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12/12/2004

Comments

Matt

While I generally agree with your point, isn't the very definition of the political assumed by such activist writers or those practising identity politics a rather narrow one? Sometimes the least explicitly "political" writing is in some important sense truly political, wouldn't you agree?

Randa Jarrar

Don't you see? Heterosexual white men and Married Christian women tend to be the only ones "allowed" to write politically, or celebrated as writers who make a social impact. Were not Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and EM Forster considrered political fiction writers? I fear that in this time and place, nothing but money and social/media power is considered impactful in the grand scheme of things. That's just not true... but I'm sure people in postions of power want us to believe it is.

Dan Green

I really don't think Shakespeare, Woolf, or Forster were political writers in any non-trivial sense of the term--at least not as playwrights or novelists. They were politicized by some readers and subsequent critics, without question. But who knows what Shakespeare's political views were? Collectively, they express about every political position imaginable. Being celebrated as a writer who "makes a social impact" is, I suppose, a legitimate aspiration, although I still don't know why one would choose fiction or poetry as the vehicle. At least as noble an aspiration would be to be appreciated as a writer even if one's work had no social impact whatsoever.

Randa Jarrar

"I really don't think Shakespeare, Woolf, or Forster were political writers in any non-trivial sense of the term--at least not as playwrights or novelists."
was passage to india written blissfully and completely free of political aspirations?
was Mrs. Dalloway blissfully free of feminist aspirations?
is the fact that shakespeare's characters reflect every political view imaginable a coincidence?
do writers write in a vacuum, or holler down a well? aren't their words symbolic, and representative, of their worldview?
did they, and writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Kahlil Gibran, Sandra Cisneros, and others, choose fiction as a vehicle to make social impact, or were they simply gifted? Are they, in your opinion, supposed to give up writing and chase people down with petition forms?
to be appreciated only as a writer is a noble aspiration. However, i don't understand why those who want only to be appreciated as writers, nothing more, nothing less, attack those who do want to make a social impact, or who do think that what they have to say could be of some benefit to someone else, especially if that someone else rarely sees their own history reflected in the world and media around them.
people do not ask pediatricians why they didn't choose to be teachers if they wanted to truly help children... i fear that you would view this analogy-- pediatrics/writing: teaching/activism-- an inaccurate one because you don't think fiction writing is anywhere near as important as pediatrics. but in my world, it is. if i am delusional, so be it.

throatwobbler

The problem is that politcal fiction and poetry--work whose primary focus and intent is political--is rarely good. This work may be moral, but in order to accomplish its political goal, certain aesthetic sacrifices are made. Writers like Ellison and Morrison are artits first, activists second (if even that).
Take Uncle Tom's Cabin as an exmaple. The book had a great goal, but it's terrible literature. In fact, if you wanted to write an activist novel, you'd best make it something like the Da Vinci Code, something mass marketable and bad. Politics wants an audience, not an award.

Dan Green

Randa,

I think writing fiction--making art more generally--is about the most important thing humans do. Which is why I'd prefer that artists stick to making art and not try to make it yet another forum for arguing about politics.

Passage to India probably was not written free of political aspirations. I also think it's Forster's weakest book.

In my opinion, in writing Mrs. Dalloway Woolf had no political aspirations whatsover.

I'm not sure what you mean by saying it's no coincidence Shakespeare expressed so many political positions. In my view, it's what makes him a great writer.

The other writers you mention are numerous to comment on individually. I'd be very surprised if any of them took up the writing of fiction specifically to have a social impact. They wanted to write aesthetically accomplished novels. If they didn't, they should indeed have taken up petitioning.

I'm not attacking anyone. I'd like you to have a social impact. I just don't think writing fiction is a very effective way of doing it.

amcorrea

I think there's a difference between having an agenda and creating a work of art. Works of fiction/poetry with agendas are generally not very good. Works that come out of the heart and soul of the author (which includes all the writers heretofore mentioned) *are*. If anything "political" comes through in this latter case, it does so naturally as a result of fidelity to the work.

Astute readers can pick up on these themes and be affected by them as part and parcle of the experience of the work. But it won't necessarily enact "popular" response.

I guess it all just depends on what are considered "results."

