Dear Jonathan Franzen

 – open letter –

Send us the money. We know what to do with it.

As reported in the Harvard Crimson, you noted that “many writers have been in a post-Sept. 11 malaise, and that it grew so severe that at one point [you] considered offering up [your] own money in order to urge writers to break through their writer’s block.”

You state, “I actually had an idea a couple of years ago – when six or seven people I knew were all in a similar place of frustration with the novel – of sponsoring a prize, of offering $10,000 of my own money who first delivered a novel.”

Within two or three years of 9-11 both Andre Vltchek and I had written geo-political novels that no publisher would touch – too progressive for the status quo literary world. We lacked the malaise but could have won your $10,000, which would have helped us greatly in starting up Mainstay Press and its journal Liberation Lit as a way of publishing our work and the accomplished literature and art of others that the status quo lit world shies from. $10,000 would still greatly help us publish the first print issue of our liberatory literature journal Liberation Lit, featuring several dozen authors. As it is we will be hard pressed just to get contributor’s copies to some of the contributors. So substantial financial help would be much appreciated. Our post 9-11, post Iraq war, post Hurricane Katrina novels and numerous other works both long and short show that we have surely and consistently produced, and know what to do with the money.

We do most everything. We write novels, plays, stories, and works of criticism, and we edit them and those by others, and we proof them, and format them, and design and create the covers, and publish them, and attempt to publicize them. And since we do it with next to no resources, you can trust that we know how to stretch a dollar.

Unfortunately, probably you won’t trust us because we disagree profoundly with what you say. You reportedly “noted the potential obsolescence of serious fiction, saying that the purpose of the novel is not to ‘vividly bring home social conditions’.”

So Victor Hugo in his great novel of the people Les Misérables had it all wrong? He was wrong when he wrote in his preface:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age- the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night- are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

And Robert Louis Stevenson was wrong when he read Les Misérables and noted that:

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.

And the award winning biographer of Hugo, Graham Robb, was wrong when he wrote:

This is the touchstone of all adaptations of Les Misérables, musical to cinematic; to turn Javert, the tenacious respecter of authority, ‘that savage in the service of civilization’, into the villain 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 Misérables 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 Misérables 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.

And while I remain impressed by your substantial accomplishment in The Corrections, parsing the psychological excursions of a familial handful, it frankly pales in comparison to the far more sweeping and profound accomplishment of Les Misérables. For as Robb notes of Les Misérables:

Few novels begin with a digression (in this case, the engrossing fifty-page story of Bishop Myriel); but few novels open their doors to such a wide arena. These interpolations were invitations to grasp the whole picture, to see that the Battle of Waterloo, for instance — described in a precise demonstration of Chaos Theory ** — can be subsumed in the great strange attractor of destiny, the ineluctable equilibrium of everything….

** [Endnote – Hugo quotes:] ‘Geometry deceives; only the hurricane is accurate’ (Les Misérables)…. Also ‘Les Fleurs’…’Cloud forms are rigorous’…. ‘No thinker would dare to say that the scent of hawthorn is of no use to constellations’ (Les Misérables)…. ‘There are no absolute logical links in the human heart any more than there are perfect geometrical figures in celestial mechanics’ (Les Misérables)….

Pride of place in Hugo’s digressions goes to the magnificent excursus on sewage, which is organically attached to the rest of the novel and can be read on its own as an allegory of the whole work; Jean Valjean pulling himself out of the slime of moral blindness into which society has plunged him….

So you might want to rethink speaking so much about the “potential obsolescence of serious fiction, saying that the purpose of the novel is not to ‘vividly bring home social conditions’,” when anyone can heft a copy of Les Misérables and see for themselves that absolute opposite reality, the socially engaged topical and timeless potential that remains as lively and full of potential today as ever.

It’s not much to claim as you reportedly did that “When you have the opportunity to do a documentary – to do Frontline, to do The Wire – and reach a much larger audience much quicker and you actually gain, it’s more vivid, you can go right to the body on the street in Baghdad and can have that up on the screen.”

After all, novels can be made into feature fiction films and video that essentially do all of that, and more. And such films reach millions of people, and far more people than documentaries. Can be quite quick too. The investigative explicitly anti Iraq war novel Homefront was written in spare time within the first six months of the March 2003 US ground invasion of Iraq. How many in depth documentaries and TV shows beat that? The core of Homefront was written within weeks of the March ground invasion. Video or film shooting could have begun then. Unfortunately, you and the rest of the literary establishment have been no help. Hundreds of publishing houses and journals, also agents, in the broad establishment have passed on any part of Homefront, and related works. Would your $10,000 have wanted anything to do with it?

