The editors of The Point rightly enough begin their polemic on the depoliticized and sanitized state of American fiction today with the anti-Trump “Open Letter to the American People” signed by 450 writers. The editors suggest diplomatically (and via Aleksandar Hemon) what I am happy to state more forthrightly: the smug, vapid, ahistorical, mawkish, aloof bromides in that letter are almost grating and nauseating enough to make Hillary Clinton vote for Donald Trump. The letter is the muffled discourse of philanthropists walking through a terminal ward with perfumed handkerchiefs to their faces; it is a symptom of the Trump problem and cannot be its cure. What is the Trump problem? I would define it briefly as the collapse of liberalism’s legitimacy after decades of rapacious capitalism and imperial war, veiled so poorly behind a thin screen of multiculturalism and feminism that feminism and multiculturalism themselves are falling into disrepute as mere masks of empire. (This is the best essay I have found on the subject.)
The Point editors go on to lament that American fiction is currently in too poor a state to speak to this moment:
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.
The Franzens, Eggerses, Egans, and Lerners are ill-equipped to take up the Great American Novel tradition, they suggest, because they are too protected behind the walls of bourgeois liberalism, a matter of money and geography as much as of politics and aesthetics. For this reason, such writers have no feel for “the emotional crosscurrents that swell beneath the surface of our political life.” The editors interestingly reverse the apparent trajectory of their argument, though, when they acclaim not some unsung big-picture novel but rather the hybrid prose-poetry of Claudia Rankine and the allegorical speculative short fiction of George Saunders for being able to get into the skins and the psyches of Americans and connect the intimate pains of the individual to the state of the nation. In a sense, the editors call less for a new grand political fiction than for a new small apolitical fiction, a fiction that, in refusing to judge or to apply labels or to make grandstanding soapbox speeches, explores the nation’s emotional life through the emotional lives of the citizens, most especially those citizens who do not live behind the walls of academic credentials or high rents. Leaving aside their positive examples (Rankine and especially Saunders are not really to my taste), they are calling, in essence, not for a new realism but a new modernism: representations of the inner life through language to evoke the outer life.
The old modernism, it bears remembering, was by and large not made by members of the dominant culture or class: it was made by a host of expatriate Americans (often queer) in London or Paris, a displaced Polish mariner, a self-exiled Irish Catholic pervert, a cock-worshipping miner’s son fleeing England, the refugees of Hitler’s Europe, Northern migrants from the Jim Crow South, a white Mississipian who stayed behind, etc. I think the only major modernist writer produced by a context similar to today’s Brooklyn (admittedly imperfect shorthand for the MFA/NYC nexus) is Bloomsbury’s Virginia Woolf, and that has everything to do with her being for the most part (the “Open Letter”-like self-importance and otherworldliness of Three Guineas aside) a politically-irresponsible aesthete, just as her brother (i.e., William Shakespeare) was before her. Woolf, by the way, founded her own press to publish her experiments in fiction. I assume that people looking for the most vital fiction today are looking in the wrong places for it if they don’t stray from the major publishers (and even too many of the small presses are predictably academic or else the clubs of some clique).
[Update: it occurs to me a day later that in the paragraph above I was foolish to neglect E. M. Forster, part-time Bloomsberrie and full-time exemplar of the liberal imagination; let us all, for God’s sake, read or re-read A Passage to India!]
As Fredrik deBoer and Corey Robin have both pointed out, those inciting panic over Trump tend retrospectively to excuse or exonerate what past presidents have done, George W. Bush above all, whose administration is more responsible than any for the chaos and destruction in the Middle East, a fact the political novice Trump is more willing and able to point out than most Democrats, since their own commitment to both the interests and the ideology of regime change, humanitarian intervention, liberal imperialism, etc., make them (and liberalism itself) complicit in the horror, a complicity that will only grow in a Clinton administration.
The other day, former Bush staffer Nicole Wallace said on MSNBC that her Republican Party is dead, as Trump’s Party now stands for protectionism, isolationism, and nativism. This is the point in the leftist essay where I am supposed to make the old socialism-or-barbarism argument and say that the fault lies with the liberals for not realizing that only the left can halt this galloping fascism by offering the protectionism (or socialism) and the isolationism (or anti-imperialism) without the nativism.
But I have lost that old-time religion; I suspect history is cyclical. I suspect people tire of peace as they tire of war; I suspect hurt causes hatred, not a broader perspective or greater sympathy, and I suspect hatred gives pleasure (even to such good people as ourselves). But the left is correct to point out that the “peace” many people are tired of was often war by other means, or else war exported abroad. That’s Marxism for you: accurate diagnosis, bad prescription (half the time, it’s a placebo; the other half, poison). While I’m suspecting, I suspect Beckett’s Hamm had it right in Endgame: “Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!”
