A Glimpse of Freedom

John Pilger,A Glimpse of Freedom“:

Last year, I interviewed Pablo Solón, son of the great Bolivian muralist Walter Solón, in an extraordinary room covered by his father’s epic brush strokes. More visceral than Diego Rivera’s images of the Mexican revolution, the pictures of injustice rage at you; the barbaric manipulation of people’s lives shall not pass, they say. Pablo Solón, now an adviser to the government of Evo Morales, said: “The story of Bolivia is not unlike so many resource-rich countries where the majority are very poor. It is the story of the government behind the government and what the American embassy allows, for in that building is the true source of power in this country. The US doesn’t have major investments here; what they fear is another Chávez; they don’t want the ‘bad example’ to spread to Ecuador and beyond – even to Nigeria, which might be inspired to tax the oil companies as never before. For the US, any genuine solution to poverty spells trouble.”

“How much would it cost to solve the poverty of Bolivia?” I asked.

“A billion dollars; it’s nothing. It’s the example that matters, because that’s the threat.”

NYT Best American Fiction Discussion

Some thoughts on the New York Times “best American fiction” discussion

In my view, a lot of what the NYT discussion group said was valid and interesting, and thus part of a useful exercise, but in many ways the discussion also seemed inbred and stunted, or oblivious. First, through no fault of the members of the discussion group, the narrow makeup of that group reflected the narrow makeup of the polled group, and then who could be surprised that the discussion would revolve largely around those writers featured prominently in the poll, even if partly in dissent? The main problem with the poll, as has been widely remarked, was the set-up, which the discussion group itself reflected, even as they to some extent pointed out some of the flaws in the set-up…lending an underlying bizarre flavor to the entire discussion.

Beyond that, “American” (that is U.S.) economic and social and cultural influence is so expansive that it is in significant ways strange to think of American fiction as being confined to U.S. citizens/residents (or, that is, _set apart from_ a lot of fiction abroad), let alone the small nonrepresentative group involved in the poll and the discussion both. There were many calls, rhetorical at least, from citizens of countries all around the world for the right to vote in the most recent U.S. presidential election because the quite accurate view is that what the U.S. does has often a significant or even profound and decisive impact on conditions abroad, which cannot help but include and affect literary production as well.

So think of what might have been added to the discussion if a literary figure like Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy had been involved:

Arundhati Roy with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now:

AMY GOODMAN: “I want to ask in our last 30 seconds: the role you see of the artist in a time of war?”

ARUNDHATI ROY: “Well, I think the problem is that artists are not a homogenous lot of people, and some of them are as rightwing and establishment as they can get, you know, so the role of the artist is not different from the role of any human being. You pick your side, and then you fight, you know? But in a country like India, I’m not seeing that many radical positions taken by writers or poets or artists, you know? It’s all the seduction of the market that has shut them up like a good medieval beheading never could.”

There are also a number of U.S. literary figures who make similar observations about the state of U.S. literature. During these past decades of nonstop U.S. covert and overt military action, with U.S. military installations in something like 150 countries around the globe, and hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers also spread around the globe, and U.S. weaponry even more pervasive, what are we to make of this statement by Ron Jacobs?: “Not since Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five [1969] has there been a novel for the US market that so clearly addressed war from an oppositional viewpoint.” This may be something of an overstatement but the underlying deficient reality, it seems to me, is enormously telling. Something akin to a “medieval beheading” is evident in a variety of ways in U.S. literature, in the NYT poll, and in the discussion itself.

As I’ve commented elsewhere: “In a time of state aggression and state terrorism and non-state terrorism; in a time of nuclear proliferation; in an increasingly perilous time of environmental catastrophes, those arrived and those impending, it’s long since time for skilled novelists…to get up to speed in these areas not least” in a modern and contemporary society/culture that bears more than a little resemblance, it’s surely not too difficult to imagine, to a “Good German” culture of the Nazi era…:

Am I asking the NYT poll and discussion to do something it was not designed to do? Yes, absolutely. And, no, not at all.


This post and more thoughts of my own and others: here.

Seeing Black and Red

Traditional anarchist colors.

