Welcome to Politerature! Today we begin a conversation about politics and literature, which is what this site is all about.
For much of my life, I felt a gap between my political values and my literary tastes. I am a writer, and I majored in English at least partly to learn how to write– and I’ve always read to learn how to live.
But I studied mostly under teachers who emphasized art as its own reward, with little reference to action in the world. They were especially adamant and explicit about avoiding didactic writing and about politics as anathema to art. This was troubling to me. Was I going to have to leave this important part of life out of my writing and reading?
In the mid nineteen-nineties I read a big scholarly book by someone I knew a little– a study of Proletarian American novels of the first half of the twentieth century. It wasn’t an easy read, and it took me forever to finish, but I came out of it with a couple of interesting new books on my night table and one Big Idea: If you can put sex and violence and philosophy and psychological trauma and Gorgonzola-and-arugula pizza into a novel, why can’t you put your politics in too?
Duh. The answer is, you can.
You can use political movements as background for a love story. You can have a worker deciding whether or not to join a strike as the story line of a novel. You can even try to teach a lesson if you want to.
There is, of course, no guarantee the book will be good. The real question is how do you do it well, and which writers have already done it? Have they done it well or ill? That’s where my desire to have this Politerature exchange came from.
For my part, I not only think you can make political issues–and I guess one of the things this discussion will inevitably lead to is what are political issues–central to good fiction, but you must. I’m just so bored by so much of the contemporary literary fiction published in the U.S. I don’t want to read any more books about middle-class angst, family dysfunction, all that, no matter how exquisitely crafted. What I want to read about are, yes, the hardships and conflicts of a strike, the good example you raise. Not only because it just matters so much more, to my way of thinking, but good golly there’s so much more potential for plot, drama, character development in a story like that. And because there’s so much more to learn from it, maybe about how to live but certainly about how some other people live. How I long for, search for, novels that break out of the limited confines of individual/family tales, and only a certain set of individuals/families at that, and set their sights on the bigger picture.
Of course, that’s crazy blasphemy, in this part of the world anyway, pretty much the opposite of what we’re taught as you point out. Whenever an author does try to break the standard boundaries, the effort is greeted with, at the least, skepticism. For example, in the 1/27/13 New York Times Book Review, a review of a new novel that centers on the issue of immigration opens with caveats about how such a book “might have been a political polemic or a partisan pitch in the hands of a lesser writer.” Well, I’m glad the reviewer deems this writer better, but how wearisome I find the knee-jerk assumption that this is the exception, that the rule for fiction that takes a stand is that it generally stinks. What stinks, to me, is the rule against fiction that takes sides, or rather fiction that takes one particular side. It sounds like the novel in question, Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew , backs undocumented workers against the racist anti-immigrant war, and even has a character apparently based on the fascist-style Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Which means it’s one for our side; I’ve added it to the top of my to-read list.
Well, I’d personally hate to give up family dysfunction in novels. There’s a lot of other stuff I’d like to see in them, of course. Including the politics of the workplace– what about a story of white collar workers, raised on an ideology of individualism, who never even consider standing up together for a colleague who is unfairly targeted or fired, and then one day…..
I also want to toss out a reminder that art requires economic surplus. That is, I bet the prehistoric cave painters didn’t go into the caves and grind their pigments on empty bellies. Someone hunted and gathered enough extra for them to expend calories on art or religion, or whatever they were doing. You don’t write novels when you’re working in a mine or on an assembly line. You might add a stanza to a ballad, of course, or whittle a wonderful walking stick– folk art.
Where I come from in Appalachia, my generation is the first one with more than a handful of writers in it. My parents, unusual for their age cohort in West Virginia, happened to have gone to college. My mother, though, had a three year gap between high school and college while she worked as a waitress and clerk to get enough to go to college. She didn’t make art. She collected her tips.
I have a point: most of the young writers today who are getting published and praised were given the gift of college and a heck of a lot more. Their personal experiences, which inform their writing as all of our experiences inform our writing, have been love and friendship and intellectual journeys and sex drugs and rock and roll–and dysfunctional families.