Anyway, I am not a political pundit, and you can see why. The question is, What should a writer do about any of this? If read between the lines, the essay in The Point suggests that the answer is “nothing.” Or rather, the answer is “keep being a writer”: keep our eyes and ears open (our minds and hearts too, as well as orifices that don’t make it into sentimental essays), because we are, as modernist/fascist Uncle Ez said, the “antennae of the race,” or, in the romantic/leftist Shelley’s grander metaphor, “the eye with which the Universe / Beholds itself, and knows it is divine.” If we do not wedge our mere opinions into our works, which exist at the nexus of who we are, what we have seen, and what we can know and say after we have cast received ideas aside, then our works will disclose truths about our world that quantifiable measures can’t touch and polite opinion would prefer to evade.
Everyone is always throwing the burden on the artist and never on the institutions of art. One of the reasons that Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan are not Philip Roth and Toni Morrison (and, so far anyway, they are not), it is because of the changed situation of publishing as much as anything else. Having just read Balzac’s Lost Illusions, I can tell you there was no golden age of publishing when talent was rewarded, profits didn’t matter, artistry respected for its own sake, etc. However, there are perhaps more barriers now to complex and intense fiction’s emergence than were there when Roth and Morrison started out—among them, the dominance of the money-men at the few corporations in control, the narrow class-race-gender-geography bias of agents and editors (i.e., mostly Northeastern upper-middle-class white women from elite colleges and universities), the shrinking in quantity and quality of the humanities in higher education, and the almost overwhelming competition from other, flashier, and frankly lesser art forms (e.g., TV, which categorically cannot generate great art for reasons cogently explained by Steven Augustine in the comment section here).
I hate to use myself as an example, not because I am modest and self-effacing, but because the necessity for writers to self-promote endless on the Internet is part of the problem. Nevertheless, mine are the grievances I know best, so take my novel, Portraits and Ashes. Written in a five-month frenzy in the summer and fall of 2013, the novel uses three characters and a metaphor to intuit and imply aspects of the aforementioned Trump problem that, to my knowledge, current mainstream fiction has not yet explored or even mentioned. (Trump, of course, was a speck on the horizon in summer 2013; again, I don’t mean the man, but what his popularity in part represents: the fall of liberalism to ecstatic ideologies of nation, race, and class in compensation for the devaluation of individual life by avarice and empire.)
My characters are artists, intellectuals, and creatives at the social margins rather than at the center, members of the “liberal class” who for various reasons couldn’t make it behind the gates of Harvard or Oberlin, NYC or San Francisco. Provincial intellectuals in a time of collapse, they are tempted to dissolve themselves into the ego-annihilating cult of ascetic wanderers that is my novel’s metaphor for those political and social experiences outside of liberal civilization, experiences that grow more and more enticing whenever liberal civilization itself fails to keep its promises. Why did so many of those marginal modernists I was mentioning above applaud Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin, raise paeans to the Church, the Party, the Blood, or the Phallus? Why is “[t]he left-contrarian arsonist crowd…larger and wider-spread than the cubicled creatures in the Clinton campaign have accounted for“? Portraits and Ashes may not have all the answers, but it at least represents the question vividly.
She’d been attracted to him, to his ugliness, his stupidity, his prematurely brown teeth and perpetually unwashed hair. The usual nihilists of the art world were poseurs, after all: well-coifed professionals with well-monitored bank accounts whose stated épater-le-bourgeois commitments simply represented the classicism or academicianism of their time; had they lived a hundred years before, they would have painted nymphs in exotic locales rather than constructing rooms full of politically allegorical baby dolls or shopping carts or tampons or river rocks or whatever. Jobe was not of this type. […] She was reasonably certain that his early work, at least The New Ambassador, was connected in shadowy ways with intelligence agencies, probably through open-secret front organizations bearing grant money, but he wasn’t serving the agenda of any particular government out of ideological sincerity or fervor. He simply wanted to harness their destructive powers, to sow chaos, for his own pleasure. He really wanted the trees to overgrow the museum; he really thought the museum would be better off if its prime function were the provision of coffee. Most people who are smart enough to understand that all things are futile and meaningless leave some gaps in their nihilism, gaps big enough to allow children and paintings and social hope through. But Jobe was smart enough to recognize the void at the heart of the universe without possessing the corrective emotional capacity for acting as if it weren’t there.
I would tell you to read it, then, but, alas, I cannot. I delete my rejection emails, but the spirit is weak, so I can quote from memory: it’s well-written, but I can’t fall in love with it; beautifully written, but the main character is too cold, too unlikable; etc. What I am about to say is not on behalf of my own book—maybe it is irredeemably flawed, and certainly the one I’m working on now is better—but on behalf of all the other weird, discomforting, and unlovable fiction. If you want fiction that tells you things you don’t necessarily want to know about the world you have to live in, you should complain as much about the empty rhetoric of the gatekeepers as about the middling fiction of the writers inside the gate. That is the only truly practical or political advice I can offer right now, or ever. That, and this: silence the inner pundit, take a walk down the street (or even, hell, a scroll through the Tweets), and see what signals you pick up. Even if they won’t transmit them from New York, the effort will have been worth it; art is one of those unquantifiable goods politics and sociology have trouble accounting for. Fortunately or unfortunately, the unquantifiable is just about all that this life is worth.
A note on my title: the resonant phrase before the colon is from here; as for the phrase after the colon, I assume the coming period will be something like an age of Trump whether the Republican nominee wins in November or not.