The next dozen misrepresentations:
25 – fiction of the present is passé; 26 – the reactionary and status quo as preeminent literary political fiction; 27 – 9-11 as rallying cry for a turn inward, and worse; 28 – Henry James, TS Eliot, the CIA, and the cultural cold war; 29 – liberatory lit attacked, buried; 30 – fiction shrunk; 31 – the partisan orthodox nature of status quo lit; 32 – basic public realities denied, distorted; 33 – the immateriality of the status quo; 34 – the public chopped from the personal; 35 – ideology in guise of aesthetics; 36 – limits on the real
Misrepresentation 25 – fiction of the present is passé: Wood makes extreme claims of impotence, that fiction of the present is outmoded, necessarily behind the times. He trips all over his social novel laments in a recent literary journal interview (in Salmagundi, whose founder and executive editor is fellow establishment critic Robert Boyers):
In other words, the impulse to write big, to write ideologically, to write politically, to write socially, is not going to go away just because we’re living in pretty extraordinary times. I have a slightly depressed feeling that a lot of novelists are going to think like Updike did with Terrorist, “I’m a novelist, it’s my job to explain the times. I should have a crack at it, in the spirit of Dostoyevsky or Conrad.”
Why depressed? Wood admires Dostoevsky and Conrad. “And partly because we have these great experiences of Dostoyevsky’s Possessed, or Notes from the Underground, or The Secret Agent,” he adds, “we think this is a colossal achievement of the novel.” In fact, such “great experiences” of novels might very reasonably be thought of as “a colossal achievement.” He does not dispute even as he bemoans, so one senses he must be aware he is protesting too much. Wood continues:
Updike fails the test, but if one could really imagine what it’s like to be a depressed, raging, alienated 18-year-old Muslim, then that’s worth heaps of journalism. It could become a sort of text for the Department of Homeland Security. Just say, “You don’t know anything until you’ve read this.” Frankly, I think we should be handing them Notes from the Underground and Possessed, saying “You want to know what the impotence and the underground feel like? Read this.”
To actually know such phenomena, Wood says here that the government really needs to read a couple key works of fiction, two novels in particular, and that is what would be especially useful to “the Department of Homeland Security,” even though, as we have seen, Wood emphasizes elsewhere, “We don’t read” or, by implication, write “in order to benefit” practically, usefully. Well damn, it looks like we had better. Somebody had better. And far from only in regard to terrorism. Sure, the stuff of life can be “slightly depressing.” Or exhilarating in many forms. Either way, it’s essential to knowing the full human condition, which is the novelist’s job to convey or reconfigure. Pick your Wood. He speaks against himself sometimes comically – “We don’t read…in order to benefit” practically, but “Homeland Security…should.” One is tempted to say (mistakenly) he speaks against himself convincingly, given his enthusiastic runs and impassioned style.
The vacuity and unintended irony of Wood’s admonishing novelists immediately post 9-11 is striking: “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.” It certainly is. Society hardly started to “buck and charge” helplessly on 9-11. Both long prior to that moment and from that moment on, particular writers have been explaining accurately the sociopolitical context, current events, and their well-known (to some) old and deep roots. Wood had no clue, obviously, and given his misguided understanding of sociopolitical conditions apparently still does not, seven years later. No wonder he has a “slightly depressed feeling” about the prospect of contemporary engaged social novels, to go with his discouraging, disparaging, and misplaced comments on the matter.
The importance of the relationship between imaginative literature and social and political issues has been understood in critical circles since at least the eighteenth century, notes Edmund Wilson in “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” nor are these understandings and explorations devoid of aesthetic concerns and qualities. When Wood brings up the social novel, he characteristically does so to dismiss it, or to encourage authors to deviate from it in meaningful ways, so as to get “stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan” or about, say, Ruralville. This seems to be dubious advice, as contemporary epic novelists obviously sense. It scarcely takes prominent twentieth century philosopher John Dewey to note in The Public and Its Problems (1927) that “Even if ‘consciousness’ were the wholly private matter that the individualistic tradition in philosophy supposes it to be, it would still be true that consciousness is of objects, not of itself.” Just so, many leading novelists apparently intuit that if they are to fully represent personal consciousness they had better dramatically incorporate not only people but places, things, and events on a global level in a world were by now entire societies and the persons within them are greatly globally interdependent and interactive, in myriad visible and invisible ways.
The main problem is that much contemporary sociopolitical, or public, reality is as incomprehensible or as out of bounds to the rest of the establishment as it is to Wood. Establishment writers are fond of quoting or following the near literal lines of Stendhal’s famed prose in the Red and the Black:
Politics…is a millstone tied to the neck of literature, and drowns it in less than six months. Politics in imaginative work is like a shot in the middle of a concert. The noise is deafening but it imparts no energy. It doesn’t harmonize with the sound of any other instrument. Such political talk mortally offends half of one’s readers – and bores the other half, who, in a different context, in the morning paper, find such things interesting and lively…
Stendhal’s statement succinctly captures a certain literature establishment ideology, an orthodoxy, that typically denies it is ideology/orthodoxy. Stendhal’s words are one famous version of the creed at least. Meanwhile the establishment virtually never quotes Stendhal’s immediate next paragraph, nor makes note of what then follows:
If your characters don’t talk politics, replies the editor, this is no longer France in 1830, and your book is not the mirror you pretend it to be…
The novel then dives into political speech and discussion for the next 9 pages. Surely politics are inherently as fit for story as any other topic. In any case, the mounds of ostensibly nonpolitical topics and fictions can easily come across as just as offensive (politically and otherwise) and white-noise-deafening and as boring as anything labeled political. Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Zola – a powerhouse line of (French) novelists. Flaubert is the least prolific of the five and the least socially engaged, especially in the work for which he is most renowned and especially by longstanding establishment reputation. He is the establishment’s pet and model, and amulet against significant breaching of its control. He is a much venerated former “lover” to Wood whose most celebrated pair of works explore monied miasmic “romances” and sentiments centrally. Meanwhile, Hugo’s main novels reveal people battling social injustice and related despair – working up, out, and along rather than down, in, and arrested. Though one can learn from the latter work, amid its tedious and severe limits, Flaubert is no great “spring” of literature, certainly not moreso than his three great countrymen predecessors, and in my view all of them much less so than Hugo of Les Misérables, that novel of novels which knows well – lucidly, with liberation – in moving and profound utterance, what is what, both public and private, its empathetic and useful emphasis on the vital public realities of the societal and the personal, without which private realities and preoccupations (miasmic or otherwise) can draw only limited breath.
