Systems from Hell

Problem Definition and the Literary Portrayal of Failure in Our Public Policy and Social Institutions

By David A. Rochefort

Subjects: Public Policy, Social Problems, Literary Criticism, Sociology, Mass Media
Series: SUNY series in New Political Science
Hardcover : 9798855800241, 288 pages, December 2024
Expected to ship: 2024-12-01

Examines how contemporary novels document and define social problems using a variety of narrative techniques to focus attention on systemic failure.


This book approaches contemporary fiction as a medium for policy advocacy, one whose narrative devices both link it to, and distinguish it from, other forms of public discourse. Using the framework of political agenda setting, David A. Rochefort analyzes the rhetorical function of problem definition played by literary works when they document and characterize social issues while sounding the call for systemic reform. Focusing on a group of noteworthy realist novels by American authors over the past twenty years, this study maintains that fictional narrative is a potentially influential instrument of "empathic policy argument." The book closes by examining the agenda-setting dynamics through which a social problem novel can contribute to the process of policy change.

David A. Rochefort is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Northeastern University.


"Systems from Hell is a fascinating exploration of a very difficult subject: policy failure. The approach is magisterial because Rochefort builds on his pioneering work on problem definition to push the boundaries beyond agenda setting. But he does it in a way that is original, unique, and highly relevant: through the analysis of social problem fiction. I don’t know of any policy study that does so as effectively as his book does." — Nikolaos Zahariadis, author of The European Union in the 21st Century

"David Rochefort offers supremely insightful readings of political novels and demonstrates how fiction can move audiences to empathy, outrage, and deep understanding of our most intractable policy controversies. Would-be political reformers from students to seasoned consultants and politicians should forget all the cognitive science and punditry and study this book instead." — Deborah Stone, author of Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making