Explosive books lead to explosive sales, as British bookseller Waterstones can prove with whopping year-to-date figures: a 50% increase in political book revenue. The explanation? A frightened—and growing—mass of writers and readers “urgently seeking to understand this scary new world.” Though hot, controversial releases like Michael Wolff‘s Trump exposé Fire and Fury and Tim Shipman‘s Brexit commentary All Out War have been driving these sales, the relationship between divisive politics and modern literature is hardly a new phenomenon.
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These new figures are only a continuation of an ongoing trend, with political literature moving to the forefront after the “twin surprises” of 2016, Trump and Brexit. As early as January 25, 2017, just days after Trump formally took office, George Orwell‘s 1984 sales spiked as Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway infamously coined the phrase “alternative facts.” Many compared Conway’s comment to 1984‘s concept of “doublethink,” a relevant term to describe the acceptance of contradictory truths. While always a political text, activists continue to cite the book during protest, with signs such as “1984 is a work of fiction, not an instruction manual” grabbing headlines.
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Fear over restriction of women’s rights took hold early in the Trump administration, leading to a February 2017 spike in sales of Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood speaks to its timeless relevance: “when it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched; however, when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In the wake of the #MeToo movement, works with similar themes have burst into the public consciousness. Naomi Alderman‘s prizewinning The Power depicts a reality in which women have the power to cause pain by violence and consequently live without fear.
“What the raw numbers don’t communicate,” comments Waterstones politics buyer Clement Knox, “is a larger belief permeating through the publishing world that the present poses questions that must be addressed and that writers have an obligation to turn their attention to those questions.”
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