Tony Christini

Fiction can have and has had large social and political impacts on society. The literature and thinking on this is extensive, which I've documented, and written about in detail on my linked sites. I'll just offer a few quotes to this interesting discussion:

“Then comes the modern question: why is there not today (or at least so it seems to me), why is there no longer an art of intellectual persuasion, or imagination? Why are we so slow, so indifferent about mobilizing narrative and the image? Can’t we see that it is, after all, works of fiction, no matter how mediocre they may be artistically, that best arouse political passion?” –Roland Barthes

(1903) Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist: “‘The novel must not preach,’ you hear them say. As though it were possible to write a novel without a purpose, even if it is only the purpose to amuse…. [The novel] may be a great force, that works together with the pulpit and the universities for the good of the people, fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak, that an evil tree is still growing in the midst of the garden, that undoing follows hard upon unrighteousness, that the course of Empire is not yet finished, and that the races of men have yet to work out their destiny in those great and terrible movements that crush and grind and rend asunder the pillars of the houses of the nations” (203-207).

(1926) W.E.B. DuBois, African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000 (Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ed.): “…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda."

(1936) James T. Farrell, “Literature and Propaganda,” A Note on Literary Criticism: “I think that literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influence. It is this duality, intrinsic to literature, that produces unresolved problems of literary criticism” (3). “I suggest that in the field of literature the formula ‘All art is propaganda’ be replaced by another: ‘Literature is an instrument of social influence’…. [Literature] can be propaganda—in the more limited sense of my definition of propaganda; and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation. However, it often performs neither of these functions and yet does perform an objective social function…”

(1939) Bernard Smith, Forces in Literary Criticism: “‘Propaganda’ is not used here as an invidious term. It is used to describe works consciously written to have an immediate and direct effect upon their readers’ opinions and actions, as distinguished from works that are not consciously written for that purpose or which are written to have a remote and indirect effect. It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work ‘propaganda’ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally ‘propaganda’ for something.”

(1987) Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature: “Resistance literature, as this study has attempted to show, has in the past played a vital role in the historical struggle of the resistance movements in the context of which it was written (200). That same literature continues to enlist readers and critics in the First as in the Third Worlds in the active reconstruction of interrupted histories. Omar Cabezas, former FSLN guerrilla and author of The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green (published in English as Fire from the Mountain), and now head of the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior’s Political Section, still maintains that:

To have participated as a guerrilla, to have written this book, son of a bitch: it’s dealt a real blow to the enemy. You feel like you could die after something like that. After that book and one more. Or that book and two more. Or that book and five more. Or just that book. What I want to say is it’s dealt a blow to imperialism. I saw a photo, once, of a dead guerrilla in a Latin American country, and they showed everything he had in his knapsack: his plate, his spoon, his bedroll, his change of clothing, and The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green. And I think back to when I was a guerrilla; when a guerrilla carries a book in his knapsack, it really means something.

(1994) Michael Hanne, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change: “One of the earliest, and best known, examples of a novel which is claimed to have exercised a massive, direct, social influence is Goethe’s story of hopeless love, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which is said to have so stirred the feelings of a whole generation of young readers all over Western Europe that a number were recorded as committing suicide in imitation of its lovesick hero. Of a very different kind is the impact claimed for the novels of Dickens and Charles Kingsley, which have been credited with contributing, through the exposure of some of the social evils of mid-nineteenth century Britain, to the most important pieces of reform legislation enacted in the later part of the century. Perhaps the most specific (and best-documented) claim for a novel’s leading to significant legislative change relates to the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which, through its depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry, is reliably said to have been instrumental in ensuring the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S. Congress a few months later…. (A curious knock-on effect of the widespread anxiety about the health risks associated with canned foods provoked by The Jungle was the immediate collapse of whole communities based on canning quite remote from Chicago—including those in my country, New Zealand.)”

(2003) Howard Zinn, Artists in Times of War: “I suggest that the role of the artist is to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the word of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond and escape what is handed down by the government or what is said in the media.... It is the job of the artist to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say.... It is absolutely patriotic to point a finger at the government to say that it is not doing what it should be doing to safeguard the right of citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.... We must be able to look at ourselves, to look at our country honestly and clearly. And just as we can examine the awful things that people do elsewhere, we have to be willing to examine the awful things that are done here by our government."

