Heart in the Right Place: Is That Enough?

SE

I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior. I liked it very much overall: beautiful writing, a compelling story, terrifically well wrought protagonist, forthright political engagement with the topic of climate change. And family dysfunction! For yes, while the issue of climate change and the horrors it is bringing is central both thematically and to the plot, the story plays out via the conventional route. Family conflict, family secrets, silences and miscommunication, love and its illusions as well as the illusion of love. It’s all here. It’s all handled expertly as we’d expect from so accomplished an author. The way she weaves climate change into all this is nearly seamless too. Bravo for all that, and for the information she provides; here’s your didactic element, MSW, and since you and I agree that didactic is not a bad word I think you’d applaud, with me, her effort here.

The complete package, you might say. Family dynamics–for after all, we are all human beings living in relation to other human beings, so I do sympathize with your reluctance to let go of the dysfunction meme–check. Bruisingly important political issue–check. Plus all that other good stuff–lyricism, character development, etc., check check check.

Yet yes, I’m working up to a but. Here it is: but I wish she’d gone so much further. I wish so many of these goodhearted mildly political books would go further. Onward, I mean, toward tackling questions of how to make change, which in this case would mean how to address and combat the climate crisis that threatens everyone’s future. Kingsolver ends the book on sort of a personally hopeful note for her protagonist who clings, as she must, to hope for the future her children will endure, and as you know, MSW, I’m all for hope, especially in the context of politically engaged fiction. However she offers no hint of how to avert disaster. There’s no mention, no evidence, of mass struggle, which in my view is the only way progressive change is created. There is the protagonist, and her circle of family and friends, whose eyes are opened. There are the scientists, who observe and mourn. There are the young, and some older, folks who show up to side with the endangered monarch butterflies that are at the center of the story, but they do not constitute a movement, they pose no real challenge to the capitalist profiteers who’ve created this mess.

There are books that show groups of people in motion. There are books about strikes, like Germinal by Emile Zola, one of the books on our Politerature banner, but many (most) of them are old books. I want more of these! I want new stories that address recent, current and upcoming mass struggles! I want novels about Occupy Wall Street and the Republic Windows sitdown and Justice for Janitors! Every such story will involve individuals, sure, and their family dynamics, but broaden out to show communities in motion, and, broader than that, mass numbers of individuals working together, fighting together, for justice and change. There are so many such stories waiting to be told.

The issue of who does, who can do, the telling is key. I’m glad you raised this in the first installment of our conversation. Working to feed, house, clothe yourself and your family–trying to survive–is what takes up the time and energy of most people on the planet. Who has access to education, let alone any route toward publication?

MSW

This got me all excited, SE– I take it very personally!

I’ve read and written about a lot of Barbara Kingsolver’s work but not this latest novel yet. So what I want to say won’t be directly about Flight Behavior, on which I trust your general evaluation– it all sounds positive except in the novel’s general category of being “one of these good-hearted mildly political books.”  Which makes me a little defensive, because that’s probably the best I will ever do in the politerature realm.

It leads me back to the idea that we write out of what we know. We imagine and do research, of course, but we are (I believe) always tied to who we are, where we are. The truth is, however righteously placed our hearts, however we have researched our subjects (and Kingsolver, who trained as a biologist and worked as a journalist is nothing if not meticulous in her research)– still, that the heart of realistic fiction is likely to be deeply embedded in what we have seen and how we live our personal lives.

Kingsolver, for example, spent many years traveling and doing journalism and covering labor actions. Her nonfiction book Holding The Line: Women In The Great Arizona Mine Strike  is about the 1983–1985 a strike against the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation. Her present, however, is set in a lovely, tiny rural community in southwestern Virginia where she lives with her family.  Her husband runs a terrific restaurant that uses local produce, and her teenage daughter attended, maybe still attends, a local public school.

I once heard the poet Denise Levertov asked in public how to write political poetry, to which she answered, “You can’t, you can only live a political life, and the poetry will follow.”  I really believe that: we’ll get real strike novels when strikers and their families write novels. Of course, I can observe a strike or imagine a strike or research a strike. Kingsolver’s labor book was nonfiction– maybe that’s where the struggles for justice are being recreated literarily in the 21st century. We may not have developed our strategy for writing about these things yet.

I think, for myself, that I might someday write a novel about political struggles in public schools or something out of my experience working for racial integration in a suburban town, because that’s what I have lived experience of, but I’m not likely to write a novel of the type we’re both looking for.

