It is useful to understand “liberatory” in two basic ways for literature. In the past the term in lit has been used mainly in regard to “women’s lib” of the ’60s, ’70s as far as I’m aware – I don’t recall that the lit critics of the ’30s and so on use it, though it nearly gets into the title of one of VF Calverton’s books, and maybe it is used in passing somewhere or another. More or less progressive critics of that time used words more like “revolutionary” and “proletarian” and “Marxist” or “materialist”. One broad basic sense of liberatory is in reference to about any sort of freeing or advancing or progressing phenomena of literature, especially in regard to normative issues (morals and ethics…politics and culture) and less so (secondarily or as derivative) aesthetically. So, for example, the multicultural expansion of recent decades is liberatory in this sense even when it occurs in basically a liberal and conservative or other status quo framework. In this sense, “liberatory” is a synonym for “progressive” (or “enlightened” – as in of the Enlightenment – or moving toward “ideal”) however limited or bound that progress may be. Elements of liberalism and conservatism contain some liberatory aspects also (especially in having some roots in the Enlightenment or other relation to it). All this understands liberatory in a very broad sense of the term.
The primary and most crucial sense in which we might understand liberatory is to distinguish progressive or revolutionary literature from status quo work that blocks or slows progress (let alone revolution) actively or passively, inadvertently or knowingly. Again, the term refers in this use mainly to normative respects of literature as revealed in a story’s substance, effects, functions, and consequences. Revolutionary lit, or to be more clear, liberatory revolutionary lit is the strongest sense in which the term might be used – again referring essentially to normative revolution, whether or not the aesthetics are also much revolutionized or advanced.
“Liberatory” may be used to indicate typically progressive or revolutionary instances of literature that the establishment discriminates against (knowingly or not), ideologically opposes (very often while claiming and believing otherwise). There will always be a need to push for increasingly liberatory lit and life conditions, so it’s no fixed or ultimately knowable thing, even in the ideal, though very concrete instances, understandings, and parameters can be known and realized and fought for and against…and certainly are. Plenty of documentation. The central work of Victor Hugo and others has been ideologically opposed and repressed in many ways by the establishment for its liberatory features (asinine ideological takedowns of even the canonical Shelley for his progressive/revolutionary features are still a regular phenomenon, or Shelley’s most liberatory elements are elided – e.g., see Adam Kirsch for the trademark shock troop establishment flourish and smear, with gratuitous repugnance). Meanwhile authors like Joyce and Conrad and Dostoevsky have been for the most part the toast of the establishment in ways that help repress far more liberatory novelists, the latter two novelists especially for their political novels, often held up as preeminent political novels. This is a great comfort to the establishment for it hides the far more progressive, liberatory, even revolutionary great political novel of, for one central example of the West, Les Miserables, which is easily a match for any novel ever written, “political” or otherwise, let alone Hugo’s great body of work. More than a match. Reactionary or status quo novels are held up as the model and encouraged, supported, acclaimed and one can see what largely follows, normatively, the basically establishmentarian acclaimed works, such as those of Henry James, TS Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, even Philip Roth, these very status quo functional, stylistically or inwardly obsessed scribes for the establishment, and their facilitators. Probably reviews of individual authors are a problem in this regard, rather than periodic liberatory thematic or normative reviews and overviews of lit.
There are particular sociopolitical and historical reasons that make it worth referring to the work of progressive critics of the early part of last century – primarily to recall and emphasize that efflorescence of more or less liberatory criticism and how buried it has been, forcibly buried, not accidentally. Edward Said is a great recent liberatory critic, and there are a number of others, some of whom I quote at the Socialit subsite, right on up through the decades, as some of the authors write at least in various works and moments. Recent decades have seen another efflorescence of such criticism – much of it with or due to multicultural roots – and it remains striking and problematic that this criticism shows essentially no conscious connection with some of the central groundwork laid decades earlier. Still written out of history, out of the Norton anthology and everyday lit knowledge, it remains a terrible loss (among others). In any event, taking a look at the century long bibliography and excerpts at the socialit site, it’s striking and telling how ethnically and gender and otherwise diverse much of the better sociopolitical criticism becomes in recent decades. Some visible progress there, to an extent.