Randa Jarrar

the kind of political writing/social impact i talk about is linked to the heart of the writing, the aesthetics of the writing, not divorced from it. in the best fiction, these-art and social issues- coexist and are not mutually exclusive. i'm a firm believer that art, that fiction, can and does impact society. this impact does not have to manifest itself in the form of a president steppng down or a hegemonic state withdrawing its forces from the territory it occupies, but rather in the form of a young single mother deciding that she can't afford not to go to college,etc. Without novels, i believe i would still be married to an abusive man and probably would not have graduated college and gone to grad school and pursued my writing. this may seem, on the surface,to be the result of fiction's personal impact, but i believe that when you affect the individual, you affect society.

amcorrea

I agree. But this is this stuff that transcends the merely "political."

(I guess I get hung up on that word...and I'm reminded of the brilliant argument between Gene Hackman and Danny Glover in The Royal Tenenbaums over "Semantics!!" ;)

Tony Christini

Art, like any experience, may well have an effect, sometimes huge. If the art has a strong socio-political focus, possibly didactic possibly not, then the effect may likely be social and/or political. If it's relatively apolitical or personal/private art, like any apolitical or personal/private experience, the effect may likely be non-public, non-political.

The oft-repeated notion that political art is likely to be weak seems unsubstantiated to me. Think of all the lousy relatively apolitical art and art/entertainment out there. Is there any less of that than lousy political art?

twobbler

As a reader, I look for surprising things in any creative work. The problem with overtly politcal texts is that they offer little surprise. Their authors grind away to make a point--usually a point that an astute reader will grasp early in the text. So what's the point of reading them? Since most have a liberal slant, I'm likely to already agree. Why not write something that will have an impact outside of the small number of people who read serious literature?

Tony Christini

"The problem with overtly politcal texts is that they offer little surprise."

Is "A Modest Proposal" not surprising? Gulliver's Travels? The Praise of Folly? Antigone? Lysistrata? Jack London's The Iron Heel? Callenbach's Ecotopia? Or more recently Robert Newman's geo-political epic novel The Fountain at the Center of the World? Or try Mike Bryan's "Attack Appalachia" or Mencken's In Defense of Women. Or the best satires of Juvenal. Anyone who wants to see tons of non-surprising works need look no further than the vast assortment of apolitical writing. There is no aesthetic reason why overtly political works should be more unsurprising than overtly apolitical works. And again, I've seen no argument that ever marshalled the evidence to show this either.

"Why not write something that will have an impact outside of the small number of people who read serious literature?"

Sure, there are many newspaper cartoons that are overtly didactic making overtly political points that reach a mass audience. Many of them very funny. Or see the great cartoons in Z Magazine for instance, and the even greater assortment at Znet (zmag.org). There are far fewer novels that do this unfortunately, and (perhaps no coincidence) far fewer outlets for any such novels and fictions that do get written, which I can attest to personally, and then some.

Matt

While I'm still waiting for a response to my original question (isn't there an important sense in which the least "political" writers (in the weak sense of the word) are in fact the most 'political' (in the strong sense)?

For instance, if Subcomandante Marcos's new detective novel refrains from being explicitly political, it will be, in some sense, even more political than if it were simply a monological manifesto. Kafka is certainly, in some sense, a political writer. Pablo Neruda's poem about Stalin is the least 'political' of his poems.

Conversly, some political writing-Marx, say-is surely important to judge as literature. If one is measuring by today's standards (a questionable habit in itself, surely), serious writers should certainly not aspire to be politicians first and writers second. But this does not mean that they ever succeed in transcending the political entirely, or purely. In fact, I think I am arguing that the more they appear to do so, the less they actually do so.

But distinctions are still important. The respectice relations of these two groups, the "political" and the writerly (to the degree they may be distinguised) to things like memory, mourning and silence are rather diametrically opposed, I think one could argue.

Dan Green

Political fiction that uses a political subject or seems inspired by some political concern will be "surprising" if it uses this inspiration to explore the complex and inevitably muddled conditions that actually motivate human behavior and institutions, that underly the superficially "political." (Satire such as Swift's is something else entirely.) Unsurprising political fiction merely rehearses already familiar political or politicized ideas. Surprising political fiction winds up not being about politics in the superficial sense at all. Unsurprising political fiction does indeed just "grind away to make a point." Unfortunately, most political fiction falls in the latter category.

Tony Christini

Mainstream conventional thinking often defines political fiction and other forms of political art as non-aesthetic--in the face of much evidence otherwise: see the powerful, compelling, and aesthetically gripping film Romero, for example, or Newman's novel The Fountain at the Center of the World in which some of the most aesthetic and compelling moments are overtly political.