Misrepresentation 26 – the reactionary and status quo as preeminent literary political fiction: “What I am writing now is a tendentious thing,” famously wrote Dostoevsky about his accomplished novel The Possessed. “I feel like saying everything as passionately as possible. (Let the nihilists and the Westerners scream that I am a reactionary!) To hell with them. I shall say everything to the last word.” Far from deploring this novel (and its kind) today the establishment loves such work. It’s not threatening; on the contrary. The establishment has long embraced this sort of work because of its focus on retail pathology rather than direct overt focus on wholesale state pathology. It has long valued such works for their limited efforts to clarify much beyond marginal geopolitical realities or for their success in distorting reality – as in Wood’s misrepresentation of terrorism in relation to the problems of the West. The new lords of the land in Iraq (US policy planners) are eating Iraqi babies for breakfast, as Jonathan Swift once discoursed in ripe literary fashion of the English devouring the offspring of the Irish. This is a far more relevant understanding – actually, central – to the problems of the West in regard to terrorism and much else. If Homeland Security wants to know the situation and the anger contained in many Iraqis and many others across the lands as concerns the West, then they should read with all intended irony, “A Modest Proposal” by Swift, and also take a look at the ongoing polls of the people.
Which brings up another problem in reality: to know and to not act appropriately is to not care, enough, basically. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, leading US intellectual Noam Chomsky wrote satirically about the at best farcical consequences of a US invasion, and he wrote prophetically, as it turned out (given the catastrophe and what else the US is on track to accomplish in the Middle East, unintentionally shifting regional power to Iran, at the least). Chomsky wrote that the US might as well as urge Iran to invade Iraq. The US invaded and today we see Iranian power has grown, and Iraqis continue to want the US out. Should anyone not now expect Bush or his successor (Barack “Half Withdrawal” O’Bomba or John “100 Years” McPain) to announce a globally implemented and Western regulated policy of commercial trafficking of children for pacifying the Middle East and the world. Has not the time long since come to officially sanction the body parts trade – with its many corporate biproducts and fiscal derivatives heretofore untapped? the up-and-coming global growth industry – children as prolific cash crop? Would not such a move be as rational and ethical as the US invasion and occupation on whole? Need one wonder how the literary establishment would view such “A Practical Policy” as literary text? Too voicey? A nondescript style? Lacking much substance or any point of view of interest? Too weak or suspect in character? So goes the politics, the ever politicized aesthetics of establishment fiction. Progressive and revolutionary work is marginally tolerated or buried, in actuality if not in rhetoric. Status quo and reactionary work is enabled, advanced, glorified, contrary flourishes aside.
Not for Wood and the establishment are certain movements of progressive or revolutionary writing that touch too close to home, progressive and revolutionary writing and writers who, “As a group,” as VF Calverton notes:
are convinced that present-day industrial society is based upon exploitation and injustice; that it creates distress and misery for the many and brings happiness only to the few; that its dedication to the ideal of profit instead of use is destructive…. More than that, [these writers] believe that their literature can serve a greater purpose only when it contributes…toward the creation of a new society which will embody…a social, instead of an individualistic ideal. Unlike Ibsen, they do not ask questions and then refuse to answer them. Unlike the iconoclasts, they are not content to tear down the idols and stop there. Their aim is to answer questions as well as ask them, and to provide a new order to replace an old one. Their attitude, therefore, is a positive instead of a negative one.
Such liberatory fiction contains “ideology” for which the establishment is too pure to engage in. Such liberatory lit is too “reductive” since we all know that literature deals in no particulars whatsoever. Such liberatory movements are impossible, for it must be that the poor will always be among us. And in any case “poetry makes nothing happen” nor fiction too – countless concrete and well documented examples to the contrary, which we must see as mere mere illusions, entirely unpredictable, forever uncertain, uncontrolled accidents, stemming from badly flawed and shallow literature. In reality, the great works of Victor Hugo and Jonathan Swift, for example, thoroughly disprove every aspect of this establishment line, this orthodoxy, this belief, this creed, so we soon run into sweeping problems of credibility, which are then ignored, rendered “studiedly irrelevant,” exactly as the establishment knows very well how to do.
It has long since gotten to the point where even Victorian type work that is particularly socially engaged is far too threatening to the establishment, which has exerted pressure to kill such work for over a century now (let alone more revolutionary works). Why did Tolstoy not win a Nobel Prize? Likely because he had become far too much an activist, dissenter, too progressive in face of the status quo, as shown somewhat in his posthumous great short novel Hadji Murad (1904/1912), about a Chechen rebel leader in relation to Empire. It’s a novel that should be front and center today, and of a sort we should be reading and writing, especially given the particulars of today’s long-standing freshly-explosive crises, especially given the cultural and institutional bigotry of the US (and West) in this regard. Wood cites Hadji Murad in HFW merely for a stylistic brilliance. It’s a novel Homeland Security and others should better read, along with contemporary liberatory novels.
Instead, both bizarre and predictable, as we’ve seen, is this recurring underlying theme in the criticism of James Wood, only slightly exaggerated: Don’t bother to create great highly useful fiction of the world, dear contemporary novelists, the masters have done all your work for you. Go shuck peas, or do anything, but please don’t presume to work at your art in relation to society. History ended more-or-less, at least in the novel – Dostoevsky and Conrad took it all down. There is no future direction or tendency we can remotely point to. [Liberatory revolutionary – balderdash!] Back to sleep with you now, dear writers. Or do run along and practice your style (whether “free indirect” or whatnot) on something less threatening or less difficult than sociopolitical, engaged fiction for an establishment critic to speak meaningfully about. The thought of which, after all, is “slightly depressing.” The loafing about of fly-eyed young men has long represented “the classic novelistic activity” – the flaneur, you know. They are “traumatized” and “numb” so let us partake of their great visions.
Flaneuring – what else is there for those “who belong to the ruling class…those who [have] already won the battle and acquired the spoils…[who can] afford to be above the battle”? More typically, establishment critics intone the ostensible “extreme difficulty” of writing novels about ongoing events, especially in such supposedly “confusing” times. In any event, not for nothing today are Dostoevsky’s novels Notes from the Underground and The Possessed and Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent safe for the establishment, because they are studies more in retail pathology and retail violence, demonizing of easy targets, novels that fail to offer liberatory explorations of wholesale Western establishment oppressions and aggressions, blind to much progress and possibilities.
Misrepresentation 27 – 9-11 rallying cry for a turn inward, and worse: Less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01, Wood speculated and hoped that the aftermath of the attack would “allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not ‘how the world works’ but ‘how somebody felt about something’ – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings).” He then declared, “Who would dare to be knowledgeable [in a novel] about politics and society now?” One hardly needs socialist David Walsh to point out “Who would dare not to be knowledgeable about politics and society now? Wood’s counterposing of ‘human’ versus ‘social’ novels is deeply false.” Crucially, who should not have “dared” ever? Myriad people in general “dared” and have long proven to be sociopolitically discerning both within the US and without. Not the establishment though. Not its literary stars, or scarcely any of its stars, for that matter. Not then and not now. They can’t dare, marginal exceptions aside. It would be dysfunctional to the ruling status quo. Thus, had they ever been publicly acute in this regard, they would not have been granted their positions of prominence. Get wise of a sudden, or even accidentally step out of line – they are quickly disciplined, sometimes by a pointed status quo critique, put “on notice,” or, especially if they persist, simply “let go.” Case studies abound (via reports in independent media and analyses by independent scholars).
