When writers or critics speak of fiction as being "political," they most often mean that it engages with a subject or idea that if it is portrayed forcefully enough in its imaginative transformation could lead to fruitful social and cultural change (usually of the "progressive" variety). The website Literature and Social Change puts it this way:
Imaginative writing can be both literary and political simultaneously, and inevitably is, to varying degrees. In its own way, fiction can accomplish something similar to what Noam Chomsky and many other progressive workers try to accomplish through non-fiction: the creation of works that clarify and better the world socially, politically, culturally. . . .
Notice how this very definition actually erases itself: How can fiction "be both literary and political simultaneously" if it is attempting to do what "many other progressive workers try to accomplish through non-fiction"? If the goal is so resolutely political, it can't also be literary, or the two terms are simply washed of their meaning. Further, since the goal, to the extent it can be reached, is going to be reached more readily through non-fiction (why bother with the artsy stuff?), why not just stick to nonfiction? Is it somehow not glamorous enough? Needs to be gussied up with some "literature"?
Perhaps when some people speak of the "political" impact of fiction, they really just mean that works of fiction "reflect" the society that produces them, or that some readers might find what they read in a work of fiction to have some sort of broader, social relevance. But this is then made out to be something with much more significance than it really has. How can a work of literature not reflect the social forces that have made themselves felt to the writer, since the writer belongs to his/her society and unavoidably responds to such forces? Readers may indeed find a particular novel or poem to have social implications, but this does not mean that the work was written to have this effect. Certainly such implications can be a salubrious side-benefit to an otherwise attentive reading experience, but surely few writers really want these particular implications to be the only ones their work might have. I don't want to close off the possible meanings a work of literature might have for an individual reader, but to value fiction or poetry primarily for its social commentary is not really to give your full attention to what literature has to offer.
Sometimes, especially among academics, the "political" value of literature is identified more specifically as its capacity to be "subversive" or "transgressive." As M. Keith Booker puts it in his book Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature, "After all, even the most transgressive works of literature do not in general immediately send their readers into the streets carrying banners and shouting slogans. Transgressive literature works more subtly, by chipping away at certain modes of thinking that contribute to the perpetuation of oppressive political structures." To the extent that literature professors still put any value at all on literature itself, it is usually through this construct of the subversive. Not all works of literature finally measure up, of course--some are simply hopeless in this context, and since for such critics there is no other context, they are better consigned to the trash heap of literary history--but even those that don't seem to hold out much promise of being transgressive in any obvious way can be shown to have their transgressive moments if the critic digs hard enough and misreads strenuously enough. Booker, for example, finds Gilbert Sorrentino hopeless, his "mere rule breaking for the sake of rule breaking" insufficiently "transgressive in a genuine political sense, i.e. challenging existing dominant ideologies in a way that contributes to the process of social change." On the other hand, the fiction of Monique Wittig " [harnesses] the transgressive techniques that are inherent in sexuality not in the service of subjectivized experience but of a socialized and communal political statement." Beware of those "subjectivized experiences."
So-called "conservative" defenders of art or literature are finally no better, even though they frequently claim to be "depoliticizing" the arts. In a recent interview at Front Page, Roger Kimball says of academic criticism in general that "One common ingredient is an impatience with the idea of intrinsic merit or intrinsic worth: a poem, a novel, a “text” of any sort never means what it appears to say but is always an essentially subversive document whose aim is to undermine established values." One might think this is a defense of the aesthetic in art, but it's really just another version of politics. "Intrinsic merit" is itself a political tool; as Kimball also puts it in the same interview: "The great enemy of the totalitarian impulse, in intellectual life as well as in politics, is the idea of intrinsic worth." Putting aside the unexamined metaphysical assumptions informing the notion of "intrinsic worth," what Kimball really wants to recover is not art itself but "the traditional fabric of manners and morals that stands behind the work of art." For someone like Roger Kimball, art is no more to be valued for its real aesthetic qualities (which do often indeed rip at the "traditional fabric" he wants to preserve), but for the way in which it can be enlisted to enforce a "traditional" social order. In the end, people like Roger Kimball and M. Keith Booker are dancing a kind of vicious dance together, each partner despising the other but unable to let go.
Do I then think literature is merely a "subjectivized experience" or, even worse, just "entertainment"? Absolutely not, although it is those things first and foremost. A "subjective experience" of art or literature can indeed be a very profound one, even transforming the way the subject thinks about him/herself as well as the social world into which the reader must inevitably return. I might even say that such an experience can ultimately prove "subversive" in its effects, as long as the word is used in something like the sense conveyed by the poet Stephen Dunn, also in a recent interview:
No, I don't think [artists] have a moral obligation, except maybe to be interesting. Or, if they do, it's to subvert the status quo by resisting official versions of it, then reconstructing it so others can see it anew. Not with an agenda in mind, but through simply trying to find the right language for what is elusive. . .
"Official versions" of the status quo are not just political. Such versions can be imposed by family or by our own incuriosity, or by society and culture more broadly. They are all "official" versions of the way things are that we have simply come to accept and haven't questioned much. Works of literature can provoke us into questioning them by showing us that there are always alternative versions, that descriptions of reality are only tentative and that a final understanding of the way things are isn't going to be possible. (Art that suggests there can be a final understanding isn't really art.) Literature does this both through its content--the alternative versions we're presented with--and through form--the way in which the perceived world is "reconstructed," to use Dunn's word. Literature in its aesthetic dimension--literally, the "art" by which it is made--displays to us the imagination at work, reminds us that there are effectively no limits to the human imagination.
To me, this is all indeed powerfully subversive. Through art we become aware that the world can always be remade. Art is the enemy of all certainties and settled doctrines. This is not likely to be acceptable to political critics of either the left or the right, the Bookers or the Kimballs, which is why I would say that in the final analysis such critics don't really much like art at all. They literally don't have any use for it, unless it can be distorted to suit their own ideological predispositions. As Stephen Dunn says, poets and fiction writers are "trying to find the right language for what is elusive." And afterwards, it remains elusive. In my opinion, the only way that literature can "clarify and better the world socially, politically, culturally" is by revealing to us, perhaps to our dismay, that this is a fact.