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Should writers run for office, or is the pen still mightier?

Margaret Atwood was not the first writer to inveigh notoriously against the potential closure of public libraries this year. In May, British author, playwright and certified "national treasure" Alan Bennett drew national attention when he condemned the planned closing of public libraries in Yorkshire, calling it "child abuse."

But the reaction to Mr. Bennett was not as approving as the almost universal agreement that Ms. Atwood's sally into the same political battle elicited in Canada. Instead, he was widely condemned for gross overstatement.

"Why can't writers sometimes say sensible things about politics?" wondered columnist

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Christina Patterson in The Independent. And why is it that when they do say something, it is so often to plead for subvention of direct or indirect benefit to them personally – as in generalized "support for the arts" or public libraries?

Politicians such as Toronto's Doug Ford can be forgiven for not understanding what makes writers so special amid the never-ending queue of self-seeking petitioners they deal with every day. Whether they want elected officials to save public libraries, ban wind turbines or jail panhandlers, every claimant makes the case that what's good for them is good for all. The experienced ones often mount ingenious arguments to that effect. But writers, like other newcomers to the nasty business of making hard choices, tend instead to portentous assertion.

Is it true that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," as Shelley famously contended? History would seem to side with W.H. Auden, who wrote on the dark eve of the Second World War that "poetry makes nothing happen," that it only survives "in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper …"

The argument is insoluble, though the record is clear: With the exception of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, no professional litterateur has ever made history as an elected official. The writer as political leader is even rarer than the legendary philosopher king.

Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was good enough at his chosen trade to win the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, but he got clobbered by comparative nobody Alberto Fujimori when he ran for president of his native country in 1990. Despite the enormous political clout of his writing, muckraker Upton Sinclair failed in each of half a dozen attempts to win office. U.S. novelist Gore Vidal likewise ran for office twice, losing both times.

"I wanted to be a politician, but I was born a writer," he later lamented.

Novelist Norman Mailer's literally quixotic campaign for the Democratic ticket in the 1969 New York mayoral campaign exemplifies the difficulty of joining those two roles. Characteristically anarchic and alcoholic, freely abusing supporters and opponents alike, Mailer ran in partnership with columnist Jimmy Breslin under the slogan, "Throw the Rascals In." But it was no joke.

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"I was so naïve, I thought I was going to win!" Mailer later confessed. "For me, it was a religious venture. I thought God had chosen me because I had been a bad man, and I was going to pay for my sins by winning and never having an easy moment ever again."

If only Rob Ford were half so clear in his motives when he stood for Mayor of Toronto, he would still be selling fridge magnets at the family firm in Etobicoke.

"Writers and politicians are natural rivals," novelist Salman Rushdie once said. "Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory."

But writers who overtly seek political change through fiction rarely succeed, according to British belletrist Ferdinand Mount, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement. "The audience becomes aware that the author is a kind of unlicensed intruder whose motives are too gratingly ulterior," Mr. Mount said in a recent lecture. "The nest collapses under the cuckoo's weight."

"The problem is not so much the bad faith which intellectuals like to agonize about," he added. "The problem is the bad art."

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen evinced the same attitude when early feminists congratulated him for dramatizing the plight of women through the character of Nora Helmer in A Doll's House. "I've never written a poem or a play to further a social purpose," he tartly informed an appreciative Norwegian Association for Women's Rights in 1898. "I'm not even sure what women's rights really are."

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Mr. Mount sympathized. "The play is about Nora, not women's place in society – just as Macbeth is about Macbeth, not problems of kingship in 11th-century Scotland." His conclusion: "Politics in literature does its business best when we are least aware of its presence."

Not that writers are politically impotent. Before he wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost – a tale of the cosmic rebellion that seeded all human politics – John Milton functioned as the leading propagandist of Puritan England. His erudite attack against the leading European intellectual of the Counter Reformation set an as-yet unequalled standard for blatant character assassination. The great Claudius Salmasius was "a talkative ass sat upon by a woman," according to Milton, his wife "a barking bitch." He was a "a eunuch priest," "a prince of liars," "a hireling pimp of slavery," a "dung-hill Frenchman." And after Milton got through with him, he was finished.

Compared with that, Margaret Atwood's riposte to the figure she described as "Twin Ford Mayor" is mild to the point of blandness. But no less effective: With a single tweet, she rocked city hall. And then, most cannily of all, she went back to what she does best: writing.

John Barber is The Globe and Mail's publishing reporter.

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