Not only star critics, but leading liberal “political” novelists are atrocious in this regard (let alone conservative or reactionary writers). For example, in 2008,The Nation magazine published EL Doctorow’s 2007 keynote address to a joint meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, in Washington DC, in which Doctorow states near its beginning that the leaders of “a religiously inspired criminal movement originated in the Middle East…[have] mentally transport[ed] their rank and file back into the darkness of tribal war and shrieking, life-contemptuous jihad. [This]…declared enemy with the mind-set of the Dark Ages throws his anachronistic shadow over us and awakens our dormant primeval instincts.” In other words, until the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the primitive impulses of the US were sleeping soundly, only to be terrorized awaked by those “criminal” and “tribal” and “shrieking” war-mongers from the lands of the richest oil fields. That’s quite a story. It leaves something out. Reality. The reality of decades-long US hopes, plans and efforts to control those oil fields, including support for the state tyrants of those rich kingdoms, not least Saudi Arabia, from where nearly all the 9-11 terrorists originated, which was considered to be an occupied country by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, due to the US military presence there, subsequently withdrawn. Doctorow sends down the memory hole the reality of the murderous US-UN imposed economic sanctions against Iraq that helped destroy that country and other inconvenient facts, such as decisive US support for the state of Israel and many of its militant endeavors against its regional neighbors, including longstanding invasions and occupations.
After carefully inverting cause and effect of the current ongoing crisis, Doctorow pronounces to his intellectual audience about “knowledge deniers. Their rationale is always political. And more often than not, they hold in their hand a sacred text for certification.” Shortly thereafter he goes on with brazen (and ludicrous) hypocrisy to both romanticize and all but deify the “sacred text” of the US Constitution and its history:
The ratification parades were sacramental – symbolic venerations, acts of faith. From the beginning, people saw the Constitution as a kind of sacred text for a civil society. And with good reason: the ordaining voice of the Constitution is scriptural, but in resolutely keeping the authority for its dominion in the public consent, it presents itself as the sacred text of secular humanism.
Meanwhile, some of the founders and states viewed the Constitution as likely inherently tyrannical, and so several states barely ratified it, and did so only by attaching lists of amendments and rights. Doctorow refers to the “sacred text” of the US Constitution at a time when it contained none of its amendments, thus, no Bill of Rights protecting many of the most important freedoms of the people. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are far greater texts of liberty than the original and still highly flawed US Constitution. Doctorow eventually levels some fairly strong criticism of US policy and acts generally but mostly confines his critique to Bush and the Bush regime. Along the way, he neglects to mention “oil” or “occupation” and rather haplessly refers to two iconic establishment novelists, Herman Melville and Henry James (see misrepresentation next). Near closing, Doctorow calls the US a “democracy that is given to a degree of free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate, [in which] we can hope for the aroused witness, the manifold reportage, the flourishing of knowledge that will restore us to ourselves, awaken the dulled sense of our people to the public interest that is their interest…” The US surely is in many ways a very free society. All the greater then is the delinquency, however predictable, of an establishment literature that cannot be troubled to create and produce topical anti invasion-and-conquest novels of oil rich lands in the spirit of what liberatory scholar Edward Said calls “the urgent conjunction of art and politics.” Nothing might stop the established authors and publishers in this “democracy” of the free but their investments and ideologies, their false realities and illusions, their misrepresentations of others and themselves. And how ever much they care.
Footnote : The sanctions were described as “genocidal” by former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday, who resigned over their imposition.
Misrepresentation 28 – Henry James, TS Eliot, the CIA, and the cultural cold war: The establishment’s ideological commitments render it unqualified to comment with much insight on vast sociopolitical domains both within fiction and without. It’s incapable. This may or may not be why Wood feels at least “slightly depressed” at the thought of social novels representing the times. If he’s truly a perceptive guy, widely aware, he knows he’s handcuffed in what he can write. Establishment pressure against speaking out creates fear of job loss, isolation, obloquy, and other disincentives. On the other hand, status quo ideological constrictions may either be readily accepted by Wood and establishment writers, or may likely have been long since internalized as reality. If they were to write strong, comprehensive, perceptive analyses, they would be vilified, including by publishers and owners, or quietly cut off, effectively removed from history, as was, for example, once prominent literary critic Maxwell Geismar. Thus the need for independent writing and independent publishing houses. Currently: the few Davids against the many Goliaths.
Henry James – “a primary Cold War literary figure” – has been such a politically favored author of the establishment because he was a relatively prominent member of the privileged class whose stylistically accomplished sometimes labyrinthine writing hews to status quo lines at exhaustive length. Since, as famously noted, he chews more than he bites off, his novels function as elaborate upscale crossword puzzles for people of leisure and position. In a corrupt culture, the symptom of a corrupt system and vice versa, such fiction cannot fail to be revered for its charming, slight and “safe” qualities – ostensible or otherwise. Henry James and TS Eliot rate very high, or at the top, among the establishment’s most admired American novelists, poets, critics. Both moved to England and became English citizens, as if geographically and geopolitically trying to go back in time, at least figuratively. They have been sort of wonderfully symbolic anti-revolutionaries, perfect for CIA purposes. The CIA in its propaganda efforts “airdropped translations of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets into Russia,” and its cultural emissaries hastened to appear on national television to defend James, as we have seen.
TS Eliot is still highly revered in writing circles, in poetry workshops especially. Yet how many writers actually know and understand the faith based line of his full thought? At the end of Forces in American Criticism (1939), scholar Bernard Smith puts Eliot’s views in perspective:
“[T.S. Eliot wrote,] ‘There are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the Catholic and the materialistic [i.e., Marxist]. It is quite possible, of course, that the future may bring neither a Christian nor a materialistic civilization. It is quite possible that the future may be nothing but chaos or torpor. In that event, I am not interested in the future; I am only interested in the two alternatives which seem to me worthier of interest….’
“Eliot chose not only the Catholic hypothesis, but also its political corollaries. His literary opinions were thus given a firm philosophical base to rest upon, and from that fact he drew the reasonable conclusions…[that] ‘Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint…. The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.’
“To this has esthetic criticism at last come – to a realization that non-esthetic criteria are the ultimate tests of value. Whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social criteria, they are still the ideas that men have about the way human beings live together and the way they ought to live. The quest of beauty had become the quest of reality. It had become, in essence, literary criticism as socially conscious and as polemical as the criticism of the Marxists.
Eliot the partisan – but for the establishment.
Footnote : Smith adds: “Eliot spoke of alternatives, not of choices…. He believes that one of the alternatives has greater value, is nobler, is in a sense more real, than the other. The question is therefore not simply one of personal taste. It is a question of evidence and reason. But the alternative he favors admits of no evidence and derogates from reason. His philosophy is, in the last analysis, wholly mystical. It is not capable of being tested and verified and improved. The alternative he rejects is, on the other hand, the one that is favored by those who are determined to be as scientific as one can be in a non-physical field.
