Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre pro­duced plays and nov­els like The Respect­ful Pros­ti­tute (1946), which explored racism in the Amer­i­can South. These works were crit­i­cized as too polem­i­cal to count as good lit­er­a­ture. What might in the present day cul­mi­nate only in a Twit­ter fight led Sartre to pub­lish a whole book defend­ing his prac­tices, called What Is Lit­er­a­ture? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Lin­sen­may­er from the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast explains Sartre’s view, out­lin­ing both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seri­ous­ly any­way. In short, Sartre sees the act of writ­ing fic­tion as an eth­i­cal appeal to his read­er’s free­dom. The read­er is chal­lenged to hear the truths the work express­es, to under­stand and take action on them. More direct­ly, the read­er is chal­lenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the read­er’s atten­tion and imag­i­na­tion to “flesh out” the sit­u­a­tions the book describes. The read­er takes an active role in com­plet­ing the work, and this role can be aban­doned freely at any time. If a writer cre­ates an escapist fan­ta­sy, the read­er is invit­ed to escape. If the writer pro­duces a piece of lying pro­pa­gan­da, then the read­er is being invit­ed to col­lab­o­rate in that fun­da­men­tal­ly cor­rupt work.

So if writ­ing is always an eth­i­cal, polit­i­cal act, then Sartre should­n’t be blamed for pro­duc­ing overt­ly polit­i­cal work. In fact, writ­ers who deny that their work is polit­i­cal are dodg­ing their own respon­si­bil­i­ty for play­ing hap­haz­ard­ly with this poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous tool. Their work will pro­duce polit­i­cal effects whether they like it or not.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Lit­er­a­ture) is a two-part treat­ment of the first two chap­ters of this text, weigh­ing Sartre’s words to try to under­stand them and deter­mine whether they ulti­mate­ly make sense. Lis­ten to the full episode below or go sub­scribe to The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast at

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Exis­ten­tial­ist Phi­los­o­phy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Pos­si­bil­i­ties

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Con­cepts of Free­dom & “Exis­ten­tial Choice” Explained in an Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry

Jean-Paul Sartre on How Amer­i­can Jazz Lets You Expe­ri­ence Exis­ten­tial­ist Free­dom & Tran­scen­dence

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

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