The Social and Political Novel, and Social Change VII: The Future of Imaginative Literature

Possibly it is taken for granted-true or not, consciously or not-among the powers that rule that fiction is far more powerful than non-fiction, often far more emotionally compelling and therefore far more energizing, and thus far more threatening to illegitimate (however legalized) power. Given this possibility for the power of fiction, Roland Barthes asked what he considered to be

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?

And Alex Comfort in The Novel and Our Time (1948) provides an answer:

Writers who publically underrate the temptation of money are certainly not proof against concrete offers in nine cases out of ten, and the collapse of fiction-writers one after another into acquiescence [to power] is even more depressing than it would be if state censorship prevented anyone non-acquiesant from being printed openly…. (29)

Though Nadine Gordimer’s accomplished culturally critical novels are not nearly as political as they might well be, in my view, in The Essential Gesture (1988), she warns against such acquiescence to power and neglect of social issues of justice and injustice. And I think contemporary novelists would do well to understand and take her words even more strongly than she knows and intends (as may be true of many of the novelists and critics I’ve quoted, even in my drawing on some of their most political statements):

Responsibility is what awaits outside the Eden of creativity…. The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Ideology demands it. Society exacts it…. Roland Barthes wrote that…a writer’s ‘enterprise’ – his work – is his ‘essential gesture as a social being’.

One thing is clear: ours is a period when few can claim the absolute value of a writer without reference to a context of responsibilities. Exile as a mode of genius no longer exists…. ‘It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.’ One of the great of our period, Camus, could say that. In theory at least, as a writer he accepted the basis of the most extreme and pressing demand of our time. The ivory tower was finally stormed; and it was not with a white flag that the writer came out, but with manifesto unfurled and arms crooked to link with the elbows of the people. And it was not just as their chronicler that the compact was made; the greater value, you will note, was placed on the persona outside of ‘writer’: to be ‘no more than a writer’ was to put an end to the justification for the very existence of the persona of ‘writer’….

Long before it was projected into that of a world war, and again after the war, Camus’s natal situation was that of a writer in the conflict of Western world decolonisation – the moral question of race and power by which the twentieth century will be characterized along with its discovery of the satanic ultimate in power, the means of human self-annihilation.

Camus also might have done well to have been far more political and didactic in his novels, in my opinion-to have been, as Alex Comfort puts it in The Novel and Our Time, an ever more politically explicit “responsible writer,” going well beyond the Victorians in this regard, a writer who

is not devoid of political and moral judgments, but makes them equally. In reading, therefore, ask: Is this writer capable of recognizing a human being? Is he able to reject the art of diverse weights, for which an act identical in every respect is a heroic but regrettable necessity when done by Our Side and a contemptible atrocity when done by Their Side? Is his judgment of human decisions level or weighted: does he know filth from food, whatever the wrapper? If he does, he is capable of being a great artist under barbarianism, and if not, he is another part of barbarism made manifest. (24-26)

Whether we [novelists] are able to influence human conduct will depend very largely upon the number of people in a given asocial society who react by rational aggression towards that society rather than by irrational aggression towards their fellow individuals. The social role of the novel will depend very largely, in coming years, upon the persistence of sufficient rationally disobedient individuals to make novel-writing of the kind I have described possible.

While interpretation rather than an attempt to convince is the chief object of art, the novel is more apt than any other literary form to exert direct pressure upon the growth and forming of ideas, and it will do so whether we intend that or not…. Because of the essential humanity which a writer must possess to write major novels, I am confident that it will play a large part in the events which precede the end of asociality, and should it pass out of currency as a form, it will be replaced by the unanimous literature of tyranny or the spontaneous social literature of a free society, depending upon how far its readers are able to share and imbibe the responsibility of its best practitioners. (80)

Dramatizing and exploring, understanding and acting on stories of social justice and change are to me highly reasonable and ambitious, worthy and urgent goals for writers and readers of fiction, who will need to overcome the countervailing tendencies of the establishment, as Ismael Reed notes in “Which State?” (1986) in Writing’ Is Fightin’ (1990):

The current literary establishment, which denies that it exists, is not only a powerful influence upon American intellectual and cultural trends but on political trends as well-both the left wing and right wing [so-called] of the New York branch having advised political administrations since the 1960s…. The problem with the current literary-industrial complex of publishers, critics, writers, and slowpoke academia is that it can see cultural repression when it happens in other states but can’t recognize it when it’s practiced by its own state, the literary state….

