Okla Elliott: Since we’ve hit economics and corrective missions, it might be appropriate to talk about the place of politics in literature. It strikes me that American authors are so often unwilling to engage with anything political, whereas European, Latin American, and African authors do so almost constantly. I’ve even gotten the sense from many writers and workshops that American writers often see themselves (or at least their art) as above or beyond politics. What, if any, interest do you have in political (and I mean the word “political” very broadly here) writing? Political literature can also be very difficult to write because of the danger of devolving into proselytizing. What are some examples of political literature you’ve found successful?
I do think it’s difficult, nearly impossible, for a writer to set out to compose an overtly political work and avoid proselytizing. And wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said she would leave the proselytizing to the evangelists? That seems about right. I think works of art are most effective politically when they move us emotionally. There are always exceptions, I guess. George Orwell did all right with essays that were overt in their political intentions, and even managed to stay interesting and prescient in his politically imbued fiction. I think it can be especially tough to create lasting work that concerns itself primarily with politics, and as an editor, I want to be a part of publishing lasting work. I would argue that something like James Baldwin’s classic story “Sonny’s Blues” is political. But I doubt if that was Baldwin’s primary concern. He wanted to tell a good, affecting story, and to humanize his characters. He was successful, and that success is what makes the story a lasting one. If the story is also political, it’s only because Baldwin brings the world to life and makes us care deeply about the story of those brothers, especially Sonny.
Besides the danger of political writing coming across as mawkish, I think we also have to be honest about audience. Political writing published in a literary magazine will almost certainly be a sermon to the converted. Having said that, Ecotone is about to publish an essay that appears initially to be about birding but that really becomes an essay about borders and about immigration. We also have an interview with an editor from National Geographic, who talks about a relatively new idea for combating global warming—sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with carbon-scrubbing devices. We’re running both of these features, though, because we found them very interesting and intrinsically worthwhile, and not out of any obligation we feel to be printing work that broaches politics.
Jacob Knabb: The question of politics is actually something I’ve been carting around in my melon for a bit now. Recently there was a thread over at HTMLGiant questioning where the next avant garde would emerge and what it would be like. I think it will be something that is political. Of course I may be wrong, but American literature has moved so far from addressing political issues that it simply has to swing back in that direction. What that will be like, I have no idea. Ben mentions “Sonny’s Blues,” and talks about the emotional core of that story. And that is indeed a powerful and particularly brutalizing story, due to that emotional core. I think the majority of writers take a similar approach to what Ben describes—at least here in the U.S. Most writers are happy if there are undertones or sub-narratives that are political in nature, but avoid mucking up the emotional core of the story by becoming too political. Now I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. That said, I don’t think it’s the only way to go about things.
There are other ways to go that route without running the risk of proselytizing or preaching to the converted. People often look to the Modernists for guidance or things to fight against and they think of writers like Hemingway and Faulkner (and dozens of others) who weren’t as political in their prose. But there are also highly political writers like Steinbeck and Dos Passos who were very political and picked fights. These writers were not afraid to appear dated and the work is indeed timeless (even if it isn’t as much a part of the canon as it once was). I disagree with Ben, I think. I don’t see how it is impossible to be overtly political and avoid proselytizing. For me the key is that the writer has to be obsessed with humanity. We don’t need more Michael Moores. We have enough of them already. But I think literature could do with a few more Steinbecks. It’s time.
I’m not certain who is doing it well at the moment. To be honest, my reading of contemporary literature is limited. I read what I come across or what grabs me in journals and I read some new novels and short story collections. But mostly over the past few years my personal reading has been centered upon reading writers who won the Nobel. This has led me to wonderful writers like Haldor Laxness and Naguib Mahfouz and Par Lagerkvist. Some of these writers are intensely political. The politics of Mahfouz are inextricable from the other aspects of his work, but this is a major strength. And his work is widely read none-the-less and not viewed as limited or dated. I’d love to see a school of writing like that emerge here in the U.S. I’d love to see that kind of writing pour into the ACM P.O. box. Sadly, I haven’t really seen much evidence of it yet. Perhaps I should set to writing some of it myself…
Okla Elliott: I have to agree with you, Jacob. I think approaching literature with some political interest or importing political concerns into literature—all the while being careful to avoid the pitfalls and pratfalls political writing is famous for—could be the thing to return some of literature’s lost cultural status.
Return to roundtable main page