Most art of all sorts, political or apolitical, is not masterfully done. Nothing inherently determines that political art must be more poorly done, except perhaps that it is more challenging to create because artists must not only be aesthetically skilled, they must be very knowledgeable about something that most people are not knowledgeable about, politics, especially politics having to do with the public, that is, politics that stray much beyond private realms of life. And so such political art is more demanding than apolitical art (and therefore I would argue potentially more interesting and meaningful) which may account for such art not often being well done, if such happens to be the case.

Satire, caricature, these techniques can be used as powerful forms of political art--much feared and censored, officially in totalitarian countries, unofficially in corporate realms (which structurally are also highly authoritarian, undemocratic). Swift's satires, especially "A Modest Proposal," galvanized public opinion in Ireland, led to street protests at the least, and cause Swift to this day to be a revered political figure in Ireland. And these political satires of Swift's are widely acknowledged even in the mainstream to be examples of art in the highest form.

The personal realms, personal life, in which novels but not necessarily all art forms thrive, is made up of far more than private elements, it is made up also, especially in this day and age, of many public elements--public forces, public facts, public ideas...and public persons that dramatically affect and shape us as individuals and groups. So politics is both a private and public matter, and inevitably a mix. And the private and the public make up the personal.

I happen to be interested more in the public aspects of personal life (mixing in with the private). Most art steers clear of much explicit emphasis on the profoundly public side of the personal. That's a comment on our society. For example, almost two years now into the illegal and otherwise criminal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq--and well over two years after the massive international protests against the buildup to the invasion--where is the flood of anti-war novels that any decent society would produce?

Dan Green

I don't know what "Mainstream conventional thinking" you're talking about, but I don't call political art "non-aesthetic": I just call most political art bad art. Neither do I find most political novelists "very knowledgeable about something that most people are not knowledgeable about, politics". I usually find they don't know any more than anyone else. And although "A Modest Proposal" is artfully done, it isn't finally a work of "art." It's a blatant piece of political discourse

Tony Christini

As for "mainstream conventional thinking," the New Republic is a rather deep repository of it.

Yes, the political knowledge, apparent or otherwise, of a lot of ostensibly political novelists leaves a lot to be desired, from my left/progressive view at least. Political novelist Robert Newman is more knowledgeable than most folks about politics.

I do agree that "A Modest Proposal" is "a blatant piece of political discourse"; however, I also think it makes marvelous use of metaphor, tone, pacing, and sustains a powerful mind-melding imaginative conceit throughout, etc--aesthetic techniques all. I don't think my opinion is controversial in this regard.

Again, you make evident that a likely explanation for your view that "most political art [is] bad art" is that you apparently rule out the possibility of "a blatant piece of political discourse" from even being considered as art in the first place...for no reason, as far as I'm aware.

Dan Green

Again, "A Modest Proposal" is artfully done. It makes superlative use of all the devices you name. This doesn't make it art, although Gulliver's Travels is art. If a "blatant piece of political discourse" can also be called art, then both "political discourse" and "art" become completely meaningless terms.

Tony Christini

Is Leonardo da Vinci's marvelous painting "The Last Supper" not art because it is blatently/overtly religious? Of course not. Alexander Pope's the Dunciad? The Praise of Folly? Thomas More's Utopia? Many didactic works are artfully done; there are thousands more: Picasso's Guernica (arguably), the Statue of Liberty, Twain's "The War Prayer," an endless stream of quite artful cartoons. None of which renders the pointed religious/"political discourse" or the idea of "art" meaningless. Far from it. The religious or political content often enhances the aesthetic value, and possibly vice versa. The two are tightly integrated. Your opinion then is that no such thing exists as an anti-war novel, a novel with a purpose, no didactic art of any sort--an extreme position, even by mainstream standards. It was Northrop Frye himself who wrote that "A Modest Proposal" is stunningly "mind-melding" in his classic work of art typology An Anatomy of Criticism, in which he carefully and convincingly places many works of art by their form, including Swift's "Proposal."

Dan Green

How did religion get into this? Are you now telling me that "politics" includes any subject a writer might take up? Any possible "content" a work of art might have? You have now indeed rendered the term itself completely void of content.

You might like didactic art. Fine. You'll probably find plenty of it around. I choose to skip it.

Tony Christini

I would like to address Matt's post now that the other line of discussion has tailed off. For clarity I'll put his thoughts at the arrows (-->) and intersperse comments at the three ***.

