The poet Carolyn Forche said something to the effect of, “Good political writing erases the division between personal and political inquiry.” I’m paraphrasing, but the point remains that if you’re struggling with that question, then you’re probably in trouble. As soon as a story feels like an invective, some kind of op-ed that’s trying to sneak in the side door, it’s dead in the water. Op-eds work well at a page and a half, but try hammering your message into your reader’s brain for 250 pages and they’re going to be very uncomfortable.
To me, great essays involve a writer wrestling with material that is very dangerous and unsettled for them—they’re at war with themselves on the page. Great fiction, likewise, is about the unanswerable and shadowy part of life. David Foster Wallace talked about how reading fiction made him feel less alone, because you the reader are peering so deeply into the lived experience of someone else.
I want the energy of great essay and I want the energy of great novels—that intimacy that Wallace is talking about is achieved through penetrating very deeply the interior space of a very complicated person’s life, you’re drilling down into their essence. But from my experience, political questions—questions of class and money and power—are also part of people’s lives in a very rich and complicated ways. I want it all. And I know a lot of writing teachers get upset when a story starts sounding like an essay, but I get upset when a narrator isn’t allowed to think aloud, when it’s all supposed to be surface drama and hidden messages buried in the subtext.