“The literary criticism of the neo-classicists is a criticism composed of obiter dicta inspired by intangible emotions. The literary criticism of the materialists stands or falls by the findings of the social scientists, psychologists, and historians. Eliot’s alternative involves a revulsion against democracy; the materialists are partisans of democracy. The literary criticism of his school tends to create a literature that will express the sensibilities and experiences of a few fortunate men. The criticism of the opposing school tends to create a literature that will express the ideals and sympathies of those who look forward to the conquest of poverty, ignorance, and inequality – to the material and intellectual elevation of the mass of mankind.
“To whom does the future belong? In January 1939 Eliot announced that the Criterion, the literary journal he had edited since 1922, would no longer be published. His Europe had crumbled; the culture in which he had put his faith was dying. The Criterion had served its purpose. Eliot had arrived at a mood of detachment. There was nothing he could hopefully fight for now. But those who believe in scientific methods, in realism, in social equality and democracy, are hopeful and are fighting.”
Earlier, Smith comments: “There was one critic who apparently possessed all the virtues – fine taste, poetic sensitiveness, intellectuality, an experimental inclination. His literary scholarship was beyond dispute, his writing deft and memorable. He was, moreover, a poet of the first rank, which gave his criticism of the art an extraordinary authority. He was universally respected…. This critic was T. S. Eliot…. The reader will note that he is here described in the past tense. His works are many now, but The Sacred Wood  alone is a consideration of esthetic problems. In the rest the emphasis is on the esthetic effects of moral and social beliefs….”
Misrepresentation 29 – liberatory lit attacked, buried: This combined liberal/conservative and reactionary political literary attack against the increasingly progressive literary stalwart Maxwell Geismar, having occurred on national TV no less, is (in retrospect at least) one of the most significant moments in all of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century – and it remains virtually unknown. Details may be found in Geismar’s decades-delayed, invaluable memoir, Reluctant Radical (2002). Sometimes entire careers are buried, other times particular books. Similarly shot down the memory hole are landmark works of progressive or liberatory literary criticism from the first half of the twentieth century. Sheer scandal is the burial of Upton Sinclair’s studied book of economic literary criticism, Mammonart (1924). Other inexcusable great losses include VF Calverton’s The Liberation of American Literature (1932) and Bernard Smith’s Forces in American Criticism (1939). It’s difficult to be ignorant of these three momentous works and yet be able to fully appreciate Kenneth Burke’s tremendous collection of 1930s essays, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), a book containing particular essays that consummate the progressive literary tradition, or liberatory tendency, of the preceding four decades at least. Ignorance of these landmark books makes it more difficult to understand the significance, isolation, and persecution of the once prominent (when liberal) accomplished literary critic Maxwell Geismar, as he was marginalized and forgotten through the sixties and seventies and today. It’s difficult to be ignorant of these books of criticism (still almost entirely disappeared, despite much renewed interest in the 1930s) and yet be able to make full sense of the vital socially engaged criticism prior to the 1940s that was forcefully curtailed in subsequent decades, with corrosive effects very much evident today, despite some progressive gains, not least by way of the multicultural expansion.
The problem remains that establishment ideology continues to enormously disfigure fiction and criticism, as James Petras remarked.
Scholar Terry Eagleton notes in “Only Pinter Remains” (2007):
For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life. One might make an honourable exception of Harold Pinter, who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all; but his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.
The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment’s reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Hare caved in to the blandishments of Buckingham Palace some years ago, moving from radical to reformist. Christopher Hitchens…[has] thrown in his lot with Washington’s neocons. Martin Amis has written of the need to prevent Muslims travelling and to strip-search people “who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan”. Deportation, he considers, may be essential further down the road.
The uniqueness of the situation is worth underlining. When Britain emerged as an industrial capitalist state, it had Shelley to urge the cause of the poor, Blake to dream of a communist utopia, and Byron to scourge the corruptions of the ruling class…
In the US, the situation is not much better, despite playwright Tony Kushner’s writing in Theater:
I do not believe that a steadfast refusal to be partisan is, finally, a particularly brave or a moral or even interesting choice. Les Murray, an Australian poet, wrote a short poem called ‘Politics and Art.’ In its entirety: ‘Brutal policy / like inferior art, knows / whose fault it all is.’ This is as invaluable an admonishment as it is ultimately untrue.
What is James Wood’s role in all this? Maybe aside from his relative prominence, it’s very similar to the overwhelming flood of establishment writers and publishers – conservative, reactionary, and liberals not least. They bulwark the status quo, more or less, often even when they think they do not or think they are progressive. Meanwhile, “liberatory revolutionary” is virtually altogether out of the realm of thought, let alone comprehension.
Misrepresentation 30 – fiction shrunk: James Wood shows and tells quite a bit of quality in his criticism, and of course one can learn a lot from view and voice, style and character studies – purview. Though he shuns the forest for love of the wood in many ways, there’s no denying that the wood, even a solitary tree, may be impressive. Noam Chomsky is far from alone in claiming:
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.
Moreover, fiction can be used to illuminate or engage what Chomsky calls “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?” The political refrain, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” means more expansively, What’s the matter with the USA, and the world? As Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and political worker notes, “Criticism, like charity, starts at home.” Little may strike closer to home than the novel, a great and indispensable form for engaging Orwell’s problem, terribly our own. Orwell’s problem, in other words: How is it that people are persuaded to act against their own interests and values, often viciously, which they otherwise hold dear? Fiction can debunk harmful propaganda and taboos; it can help energize, motivate, inspire while maintaining vital literary and popular quality by staying focused on fiction’s core strengths (and not excluding those emphasized by Wood and the establishment). Fiction can do, and does, far more than the establishment gives it credit for ad nauseam. Such novels, short stories, and satires intensely explore both the private and the public, those realities and their relations, not least but not only as revealed in the personal.
One cannot expect the status quo to abide liberatory fiction too far of course, for as Chomsky notes: “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 the West], he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized” by the establishment, by the civilized. Reporter: “What do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.” Even the bright new prominent literary magazines and sites such as n+1, The Believer, and others distinguish themselves as little more than the flotsam and jetsam of the establishment. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of academic literary magazine production is similarly tamed. It’s not that they are of no value. It’s that they primarily and essentially perpetuate the basic status quo. To gain at least a little more humanity and vitality, possibly they could create or far better augment “left” or particular “liberatory” sections. The establishment might tolerate that for some while.
Misrepresentation 31 – the partisan orthodox nature of status quo lit: If we are not also writing and reading novels “in order to benefit” practically, usefully, then surely it’s long past time we started doing so. Wood may be depressed by the thought of a flood of novels that “explain the times” for any variety of reasons, but he has indirectly said as much for them in a quip (Homeland Security should read), maybe more, as he has argued repeatedly against. The ideological lines of establishment fiction and criticism are evident, revealing, and follow an instructive trajectory of plot. They sometimes appear (in Ngugi’s words) as “tragedy that manifests itself as comedy.” When not worse. Clearly detailed or not in the minds or writing of star critics who may or may not wish, after all, to matter too much, this too is how fiction works, for real – and how does it ever.