--> ...isn't there an important sense in which the least "political" writers (in the weak sense of the word) are in fact the most 'political' (in the strong sense)?

***To the extent that I understand what you're saying (that the least political is actually the most political) it's illogical, makes no sense, so I can see no way to respond to something you haven't made intelligible, haven't explained. I mean how should I know what you're talking about? I can makes some wild guesses but that's it. Do you mean that people who don't write politically are making, indirectly, a political statement that politics are unimportant? If so, that could be the case, but I see no reason to say that it necessarily is so. Maybe it means they accept the status quo, maybe not; maybe it means they are focused on some private or technical aesthetic problem, maybe not; etc....

-->For instance, if Subcomandante Marcos's new detective novel refrains from being explicitly political, it will be, in some sense, even more political than if it were simply a monological manifesto.

***Well, this is an example of what you mean but not an explanation. More political how? Why? As it appears to me, it does not seem at all that Marcos is writing the novel for either primarily private or aesthetic reasons--quite the opposite.


--> Kafka is certainly, in some sense, a political writer. Pablo Neruda's poem about Stalin is the least 'political' of his poems.

***It can be argued that every writer "is in some sense a political writer." I only know a few of Neruda's poems and I guess not the one you refer to.

--> Conversly, some political writing-Marx, say-is surely important to judge as literature. If one is measuring by today's standards (a questionable habit in itself, surely), serious writers should certainly not aspire to be politicians first and writers second.

***Did Marx "aspire to be a politician first and writer second"? Depends what you mean by politician. Also what you mean by writer. Any way you look at it, he definitely was a serious political figure and thought of himself as such. I don't know if he would say that he was or intended to be a serious writer. And, again, I don't know what you mean by "serious writer."

--> But this does not mean that they ever succeed in transcending the political entirely, or purely. In fact, I think I am arguing that the more they appear to do so, the less they actually do so.

***That may be what you are saying but, again, I don't see the logic in it, nor do you offer any.

-->But distinctions are still important. The respectice relations of these two groups, the "political" and the writerly (to the degree they may be distinguised) to things like memory, mourning and silence are rather diametrically opposed, I think one could argue.

***How? Why? In what way? To the extent I understand what you mean here (practically not at all) I can think of no reason to think it might be so.

Tony Christini

I would also like to respond to a post of Randa Jarrar's using again the arrows and asterisks:

--> the kind of political writing/social impact i talk about is linked to the heart of the writing, the aesthetics of the writing, not divorced from it.

*** I don't know what you mean by this. There is always some link between aesthetics and impact of any kind of writing. Do you mean there is a certain type of style that is more political, somehow, than another style? If so, I guess I'm dubious about that to a large extent, since people respond differently to different styles of writing, as they should, some are affected by melodrama, others by satire.... As I see it, the important thing is that the writing be vividly intelligible and purposeful no matter the style, and not inappropriate to the audience.


--> in the best fiction, these-art and social issues- coexist and are not mutually exclusive.

*** I don't know really what the "issues" are that you are referring to.

--> i'm a firm believer that art, that fiction, can and does impact society.

*** Yes, plenty of evidence for this. And it only makes sense.

--> this impact does not have to manifest itself in the form of a president steppng down or a hegemonic state withdrawing its forces from the territory it occupies, but rather in the form of a young single mother deciding that she can't afford not to go to college,etc. Without novels, i believe i would still be married to an abusive man and probably would not have graduated college and gone to grad school and pursued my writing.

*** Yes, absolutely, and your own situation is a powerful example. Political art can be focused anywhere on many spectrums from the intensely private to the intensely public, from intensely aesthetic to the intensely quotidian, etc....

--> this may seem, on the surface,to be the result of fiction's personal impact, but i believe that when you affect the individual, you affect society.

*** To some degree there must always be an effect between the individual and society. Sometimes the effect is to reinforce the status quo, sometimes the opposite. As I see it, part of what can be understood as progressive political art is the sort that affects society in some way that amounts to progressive social change, liberation of various sorts, social justice....

Matt

Tony-

I suppose one way of further clarifying (although I think Dan has understood my point fairly well already) would be to suggest that the "private or aesthetic," as you say, is not necessarily a hermeneutically-sealed or self-explanatory realm. That is, perhaps there is something like a politics of friendship. Cheers.

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/frenchthought/derrida.htm

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