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Is Literature Propaganda? An Attempt to Answer

In most of these days, I was thinking one thing constantly. Are there the literary pieces which are but propaganda? It’s not a simple question because extensive research and evidence would be required to come to a concrete conclusion. And making things clearer, I am not including the works by historians, geologists, scientists and archaeologists which are mostly (7 out of 10 days) propaganda. Who can forget the great Aryan invasion treachery that the British and Indian propagandist historians have given to us? That’s why, let’s stick to something called literature in the truest possible sense – the works which we can classify as literary pieces – A Passage to India, The God of Small Things, Mac Flecknoe, 1984 and others – which are concrete literary productions. So, let’s get into some details and I will try my best to identify propaganda and literature and some instances where they are perfectly mingled.


Literature and propaganda

What is literature?

People argue till the date that literature, ultimately, (very much unlikely of what Arnold once envisioned) is merely an entertainment which we enjoy maximum and then only the number of other extractions come. Largely true with so many numbers of books being published which have nothing to do with ‘literary’ in any sense – these books are there only to measure the breasts of women (football sized, Chetan Bhagat, One Indian Girl), finding love @ Facebook, solving some murder cases which have a lot of passionate physical encounters involved… yes, I submit that literature largely has become mere entertainment. Nevertheless, there are the authors who are doing their best to manage the literary heights and they aren’t ready to compromise or conform to the trends. Therefore, fortunately, still, there is wisdom, sense, sanity and wit involved in literature. We can say, safely, that literature, except being entertainment, is still the mirror of society and not only mirror, modern literature has extrapolated itself and began being the gypsy’s ball – telling our future too!

What is propaganda?

Going by the definition in the dictionaries, propaganda means “statements, printed material, etc., designed to win the audience over to some official point of view; especially, such statements when they are based on lies and deceit”. This definition comes from Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language (Handy School and Office Edition), 1976 publication (Australia). I will go with this one as it best serves the purpose of my article. And when we try to apply this Webster’s definition of propaganda to the literature, things begin to become clearer. Moreover, how good a tool literature can be for the propagandists to spread their propaganda! Just imagine.

When literature meets propaganda:

It has been for long in the academic debate channels whether literature is propaganda or some part of it satisfies that claim. While I do not subscribe to the view that literature, as a whole, is out and out a propaganda, I do hold that some part of it is undoubtedly propagandist in nature. For a simple example, in the Neo-Classical days of literature in England, most of the literature which was produced by the intellectuals was propaganda. The play of Whigs and Tories were nothing but the use of literature as a tool for their propaganda. Most of the literature produced by Jonathan Swift is more or less propagandist. (Correct me if I am wrong.)

How far is it okay for literature to have certain propaganda?

You must remember the works by Charles Dickens. And I am proud to say that I consider him one of the best ever novelists who were a down to earth person, concerned with the problems of common men and common life. He did not weave fancy and romance and did not eulogize a ‘certain’ queen or king. Dickens too had a propaganda and his propaganda was a partially based on the definition of propaganda as given in the collins Symbian mobile dictionary – “the organised dissemination of information, allegations, etc., to assist or damage the cause of a government, movement, etc.,”. His propaganda was against slavery; his propaganda was against child labour; his propaganda was against corruption. He was a pro-poor propagandist (mark me – not a communist). We can be safe with this that if an author is a propagandist of common men’s causes for the good purpose, a certain liberal attitude can be worn. However, if an author loads his or her literature with propaganda which is against the collective causes of common men, against a belief which is religious (and upright) or against a particular government which is functioning well then we can say that is the classic example of propaganda involved in literature.

Modern Literature & Propaganda:

Coming to the modern days of literature and leaving aside the years gone by, I would love to examine contemporary (1970+-50) literature in the light of propaganda. I am not sure whether my readers would be aware of a book titled Beware the British Serpent, authored by Robert Calder, a Canadian writer and professor of English Literature at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK. In his book, he has examined the role played by the major British literary figures during the second world war. And to my surprise, he has got some points to make! (Maybe he has got some propaganda of his own?)

1984… Animal Farm… these novels by George Orwell, though entertaining, have their share of propaganda in them. Howsoever good or howsoever bad, I am there to conclude. However, we cannot deny the share of propaganda inside the pages. 1984 rang a sensation after its publication and prepared people to be ready for a war against the government. Not exactly happening that time, yet, people were ready to take the governments on with a storm. In Indian contemporary literature, we do see the chunk of propaganda involved as the main machinery. Gorkhaland movement in The Inheritance of Loss, baseless and relentless hue and cry about the Naxals and anti-development agendas in the non-fiction works of Arundhati Roy, a different kind of world bereaved of truth and base in Amish Tripathi’s novels… and so on and so forth the life continues.

If you examine minutely, and I am sure of it, you will find some elements of ‘pro and against’ in most of the pieces these days. That very ‘pro & against’ is the propagandist drive, well-placed beneath with some kind of subterfuge, the writers use these days in their works. And fortunately, there are always the readers who are pro or against! Let me make myself very clear that I have only tried to present the ‘at least acceptable’ standard here. I did not go by the narrow lanes which attack almost everything in the sight. Yes, I have only been successful, perhaps, in merely showing what is propagandist literature per se. There is too much to be explored in this direction and with the volumes of literature being produced, it might well be difficult for someone to do so. We all must have heard about the fight against fake news these days. Very soon, I see, there might be a war against fake-literature as well. Fake literature does inflict harm upon the minds of the readers and persuades them to believe things in a certain way – whether they are true or false! This is, to be clear, a dangerous trait! Let there be delight; let there be wisdom. There should be absolute no place for any propaganda or personal whims in the corridors or literature. Readers, be aware of the pieces you read… be cautious and be happy. Even if you read something with propagandist tone, just listen to the music and ignore it. :)

(These are absolutely personal opinions of the author.)

Alok Mishra

First and foremost a poet, Alok Mishra is an author next. Apart from these credentials, he is founder & Editor-in-Chief of Ashvamegh, an international literary magazine and also the founder of BookBoys PR, a company which helps writers brand themselves and promote their books. On this blog, Alok mostly writes about literary topics which are helpful for literature students and their teachers. He also shares his poems; personal thoughts and book reviews.

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