A liberal named Benjamin Nugent has written a pretty interesting piece wondering why Republicans don’t write good novels. Daniel Larison’s answer to the question is vastly more interesting than the Nugent piece itself. I exhort you to read his entire entry — Daniel ought to turn this into an essay, and The American Conservative,which is where the most surprising and unpredictable commentary on the Right is being published today, ought to make it a cover story. Anyway, Daniel says that the question isn’t why don’t Republicans write good novels, as ideologues aren’t ever going to produce good art. Rather:
The real question ought to be why conservatives generally don’t write fiction.
The answer is actually much more straightforward: the sorts of grand conservative thinkers who were scholars of literature (Weaver, Bradford) and writers of ghost stories (Kirk) are sadly no longer with us, they have not found worthy replacements and the importance of imagination is much, much less in the thinking of most self-styled conservatives than it was in theirs.
Part of the problem is indeed an excess of optimism, and optimism on the American right is one part Yankee, one part capitalist and one part Reagan. Whatever else you want to say about these three, they are not generally regarded as the fathers of great writing. Optimistic people typically are not the best artists, and I don’t just say this because I prefer the pessimists among us. Their frame of mind does not allow for real tragedy or real failure. For the optimist failure is not only unlikely, it does not ultimately, truly exist. The best days are always yet to come! But without a sense of nostalgia for a lost age or a lament for your people or even a full appreciation for the petty indignities of life combined with reverence for sacred mysteries (and sometimes, if a writer is really wise, he knows how to find the mystery in the petty indignity–see Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn), I think it is very difficult to write really captivating, good fiction.
This is right, it seems to me, and I really don’t have a lot to add to Daniel’s excellent observations. Larison’s post crystallized for me why I find myself so alienated from mainstream conservatism: it has no room for a tragic sense, and too often suffocates mystery and ambiguity in syrupy nationalistic uplift or platitudinous moralizing. Besides, I think most people on the right — shoot, most people, period — don’t trust art any more than they trust religion (real religion, the wild and terrifying stuff, I mean, not just bourgeois churchiness). The more intelligent people on the right understand that culture is more important than politics, but have no idea where to begin creating works of art that live and breathe.
Barbara Nicolosi of Act One, the program that trains Christians in screenwriting, lays into the faithful for their haughty ignorance and attitudinizing. Here’s a more polite version of the spiel I’ve been privileged to hear in person:
Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the greatest Catholic novelist of the past century, once noted, “Christian writers should be much less concerned with saving the world than with saving their work.” Many begin the Act One program with a slight cockiness that our seasoned faculty likes to call “the Messiah complex.” At some point in their lives, they swore off the cinema out of either fear or disdain, and they have come to Act One with the idea that they can save it from the outside. It takes several days of showing them some of the stunning and profound work being done in secular cinema before we can really begin to teach them.
Ken Gire, an Act One alumnus, wrote in his book, Reflections on the Movies: Hearing God in the Unlikeliest Places (Chariot Victor, 2000), “I would rather be exposed to an a R-rated truth than a G-rated lie.” Having no conviction of hope, the entertainment industry tends to obsess over the only realities of which it is certain: confusion, darkness, isolation, fear, and depravity. Skewed as it is in its representation of what it means to be human, this kind of cinema can still hold profound truth for us about life without faith and, on another level, about using the screen art form in powerful ways.
Substitute “conservatives” for “Christians” and it still makes sense. Many conservatives, it seems to me, see art as an instrument for propagandizing for a particular worldview, as opposed to telling the truth, even telling hard truths (especially telling hard truths). The last great American novel I read was Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” I don’t know whether Robinson is liberal or conservative, or whether her novel was either. But it was luminous, and it was true. That’s all that matters.
I wonder if there’s a connection between the fact that there are few conservatives among the ranks of novelists, and that there are few conservatives in US newsrooms. I remember when I was on my college paper’s staff, and was pretty liberal, campus conservatives bitched and moaned constantly about how biased we were. When I was in a position to invite them to contribute commentary to the paper, they weren’t faithful about meeting deadlines, and often never turned anything in at all. My guess is that conservatives love to complain about how biased the media are, and they’re more or less correct. But it’s rare to find conservatives who actually love journalism for itself, and what it can do. I’ve met young conservatives who aspire to be journalists, and they have the idea that they’re going to go into the business to tell stories “from the conservative point of view,” or somesuch thing. And I hope they fail. We don’t need to replace liberal bias with conservative bias. We need people to go into journalism because they want to tell the truth, and because they respect the art and craft of journalism. I don’t know why journalism as a profession appeals more to people who are pretty liberal politically. But it does. Perhaps the same is true with art — just as banking tends to attract conservatives.
But really, I’m the wrong person to pontificate on such matters, as I don’t read much fiction. I find contemporary fiction to be dull, as a general rule, and spend my time reading history and history-related books. That’s where life is, as far as I can tell. My wife is a conservative, and she reads almost nothing but fiction. But not much contemporary fiction. Do you who read a lot of fiction think that there’s much good fiction being written by anybody today? If so who, and why is it good? It’s the case, certainly, that the overwhelming number of novelists are liberals, but it seems to me that if they’re any good as a novelist, it’s not because they’re liberals, but because they understand something about human nature, and keep their art free from the proprieties of political correctness.
Larison is spot-on in his final observation, which is that the triumph of the therapeutic did away with a lot of suffering, but also seems to have erased the conditions that make for good art:
The therapeutic has driven out most of whatever remained of the tragic. The spirit of Atlee has spread like a poisonous cloud over the green fields of Logres, and the purpose-driven life has driven us into Babylon rather than leaving us to remember Jerusalem at the edge of her waters.
I’m sitting here tonight in a part of the country that is, I’m sorry to say, rapidly suburbanizing. For most of my adult life lived outside of the rural South, I’ve simply told stories about the kind of stuff I saw and heard growing up. And people think wow, what a good storyteller he is. But it’s not me: it’s the stories, and I’ve just reported what I’ve seen. That world, in all its crazy vitality, is going away. It just about kills me to think of what will pass away before I die. Sitting on the front porch with my dad today, we were talking about loss. He told me that he’s always had confidence that he could pull himself and us kids through any hardship, because growing up dirt-poor in the country during the Great Depression required him to learn how to do all kinds of things for himself. And I felt stupid and small just hearing that, thinking about how little of that I know. How little of that most people of my generation know. I wouldn’t trade the comfortable middle-class life I had growing up for the little cabin on a hill without running water than my dad had in the 1930s and 1940s. But it must be said that my generation is anesthetized by prosperity and the expectation of endless prosperity. There is plenty of suffering and tragedy in all this air-conditioned cheer, of course, but where are the conservatives who can see it and articulate it?