Before a more recent reactionary turn, even British critic D. J. Taylor-in “Writers, Politics and Society,” A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s (1989)-could see the obvious, that

Though an air of genteel quietism has hung lazily over the English novel, manifesting itself occasionally in the conviction that art is somehow ‘above’ politics or that no civilized person would ever want to bother himself with the governance of his country, there is a long and fairly honourable tradition of writers intervening or interfering in domestic politics. Naturally, this is not something that officialdom has ever welcomed….

That this sort of resentment persists is a testimony to the compartmentalization of modern life. Even today the notion that a novelist might have political ideas floating about in his head and might want to give them a public airing is calculated to make the average newspaper columnist seethe with rage…. Journalists on all sides cry out for writers to be ‘relevant’ and as soon as they perform an act as relevant as expressing a political preference they are somehow seen to be engaged in a sort of spiritual trespassing.

In brief, the establishment argument holds that public/political issues and social facts essentially do not make for good fiction, do not mix well with highly compelling and insightful explorations of the fully human, the full human condition, the essence of humanity-of character, psychology, personality, motivation, mindset-that is of fiction’s foundation as a form. Nothing could be more false. Whatever can be made personal, at the least, can be made fiction, and the personal easily includes not only the private realms of people’s lives but the public realms as well, and especially most intriguingly and sweepingly that highly charged personal realm within which, in astonishing and quotidian ways both, the private and the public interact, overlap, mix, combine, fuse, recombine and so on, in the astounding dance of lives lived, of thoughts energized, of feelings, perceptions, and insight heightened, of motivation intensified and directed. In the intensely complex and personal realm where the public and private intersect, this is where fullest life lies. To narrow focus to mainly the private is to commit a type of aesthetic, intellectual, moral, emotional suicide, or at the very least to amputate some great part of the personal, that part that is of the public, and thus to amputate much of what it means to be human, and civilized.

Years, now, into the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, where is the flood of anti-war novels that any decent society would produce?

Where is the novelistic exposure of religious and academic, corporate and governmental forces in Washington D.C. and elsewhere who have built and maintained support for an invasion and occupation that has been judged to be illegal by the head of the U.N and legal experts across the U.S. and the globe, and has had the predicted effect of increasing the likelihood of attack against the U.S., and was based on fraud as known in advance, and meanwhile has killed over a thousand U.S. troops, and wounded or debilitated tens of thousands and has killed upwards of 100,000 Iraqis and maimed countless others while destroying their country? Where are the didactic novels, the social protest novels? The biting social and political satires and invectives? The forms are well known. Models exist and may be adopted, adapted, updated. Where are the polemic fictions? The incriminating novels of ideas? The lifesaving “muckraking” novels? Where are the thesis novels, the engaged fictions, the novels with a  purpose? The tendentious fictions? The culturally critical novels? Or even the realistic novels, the info novels, the governmental novels on the scandalous nature of the ongoing U.S. aggression in Iraq? Or on the criminal laws and actions of corporate American and governmental America that prevent Africans (and others) from obtaining comparatively inexpensive HIV/AIDS medicines to combat the epidemic? Where are the exposé novels on how powerful corporate and governmental officials block universal health care in the world’s richest nation? And so on… Where is the decent educated society of artists, publishers and other intellectuals that would produce such novels and other powerful social and political fictions and works of art? And what does it say about the reigning culture that fails to produce such works? What does it say about such a culture, when viewed in this light?

Much more in much greater detail and over much greater range could be explored on this topic of social and political fiction and social change, on the topic of the future (and past) of imaginative writing, much that would be useful, I think, to writers, to readers, to thinkers of all sorts, and to those who are actively engaged in progressive efforts, in organized movements for social justice and human survival not least. Here I’ll simply add that what it means to be a novelist, script writer, critical writer today has a lot to do with what it means to be anyone alive in an unjust world, which means that nothing is more crucial than increasing awareness, understanding, and control of the public realms within which a large part of life and our individual lives are found and formed; it means increasing our involvement in such realms in ways that are thoughtful, lively, and effective; it means there is a compelling need for more progressive political art-art that focuses on power and its use and abuse in ways that spring from the human condition and impinge upon it, art that may dramatically affect and enable us all in urgent ways that are by now well known and never more pressing.


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