Art and politics in Nepal — The Color[s] of Freedom:

"My inspiration has always been my fascination with society, figures, the romantic, birds, trees, animals," says Manandhar. "I focus on the female form, not the male. That for me is where the real beauty is."

But now Manandhar says he is in a different phase – one which will likely follow the trajectory of Nepal's democratic process. He says these are not just the empty words of a dilettante but something he is backing up with action.

Indeed, at an event held next to Gongabu Street in Katmandu, site of some the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in April, Manandhar and 55 other artists and poets are creating works of art that will be sold to raise money for those injured during violent confrontations with the police….

See also comment 4:

This is great; Manandhar is a significant artist, and quite famous in Nepal and even in India. But what I think I love the most about this atricle is the way he is distancing himself from the Royal Court. "Sees only Black and Red"; for now…but quite likely to see other colors later. Somewhat ironic, as his patronage extended right up to the previous Queen, and he enjoyed long running painting shows in the former Queen's "Palace". But what they hell; that's the way it is with "revolutions"; when the new administration comes in, best to have a few qualifications that keep YOU from being frog-marched down a dank, dark corridor to rot in a concrete cell. Not to detract from his creative talent though; he clearly has the juice. But self-promotion is also a skill of all great artists.

“A Good Medieval Beheading” — Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now, from ZNet:

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask in our last 30 seconds: the role you see of the artist in a time of war?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I think the problem is that artists are not a homogenous lot of people, and some of them are as rightwing and establishment as they can get, you know, so the role of the artist is not different from the role of any human being. You pick your side, and then you fight, you know? But in a country like India, I’m not seeing that many radical positions taken by writers or poets or artists, you know? It’s all the seduction of the market that has shut them up like a good medieval beheading never could.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think artists should do?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Exactly what anyone else should do, which is to pick your side, take your position, and then go for it, you know?

Homefront Review

A review of Homefront – anti Iraq War novel    

    Optimism of the Will    

    by Ron Jacobs

Tony Christini wondered why there were no antiwar novels published in the US about its war in Iraq. So did his cohorts Mike Palecek and Andre Vltchek.  

After all, doesn’t this war and its implications need a fictional approach to reach readers who avoid non-fiction? Don’t other cultures and peoples utilize the fictive approach to make political points. Indeed, haven’t writers throughout history understood the power that fiction provides for a view too often unheard. I guess one could argue that there is such a thing as political fiction in the United States if they included novels about Washington corruption and chicanery, but there is little fiction that considers the politics of US extraparliamentary movements. Given this dirth of literature, Christini, Palecek and Vltchek started a publishing venture to resolve the situation. The company, known as Mainstay Press, has around a half dozen titles currently on their list, most of them fiction. It also includes a website that features discussions about literature and politics.  

Homefront is the first novel in a trilogy that takes on the Iraq War and the complicity of the common citizen. Set somewhere in the United States, the story is told through the words and thoughts of one family and some members of their circle. A year after losing their son during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the novel presents the family’s questions and doubts. Simultaneously, it carries on a conversation with the reader about the reasons for the young man’s death.   

Oftentimes, novels like Homefront are so political that they read more like a tract from some political sect than like a novel. In other words, the politics render the flow of the story and its characters to be woodenlike props. The story become secondary at best to the politics. While there is no doubt that this book is very political, just like there is no doubt as to the author’s politics, Christini manages to make this work quite readable. The story has its own compelling style that sweeps the reader into the minds and hearts of its characters.  

The son’s death proves to be a cathartic event in the life of the family and the individuals that make it up. The mother can’t get away from the doubts she has regarding her first statement to the press where she stated “Aaron (her son) died for all of us.” It seems that within minutes of her utterance, she begins to wonder whether she should have said “Aaron died because of all of us.” It is this question that the novel revolves around and it is this question that the author wants each of us to answer for ourselves.

Like Upton Sinclair’s King Coal or even John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Homefront is part moral and political outrage and part story. Taken from today’s headlines, there are themes in this book that read like the evening news. However, the format of fiction allows the writer (and the reader) to go beyond the soundbite. Thereby that ordinary US family becomes an intellectually and emotionally complex creature. Mom not only questions the complicity of her politician cousin, she also questions her own. The dead man’s brother wonders how much the world of sports and macho masculinity created he soldier his brother became. His sisters move from their very private worlds to the public sphere where nothing is certain but their own convictions. It is the author’s hope that the reader will do the same.  