I have another possibility, too, which is fantasy and science fiction and speculative fiction.  The best science fiction can experiment with the political. My published science fiction novel is about a world where the colonizers landed on a planet and immediately divided into classes because of scarcity, and it ends on a hopeful if perhaps corny note when the lower class walks out on the bosses and lights out for the territories. I’m working on a new dystopian novel, too, where a tiny community is trying to hang on to its identity as a collective.

It took the end of slavery and a rising middle class of African-Americans before you had Zora Neale Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance and Richard Wright. So we may have to wait to see what the rising generation writes.

SE

Yes and no. I agree and I don’t.

On the one hand, it seems to me that what you’re arguing here is one of the most basic tenets of Marxism, or a variation on it. Being determines consciousness. The original assertion is from Karl Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” I hew to this line (for women too!). It’s not just formulaic on my part as I’ve seen this truth in action many times, most dramatically the three times I’ve been on strike. There is nothing like a strike, which is or can be like a revolution in microcosm, to make people’s heads explode open in whole new directions toward which they’d never dared venture. I’ve seen quiet, seemingly meek workers who never gave the boss a moment’s headache suddenly blossom into thundering orators or keen organizers or brilliant negotiators. And no, you can’t fake that, you can’t simulate that experience, you can’t put it on paper if you haven’t lived it, not exactly anyway, not authentically. Or can you? If a journalist were embedded with a striking work force, lived and breathed the experience with them, it might be possible for her/him to generate a book that brought the strike dynamic to life for readers, as in fact Kingsolver’s Phelps Dodge book did. (I trust you on that; I own it but confess I’ve never read it.) Would the leap to fiction be impossible?

I’m not sure. Thomas Hardy’s early life wasn’t as hard nor his fate as awful as that of his protagonist in Jude the Obscure, to my mind a brilliant politerary novel, but he was initially unable to afford to go to college and the class antagonism that engendered clearly fed his writing. I can think of contemporary authors who convey some of the realities of poverty, oppression and struggle—Kiran Desai in The Inheritance of Loss, Vikram Chandra in Sacred Games, Monica Ali in In the Kitchen, Ayana Mathis in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Tom Piazza in City of Refuge—with vivid, convincing, heartbreaking immediacy although they didn’t live these realities. So I guess I do think that the effort, if difficult, is worth making. And may sometimes bring good results.

On the other hand, hey, you’re right. Being does determine consciousness. The truest tale, the story with the deepest understanding and from which the reader can learn and be made to feel the most, does, I agree, come from the writer who knows it in her/his bones. The writer whose story it is, one way or another. Experience is different than observation. Which does again, I agree, bring the conversation back to who writes, who has the opportunity to write, whose voices find a way to be heard. Which I’d like to talk about more. As I would about the role of speculative fiction, which you raise here as an alternate route and which holds much potential I think.

For the record, I love your books, MSW. I consider your work, like Kingsolver’s, a contribution. Literature on the side of the working class, the oppressed, those fighting for change. If you took my characterization of her latest as damning with faint praise, let me try to put it another way. We need these books. They shed light, they open minds, they point in the right direction. They offer hope, too, which couldn’t be more important.

I’ve gone on too long, but I want to mention one other book that’s at least tangentially relevant to this conversation. Les Miserables. I don’t believe Victor Hugo ever lived in the sewers of Paris. He witnessed but did not take part in the great battles at the barricades during the workers’ and students’ revolt of 1832. Yet his book remains forever popular, as have been all the movie versions including the latest, the critics be damned. Something in this story speaks to the masses of people. The masses root for Jean Valjean, for the valiant fighters at the barricades. Here’s a corny explanation: Les Miserables has heart. Hugo couldn’t manufacture consciousness from experiences he didn’t have, but he could and did take sides and he had a great expansive heart. That can go a long way literarily.

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8 responses to “Heart in the Right Place: Is That Enough?

  1. This is a great blog post and strikes many chords with me. I haven’t read Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’ although I have read several of her other novels. But her non-fiction books have had quite an influence on me especially ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ and since reading it I have become a part of the Grow It Yourself movement here in Ireland. The current food scandal here in Europe, the discovery of horse-meat in ‘beefburgers’, shows how educated we need to be about our food and the industry that controls it to a shocking extent, how it’s produced and the length of the food chain. I have also enjoyed BK’s books of essays, ‘Small Wonder’ and ‘High Tide in Tucson’. She knows of what she writes, but I take your point about her novel being too timid for the gravity and the urgency of what is happening.