A few comments on the more or less progressive or at least sociopolitically engaged critics of the ’20s and ’30s: James Farrell had more than a bit of the reactionary in him, and Upton Sinclair by and large was somehow maybe not as radical or liberatory ultimately as VF Calverton, Bernard Smith, and Kenneth Burke in their most liberatory moments. For that matter, Calverton published at least one good very early anthology of “Negro” literature in the 1920s. He wrote his first noted and first “lasting” book of criticism/theory too about that time, The Newer Spirit, in his mid twenties. (VF Calverton is a pseudonym for George Goetz – a couple of good fairly recent though obscure biographies of him exist.) That said, Sinclair’s Mammonart on whole is rather remarkable. Farrell’s book of criticism much less so and is in some ways regressive. The sometimes progressive Granville Hicks wrote a book of criticism (The Great Tradition) similar in spirit to Farrell, was encouraged to, to mitigate the effect and influence of Calverton’s Liberation of American Literature, which Hicks was substantially writing against. Calverton was repressed by the general literary establishment, not least by the ostensibly progressive one, Communists/Stalinists and others, for that one of his many books (though not only that book), much like the increasingly progressive critic Maxwell Geismar was heavily repressed by the state-capitalist establishment of the ’60s and so on. What a mix and mess it all was, in some ways quite lively, going on basically outside the academy. In recent decades some of this sort of thing has been going on inside the academy (much of it unfortunately obscure and distant because written by and for relatively niche scholars). In the meantime MFA programs are too much untouched by liberatory criticism – fiction and poetry programs both. It seems only something of an exaggeration to say that plenty of poetry programs would sort of implode if they took seriously Bernard Smith’s understanding of TS Eliot, while MFA fiction programs’ affinity for Flaubert and the like is largely debilitating.
There are certain imaginative writers and critics who harp comically on formalist concerns, as if they are missing a gene, or possess an absurd extra one, though they are sometimes not completely without sense in their own crevicular way, and they sometimes cull useful works to reference. One “pulls a string” to create art, variously, lifts up and off the top of one’s head, but the strings are found in life, high and low, near and far, of myriad revelation and stuff, and not entirely in other strings, or heads. For which we can all be eternally thankful. To describe limited formalist critics as, say, aesthetic incestivists seems largely accurate thought that disparages “aesthetic,” which relies on far more than form for its many effects. Much of my art, for example, and not mine alone, has been catalyzed – if not ridden – by sheer white light anger, outrage, or the bitter reality of various injustice – and yet whether then turned comedic, dramatic, satiric, romantic, or fantastic it is sprung from fact and experience, understanding and image and situation, which proceeds to lend shape. Without the stuff of life, there is no art, not beyond the abstract. Literature that refers merely to itself renders the origin of lit impossible and the end of lit its head biting air where its tail would have been – something for and from another planet. The aesthetic abstract can be a catalyst – what can’t be? – but not the most vital, the most crucial essence of art, at least not in the novel, possibly not even in its most extreme works.
While authors and activists may be better artists and revolutionaries for thinking well about such technical issues, also for considering what it might mean to come from and for another planet, on normative grounds not least, and while particular aesthetic dynamics may help create powerful art, what basically makes up aesthetics in the novel if not in large part the biting or beautiful stuff of vital normative concerns? Because establishment lit lacks so much of crucial and central import, after a certain point, often soon arrived, aesthetic refineries do not amount to much.
“Some critics consider any mention of content a display of bad taste. Some, more innocent and more modern, have been taught – schooled – to look at paintings in such a way as to make them wholly unaware of content…. But again, we must look upon form as the shape of content…” – accomplished painter Ben Shahn in The Shape of Content (1957) noting a good rule of thumb for art, from a great essay and book.