Is the US public this complex? Or are they like so many docile creatures that think only how they are told? Are their concerns really only as deep as the next episode of their favorite television show or the next ball game? Christini thinks not. Otherwise, why bother writing the novel? Most folks involved in the antiwar movement agree with Christini. Otherwise why bother spending the energy it takes to go to meetings and marches? Most politicians, on the other hand, seem to hold the opposite viewpoint. Otherwise, why would they continue to support and fund a war that poll after poll tells them their constituents don’t support? If they don’t consider us to be the simple creatures described above, than the only other possibility is that they hold us in even greater contempt than previously thought. Or perhaps it’s just that the money from the plutocrats that really run this country is just so plentiful that any public or private conscience that the politicians have is rendered dumb in its presence. The presence of amoral (if not immoral) power and greed, and their effect on those whom we choose to rule us is the subject of the second book in the trilogy, Washburn.  

Homefront is an overtly political and staunchly antiwar novel. This in itself is a rarity in today’s world of publishing. Besides the novels of Washington corruption and chicanery mentioned above, Tom Clancy and a myriad of others publish works that justify and encourage the warmongers and their backers, all the while implying to the reading public that the world the imperialists made is the only real world and one that not only deserves to be, but is as permanent as the mountains of the Himalayas. Not since Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five has there been a novel for the US market that so clearly addressed war from an oppositional viewpoint. Homefront is a noble attempt to change that fictional reality.  

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2006 Bellwether Prize

Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize is a laudable effort to encourage politically progressive imaginative writing, and this year’s selected novel Mudbound that “tells the story of the contempt that greeted African-American veterans who returned to the Mississippi Delta after serving their country during World War II” is surely valuable and may be a great novel. Racism is as great an issue today as it was decades ago; the racist nature of the explosive growth in incarceration in the U.S. is merely one manifestation today. But is a novel set in the wake of WWII the most timely choice, and in that way the most conducive to social change? Were the other more timely submissions so very much more deficient, at all deficient, or in fact superior aesthetically, etc, to the winner? When Mudbound comes out, it might make for an interesting exercise to compare it to Homefront, Glory, and Washburn (three books of fiction of social change that I submitted as a single novel titled Homefront for the 2004 contest), and also compare it to Andre Vltchek’s novel Point of No Return (submitted for the 2006 contest) or even the forthcoming novel Master of Fine Arts (that I also submitted for the 2006 contest), and also compare it to other such submissions, if any, and you be the judge. All three of these submissions failed to survive even the first cut in the Bellwether contest. Maybe Andre’s novel and my own books are unaccomplished, written by a couple politically disengaged people with no writing experience or evident skill, heedless of the world and the people in it today; that’s one possible answer, easily looked into. The other possible answers are quite telling too.

DePauw Alumna article:

“Writers should embrace the idea that their work is political rather than running from the label,” novelist Barbara Kingsolver said. “In fact, some of the best writing is political…. Because of this climate in the U.S. that political art is taboo, the writers will tell you it’s not political. I’ve heard John Irving say he’s not a political writer. There is nothing to be worried about. It’s absolutely the domain of art.”

Also reported:

Kingsolver created and personally funds the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, the only major North American endowment or prize for the arts that specifically seeks to support a literature of social responsibility. At yesterday’s event she announced the 2006 winner, Hillary Jordan, who receives $25,000 “and a contract with Scribner publishing house for her unpublished novel, Mudbound. It tells the story of the contempt that greeted African-American veterans who returned to the Mississippi Delta after serving their country during World War II.

A worthy novel in concept, and, in all likelihood, in achievement. Yet it’s difficult not to think that — during this time of war and this time of lightning fast global connection and information, even direct access, and during this time of the ever bloody occupation of Iraq, and during this time of the increasing threats of hostility directed from the U.S. further into the Middle East and into Latin America and elsewhere — highly accomplished American novels of contemporary war will continue to be passed over in favor of, say, the next great novel of the French and Indian War, or its wake, that might garner the 2008 prize. In a time of state aggression and state terrorism and non-state terrorism; in a time of nuclear proliferation; in an increasingly perilous time of environmental catastrophes, those arrived and those impending, it’s long since time for skilled novelists, let alone politically engaged prizes, to get up to speed in these areas, not least.