Fiction is apparently more feared by unjust powers than is nonfiction; that’s why the gatekeeping and censorship that Orwell spoke of years ago in his suppressed preface(1943) to Animal Farm is far more intense for fiction than for nonfiction, and far more ideologically ingrained, as displayed in your remarks. Why wouldn’t fiction be more feared? It’s a far more popular form in films at least. It’s typically far more emotionally compelling. The novel speaks to what is sometimes called the “full human condition” in a greater way perhaps than any other form. And so liberatory novels and feature film fiction is often far more threatening to unjust agents and forces in society, culture and politics. Thus, more explicitly antiwar documentaries succeed in being produced than explicitly antiwar fiction films and video. And the Iraq war novels that the literary establishment publishes are essentially mere footnotes to the conquest that don’t dare render explicit, let alone emphatic, even as context, the central reality that the US conquest of Iraq (which has been proceeding in one form or another for nearly two decades now, as well as US threats against Iran) is clearly illegal and immoral and closely akin to what the US infamously did to Native Americans – wiped them out to gain their resources. As other commentators have rather metaphorically and piercingly noted, Cowboys and Indians has long since become Cowboys and Iraqis, and Cowboys and Iranians. Correspondingly, Hollywood’s Westerns have given way to Hollywood’s Middle Easterns. And the literary establishment publishes and proceeds along similar lines.

“I’m engaged in a lifelong struggle to produce texts that have that kind of interior depth that is not immediately apparent, that repay some kind of careful analysis without losing people who just want to follow along on the surface.”

Outstanding. (Though it’s not as if quality movies or films don’t “repay…careful analysis” of “interior depth that is not immediately apparent,” which might go a long way toward defining a quality movie or film). And as Les Misérables readily demonstrates, producing “texts…of interior depth that is not immediately apparent”  that “repay…careful analysis” is quite compatible with producing texts of overt and topical, private and public engagement “on the surface,” and to a great extent.

In fact, doing so is not only possible, it may well be imperative, for as Kenneth Burke notes in The Philosophy of Literary Form in his essay, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism”:

The present article proposes to say something further on the subject of art and propaganda. It will attempt to set forth a line of reasoning as to why the contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, ‘purest’ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda. Hence we feel that the moral breach arising from vitiation of the work-patterns calls for a propaganda art. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called ‘pure’ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the ‘century of progress,’ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the ‘priestly’ function was carried on by the ‘secular’ poets, often avowedly agnostic. 

Our thesis is by no means intended to imply that ‘pure’ art or ‘acquiescent’ art should be abandoned. There are two kinds of ‘toleration.’ Even if a given state of affairs is found, on intellectualistic grounds, to be intolerable, the fact remains that as long as it is with us we must more or less contrive to ‘tolerate’ it. Even though we might prefer to alter radically the present structure of production and distribution through the profit motive, the fact remains that we cannot so alter it forthwith. Hence, along with our efforts to alter it, must go the demand for an imaginative equipment that helps to make it tolerable while it lasts. Much of the ‘pure’ or acquiescent art of today serves this invaluable psychological end. For this reason the great popular comedians or handsome movie stars are rightly the idols of the people. Likewise the literature of sentimentality, however annoying and self-deceptive it may seem to the hardened ‘intellectual,’ is following in a direction basically so sound that one might wish more of our pretentious authors were attempting to do the same thing more pretentiously. On the other hand, much of the harsh literature now being turned out in the name of the ‘proletariat’ seems inadequate on either count. It is questionable as propaganda, since it shows us so little of the qualities in mankind worth saving. And it is questionable as ‘pure’ art, since by substituting a cult of disaster for a cult of amenities it ‘promotes our acquiescence’ to sheer dismalness. Too often, alas, it serves as a mere device whereby the neuroses of the decaying bourgeois structure are simply transferred to the symbols of workingmen. Perhaps more of Dickens is needed, even at the risk of excessive tearfulness.

Is there something in these thoughtful words of Burke that might compel you and your literary establishment friends out of your funk? Or see in the same critical collection his essay, “War, Response, and Contradiction”:

The various arguments in recent years as to the relation between art and propaganda may have struck some observers as purely a haggle among literary specialists. Yet the issue is a vital one, and carries far beyond a mere matter of literary fashions. Aesthetical values are intermingled with ethical values – and the ethical is the basis of the practical. Or, put more simply: our ideas of the beautiful, the curious, the interesting, the unpleasant, the boring are closely bound with our ideas of the good, the desirable, the undesirable – and our ideas of the desirable and undesirable have much to do with our attitude towards our everyday activities. They make us ask ourselves, more or less consciously: Are we doing the things we want to do? to what extent is there a breach beween what we must do and what we should like to do? Probably for this reason, even the most practical of revolutions will generally be found to have manifested itself first in the “aesthetic” sphere.

Still have that $10,000 available? We would put it to good use at Liberation Lit and Mainstay Press.

Tony Christini, Andre Vltchek
Mainstay Press, Liberation Lit


Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s