Even Sean Wilentz in “The Rise of Illiterate Democracy” in the New York Times notes that “The nonfiction best-seller lists these days are often full of partisan screeds labeling Democrats as elitist traitors and Republicans as conniving plutocrats. But look over on the fiction side, and politics appears almost nowhere. …the separation of literature and state seems to have become absolute.” Wilentz is scarcely referring to progressive political fiction here; however, his observations apply beyond party politics, since many crucial and enduring public issues are not taken up in fiction from much explicit progressive let alone revolutionary perspective. Who would solicit or publish them? Who has? Hollywood? The publishing houses with money and clout? Even the liberal ones? The liberal magazines? The literary magazines? Many of these operations cannot beg off, as progressive operations often must, for not having resources.
One author has suggested that fiction writers could “tithe” some part of their writing time and talent to producing nonfiction political works. The notion of enlightening and moving and aesthetically accomplished political fiction of various sorts seems that which cannot be thought. Take award winning story writer Benjamin Percy, one of the first writers (sanctioned by the literary establishment, that is) to write in any way about the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, in “Refresh, Refresh” (which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2007 and was called the story of the year by novelist Anne Lamott):
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 TC Boyle’s and George Saunders’ in similar comments, as well as that of central establishment writers like EL Doctorow and Philip Roth, and so on, who are often perceived as rather political) 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 expressed as liberatory overt partisan fiction in very accomplished and highly aesthetic ways far from “a ready-made message shoved down [a reader’s] throat,” as if ostensibly nonpartisan fiction is any less “ready-made,” including Percy’s own “Refresh, Refresh” given his decision to “show both sides”: apparently meaning “war is good, war is bad.” Partisan fiction, according to Percy, is “fraudulent and manipulative” but depictions of “war is good, war is bad” are even-handed, which must no doubt prove equally instructive and comforting to both the invaders and the invaded, occupied peoples of the smashed land of Iraq. And so it is that status quo fiction is far less upfront and often in denial – far less willing and capable of declaring what it actually is, ideologically. There are plenty of ways a literary subjective fiction can reveal objective criminal reality. Status quo art, however, avoids doing so, except marginally, in a great number of ways, even though it practically has to go out of its way to cheat reality, to vitiate it of urgent conditions, revelation or phenomena, let alone explore progressive or revolutionary realms and possibilities.
The criticism of James Wood further muddles the shallow sociopolitical component of the human condition as explored in fiction, and further impedes and discourages its badly needed engagement. Pathology in terrorism – Wood claims. In part, but it’s largely tactical and rooted in injustice, the main problem by far. Jealousy of the West? Rather, justified outrage. Them as the West’s “current problem”? Our (the West’s) longstanding outlaw acts. How Fiction Works? How Purview Works, in Part. “Free indirect style”? Purview meld. The intimate human may be revealed in the novel? And the epic social and political too. Subtlety of analysis, nuance, limning – establishment sign language for toeing the line with style, for creating work nonthreatening to the interests (often criminal) of establishment power and control.
Misrepresentation 32 – basic public realities denied, distorted: The current crises of the US in the “Middle East” are widely misrepresented by the establishment – fiction and nonfiction both. Take the Iraq war for example. The media is full of articles stating that Iraq war movies and films (the fiction features) have not done well at the box office, but compared to the relative lack of, say, Hurricane Katrina movies, or, say, the ongoing national slaughter of the impoverished by the impoverishers movies, the growing numbers of Iraq war movies, by their very existence alone, are doing extremely well. Far more such movies have been made now than were remotely ever made about the Vietnam war at a comparable time. And far more people see most any of these movies than see most any such documentary. But it’s no cause for celebration, far from it, because these movies are very careful not to be too “antiwar,” if at all, not too revealing of the basic illegality and immorality of the US conquest of Iraq and surrounds.
Of course all wars are brutalizing in their everyday and peripheral realities (true of even justifiable wars), which is about as far as any of the movies go, and that typically isn’t even as far into the fundamentals as Michael Moore’s relatively circumscribed documentaries venture with the various issues he examines. The central reality of the US conquest of Iraq and beyond is distorted or falsified, or goes studiously ignored, the fact that the US has committed the supreme crime of aggression, “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole,” in the words of the judgment of Nuremberg. None of the dozens of Iraq war movies, shows, and novels I’m aware of renders this reality explicit and central. Instead, central reality is buried.
Very few of these various works of fiction even begin to approach that central framing context, and consequently they either greatly falsify or evade the crucial reality. On those grounds, those grounds that are central to the whole calamity, the movies and novels don’t deserve a large audience, even if they do on other grounds. Until this “major and crucial point overlooked” is made clear in relation to the US role in the aggression against Iraq, as Noam Chomsky notes, “until at least this is recognized, all other discussion is merely footnotes, and shameful ones.” And that’s the shame of the Iraq war movies, and novels too; they are essentially about the “footnotes,” however monstrous, rather than the “major and crucial point overlooked.” And what’s worse, overlooking the central point means that even the best intentioned films may more likely “act as cultural ‘softeners’ before the bombing starts again for real” or continues without end, as John Pilger notes of films like Black Hawk Down, in “Hollywood Hurrah.” (Not that he regards BHD as well intentioned.) Pilger adds:
Even in finely crafted films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon that look as if they might break ranks, there is an implicit oath of loyalty to imperial culture. This was true of Three Kings, a movie that seemed to take issue with the Gulf war, but instead produced a familiar “bad apple” tale, exonerating the militarism that is now rampant. So dominant is Hollywood in our lives, and so collusive are its camp-following critics, that the films that ought to have been made are unmentionable. Name the mainstream movies that have shone light on to the vast shadow thrown by the American secret state, and the mayhem for which it is responsible. I can think of only a few: Costa-Gavras’s Missing, which was about the destruction of the elected government in Chile by General Pinochet’s puppet masters in Washington, and Oliver Stone’s Salvador, which made the connection between Reagan’s Washington and El Salvador’s death squads. Both these films were quirks of the system, funded with great difficulty and, in the case of Missing, dogged by vengeful court actions.
In sum, seen as a Hollywood meal ticket (make that, yacht ticket) the Iraq war movies are a commercial disappointment, while otherwise an extreme and growing success compared to their (virtually nonexistent) Vietnam war counterparts. But to call these movies a cultural success is an extreme overstatement, except as footnote. Most of the films I’ve seen have some limited worthwhile qualities, even though one sees these films for what they are and gets the antagonizing and sometimes intolerable sense that goes along with it. The most worthwhile thus far are probably, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, War, Inc., and above all, the relatively low budget GI Jesus. Even slimmer pickings exist among the novels, seems to me, though the relevant novels of Yasmina Khadra compare.