Also, is a contest nearly the best way to go about facilitating the publication of politically progressive imaginative fiction? Instead of producing a single novel every two years, wouldn’t the prize money be better spent founding such a publishing house itself? Or recognizing more novels with a much smaller prize or none at all? After all, these novelists aren’t writing for the prize money, one would think. That said, one would also think that simply going with accomplished but more timely novels would help make the Bellwether Prize something more than it currently is.

Antiwar Novels

Some thoughts from Stan Modjesky on antiwar novels in "Anti-War Book Collecting": 

"Curiously, little if any anti-war fiction has dealt with post-Vietnam warfare, despite the fact that U.S. citizens have been bitterly divided on the justification for the Persian Gulf wars, the war in the Falklands, the ongoing Arab-Israeli and Irish-British conflicts, to name only the most obvious examples. I cannot but wonder whether this stems from lack of artistic inspiration, or fear of reprisals."

The Politics of Literary Politics

The title of Terrence Rafferty’s article in the New York Times about Carlos Fuentes new novel The Eagles Thrown, “The Political is Ultra Personal,” might lead one to believe that the article will explain that the novel portrays the political ramifications of personal decisions and actions that lead to general illumination and pointed understanding on private and public levels both, along with their relation — overt, implicit, and enigmatic…all. Not so fast.

Would that be asking too much of a novel? Would that be too complex for the novel form to ever dare hope to handle? Would that be beyond the capacity of the authors themselves to create, let alone readers and critics to understand?

For instead the article builds to and closes on this bit of boilerplate ideology:

“Fuentes, no mean aphorist himself, wrote not long ago: ‘Politics can be dogmatic. The novel can only be enigmatic’….”

While it may be that most every novel might do well to be deeply imbued by enigma, surely most any novel can also make as deep and clear a political mark as it would like, as well. The two are not mutually exclusive, far from it. See, for example, some of the best moments in Robert Newman’s comic geopolitical novel The Fountain at the Center of the World or Andre Vltchek’s global novel Point of No Return, and so on….

This is not to say that Fuentes did not write a fine novel, or that Rafferty did not incisively review it, or even that the title of the article is inept. It is to say, again, that Fuentes’ aphorism that Rafferty agrees with is deeply flawed, in a variety of ways, as the progressive tradition of literary criticism has revealed in vital detail over the decades.

Have They Been Banned? Iraq War Novels — Interview

Interviewer: Is it true that reviewers are too cowardly to review your Iraq War novel, Homefront?

A: You mean antiwar novel? I don’t know. I guess you would have to ask them.

Interviewer: Well, what makes me ask is, see, there’s this whole war going on, people dying by the scores every day in Iraq, and U.S. soldiers dying and occupying the place, and the Air Force bombing across the land, and, well, here you’ve written this Iraq War novel Homefront and can it possibly be that no one is interested?

A: Antiwar novel. What can I say? You would have to ask reviewers. And their editors and publishers.

Interviewer: Way back on March 12, 2004, for Kirkus Reviews Tom Miller and Gregory McNamee  asked: “Where are the great Iraq war novels? It’s been a year since American tanks rolled into Baghdad, and we have yet to see the first roman a guerre.” [The Great Iraq War Novel] That was over 2 years ago, and still nothing today?

A: Seems strange doesn’t it? It’s a massive, very serious public issue, very grave, very many people involved. Hard to fathom why there is not more exploration of the war and occupation of Iraq in novels. Think of the stories the military war resisters could tell…as some are, all across the country.

Establishment Irresponsibility: Ana Marie Cox Wrong on Stephen Colbert…

Never have so many argued for so much (of what they do) to mean so little.

