The Vitiation of American Literature


“In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape. 

– V. F. Calverton (George Goetz), The Liberation of American Literature


James Wood opens his essay “The Tunnel,” a review of John Wray’s novel Lowboy, by claiming:

“Fiction is at once real and imaginary. Not real at one moment and flickeringly illusory the next, like the fading pulse of a dying man, but both at once, as if a ghost had a pulse. Fiction is one giant pseudo-statement, a fact-checker’s nightmare. Like one of our own lies, it can be completely “wrong” about the world and yet completely revelatory – completely “right” – about the psychology of the person issuing the error. Thus, one of fiction’s most natural areas of inquiry, from Cervantes to Murakami, concerns states of confusion, error, or madness, in which a character’s crazy fictions become intertwined with the novel’s calmer fictions, and the reader’s purchase on the reliable world becomes intermittently tenuous.”

Wood’s emphasis here – a kind of tautological claim, that the very nature of fiction “at once real and imaginary…as if a ghost had a pulse” acts to produce in readers an “intermittently tenuous purchase on the reliable world” – functions to misrepresent or mask his implied observation that fiction as a curious mix of fact and make-believe allows readers a mostly reliable grip on the world, even when involving a character who also mixes fact and make-believe. 

Third sentence in, Wood claims, “Fiction is one giant pseudo-statement, a fact-checker’s nightmare.” Which is a basic misrepresentation. In fact, fiction is not inherently “one giant pseudo-statement, a fact-checker’s nightmare.” Many key (and even minor) facts in works of fiction can be readily checked, if need be. There are plenty of ways authors can convey the reality or actuality of crucial facts in any novel.

“…one of fiction’s most natural areas of inquiry…[makes] the reader’s purchase on the reliable world becomes intermittently tenuous.” This is another way of saying, actually de-emphasizing, that fiction mainly affirms in readers a sense of reality. In fact, readers may gain an increasingly stronger understanding of reality, whether “intermittently tenuous” or not, due to one of fiction’s “areas of inquiry” far more “natural” generally and that follows far more readily from basic elements of Wood’s opening discussion. In other words, from say Gilgamesh to Wizard of the Crow, long works of fiction portray “a character’s crazy fictions…intertwined with the novel’s” other illuminations of life that help “the reader’s purchase on the reliable world become” deeper, more firm, more comprehensive, more useful. Emphasis affirmative – not “intermittent” and not “pseudo” and not a fact-checking “nightmare.”

So it is that Wood opens this latest review by skewing understanding of fiction and offering a tautological view. Why would one tautologically emphasize that fiction in general may cause a reader’s sense of reality to fall apart off and on, when the far more traditional and far greater functions and uses of fiction are to heighten reality and perception? And why would one then two thirds of the way through the review contradict oneself by claiming that Lowboy far from making reality “intermittently tenuous,” actually “induce[s]” “epistemological schizophrenia in the reader, whereby” the protagonist’s “groundless visions” (unrealities) are “inhabit[ed]” by readers who are left with mere “glimpse[s]” of reality?

Which is it? What is mainly “purchased” by such fiction for readers? Reality or not? Wood contradicts himself regarding the work at hand, while misrepresenting fiction in general. Oh, no! one might argue on Wood’s behalf – he states that: “You can imagine replying to someone who was curious about what it’s like to be schizophrenic, ‘Well, start with John Wray’s novel.’ Lowboy may often be lost to himself, but he is not lost to us.” In other words, Wood claims, the book keeps readers firmly grounded in reality, even if just barely – in glimpses – as readers inhabit schizophrenia – and even though “fiction is one giant pseudo-statement, a fact-checker’s nightmare.” Fortunately the facts don’t matter, except when they do. Fiction is not so confusing after all, no matter that it can be “completely ‘wrong’ about the world,” for it can be “yet completely revelatory – completely ‘right’ – about the psychology of the person issuing the error.” And what exists in fiction beyond psychology? Anything? Any fact-checker?

We might examine the implications of this truism a moment longer: “Like one of our own lies, [fiction] can be completely ‘wrong’ about the world and yet completely revelatory – completely ‘right’ – about the psychology of the person issuing the error.” There is a severe problem here but first the accuracy: of course a lie, whether actual or invented, can reveal the psychology of a person or character, just as it’s obvious that pigs on a farm can stand in for vicious tyrants in an allegory, no matter how mistaken it might be outside of story to literally think of pigs as vicious tyrants. The problem is that fiction as “the real and the imaginary” is far more than “psychology.” One can be literally completely wrong about the world and think one is completely right, not least in this Age of Propaganda that cranks out many lauded fictions and facts quite utterly irrelevant or trivial, mistaken or oppressive – including any number of psychologies, however accurate in depiction. There is far more to fiction than psychology. For example, sociology. And a few vital relations between the socio and the psycho for which a great fact-checker of an author comes in handy.