Hollywood and the literary establishment are as stark in their partisan nature as in their denials of such. “Multicultural” fiction is far more pronounced in recent decades than it has been traditionally and some of this is progressive or has progressive aspects, some even overt progressive and revolutionary aspects. But, for merely one example, how many recent antiwar novels can be named? The US has been smashing Iraq since 1991, taking a toll of over a million Iraqi lives through bombings and sanctions in the 1990s alone, long before the deeply unpopular ground invasion and occupation killing as many or more again, and creating millions more refugees. And the US for years has allowed corporations the use of patent laws, which have prevented HIV vaccines from reaching Africa resulting in millions of lives lost. Where are the exposé novels? Name the so-called muckraking novels or vivid polemic novels about the unconscionable US health care system, or poverty rate and the outrageous economic system. Or US global militarism and outlaw threats both military and economic. Or avoidable environmental catastrophes. Etc and so on. Not easy to do, though it’s possible to come up with a few, including John le Carré somewhat recently in The Constant Gardner – an exception to the rule. Even le Carré recently said he underestimated, underportrayed the damage done in Africa by the unconscionable economics and policies of the West. Writing powerful quality liberatory fiction is in many ways unthinkable and disallowed in the circles of literature, exceptions aside.
Misrepresentation 33 – the immateriality of the status quo: As James Wood puts forth an “aesthetic” of pursuing “the real, which is at the bottom of [his] inquiries,” there is every reason to believe his assertion and every reason to doubt what it might reveal, when his pursuit of the real is eviscerated by reality, the status quo stake, that long blade of ideology, manifesting itself via inane or hapless notions like “the essential juvenility of plot.” Plot and purpose and the world be damned – not least for US novelists (or critics) writing about explicit investigations of the immoral and illegal invasions, occupations and other state crimes of the US. Conditions far too real for publication. Now, if other authors, not from around here, want to create epic masterworks of the real for publishing, review, and distribution in the West, then okay, to a point, especially if allegorical, or otherwise limited, and preferably about them (if not to the people), but don’t subtly limn the nuance too far, too explicitly, too purposefully so that we of the status quo cannot plausibly deny what must be denied.
Just so, we may review, we may praise an other masterpiece, either not from here or about not here, and we may write glowing analyses, including a genuinely illuminating one – though with a key flaw – as did Scott Esposito on Ngugi wa Thiongo’s accurately self-described “global epic from Africa,” Wizard of the Crow. The ideological flaw in his essay (if not a simpler mistake), where establishment perspective, wittingly or not, gets the better of an otherwise astute work, is where Esposito, exactingly, in much more detail than I quote below, assesses Ngugi’s vibrant fictive depiction of a particular sort of politics as “African” and, by misleading inference, not American – not quite, not remotely:
[In Wizard of the Crow] storytelling exemplifies the techniques and the architecture used by political actors in [the fictitious African country] Aburiria as they continually invent tales that, with breathtaking speed, become the new realities that the country must live by. Whether it is the Ruler purposefully creating realities with an iron hand, businessmen doing it in ignorance as they arrange deals, or even the resistance innocently slipping into stories that help them toward their goals, the creation of stories remains central….
In the space of just a few pages, a miraculous inversion has been effected. Marching to Heaven [an incredibly corrupt Tower of Babel building project] has gone from a boondoggle that has revealed Aburiria’s desperation to a vision of national strength, fervently attended to by popular demonstrations all over the country. Significantly, the Ruler has not said a word to create this new reality. Merely by indicating his displeasure with the story that reality has given him, he has spurred his ministers to invent an entirely new reality, and to find methods by which to force it into existence. If Thiong’o is correct, and I think he is, this is how an African dictatorship functions.
Far more to point however: this is how centralized governments in the age of propaganda function globally, more or less, not least in the US (where Ngugi has lived and worked for 16 years, since 1992, the beginning of President Bill Clinton’s terms). The Clinton-Bush regimes in Washington DC were forced to “continually invent tales that, with breathtaking speed, become the new realities that the country must live by” whether to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely, or to demonize welfare, or to endlessly bailout high finance, or to flood prisons with non-violent drug-law offenders, or to continually prop-up pharmaceutical and insurance companies while demonizing Medicare for all, and on and on. President Bush II shoved the military into Iraq and Afghanistan with his “iron hand” and by way of “dealing businessmen” in the media and elsewhere (often not so “ignorant”). The Bush regime could and so it did, even though the majority public opposed it, even in the US except for a few months in the beginning of the invasion when the massive fraudulent propaganda deluge worked its effect, mentally cleansing the US majority ever so briefly. And now the Barack Obama incipient regime, only slightly less status quo aggressive and fanatic, has more subtly maneuvered, but in just as wholesale a fashion, America’s “desperation” in grasping at fake change “to a vision of national strength, fervently attended to by popular demonstrations all over the country” and beyond (hundreds of thousands gathered to cheer him on while in Europe prior to the US election). “Significantly, the [presumptive] Ruler has not said a word to create this new reality,” not a word that is meaningful in any basic concrete way. “He has spurred his [PR] ministers to invent an entirely new reality, and to find methods by which to force it into existence” at least in appearance.
While not from the US but Africa as Ngugi points out, Wizard of the Crow is far more a global novel than Esposito indicates, and far more a US novel than he hints. Commenting at Amazon.com, Patricia Kramer writes, “The satire is biting, the laughs come often but then the reality of our country’s present policies sets in. We would be lucky to have a Wizard of the Crow right now in America.” Such a pointed global epic from the US rather than “from Africa” or Asia, et al, would preferably be one that advances well beyond even the mighty Wizard. Such a novel and any clear-eyed criticism will have to wait, and if and when that day arrives, will have to be fought for. That’s the reality.
Misrepresentation 34 – the public chopped from the personal: As for “puerile” prose, Robert Alter clarifies in his critique of contemporary fiction, “I have no quarrel at all with fantasy or flaunted artifice in the novel but only with their deployment in ways that are ultimately self-indulgent and mechanically repetitious, that tend to turn the imaginative energies of fiction into a crackling closed circuit” where little meaning or sensibility escapes the smoke and sparks of the swirling (yet somehow dull) words. Five years later (1980) in “The American Political Novel,” while critiquing Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Alter notes: “One may wonder why so many gifted and serious novelists have chosen to treat politics in such a fundamentally unserious fashion…. One would think that the political novel, perhaps more than other kinds of fiction, requires adult intelligence….”
Then sounding like Wood today, though both more apt and too narrow, Alter focuses on character, noting: “The novel’s great strength as a mode of apprehension is in its grasp of character, and the political novel at its best can show concretely and subtly what politics does to character, what character makes of politics.” Ah, “subtly”! for Alter too is establishment but like Wood sheds some light around his distortions. He critiques Norman Mailer’s attempts to craft effective political fiction and concludes that (as of over three decades ago) he seems to come closest to this in The Deer Park where:
What he confronts centrally for the first time is the special power of American society to mask, sham, evade, forget reality, to seduce its individual members into giving up on engagement in the real world; and the ultimately political nature of his moral imagination is reflected in his effort here to show how this American style of cotton-candy insulation from reality allows a society to perpetrate horror and obscenity at home and abroad with hardly a twinge of conscience.