This is how they think, from establishment high officials to establishment flunkies, like the dominant press. They think what they do doesn’t matter in any damaging way when they simply type up what the officials have to say and leave it at that. Hey, buyer beware! (But you won’t be warned here.) Here’s Ana Marie Cox on Stephen Colbert’s satire of the administration and of the press at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

“Comedy can have a political point but it is not political action, and what Colbert said on the stage of the Washington Hilton — funny or not — means far less than what the ardent posters at ThankYouStephenColbert.org would like it to. While it may have shocked the President to hear someone talk so openly about his misdeeds in the setting of the correspondents dinner — joking about “the most powerful photo-ops in the world” and NSA wiretaps — I somehow doubt that Bush has never heard these criticisms before. To laud Colbert for saying them seems to me, a card-carrying lefty, to be settling.”

She hit the trifecta in a short space, wrong on three accounts. First, political comedy is political action and can directly create social, cultural, and political action all. Second, Colbert’s whole performance was mainly a criticism of the press, a far more apt target under the circumstances. Third, the idea that Cox considers herself a “lefty” is entirely laughable and predictable.

Back to the first point, the dominant members of the press love to think so very much of their work has no negative effect on anything no matter how disinformative and subservient to power it continuously is. I’m sure tobacco PR spokespeople think the same way: Just doing my job (and making my big bucks) mainstreaming killer dope, into the veins of the public. And why not? PR doesn’t kill people — words do.

More on the NYT “best of” American fiction list

A note I posted on a thread at The Valve:

It seems to me too that the NYT list exercise is in many ways absurd and seriously deficient — does that need to be pointed out? Despite some accomplished works on the list, it fails to provide even a glancing overview of the vital works of contemporary American fiction, or even much insight into what might be more truly representative of or understood as “the best” — singly, let alone, variously, defined.

Considering “the best” might not be the most fruitful way to go, but if one wants to seriously consider standards of high excellence it might not be terrible if the exercise were thoughtfully constructed. So, “the best” according to some 100+ literary figures who know one particular literary figure, or viewed much more broadly, in ways both more representative and eccentric? And “the best” culturally? intellectually? emotionally? ethically? aesthetically? (defined how?), the best in effect? or in execution? or in conception? or…?

It may be that a “best” list exercise can’t be done in a way that does justice to the value of literature. Considering which novels or short fiction may be exceptionally vital, in many ways defined, seems more fruitful and appropriate. But even then one would want much fuller contextualization of the selected works and their relation to other valuable works that don’t measure greatly or at all on any such list.

Evidently, the NYT list is the result of an exercise (by connected establishment figures) with no serious thought to design and understanding. Though there are some strong works on the list, the exercise is in many ways an embarrassment, not least given its obvious limits coupled to its grandiose claim. Should people take it seriously, it seems to me that it would be destructive to literature and culture, as it fails to highlight much of the most valuable writing, let alone the diverse “best,” and a lot of the otherwise vital and lively work being produced.

“Best Work of American Fiction”

From the New York Times, a list of the “best work of American fiction from the past 25 years” and an essay “In Search of the Bestby A. O. Scott, excerpted and commented on briefly below. [The NYT list exercise is in many ways absurd and seriously deficient — does that need to be pointed out? It fails to provide even a glancing overview of the vital works of contemporary American fiction, or even much insight into what might be more truly representative of or understood as “the best” — singly, let alone, variously, defined.]

“The three novels do what we seem to want novels to do, which is to blend private destinies with public events, an exercise that the postwar proliferation of media simultaneously makes more urgent and more difficult.”

Really? Or more urgent and easier? because we don’t have to wait a generation to gather so many of the facts, and stories, from, by now, around the globe.

“A big country demands big books…. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.”

Really? That parochial? High quality global novels like Point of No Return (by the American international journalist, Andre Vltchek) would seem to have a leg up on novels that limit themselves to a national subject, rather than, by now, a global one. Novels of the global age can be found at Mainstay Press, and elsewhere of course. Maybe a few more of those will make the next list.

Other thoughts:

Some novelists and critics have commented on the necessary internationalization of American novels for over half a century. And a decade and a half ago, Maxine Hong Kingston commented in “The Novel’s Next Step,” Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing (Philomena Mariani, Ed.): “I’m going to give you a head start on the book that somebody ought to be working on. The hands of the clock are minutes away from nuclear midnight. And I am slow, each book taking me longer to write… So let me set down what has to be done, and maybe hurry creation, which is about two steps ahead of destruction…. All the writer has to do is make Wittman [hero of her novel, Tripmaster Monkey] grow up, and Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield will grow up. We need a sequel to adolescence—an idea of the humane beings that we may become. And the world will have a sequel…. The dream of the great American novel is past. We need to write the Global novel…. The danger is that the Global novel has to imitate chaos: loaded guns, bombs, leaking boats, broken-down civilizations, a hole in the sky, broken English, people who refuse connections with others…. How to stretch the novel to comprehend our times—no guarantees of inherent or eventual order—without having it fall apart? How to integrate the surreal, society, our psyches?”

