EXCERPTS: 1983-1988

From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with an emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda) 

(1983) “In ordinary critical usage, the term ‘roman à thèse’ has a strongly negative connotation; it designates works that are too close to propaganda to be artistically valid. No self-respecting writer would consent to call his novels by that name. A roman à thèse is always the work of an ‘other’… There do exist a few critical studies, published quite a while ago, that discuss [certain] novels…as ‘political novels’ or as examples of ‘committed’ or engagé literature. Neither of these categories corresponds exactly, however, to the roman à thèse. The political novel as a generic category is at once too broad (Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme is, as Irving Howe has shown, a superb political novel, but it is not a roman à thèse) and too narrow (Mauriac’s ‘Catholic novel,’ Le Noeud de vipers, is a roman à thèse, but not a political novel). As for ‘littérature engagée,’ it is too imprecise a term to designate a genre; furthermore, I feel it is too specifically associated with the name of Sartre, who did not invent the term but who made it current—and who, incidentally, went out of his way to distinguish ‘engagé’ novels from roman à these (although it may once again have been a matter of rejecting the name rather than the thing itself)…. As a starting point, I propose the following definition: a roman à thèse is a novel written in the realistic mode (that is, based on an aesthetic of verisimilitude and representation), which signals itself to the reader as primarily didactic in intent, seeking to demonstrate the validity of a political, philosophical, or religious doctrine…. One could…claim that every novel, indeed every work of fiction…, can be read as expounding a ‘thesis,’ to the extent that it is always possible to extract from it a general maxim of some kind…. Following this line of reasoning, one would soon have to conclude that the roman à thèse is everywhere and nowhere—in other words, that it is a phenomenon of reading (viewed from a certain angle, all works are didactic) rather than of writing. At that point, there would be no reason to try to define a genre called roman à thèse, for the concept of genre implies that there exist certain properties that texts have in common, not that (or not only that) there exist certain modes of reading—or as is commonly said nowadays, certain interpretive strategies—that can be applied to any and every text. [However]…I consider undeniable…: there exist nontrivial differences between and among texts, as well as between readers, or between interpretive strategies that readers deploy in order to understand a text. Novels that are roman à thèse have certain identifiable traits which distinguish them from other novels and other genres. One of these traits, and no doubt the most important one is that romans à thèse forumulate, in an insistent, consistent, and unambiguous manner, the thesis (or theses) they seek to illustrate…. Whether its thesis is conservative or radical, defending the status quo or calling for its abolition, the roman à thèse is essentially an authoritarian genre: it appeals to the need for certainty, stability, and unity that is one of the elements of the human psyche; it affirms absolute truths, absolute values” (3-10).




(1983) Introductory quotations from Susan Rubin Suleiman’s Authoritarian Fictions:

     “Literature, as it has been understood by all the masters, is an interpretation of life. It eliminates in order to prove.” –Maurice Barrès

     “All literature is propaganda. […] Art, for us, is what makes propaganda effective, what is capable of moving men in the direction we wish. –Paul Nizan

     “Then comes 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? –Roland Barthes

     “…it is the very notion of a work created for the expression of a social, political, economic, moral, etc. content that constitutes a lie.”

–Alain Robbe-Grillet



(1987-1999) “[Orwell’s Problem: how is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to] instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?” “If Orwell, instead of writing 1984—which was actually, in my opinion, his worst book, a kind of trivial caricature of the most totalitarian society in the world, which made him famous and everybody loved him, because it was the official enemy—if instead of doing that easy and relatively unimportant thing, he had done the hard and important thing, namely talk about Orwell’s Problem [as pertains to England and western states], he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized.” […]  “About Orwell's 1984, I thought, frankly, it was one of his worst books. Could barely finish it. Some parts (e.g., about Newspeak) were clever. But most of it seemed to me—well, trivial. The problem is not a very interesting one; the modes of thought control and repression in totalitarian societies are fairly transparent. In fact, they often tend to be rather lax. Franco Spain, for example, didn't care much what people thought and said: the screams from the torture chamber in downtown Madrid were enough to keep the lid on. It's not too well known, but the Soviet Union was also pretty lax, particularly in the Brezhnev era. According to US government-Russian Research Center studies, Russians apparently had considerably wider access to a broad range of opinion and to dissident literature than Americans do, not because it is denied them but because propaganda is so much more effective here. Orwell was well aware of these issues. His (suppressed) introduction to Animal Farm, for example, deals explicitly with "literary censorship in England." To write about that topic would have been important, hard, and serious—and would have earned him the obloquy that attends departure from the rules.