Are Henry James, TS Eliot, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and writers in their veins “inwardly obsessed scribes” as I note? Though my critical emphasis is on how establishmentarian they are, and though I could leave it at that in my various criticisms, I often don’t and either refer to such writers as obsessive stylists, or sometimes as obsessive interiorists to help indicate as much what they are not doing, as what they are instead focused on. While the latter may be the most difficult to defend or at least most controversial, I’ve always gotten the sense that they don’t really care all that much about many of the less intimate societal ranges they wander through. It’s something like what Robert Alter says in speaking of authors (Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme…Vonnegut) who “finally [do not take] history very seriously,” or at least scarcely represent it profoundly or even substantially, Alter concludes, “despite the overwhelming density of actual historical detail in the [novels].” Since James, Bellow, Roth et al seem no more outwardly interested than these authors, or even much less, I make the distinction I do. Their fascination, obsession seems to me to be in the psychological, the inward, moreso than the focus of other types of novelists, the societal gamers, or the hyper quirky, who seem more interested in gaming social landscapes and myriad other elements. I do think that James, Bellow, and Roth have outward curiosity and see themselves as in large part publicly focused. I just don’t buy any such intent for much especial actuality. That’s controversial, probably, and deserves extensive exploration (someone could probably make a career of it) though not probably by me. Also, often this is how their work is treated, for the fascination of character focus…and it seems to me the particular works ultimately encourage that mainly. So I would extend a version, perhaps greatly modified, of Alter’s view to these authors as well.
I get the sense that authors like DeLillo really are much more interested in the outward public societal phenomena that they detail than are these inwardists, as I sometimes refer to them, though still confined in basically status quo veins, and again often or typically passing off appearance of interest for real interest or great substance. (As for TS Eliot, it’s a similar argument though maybe revolving more around how his example as a sort of aesthete is used or misused in lit realms.) Lit needs interiorists and virtually all other variety of novelists of course but taken altogether there is basically what Ivan Illich calls a “radical monopoly” for the status quo against much liberatory fiction (not that he was speaking of fiction but of other establishment productions, ideas, and institutions).
A key, highly regarded US novel, establishment novel at least, of the 20th century is Ellison’s Invisible Man. It sort of has everything (well, a lot) and it has the obsessions with style and interiority as well as outwardness in linking maybe the most radical era of the century with maybe one of the most repressive, the general socialist upsurge and the “anticommunist” backlash. Without going into extended analysis of the novel, I’ll note that in my view Invisible Man is an example of often highly accomplished art that is often highly deplorable, or simply weak, flawed. Others have pointed out some of this in detail. Is the novel liberatory? It has its moments, but on whole no. It’s quite an establishment or reactionary novel.
In fiction generally, stylistic obsession, interior obsession, exterior obsession do not determine quality necessarily but can be heavily used in status quo veins to take up plenty of space toward blocking out much liberatory exploration or effects, especially the interior and stylistic, though they can also be used for liberation, as some authors consciously attempt outside of status quo ideology and other parameters. (See again a number of the works at Liberation Lit, for example.)
There is no point in gutting “liberatory” of its full range of meaning, and of course no one owns the word. Take A House for Mr. Biswas, an early novel by Nobel prize winning author VS Naipaul. Is it liberatory? Can’t say, I’ve not read Biswas aside from an excerpt years ago, but as James Wood describes the novel it seems it may be somewhat liberatory broadly defined, or at least in moments, as with some other liberal or even conservative works. That’s not the main sense in which I use the world liberatory. Why? Take, for example Naipaul’s book Guerrillas. It’s an odious novel. Some aesthetics aside. Guerrillas and central parts of Invisible Man are representative of what has been called the “liberal cesspool” though “reactionary mendacity” and “conservative crap” also apply, heavily. Hey, award a Nobel prize, a National Book Award. Praise to the skies (while tossing in an occasional rebuke). And so the establishment tsunamis on. Thus the need for imaginative writers and critics who write in sheer progressive partisan fashion, to try to help offset the establishment tsunami. It’s inaccurate and unfair to claim that such liberatory writing is more political or more ideological than other ways of approaching novels because establishment criticism and fiction is extraordinarily political and ideological too, however privately focused, or unconsciously created and acting, or consciously falsely denying its political and other normative import. Moreover, liberatory writing is often more objective than ostensibly apolitical establishment work, which is frequently warped and debased by the ideology of the paymasters.
