrative and drama making recognisable, the power negotiations that typify our life. In revealing these power mechanisms writers like Pinter showed when you scale these 1-1 occurrences up onto a mass level, organised politics can dominate masses of people.
If we are looking at allegorical writing in which the personal is political, George Orwell’s 1984 is a powerful example. In it, Winston Smith struggles against a totalitarian government. But this overtly political struggle is counterbalanced by a personal narrative which follows his own love life. The novel is both personal and political. Orwell portrays a man struggling for romantic autonomy as well as civil autonomy.
So how does this blend of personal and political connect with people? The key here is that Orwell’s writing includes identifiable concepts. In political discourse people argue using Orwell’s terms, such as ‘Big Brother’, as a short-hand for the argument that a surveillance culture is an infringement on liberty. As a result of Orwell’s books the term ‘Orwellian’ can be applied to any situation in which political powers subvert the idea of the truth and undermine individual liberty. Orwellian terms – from ‘double-think’ to ‘Big Brother’- gave us a series of shorthand terms to describe real-life practices. Orwell was thereby giving us the means to quickly engage with and fight against these tendencies, and it was his art that not only connected with a mass audience but offered the possibility for changes to be made in the world.
So – having an issue that can be readily associated with your art (as in I, Daniel Blake) or a series of terms that can be shorthand for certain issues (as Orwell created) are both strategies by which writing can change the world, thereby bringing the personal and political concerns of writing into everyday discourse. The most salient question then is: how do we ensure that a story engages a mass of readers enough to achieve this? Do people really want to be confronted with challenging concepts such as the benefits system through art?
In Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers’ The Bestseller Code, the writers use computer software to analyse what component parts bestselling novels tend to possess. Their results were startling. First of all, they found that ‘female and male agency’ were incredibly important in making a novel connect with a reader. It is all very well, for instance, to write about how unfair the benefits system might be, but you can’t just discuss that in theory for 350 pages if you want to connect with a reader. But if you explore that issue by following a charismatic Geordie joiner with a cast of well-drawn, funny characters, then your story of male agency – in which a man fights a bureaucratic system – becomes more real for the reader. The personal and political link is clear.
Archer and Jockers found that the books which really connected with a huge mass of people had ‘high concept’ content. Their analysis was that people do want to read about complex issues (such as the benefit system). In fact, to connect with people, they argue that ‘high concept’ writing was essential. In their analysis they found that blockbusting novels often concerned human interactions – marriage, death, paying taxes. They found that stories sent in far-flung galaxies or made-up lands connected with people less; people wanted to read about real issues. Furthermore, they established that blockbuster authors such as John Grisham and Danielle Steele have huge successes because people know in advance what issues their books will cover. Those intrigued by the risks of technology – as explored in Jurassic Park and recently in West World – go to Michael Crichton, knowing his books will concern those topics. Archer and Jockers found that authors who became readily identifiable with certain issues are more likely to connect those issues with a mass of the public – and presumably get their point across to a mass audience.