Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On Political Fiction

In May of this year, more than 450 American novelists, poets and literary critics signed an “Open Letter to the American People” opposing Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. The letter, initially posted on the literary website Lit Hub, takes the form of a list:
Because we believe that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate; 
Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another; 
Because the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies; ...
Because neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States …
Following a few more bullet points, the letter concludes by stating that Trump “appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society,” and that his candidacy therefore demands an “immediate and forceful response” from each one of us. The letter is meant, presumably, to constitute such a response.

About a week after the letter was posted, the novelist Aleksandar Hemon published a response, also on Lit Hub, explaining why he had declined to sign, despite his opposition to Trump. He began by addressing the letter’s contradictory approach to the democratic process. The letter’s authors imply that Trump is trying to become president based on his “wealth” and “celebrity”; in fact, Hemon pointed out, if one believes in the legitimacy of our democratic system, then the only way Trump or anyone else can become president is to win the most votes. The letter’s authors are surely right that “the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies,” but, as Hemon put it, “Trump is presently abiding by the rules of democratic election … Horrifying as that may seem, that’s how the system works—the election is the job interview.”

Hemon has a point. Voters—that is, actual Americans—do seem to be quite horrifying to many of the letter’s signatories, despite their intimation that they are defending the will of the people against a demagogic interloper: on the @WritersOnTrump Twitter handle, Dave Eggers is quoted as saying he is embarrassed that Trump has “garnered any votes at all,” while Jane Smiley insists that no “sane people” could possibly be supporting him.

Hemon, though, had a second, and larger, charge to level at the letter’s signatories, one that struck less at the content of the letter than at what it was being advanced in place of. Citing a decade’s worth of Pulitzer nominees, Hemon alleged that it was hard to recall a novel that addressed the facts of American life, and of American “decline,” in the past fifteen years. If our poets and novelists really believe that our political situation calls for a forceful response, Hemon asked, shouldn’t they be writing poems and novels about it, as opposed to open letters?

Hemon is right that the American novel appears to be undergoing a phase of retrenchment. With Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth edging into their senescence, the field will soon be clear of the writers we have long counted on for big, ambitious explorations of American history and society.

Perhaps in reaction to the previous generation’s often panoramic ambitions, the novelists poised to take their place—they are named Dave, and Jennifer, and (most often) Jonathan—are more commonly concerned with the individual’s estrangement from American history and society, and sometimes with his estrangement from himself. Even when one of these novelists does try, as Hemon advises, to “forcefully address the iniquities of the post-9 /11 era: the lies, the crimes, the torture, the financial collapse,” the result can be uninspiring, as in the case of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), which attempted to chronicle the lies and crimes of the Bush years and yet ended up merely registering, at an earsplitting decibel, the insular complaints of its liberal readership. A more characteristic example of this generation’s approach to politics can be found in the much-acclaimed 10:04 (2014), by the Brooklyn-based poet and novelist Ben Lerner, which includes a protracted sequence where the narrator (also a Brooklyn-based poet and novelist) cooks dinner for an Occupy Wall Street protester, all the while worrying about whether he should feel bad that, rather than going with the protester to Zuccotti Park that night, he’s going to see a play.

The detached sensibility of these novels discourages engagement with the larger forces that shape our democracy; more importantly, they appear largely insensible to the voices currently driving our most energetic political conversations. American fiction has been “haunted” since its inception, as Toni Morrison has put it, by its exclusion of African-Americans, and the scarcity of compelling black characters in contemporary literary fiction is even more conspicuous given the recent emphasis on the importance of black lives in our politics. But we can also speak today of a second haunting exclusion, of which the open letter provides a textbook example, namely that of those often referred to as the “aggrieved” white working class.

If these are the people actually voting for Trump, as nearly every op-ed published since January has insisted, then it is conspicuous that they appear in the open letter only by implication—as, presumably, the “base and violent” social elements to whom the would-be dictator stands accused of appealing. The authors are not wrong that much that is base and violent has appeared in this year’s presidential campaigns; what is strange is just their implication that such elements have ever been alien or marginal to our politics. The same idea seems to be behind their assertion that, notwithstanding some brief interludes of intolerance, American history should be thought of as a “grand experiment in bringing people together, not pitting them against one another.”

Maybe the America the letter’s signatories live in is essentially, as opposed to aspirationally, a tolerant, pluralist place, full of enlightened citizens who settle their differences via “principled disagreement.” That would certainly account for the letter’s failure to recognize Trump’s success as an accomplishment of our democracy, as opposed to a subversion of it. And it might also offer an explanation, beyond disinterest or distraction, for why a compelling political novel about the post-9 /11 era has not materialized. For this novel would have to expose not, in the first place, any “lies,” “crimes” or “iniquities,” but rather the increasingly prevalent illusion that it is possible to wall ourselves off from the America that disappoints, frightens or disgusts us.

by The Editors, The Point |  Read more:
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