Writers would do well to be aware that we live in what has long been the “Age of Propaganda” especially in this country but also of course far beyond (documented also at the Socialit subsite) – the central and massive institutional and cultural rise of public relations and advertising, by now more than a full century worth. It cannot help but have a profound (perhaps radical) effect on the novel, imaginative literature, for a variety of reasons…also on criticism, which is why liberatory writers may frequently need to repeat points, or especially qualify them near to tedium, or go on at length, or emphatically focus otherwise, because such writers are basically not just repeating conventional wisdom where everyone nods and goes along with it, having heard and absorbed it before. The propaganda with deep and vast institutional roots may be the main monster one writes into and against. Most novels seem to blithely chirp or smudge on oblivious to this new world of the past 100 years or more, a lot like the US Presidential candidates chirping and chipping away at one another while the normative, let alone economic, ground upon which they stand has long been in free fall to the fabled fires of their systems’ own making, though they are pleasantly provided protective suits and bubbles within which to live, or exist. They’re frozen idiotically in time this way. They are the players of official (publishable) appearance, and so they play, and it is so pitifully boring and so limited and so often vacuous, when not sheer fraudulent or ignorant. Are we talking about novels or elections here? Yes – both. That’s why some of the stronger novels focus on the private intimate (e.g., Franzen’s The Corrections), because they can be real there (or even ideal) to a much larger extent than one can be in the Orwellian outer world, the public realms…the official, the established, the inculcated and cultured empire of lies – ringed by ostensibly responsible and respectable (if also mouthy and abrasive) gatekeepers who drivel on in a sort of soap opera lunacy.
This is what beheads much would be crucial and accomplished fiction of the public. 500 Palestinians dead? Fine, fine – Israel was feeling a touch nervous. Millions of Iraqis slaughtered? Oh well – the US has been feeling a bit insecure. Trillions of dollars worth nothing? So be it – the bankers know best. In any case, the bankers and corpse rats own the owned, by fiat, fenced off and disorganized in the face of ruling wealth, the Guiding Light of the world. Hail to the Chief, here he comes, Mr. America, and Congress too, bought and paid for, well salaried, ever fresh from bloodbath, put on bright display by their corporate cohorts and a complicit and marauding official culture – lunatic inmates and their financial guards farcing about and running the asylum. Such is the life or class essence of officials and executives and professionals and others in ruling realms: brutal soap opera farce. To get published by the establishment plenty of the most vital public matters have to be written about in truncated or remote absurdist allegory like back in the days of Tsarist Russia, though today the tsunami of propaganda and such, including its style, much of which is trope, can disappear much power of allegory – that otherwise oft poor substitute for more direct forms.
The novel that Western fiction may have the most to learn from is Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, of which I’ve written elsewhere (here and here) – including this:
While not from the US but Africa as Ngugi points out, Wizard of the Crow is far more a global novel than [reviewer] 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…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.
 The Corrections is high tech soap opera, more or less well wrought, or at least addictively wrought at a rather verbally refined level, plenty of pastry and sugar that people are familiar with (people in fairly ambitious yet somehow dead end lives, as they feel, bred by the millions in this fragmented culture) with just enough nutrition or appearance of nutrition, and not socially devoid either (that is, seemingly). While the work is accomplished, it’s far from unflawed, a very status quo novel, and I agree with Mailer that it suffers from a great lack, not hard to realize what sort, I think.
I’ve always thought that contrary to most opinion the opening page or so is extremely poorly wrought, almost obnoxiously so in its description of nature and so on, yet somewhat sweeping, intriguing nevertheless. It’s as if you can tell Franzen was scarcely at all interested in what he was writing right there but that he really felt supercharged to get to what comes next. Sheer supposition though. I don’t recall anything normative (or aesthetic) that’s much progressive let alone revolutionary about The Corrections. It’s a type of head in the sand fiction in regard to much insight about public matters and the larger human condition.