If only the novel did greatly reveal such reality. Unfortunately, The Deer Park seems to me to be far more focused on characters’ private lives and relationships than on any public realms within which they exist. Perceptive mid-century critic Maxwell Geismar in American Moderns—From Rebellion to Conformity (1958) also found this novel to be largely if not wholly bankrupt, with weak sociopolitical gestures.
In the essay “Jonathan Franzen and the ‘Social Novel’,” Wood restates a core complaint, a legitimate one, regarding current fiction: The “characteristic products of contemporary American fiction are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books which know a thousand different things…but do not know a single human being.” This statement is largely accurate, in my opinion, and as something of an echo of Alter is nicely stated, so much so that I find it difficult to resist turning the words partly back upon their author, in regard to what he slights, Wood, who “know[s] a thousand different things,” as a literary critic, about the fictional portraiture of largely private and intimate psychological realms, “but do[es] not know a single” thing, it often seems, about the potential of portraying the public realms of what it means to approach “fully human.”
Given this lack, it might be said with only minimal exaggeration that Wood himself, as critic, does “not know a single human being,” lacks much clue as to what may make for any full human condition. Character (or the personal) may indeed be especially central to fiction – however, the personal is made up of the private and public both. Public and private realms inform and infuse character, let alone society, and yet Wood slights the public in both character and society, egregiously.
Misrepresentation 35 – ideology in guise of aesthetics: Even one of Wood’s “favorite” critics of the novel, Roland Barthes, had the sense to note, “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?” Wood, distinctly lacking Barthes theoretical acumen (Terry Eagleton notes the obvious in a review of HFW), finds Barthes to be “interesting but wrongheaded,” (generally?) and Wood who is likely to be half the essayist, or even literary critic, that Edmund Wilson demonstrated himself to be, remains locked in to his primary interest in fiction, its “special kind of aesthetic experience,” so locked in that this fixation gives him tunnel vision, causing misunderstanding about aesthetics, fiction, life. False notions such as this plaint are the least of it: “a flat style [is] unfit for permanent criticism – which lasts, after all, only if it, too, becomes literature,” a remark that is, first, false and, second, self-contradicting, given its mundane style. Exceptional substance overcomes stylistic flatness readily. Ideology, sometimes in guise of aesthetics, in establishment literature often functions as a strong arm of the US police state, as H. Bruce Franklin notes in “Inside Stories of the Global American Prison”:
Despite the assault on the literature of the American prison [which Franklin documents in detail], it has been breaking into literature courses and anthologies. The 2006 edition of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, which is used in classrooms around the world, actually included a whole section labeled “Prison Literature.” Although this “cluster” consisted of a mere twenty-seven pages out of the more than three thousand in the multivolume anthology, that was enough to provoke the disapproval of the New York Times Book Review, whose editor Rachel Donadio, complained that it took up more space than that given to “the great poet Elizabeth Bishop.” Even more reprehensible, according to Donadio, is the fact that this prison literature section “includes works by Kathy Boudin, a former member of the Weather Underground who served more than 20 years for her role in a 1981 robbery and murder.” Implying that the five authors included in this section collectively are not worth as much space as Bishop, Donadio names only Boudin, failing even to give the names of such widely celebrated poets as Etheridge Knight and Jimmy Santiago Baca. Nor does Donadio say even a word about any of their actual work, including Boudin’s three beautiful, extremely moving poems. Masquerading as literary criticism based on aesthetic criteria, this editorial commentary in the New York Times Book Review thus offers a minor but revealing example of how dominant cultural institutions collaborate with the political apparatus to suppress prison literature….
It is no surprise that modern prisoners [decades ago] helped lead the rediscovery of slave literature, because chattel slavery did not disappear in 1865 – it merely morphed into the modern American prison…merged…with the more modern [forms of slavery] pioneered by the American prison…. When the time came to globalize this institution, the men chosen for the job were some of its most notorious officials.
The literature of slaves told the inside stories of antebellum slavery and thus helped destroy it. So too, the literature of prisoners tells the inside stories of the American prison and thus threatens its dominion and expansion. The deepest insights into the American global prison, including its culture and political logic, come from this literature it tries to repress.
So goes literature and the establishment – moments and sectors of liberatory expansion followed by repression, Vietnam War era dissent and the reactionary (also liberal and conservative) backlash. Maxwell Geismar noted an earlier instance:
Recently a group of American historians have been digging into, one might say, “excavating,” the true facts of this Cold War Culture – the curious period from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties – and the results are very interesting. We have had almost a quarter of a century of conformity, comfort, complacency and mediocrity in American literature – this epoch of “instant masterpieces” – and only now can we begin to put the pieces together and find a consistent pattern…
…it was the Cold War that brought about the downfall, in 1949, of one of the most brilliant journalistic enterprises in our literary history. At the war’s end, a new epoch of repression was about to start. Another great achievement of the Depression years was the WPA Federal Theater Project; and Halle Flanagan’s history of this, in her book Arena, ends with the congressional investigation and foreclosure of the Federal Theater by political figures who are, by Divine Grace or special dispensation, still active in Washington today…
Wood’s well-known Guardian article takedown of “the false zaniness of hysterical realism…[and] the easy fidelity of social realism” functions ironically well as a simultaneous takedown of what Wood otherwise praises as modernism in HFW: the “blurred” and “traumatized” and “numb” and “random” view of life by way of a “loafing” and “voyeuristic” flaneur. It’s not that Wood can make no interesting argument, nor that he offers no real and useful insight. The problem is the arguments are often so parochial that they are often not remotely convincing or broadly functional, when not outright false. Many of the arguments are persuasive largely only insofar as they are half-regurgitations of what the literature establishment instills ad nauseam. They are either self-contradicting, or given any slightly larger – more real – context, they implode. They may also be overturned on occasion by Wood’s very own views presented elsewhere – contradictions that nullify.
Wood finds the flaneur figure “helplessly inundated with impressions” to be extraordinarily compelling, except when he doesn’t, in which case he sometimes calls such writing “hysterical realism,” which is apparently not styled enough to make up for its other distinct lacks. Apparently not enough prose-poetry – “a very careful ballet,” a ballet that is not so very careful that it is not also largely random. Much of what Wood decries in “hysterical realism” – chaotic or essayistic excess – he otherwise praises as “Flaubertianism” – all the random … “traumatized” … “numbing” … “excess detail” … sometimes “studiedly irrelevant” of a “voyeurist” … “loafer.” How all this tells us “how somebody felt about something” let alone “indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings),” as Wood also requires, is less clear. One must presume all humans are not all traumatized, etc.