There are some other problems. Take the first sentence of the review. It’s a very simple sentence, but a very wrong sentence especially as Wood elaborates it. “Fiction is at once real and imaginary.” By which is meant “at once real” and make-believe. The problem: fiction is not necessarily real or make-believe “at once.” An author or any work of fiction short or long may choose to directly address the reader in all reality at any point, and this may be indicated explicitly or not. In such instances, at the least, there is nothing necessarily make-believe “at once,” no such necessary element or phenomenon. The factual, the actual, may stand alone. Or the factual, real element may be intertwined with the make-believe, and it may be integrated in say some alternating sequence but not necessarily “at once” in some transmuted fashion. The novel or story in such instances may be strictly real or actual (whether mistaken or not is another matter). One might simply wave one’s hand and claim, well then such passages are not “fiction” but in doing so one guts many fictions, many quality works of fiction – novels and stories, plays and poems – of essential and sometimes central features (that are real and not simultaneously fantastic).

One cannot even necessarily say that any author’s direct address or every passage of every poem, story, or novel is written in a (fictive or make believe) persona distinct from the author anymore than one can say that about a moment by moment exchange of a couple actual workers talking on an actual job.

Moreover, primary etymology of “fiction” includes “to fashion,” or “to shape.” A fiction can consist entirely of factual matter and actual opinion or belief, in which case it might be literally understood as an illusion, a lie, a fake, or an invention. Stories, novels, plays, poems – that is, fiction – are commonly thought of as inventions, which does not imply or necessitate that all key elements of all such fiction are “at once” both real and make-believe. So it is that make-believe (or the fantastic, if one prefers a sound of higher diction) does not always permeate all fictions, nor instantiate itself “at once” with fact – not even in all “fantasy,” “science-fiction,” or “speculative” novels, let alone in “realist,” “naturalist,” and “documentary” novels.

All this said, something greater is at stake in Wood’s review than the question of whether or not fiction more adeptly portrays or illumines reality and possibility or make-believe, or how well and in what way fiction illumines both, “at once” or separately. Something more urgent gets buried by this review.

It’s a type of review that could have been written hundreds of years ago about Cervantes’ Don Quixote. For that matter, this kind of review could have been written thousands of years ago about the Epic of Gilgamesh, for in not atypical Wood fashion it engages…forget the penetrating and broad public realities…it goes even sub-domestic, into the psycho-clinical, maybe touching on “the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies,” but disdaining “solutions…panaceas,” which in Wood’s view are inevitably:

“the novel’s weakness, which is precisely that it is about ‘a paranoid schizophrenic,’ explicitly flagged as such by the publisher, rather than about someone who is losing his mind, as, say, Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’ and Thomas Bernhard’s ‘Concrete’ are about people losing their minds. Books like Hamsun’s and Bernhard’s exult in the unreadable, the indecipherable. ‘Lowboy’ is exceptionally tender and acute, but it is at times in danger of falling into the legible stability of case history, in which the reader might check off recognizable symptoms, usefully assisted by the subject’s mother, who is on hand to provide the necessary background information, and validated by the acknowledged medical sources.”

So why not urge Wray to better craft the narrative given his fiction’s objectives rather than urge him to change his objective for no good reason? And Wood offers no good reason, in fact no tangible reason at all, other than a possible “weakness” that seems as if it would indicate a dip in craft more than anything else. There is nothing impossible about creating a quality novel about “a paranoid schizophrenic,” no matter if it has been done to death.

Wood adds: “The book is less bold, less playfully demanding, than Rivka Galchen’s recent novel, ‘Atmospheric Disturbances,’ which explores a similar mental deviancy from what Galchen wickedly calls ‘a consensus view of reality’.” So we turn to Wood’s prior review of Galchen’s novel and learn:

Galchen has a knack for taking a thread and fraying it, so that a sentence never quite ends up where you expect. Here Leo is talking about his desperation, as the husband of a woman who has been “replaced.” [The husband insanely thinks his wife is an imposter, a simulacrum – “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.”] We begin the sentence thinking that it might throw some light on his mind, but end it in darkened counsel… Galchen can take the slightest observation of Leo’s and warp it, to reveal lunatic undulations: “I don’t know if Harvey actually had one arm notably longer than the other, but he gave off that impression.” His language is strange, pungent, dangerously ripe: “As the simulacrum sleep sighed, her whole thorax centimetered out against me – then receded.” Walking into a pastry shop, Leo takes a quick, fantastical inventory of the people in it, and then:

“What did you say?” someone said maybe to me.
“Nothing,” I said to almost no one.

At which point we consider that Alex Comfort may have written the most incisive words yet about such work, or at least about work approximating these lines. He noted in 1948 in The Novel and Our Time that: “We have a tedious mass of books by lunatics who think they are psychologists and by neurotics who think they are lunatics. The literary magazines are full of the praises of schizophrenia.”

