Benjamin Percy, “Refresh, Refresh,” and Iraq war fiction

— expanded —

What can be said of Iraq war fiction thus far? What of the art of partisan fiction? In an interview with Courtney E. Martin, Benjamin Percy notes:

I wrote about the [Iraq war] battleground at home [in 2005], something that had been neglected entirely. A few months ago I did a reading with Brian Turner, who served as an infantry leader in Iraq and who wrote a beautifully haunting book of poetry called Here, Bullet. When we were hanging out afterward, he clapped me on the back and said he thought what I was doing was important and he couldn’t understand why more people weren’t writing about the war. That was a great affirmation for me.

In fact the “Iraq war battleground at home” had not been “neglected entirely.” Noah Cicero wrote about it in an accomplished short novel The Human War published in 2003; Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint was published in 2004; and my own novel Homefront was first [self] published with other fiction in January 2005 after not being picked up by a publisher through the end of 2003 and 2004.

Despite the lengthening list of works found at Iraq War Fiction, US aggression in Iraq, and US militancy in general, remains underexplored and poorly written about politically. The situation is similar today to the one I wrote about for the back cover of the Mainstay Press edition of Homefront in early 2006:

Years into the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, where is the flood of anti-war novels that a decent society would produce? Where is the novelistic exposure of religious and academic, corporate and governmental forces that have built and maintained support for an invasion and occupation that has been judged to be illegal by the head of the United Nations and legal experts across America and the globe, and has had the predicted effect of increasing the likelihood of attack against America, and was based on fraud as known in advance, and meanwhile has killed thousands of American troops, and has wounded or debilitated tens of thousands of others, 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? Where are the lifesaving “muckraking” novels? Where are the thesis novels, the polemic fictions, the novels with a purpose? Or even the realistic novels, the info novels, the governmental novels on the scandalous nature of the ongoing American aggression in Iraq? In Homefront, an American family confronts the reality of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Unfortunately, as long as writers (and publishers) have as crude of a view of partisan fiction as Benjamin Percy apparently does – if he’s not expressing no view whatsoever – this situation will not change. Prominent fiction writers George Saunders, T. C. Boyle, and many others have expressed similar views. Liberation critics, like V. F. Calverton in The Liberation of American Literature, answered those views in great detail over 70 years ago. Victor Hugo’s tremendous answer in Les Miserables arrived 145 years past – and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” long before then.

Percy states:

I certainly have strong political feelings. But I try not to let them command my fiction. There is a difference between writing about a political issue — and writing politically — and I try not to cross that line in the sand. I don’t want people to come away from my story as if they’ve come away from an editorial, with a ready-made message shoved down their throat. An audience should feel betrayed by such fiction, because it’s so obviously fraudulent and manipulative, the characters hollow puppets the author crudely shoves his hands into. Part of the goal of Refresh, Refresh was to write a war story that didn’t say, war is good, war is bad. I instead wanted to say, this is war. And in doing so, I tried to show both sides. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received from people who have read Refresh, Refresh and called me A, a liberal pantywaist, or B, a right-wing nut job. When you piss off everybody, I guess you’re doing something right. On the other hand, I’ve also received emails from soldiers, from vets, from protestors, from politicians, all of them moved by the story for completely different reasons.

What escapes Percy’s regard here (and Boyle’s and Saunders’, etc) is the power and vitality, the value and art, of partisan fiction. Percy makes no note, and seems to imply the opposite, that “strong political feelings” can be expessed as overt partisan fiction in very accomplished and highly aesthetic ways far from “a ready-made message shoved down [a reader’s] throat.” There are plenty of ways a literary subjective fiction can reveal objective criminal reality. Status quo art, however, avoids doing so, even though it practically has to go out of its way to cheat reality, to vitiate it, let alone explore progressive or revolutionary moments and acts, realms and possibilities.

One way partisan fiction can be greatly created is by conjuring partisan characters who are far from “hollow puppets” and who are the opposite of “fraudulent and manipulative” designed to “betray” readers, but rather who help engage and enlighten in various ways. As for being “hollow” or “fraudulent and manipulative” or “betraying” readers and the larger community, status quo fiction has a lot to answer for, as I’ve explored in detail elsewhere.

Victor Hugo’s great partisan novel Les Miserables (easily one of the greatest of all novels) for example, outraged the political, religious, and social elite of his day – to good effect and wide popular appeal (helped by the fact that he was already famous throughout France and beyond). The privileged establishment disliked it (today’s corporate/academic/religious equivalent). As Hugo’s award winning biographer Graham Robb notes:

Despite his huge achievement, Hugo had lost none of his capacity for being stung by reviews and reacted almost as if he had written the novel for the small group of writers who made up ‘French literature’. ‘The newspapers which support the old world say, “It’s hideous, infamous, odious, execrable, abominable, grotesque, repulsive, shapeless, monstrous, horrendous, etc.” Democratic and friendly papers answer, “No, it’s not bad.”‘

Light years from “not bad,” Hugo’s novel remains greatly formally innovative, and is exceptionally aesthetically accomplished in its verbal dexterity and encyclopediac detail, among many other artistic qualities.

Hugo’s great novel did not “piss off everybody” nearly equally, far from it, as Percy seems to imply his story did – which is one of the key differences between partisan art or liberatory art and status quo art. In response to Hugo’s novel, Robb notes:

“The State tried to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo, who can more fairly be called ‘the French Dickens’ than Balzac, had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862.

One can also see the effect of that ‘haunting and horrible sense of insecurity’ identified by Robert Louis Stevenson as the root of the novel’s power:

The deadly weight of civilization to those who are below presses sensibly on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Society rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable…. The terror we thus feel is a terror for the machinery of law, that we can hear tearing, in the dark, good and bad between its formidable wheels.

This is the touchstone of all adaptations of Les Miserables, musical to cinematic; to turn Javert, the tenacious respecter of authority, ‘that savage in the service of civilization’, into the villian of the piece is to deprive the novel of its dynamite, to point the finger at a single policeman instead of at the system he serves.

For those who recognized Hugo’s black-and-white vision as social reality seen from underneath…Les Miserables was a moral panacea, the Bible of popular optimism. It stood for faith in progress and the end to misery of every kind….

The ‘dangerous’ aspect of Les Miserables is almost as evident today as it was in 1862. If a single idea can be extracted from the whole, it is that persistent criminals are a product of the criminal justice system, a human and therefore a monstrous creation; that the burden of guilt lies with society and that the rational reform of institutions should take precedence over the punishment of individuals.

Written for the masses, Hugo’s novel placed itself at the side of the individual. It was history from the point of view of the scapegoat…”

Both status quo and liberatory art are legitimate forms of art, not least at the highest aesthetic levels and to potentially great levels of popularity – the evidence for which is overwhelming, though often denied, slighted, disregarded in the case of partisan art – the most liberatory and often the most vital and most profound and lively type of art there is.

See Liberation Lit for liberatory fiction and other liberatory art.


See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini



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