How is the Flaubertian mélange and “loafer” narrator on the street necessarily much different from a contemporary laptop whiz, of whom Wood complains, “nowadays anyone in possession of a laptop” can whip up, a novel full of “essaylets and great displays of knowledge. Indeed,” Wood adds, with some annoyance, “’knowing about things’ has become one of the qualifications of the contemporary novelist.” Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Pushkin, etc and so on, even star modernists hardly wrote information starved fact-free literature. A case of wrong culprit. “Time and again novelists are praised for their wealth of obscure and far-flung social knowledge…. The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes” and other arcane and variously extraneous information (apparently not “studiedly irrelevant” enough), so that “the result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness” (modernism, anyone?) “with no selves in them at all,” (not traumatized or enough numbed?) “curiously arrested” (indeed) “and very ‘brilliant’ books that know a thousand” more or less random “things but do not know a single human being.” Many of Wood’s and Alter’s criticisms of “puerile” prose are well taken (though “hysterical” of “hysterical realism” is a term one could take issue with). Twist the wheel a bit from HR’s excesses of fantasy and verisimilitude to modernism’s often busy vapidity of driveling detail and some “blurring” “phantasmagoria” and such criticism rides well against modernism too – which Wood half-admits at moments: too much detail, to the point of “excessive excruciation…an obstruction to seeing.”
And yet Wood finally cannot evaluate clearly his beloved UMM style modernism, because what would he and the establishment be left with? Both an aesthetic and sociopolitical threat to their own stakes. And Wood, able to grasp nothing fully functional, is left to bemoan and hope and flail: “A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.” In other words, white noise, or worse. Both modernism and “hysterical realism” and other establishment genres and modes do tend toward “reflect[ing] helplessly the newly dark lights of the age,” which is almost a loss of consciousness, not its life. It can be that “damn thing” that Rebecca West speaks of in The Strange Necessity, this universe, this reality that is enough. Give us an other. “[O]ne of the damn thing is ample.” She adds piercingly that “only an extraordinarily massive stupidity could keep [certain types of artists] in a position which the rest of humanity has left so far behind, so naturally their works have a disgusting quality as of a person too grossly fat to move.” Obstructing details puerile prose constricted ideologies and worse. It’s not that nothing can be learned from these novels; it’s not that they are necessarily wholly unengaging. It’s that they go about as far as Wood goes, a little farther in some ways, a little less in others, and that’s it – the patio chairs at the country club or the loading dock are breathlessly, gymnastically, hyper-kinetically, self-relflexively, meta-be-bop-ing-ly rearranged…ta da! Look! It’s boring, often because if in appearance expansive, in reality confined.
Victor Hugo is a giant in the world of letters, compared to whom, Flaubert is something of a toad. Flaubert though is the establishment’s special toad, and there he sits. Flaubert is neither the fount of modernism, nor the cause of the squelching of much more liberatory fiction than exists. He is sort of an awkward figurine, grandly elevated, cherished by the establishment. Meanwhile, a whole more accomplished liberatory fiction – more fully human – and often quite aesthetic – in crucial part a more vital development of the novel – has been denied, if not entirely. Where puerile realists show the world all crazy lit up and out, and flaneuring modernists show the world all fastidious miasmic within, liberatory novelists show the world more whole and forward looking, and moving.
Footnote  – Franklin notes: A torrent of prison literature was pouring out to the American public [over three decades ago] in mass-market paperbacks, newspapers, magazines, and major motion pictures. This era ended with the downfall of the Nixon regime in 1974, the final defeat of the United States by Vietnam in 1975, and the reactionary epoch that soon followed. In 1976 came the Big Bang, the spectacular explosion of the prison-industrial complex. As a necessary corollary to this prison cosmos, there began a relentless campaign to silence prisoners and ex-prisoners [by passage of new laws and implementation of other measures…. Moreover, today] gone from the so-called “penitentiary” or “correctional facility” is any pretense of reformation or rehabilitation [exceptions to the rule aside]. In the typical American prison, degradation, brutalization, and even overt torture are the norm….
Footnote  – Franklin details: After the invasion of Iraq, Lane McCotter, who had been forced to resign as the director of the Utah Department of Corrections because of torture carried out under his administration, was put in charge of reconstructing Saddam Hussein’s Abu Ghraib. John Armstrong, former director of the Connecticut Department of Corrections, who had been driven out of his position because of sexual and other tortures revealed by the ACLU and Amnesty International, became deputy director of operation for the entire Iraqi prison system….
Misrepresentation 36 – limits on the real: The more that Wood carries the term “realism” or “real” or “reality” the less water it holds. “…we are likely to think of the desire to be truthful about life – the desire to produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are’– as a universal literary motive and project, the broad central language of the novel and drama…” Here we see (a repeat of) “the way things are” as “reality” that stories “bring…to mind” – never “possibilities” that stories bring to mind, or even “real possibilities,” which is the language not of the status quo. Fiction may reveal reality and possibility, both, in exploring the nature of the human condition achieved and potential – or what is the imagination for?
“Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude…” Well, yes it can. Some stretches of life actually do have a natural story shape, more or less, and may be encountered most pithily in flash dramas that occur in actual moments in time, where present, past, and future all but fuse in concise narrative. One might think of the anecdotal stories of a moment found in Reader’s Digest features “Life in These United States” or “Humor in Uniform.” Surely some people invent some of these supposed-to-be actual anecdotes to collect the hundreds of dollars that are paid for them – and who can tell the difference between what is fiction and what is actual? That’s “mere” verisimilitude as story. Certain poignant autobiographical moments are stories in verisimilitude, as are certain autobiographies, if one allows some cuts for concision. Such stories are essentially “mere” verisimilitude. Some people actually do live storybook lives or at least story quality stretches of life. It seems to me that anecdotes show virtually everyone to live some such moments, at the least. “Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be verisimilitude”? On the contrary, one can say what the novel is (or may be) far more reliably than what it is not – as Wood himself can be said to point out much earlier in HFW – “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it” – except that verisimilitude as reality in story and life may not be so exceptional after all.
Virtually all content, ideology, verisimilitude, fancy, and direct reference may work and be worked in story to great effect. All does well to both challenge and reaffirm afresh existing actualities and possibilities about the world or about fiction. And if any lively fiction aims to teach, and to be liberatory, and to bring people together, and to unmask any and all unjust conditions of life, and to explore their opposite, then fiction (or criticism) with all its great resources is perfectly free to do so just as well as do anything else. Fiction and criticism may reveal and catalyze forces of change – by way of experience, by way of understanding and vision. Misrepresentations of life and fiction obviously do not help, and too often function (wittingly or not) to support or propagate deplorable status quo realities. It is important to know how fiction works for the establishment, and often against the people at large, what myths and falsehoods it relies upon to convey its ostensible “lifeness,” its wooden or smooth jargon – that is often not so much lifelike or lively or even all that living let alone fully alive in crucial ways. Detailed here, these three dozen misrepresentations and retrograde delimited realities of establishment literature show some of the nature and scope of the real eviscerations of fiction and life – and also how writers may work well beyond the broken views and repressive grasp. …