Wood concludes in the Galchen review that such novels “are short works, in part because first-person lunacy is a stretch. ‘Atmospheric Disturbances’ is too long by forty or fifty pages.” At which point we see that Wood’s enthusiasm is more or less terminal for long fiction.

Except as marginalized exception, what more can one expect of establishment fiction and criticism other than lively blinkered short works and intricate blinkered long works, of various warp, as if written by ideologue hedgehogs?

We do well to turn to a critic like Alex Comfort in The Novel and Our Time who notes of fiction in this age of “barbarism”:

“The responsible writer sees everyone naked, and is as naked himself. He is not devoid of political and moral judgments, but he makes them equally. In reading, therefore, ask: Is this writer capable of recognizing a human being? Is he able to reject the art of diverse weights, for which an act identical in every respect is a heroic but regrettable necessity when done by Our Side and a contemptible atrocity when done by Their Side? Is his judgment of human decisions level or weighted: does he know filth from food, whatever the wrapper? If he does, he is capable of being a great artist under barbarianism, and if not, he is another part of barbarism made manifest.”

Is the literary culture effectively tamed, reduced, and marginalized so greatly that such questions – let alone answers – do not arise, let alone preponderate, in the dominant, established circles? There exists plenty of evidence by which to draw conclusions.

One may not agree entirely here with Comfort, yet he comments with considerable insight:

“Whether we [novelists] are able to influence human conduct will depend very largely upon the number of people in a given asocial society who react by rational aggression towards that society rather than by irrational aggression towards their fellow individuals. The social role of the novel will depend very largely, in coming years, upon the persistence of sufficient rationally disobedient individuals to make novel-writing of the kind I have described possible.

“While interpretation rather than an attempt to convince is the chief object of art, the novel is more apt than any other literary form to exert direct pressure upon the growth and forming of ideas, and it will do so whether we intend that or not…. Because of the essential humanity which a writer must possess to write major novels, I am confident that it will play a large part in the events which precede the end of asociality, and should it pass out of currency as a form, it will be replaced by the unanimous literature of tyranny or the spontaneous social literature of a free society, depending upon how far its readers are able to share and imbibe the responsibility of its best practitioners.”

Establishment culture is complicit not least in the ongoing US atrocities against western Asia and beyond and at home. The established culture is so complicit it forefronts the notion of the post-9/11 novel and buries the notions of, to take a few examples, the explosion of incarceration novel, or the lethal state of health care novel, or the conquest of Oila novel – these far more enduring, or far more reaching, or far more calamitous realities and crises than the post-9/11 sensibility, which essentially emphasizes our suffering at the hands of others and not the far greater suffering we inflict on those among us and on others abroad.

It’s a class thing. “The Tunnel,” indeed. It’s an imperial thing. The USA was founded as an empire, Noam Chomsky notes:

“The United States is probably the only country in the world that was founded as a ‘nascent empire’ – it’s what George Washington called it. The colonies he said, were a nascent empire and they were just beginning their imperial conquest. They had to conquer the national territory. Thomas Jefferson [who] was the most libertarian of the founders effectively called for conquest of the Western hemisphere. The expansion of the colonies to what is now the national territory, is just imperialism. Historians of imperialism warn against what they call the ‘salt water fallacy’. Namely you only call it imperialism if you cross saltwater. But that is a fallacy. I mean if the Mississippi River was the size of the Irish sea, the conquest of the national territory would be called imperialism. From the point of view of the indigenous population, it’s the same whether you cross water or not. So yes the expansion itself was constant war against the indigenous population. The conquest of Florida, which was an undeclared war, the first executive war in American history without congressional authorization, the Mexican war conquered half of Mexico, then the expansion in the Caribbean, into the pacific, and after the Second World War, interventions everywhere. It’s hard to find a year of peace.”

Meanwhile the dominant literature of the empire colludes, plays the imperial game, facilitates the conquests that ongo. By now at least, and long since for many or most imaginative writers and critics, they cannot say they do not know or could not know, even as their writing belies they do.

Even when they believe otherwise, there exists a certain connection between writers of a certain class and inhumanity, as Chomsky points out: 

“If you have gone to the best schools and graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled in you the understanding that there are certain things it would not do to say; actually, it would not do to think. That is the primary way to prevent unpopular ideas from being expressed. The ideas of the overwhelming majority of the population, who don’t attend Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge, enable them to react like human beings, as they often do. There is a lesson there for activists.”


A lesson for novelists as well, and all authors, whether deeply invested in the liberatory or not. 




V. F. Calverton (George Goetz), The Liberation of American Literature (1932): 

Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another…. In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape. 

That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas – it was such fiction that won its adoration.


Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s