Is good literature just a story well told or verse set in perfect meter? Forget what critics may opine, the French police of the 19th century seem to have been possessed of more valuable judgment regarding the ‘real’ influence of literary writers. Nineteenth-century Paris police files, recently published in the form of a book, The Writers’ Police, reveal that many of the greatest writers living in the city at that time of turmoil and change in European history were kept under surveillance. Obviously, their vigilance did not stem out of fear of Arthur Rimbaud influencing a new Paris fashion of unkempt hair or of the unconventionality of Paul Verlaine’s love life.
The works of writers like Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac and Charles Dickens tended to be more in the line of a social commentary. From raging at the shallowness of the aristocracy to focusing attention on poverty and discrimination, fiction for the masses turned out to be a sharp political blade that hit the right places and became catalysts of change.
The influence they could sometimes exert can be gauged by US President Abraham Lincoln’s statement to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great [American civil] war.” Campaigner-for-changing-this-big-bad-world Arundhati Roy might now consider writing her second novel.