     “Caricature can be very well done. Swift is marvelous, for example. Animal Farm is pretty good, in my opinion. But 1984 I thought was a serious decline from his best work. Caricature is an art, and not an easy one. But when well done, a very important one. As for dealing with Orwell's problem, I try to do it in the ways I know how to pursue; 1000s of pages by now. No doubt there are other ways, maybe better ways. But others will have to find what works for them. …my co-author Edward Herman has done excellent work of caricature on Orwell's problem. I am thinking of his work on "doublespeak," including a book, modeled more or less on Ambrose Bierce.” 


“If you want to learn about people’s personalities and intentions, you would probably do better reading novels than reading psychology books. Maybe that’s the best way to come to an understanding of human beings and the way they act and feel, but that’s not science. Science isn’t the only thing in the world, it is what it is…science is not the only way to come to an understanding of things.” “If I am interested in learning about people, I’ll read novels rather than psychology.” “I think the Victorian novel tells us more about people than science ever will…and we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” “We learn from literature as we learn from life; no one knows how, but it surely happens. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry (science), which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope.” “It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do. “[However] I’ve been always resistant consciously to allowing literature to influence my beliefs and attitudes with regard to society and history.” “There are things I resonate to when I read, but I have a feeling that my feelings and attitudes were largely formed prior to reading literature.” “Look, there’s no question that as a child, when I read about China, this influenced my attitudes–-Rickshaw Boy, for example. That had a powerful effect when I read it. It was so long ago I don’t remember a thing about it, except the impact. And I don’t doubt that, for me, personally, like anybody, lots of my perceptions were heightened and attitudes changed by literature over a broad range–Hebrew Literature, Russian literature, and so on. But ultimately, you have to face the world as it is on the basis of other sources of evidence that you can evaluate.” “If I want to understand the nature of China and its revolution, I ought to be cautious about literary renditions.” “Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn’t provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions.” “I can think of things I read that had a powerful effect on me, but whether they changed my attitudes and understanding in any striking or crucial way, I can’t really say.” “People certainly differ, as they should, in what kinds of things make their minds work.” “I don’t really feel that I can draw any tight connections [personally].”


–Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader, biographies, etc…


(1988) “When the MLA put together its centennial issue of PMLA in May 1984, it commissioned Paul Lauter to write about the impact of society on the profession of literary criticism between 1958 and 1983. Lauter was a radical associated with the Movement in the sixties…. According to Lauter, the MLA between the fifties and the eighties had expanded and diversified immensely, yet ‘the hierarchy of the profession remains fundamentally unaltered, so—as yet—does the hierarchy of what we value’…. This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions’…. What most dismayed Lauter about such fashionable criticism were its alignment with linguistics and philosophy rather than history and sociology, its tendency to become obscurant self-referential metacriticism in a debauch of professionalism, its preference for a limited canon of elitist texts, its increasing abnegation of practical exegesis and humanistic values, and its deepening occupation of the core of the profession”…. [Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from “history and sociology” in that]: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”

        “In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”

         “Rather than an instrument or weapon of ruling-class oppression, literature was potentially liberating [in the view of Louis Kampf], provided it was set within a living context close to daily life and removed from its sacrosanct place in the great tradition. ‘In spite of our academic merchants, literature is not a commodity, but the sign of a creative act which expresses personal, social, and historical needs. As such it constantly undermines the status quo.’ The task of the radical critic was to destroy received dogmas and procedures, letting literature be an instrument of agitation and resistance and a force for freedom and genuine liberation. ‘As members of the educated middle class, we must learn that our words should discredit our own culture. Those of us who are literary intellectuals and teachers ought to illustrate in our work that the arts are not alone available to those who are genteel…’.”


–Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”)





1989-1995                                                   EXCERPTS CONTENTS








Bibliography – 1800s to 2003            
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003 
Quick Views    
Social and Political Novel  
Social and Political Literature  





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