From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with a special emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)
“Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous. Throughout history, every movement toward a more peaceful and humane world has begun with those who imagined the possibilities. The Bellwether Prize seeks to support the imagination of humane possibilities.
“Defining a literature of social change: Socially responsible literature, for the purposes of this award, may describe categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices. It may invoke the necessity for economic and social justice for a particular ethnic or social group, or it may explicitly examine movements that have brought positive social change. Or, it may advocate the preservation of nature by describing and defining accountable relationships between people and their environment. The mere description of an injustice, or of the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
“Clear, analytical and literary accounts of political and social injustice (either current or historical) include the following excellent examples: Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Crows Over a Wheatfield, Paula Sharp; Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison; The Women’s Room, Marilyn French; Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen, Alix Kates Shulman; Mean Spirit, Linda Hogan; Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks; The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver; The Color Purple, Alice Walker. Other contemporary contributors to this tradition include Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich, Ursula Hegi, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ruth Ozeki, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, and John Edgar Wideman.
“These authors notwithstanding, issues of social responsibility have in recent decades held a less commanding place in U.S. literature than in the wider world. Social commentary in our art is frequently viewed with suspicion. Its advocacy does not fall within the stated goals of any major North American publisher, endowment, or prize for the arts. The Bellwether Prize was conceived to address this deficiency. We would like to see the place of conscience in our nation’s artistic landscape restored to the same high position it holds elsewhere in the world. By means of this prize we hope to enlist North American writers, publishers, and readers to share in this crucial endeavor.”
–[Barbara Kingsolver] Bellwether Prize
– NOTE: I view the views by Wood in the several excerpts below to be essentially misguided, though he is referring to novels with a variety of weaknesses. I include the excerpts here however because they are a useful reference to lit establishment views about politics and society in fiction. –
“Zadie Smith is merely of her time when she says, in an interview, that it is not the writer’s job ‘to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.’ She has praised the American writers David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers as ‘guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the internet works, maths, philosophy, but… they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever.’ But this idea—that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality—may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the ‘culture’ can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk-smarts—in short, the contemporary American novel in its current, triumphalist form—are novelists’ chosen sport, then they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material. Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan. For who would dare to be knowledgeable about politics and society now? Is it possible to imagine Don DeLillo today writing his novel Mao II—a novel that proposed the foolish notion that the terrorist now does what the novelist used to do, that is, ‘alter the inner life of the culture’? Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.”
–James Wood, “Tell Me How Does It Feel?” The Guardian, October 6, 2001
(2001) “If anyone still had a longing for the great American ‘social novel,’ the events of September 11 may have corrected it…a passage at the conclusion of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, about the end of the American century, now seems laughably archival: ‘It seemed to Enid that current events in general were more muted or insipid nowadays than they’d been in her youth. She had memories of the 1930s, she’d seen firsthand what could happen to a country when the world economy took its gloves off…. But disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place, like the squares of rubber that every modern playground was paved with, to soften impacts.’ Despite the falter of this passage, Franzen would probably agree that the novel should not go chasing after the bait of social information. Five years ago he published an essay in Harper’s in which he declared that the social novel is no longer possible. The piece was so punctually intelligent and affecting—it had the charm and the directness typical of his work—and it was above all so long, that few noticed its incoherence. Franzen began by admitting to a recent depression, a dejection about the American novel, a ‘despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social.’ No challenging novel since Catch-22 had truly affected the culture, he complained. As a young writer he had believed that ‘putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told.’ The novel, he used to think, should bring ‘social news, social instruction.’ It should ‘Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream.’ It had ‘a responsibility to dramatize important issues of the day.’ Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, was such a book; but it came and went pretty quietly, and Franzen was left pondering ‘the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture. I’d intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum.’ To be sure, there was a book tour, a photo spread in Vogue, and a large advance (which is more than most serious writers are vouchsafed): all this was merely ‘the consolation of no longer mattering to the culture.’ Franzen’s second novel also dribbled into the celebrity-sand; there were good reviews, ‘decent sales, and the deafening silence of irrelevance.’ So the social novel, it seemed, had no utility. The novel had lost its cultural centrality, its cultural power; modern technologies, such as television, ‘do a better job of social instruction.’ And how to create something permanent whose subject—modern culture—is ephemeral? Franzen rightly asked the question, perhaps the most tormenting one for contemporary novelists, of how to write a novel both of its time and properly resistant to its time: ‘how can you achieve topical “relevance” without drawing on an up-to-the-minute vocabulary of icons and attitudes and thereby, far from challenging the hegemony of overnight obsolescence, confirming and furthering it?’ By the end of his essay, Franzen had decided that there was ‘something wrong with the whole model of the novel of social engagement,’ and had admitted to a ‘conviction that bringing “meaningful news” is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental product.’ The solution, it seemed, was aesthetic. ‘Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems—seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?’ It certainly is.”
–James Wood, “Abhorring a Vacuum,” The New Republic, October 18, 2001 [retitled in part as an essay on the “Social Novel” in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, 2004]
(2002) “In his memoir The Noise of Time, Mandelstam recalls a haughty friend who used to say, disdainfully, that ‘some men are books, others—newspapers.’ The remark might be adapted. Some books are books, others—newspapers. In recent years, the large American novel has frequently aspired to the condition of journalism. The great quarry of the last decade, and sometimes the great cemetery, has been the social novel, the vast report on the way we live now, the stuffed dossier, the thriving broadsheet streaming with contemporary brightnesses. Tom Wolfe’s barely literate plea for more of just this kind of fiction has always seemed nonsensical in the age of Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, and most recently Jonathan Franzen. We have too much socially and politically obsessed fiction, not too little. Mimesis deserves a holiday. The bright book of life need not include all of life.”
–James Wood, “Unions,” The New Republic, October 10, 2002
(2003) “I suggest that the role of the artist is to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the word of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond and escape what is handed down by the government or what is said in the media…. It is the job of the artist to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say…. It is absolutely patriotic to point a finger at the government to say that it is not doing what it should be doing to safeguard the right of citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. We must be able to look at ourselves, to look at our country honestly and clearly. And just as we can examine the awful things that people do elsewhere, we have to be willing to examine the awful things that are done here by our government.”
–Howard Zinn, Artists in Times of War
Bibliography – 1800s to 2003
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003
Social and Political Novel
Social and Political Literature