    SE’s comment ‘The issue of who does, who can do, the telling is key … Working to feed, house, clothe yourself and your family–trying to survive–is what takes up the time and energy of most people on the planet. Who has access to education, let alone any route toward publication?’ struck further chords. Access to education and the confidence to give voice to experience is key. I’m an affiliate of Amherst Writers & Artists founded some decades ago by Pat Schneider in Amherst, Mass. and I lead writing workshops using Pat’s method. AWA was founded with the express intention of allowing people to find their voice through writing by creating the conditions that work to support this in an authentic way. Pat Schneider’s book ‘Writing Alone and With Others’ is the only book on writing that I know of that names poverty, interrupted education and so on as significant impediments to creative writing. Pat says ‘Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.’ Far too many people think that they don’t have permission to write or the ability; the specter of the red pen through school essays casts a long shadow and an impoverished version of the arts in general is what is frequently taught in schools.

    This is a great, thought-provoking blog. Keep up the good work!! And, MSW, I have several of your books on writing here as well, which I regularly draw on for inspiration!

  2. MSW

    Much thanks,Margaret O’Brien! I have to look for Pat Schneider’s book. Stay in touch!

  3. Reamy Jansen (reamyjj@gmail.com) writes:

    Here are a few notes that I jotted down: If you’re looking for a great bio of someone whose heart and mind was in the right place, try Yvonne Kapp’s two volume biography of Eleanor Marx, especially good on her involvement in the London Dock Strike. She did a good translation of Flaubert’s Bovary, and Paul DeMann used it as the basis for his translation of the Norton Critical Edition.

    The other great political bio is E.P. Thompson’s William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary. I wrote about it in Minnesota Review many moons ago. My dissertation subject was on William Morris’ socialist writings. You can guess how that went over at SUNY Stony Brook.

    When I retire, I’m going to write about his founding and editorship of the Commonweal, the weekly of the Socialist Federation. R

  4. Fascinating dialogue. For me, because American writers have had such privilege to travel and observe, there are a lot of books that seem to me inauthentic, as if borrowing the real experience of someone who is in the midst of conflict in a foreign nation, a real experience rather than an observed one. I’ve thought alot about this I guess because my mother was born in Palestine and I can’t tell you how many novels write about Palestine and Israel, inventing with no real experience in the culture and I think the same can be said of my war-torn regions in the world. Apologize if this sounds harsh and I’m not saying a wrier can’t imagine, but authenticity of a value I bring to fiction even if it is fiction. And the amount of borrowed experience feels wrong somewhere to me.
    Sartre wrote: ““writing is an exercise in generosity”
    “what the writer requires of the reader is not the application of an abstract freedombut the gift of his whole person, with his passions, his prepossessions, his sympathies, his sympathies his sexual temperament, and his scale of values” By “scale of values” I think Sartre mean a political/moral dimension to the work and I think that is hard won and deeply felt, not borrowed..But that’s just me, I know!

  5. MSW

    Wow. excellent, Leora. Many years ago I was in a writing class with a young white woman who was writing a story about a southern black family dealing with a lynching. It always bothered me– she seemed to be claiming someone else’s life and history. But how to balance our freedom to imagine with authentic life experience?

    • thank you! Yes, I do think authenticity has been part of our moral/political values. Critics and writers have traditionally, historically believed that fiction was truth-telling, to unvels “truths”, not necessarily reality, but to uncover some “truth”. I know it gets complex because political.moral concerns shouldnt ignore or dismiss our ability to empathize with oppressed groups but yes, I know it’s really difficult to balance our freedom with imagination. When do these “borrowed” experiences actually work against the purposes og good fiction? I’ve been reading a lot of post WW II literature and it just breathes authenticity, the horrors of war and death, writers not as observers but participants, vulneable often helpless in the face of things, to me, some of our greatest literature comes from post World Two authors, even Hemingway (who I don’t admire for many reasons) was a real soldier in WWI. It’s a tough one. Are many of our lauded books today spurious? And is that spuriousness a symptom of a book culture in need of change? Thanks again, Meredith, this really opens up so many issues for me…and its wonderful to have a chance to explore them

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