Welcome to Politerature!

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.


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21 responses to “Welcome to Politerature!

  1. carole rosenthal

    I like the thoughtful conversational approach here, and I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s comment in A Room of One’s Own that “Genius” (as she calls it) doesn’t fall equally upon the rich and the poor: because the poor are too damned busy just trying to survive in their circumstances. MSW reminds us of that when she writes “art requires economic surplus.” I was particularly interested in SE’s take on Rilla Askew’s review in the NY Times Book Review, the condescension displayed when working-class people and the political issues that affect them are frontally addressed as subjects of fiction.

  2. carole rosenthal

    Yeah, I was taught the same thing in college, about the importance of not being “didactic” in writing fiction. The context that forms character(s) is rarely addressed in mainstream fiction, it’s true. I wonder what you thought of J. Franzen’s Freedom, because this book had many wonderful things in it but really fell apart for me in the section where the working-class and mining-dependent families of W. Va. are represented–they seem like a quasi-violent redneck chorus. Also interesting to note that the only character of color is conveniently dispensed with in this section of Freedom too.

    • shelleyettinger

      I haven’t read Freedom or any of his books since The Twenty-Seventh City, which I found racist. I admit I’m also in the ‘what an arrogant-sexist-jerk-he-is-declining-to-be-an-Oprah-book’ camp. Interesting to hear your take on Freedom. –SE

  3. My friend Pamela Erens told me about your site. I’m excited to see it, and I loved reading what you all have to say about politics and literature. Amen and amen. Thanks for the mention of Kind of Kin. In defense of reviewer (and fine novelist) Jonthan Eveson’s opening statement, I suspect he wasn’t so much subscribing to the notion of politically charged works being anathema as reflecting that conventional take. Though maybe that’s the point–the notion is so pervasive that one must ‘kick against the pricks’ to even approach it Thanks for creating this site! I’ll be letting my writer friends know about it!

  4. What an exciting and thought-provoking forum about something that has been troubling me for years, the “political” in literature and our own writing. As Grace Paley said, “this is a stupid label, political. I just write.” Yet, in the last decades the political has been maligned, marginalized and suspected. I think this happened partially because the publishing industry has enjoyed its comforts and rewards. It is much easier to sell a “feel-good” novel than one which provokes and troubles and asks sociopolitical questions. I wrote a lot of essays about the two Nobel Laureate author, Efriede Jenelik and recently, Helmut Muller, both of which, shockingly, can not be found in a bookstore in Manhattan, though the shelves are piled up by Jennifer’s Egan “A Visit from the Goon Squad”. So another part of the problem could be an ethnocentricty in American writing which had blinded itself to more global probings, and possibly to seriousness. I don’t know the answer but the question is an important one.

  5. I am delighted that this site exists, that there is a forum for this necessary conversation. So much American “literary ” fiction (as opposed to “genre fiction” takes place in a bubble, implicitly upper middle class more often than not, where everything that matters is personal,familial, and no one is poor. When I started taking writing seriously, in the early 80’s, Family seemed to be the big, the only subject. The emphasis on “personal” was , perhaps an over correction from the literary macho of the sixties and a way of incorporating the least troublesome aspects of feminism. But power relations,money and class have always been the province of the novel.

  6. Phyllis Wilson Moore

    U. S. 1, Muriel Rukeyser’s Depression- era collection of poetry, is a tragic example of the misuse of laborers. Set in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and based on a major industrial tragedy, it called attention to the deaths of hundrends of men, many of whom were black.

  7. Ah, for the love of history and excellent writing, I try to find biographies and histories which are in a setting I don’t know much about. Certainly the creative writing touch can embellish the bare bones of historical skeletons to give those of us lacking the insight or time (too busy in the details of life) to ponder deeply into another’s mindset. I enjoyed your blog-dialogue (does that make a blogalog?)

  8. Saw your posting at Poets and Writers.

    Long may you run!

  9. I’ve been thinking about what you wrote, Shelley, about wanting novels that “set their sights on the bigger picture,” and I agree. But I find it frustrating that while more and more novels use global political struggles as a backdrop, it’s often JUST a backdrop, an exotic setting for an ordinary story. I yearn for more books that really tackle the difficult issues of resistance and activism, and the consequences. I think Rilla’s book, Kind of Kin, does that – I really enjoyed it. Brava, Rilla.

  10. Judith Baumel

    This is a welcome site! Thanks for doing this. Shelley, as a firmly wishy-washy middle-of-the-roader, I, too, was appalled by that “might have been a polemic” comment. Isn’t all good writing polemical in the best way?

  11. Ps. How about political poetry?

    • Phyllis Wilson Moore

      West Virginia has a long history of poets writing political poetry. One of our groups from the 1960s adopted the name “The Soupbean Poets” to indicate they were ordinary people opposing the system. P. J. Laska and Bob Henry Baber are still quite active in the political poetry scene.

  12. I’m heartened to see this dialogue going on, too. And Shelly is right about the bias in publishing against political fiction. When I was marketing my novel, “The Measure of Everything,” in mid-2000, about small-town activism against suburban sprawl, I got zero interest from editors and agents until the late Susan Bright at Plain View Press in Austin offered me a contract. Bright has been publishing political works since the 60s and has compiled quite a catalog. And I’m pleased to say that, following Bright’s untimely death a couple of years ago, other angels have taken over the press and hope to keep it going. Check it out!

  13. Jonathan Greene

    Crazy to mention Zora Hurston and Richard Wright in the same sentence as if they were on the same side of things when they were not: Zora was a strangely right wing and Wright left wing.

  14. MSW

    Hi Jonathan! I was just making a point about how it took a generation for more than a tiny handful of genuine literature (Harlem Renaissance) to develop after the ravages of slavery. Wright was deeply left wing, of course– I think I didn’t know Hurston’s political views.

  15. John Tipper

    Although I’ve not read any of MSW’s work, I intend to. An aspiring novelist, I grew up in the coal camps of Mercer and Raleigh Counties. Much like Lee Maynard. Interested in political literature and theater, I tried to get a staging of a play I wrote on the bloody Harlan Co. union/mgt. wars of the 1930s, but never was successful. I think it came across as too didactic and melodramatic to some dramaturgs. I like J.A. Philips and Laska and consider Updike’s “Rabbit” series Appalachian, reminding me of Northern WV, where I spent a lot time in the ’70s. My first wife was from Bridgeport.

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