A Few Notes on the Literary Establishment


As political consciousness and knowledge grow more prevalent in the broad culture, leading literary stars lag behind, as does much of the literary establishment (as journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has noted in a series of articles). Less than a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks against U.S. financial, military and governing centers, the often-perceptive, leading literary critic James Wood declared absurdly, “Who would dare to be knowledgeable [in a novel] about politics and society now?” Meanwhile the brilliant writer, highly successful novelist Jonathan Franzen stands by his notion that there is “something wrong with the whole model of the novel of social engagement,” and also directly in the face of marvellous and compelling evidence to the contrary, The New Republic’s scholarly art critic Jed Perl writes that works of art are all but inevitably weakened by much political emphasis—an idea that would come as a shock (or a joke) to many great artists of the past and present.

In “Resistance,” the article where Perl makes this central point, his major assertions are often so ambiguous or unsubstantiated (and inaccurate), that it hardly seems worth refuting what is scarcely there, but examining a few of the more lockstep reactionary statements can show in more detail some of the dominant debilitating views on art and politics held by much of the literary establishment. Perl claims, “the trouble with political art remains pretty much constant…for an artist's effort to speak to a wide audience on a specific topic all too often compromises art's essential discourse, which is a formal discourse, a discourse with its own freestanding meanings and values”—as if only “political” art (and not, say, “psychological” art) attempts “to speak to a wide audience on a specific topic.” Then there must be no great novels on adultery or on first love or on a particular virtue or vice. There goes Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice. There goes every great anti-war novel ever written. And there goes Antigone, Lysistrata, The Inferno, Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, Hard Times, The Awakening, Native Son, Invisible Man, and every great novel with a purpose, every great problem novel, utopian novel, dystopian novel, in fact most every great social and political novel ever written, along with many great “psychological” novels as well.

“In spite of the crudeness of most political art—” Perl continues heedlessly—as if "political" art, whatever he means by it, can be any more crude than the largely apolitical or politically retrograde art that is endlessly spewed from out of TV, Hollywood, and across the airwaves—so heedlessly that one wonders if as Perl writes he is simultaneously chanting “I must not (appear to) be political, I must not (appear to) be political…” In full he asserts: “In spite of the crudeness of most political art—“ [for some great political art, see here] “and of most of the debates about it” [for over a century of evidence to the contrary, that is of thoughtful, far from “crude,” discussions on political art, see here and here] “—there are very deep feelings involved. Even the cheap-shots and prepackaged effects and self-righteousness poses reflect a very old and honorable debate about the relationship about art and life," Perl would have us know, with a marvel of condescension.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s