Further thoughts at The Future of Imaginative Writing and Political Fiction Journal.

Nothing They Care to Hear

From Counterpunch

Colbert’s Moment: The Beltway Gang Didn’t Get Colbert, But Nearly Everyone Else Did

By Chris Dols

“An old friend of mine with a penchant for Marxist jargoneering takes every opportunity to remind anyone who will listen that, ‘the American ruling class is the dumbest class ever to rule.’ After speaking in front of the most representative audience of the American ruling class that he’ll ever land –the White House Press Correspondence Dinner –Stephen Colbert proved it. Colbert impaled them and they were dumb enough to claim, as Noam Scheiber of the New Republic did “that he just wasn’t very entertaining.” Of course, comments like this just vindicate Colbert….”


One problem here is that if you are being “impaled” of course you are not going to find it “entertaining.” That’s not being “dumb.” Wouldn’t it be more “dumb” to find entertaining one’s being impaled? The lack of favorable appreciation is more likely a sign of having a different set of values. These folks value the status quo. After all, it works for them, to a considerable extent.

Of course Dols is correct in pointing out that Colbert accurately criticized the dominant media and government, among which we may safely assume that many are deeply indoctrinated into the values of power, but this of course doesn’t mean they can’t recognize when they are being criticized or even condemned. It doesn’t mean they don’t “get” the send-up. It means they disagree with it, not because they don’t understand it, but because they are, for whatever reason, dehumanized to its value. And if they were somehow humanized to its scathing accuracy in the moment, or could even admit the value of a little of it, then the last thing one would expect them to do is laugh. They got the send-up all right. Understood it just fine, thank you. It’s just nothing they care to hear. As they made perfectly clear.


There is no such thing as America, of course, despite what they try to teach you in school, church, media family, etc.… Never was, never has been, never will be.  

Columbus, when he sailed the seas and arrived on an island off the coast of Turtle Island (what is called North/South/Central America), and when Columbus chopped off the hands of the Arawaks, he did not think he had arrived in America. (He thought he was in India of course, but even if he had realized he had met with uncharted land, he would not have thought of the big mud bank as the corrupted form of some Italian explorer's name.) Too bad the big mud bank was not named after Amerigo's last name, Vespucci. It would be easier to give it up that way. Who, after all, wants to be known as a Vespuccian? Here, poochie, poochie. Meanwhile, America, sort of has a lyrical beautiful ring to it. America! America! God shed his grace on thee! Hold it! God? His? Thee? What century are we living in here? The sixth? There is no such thing as God, people. There is no Lord, No Allah, Ho Yahweh, No This, That, or The Other. As far as anyone knows. Sorry. Would be lying not to say so….

Voltaire: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."  

There is no such thing as Canada or Mexico, either, of course, etc…. "Nation" states are basically formed by a bunch of rich men who get together and say this is how we can make a buck. The people are pushed around, and so we try to resist as best we can. It's very Un-American indeed.

Freedom to Write

Orhan Pamuk in Freedom to Write comments:

  "…didn't I often and angrily fantasize about raising these subjects in my novels, just because they happened to be forbidden [by the state]? As I thought all this through, I was at once ashamed of my silence, and reconfirmed in my belief that freedom of expression has its roots in pride, and is, in essence, an expression of human dignity." 

The sense of shame among novelists and publishers in the U.S. should be far greater and deeper than this because even though here there is little or no state censorship, there is still no flood of novels about many of the great crises of our day. In some cases scarcely even a trickle, or less.

A Few Notes on the Literary Establishment


As political consciousness and knowledge grow more prevalent in the broad culture, leading literary stars lag behind, as does much of the literary establishment (as journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has noted in a series of articles). Less than a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks against U.S. financial, military and governing centers, the often-perceptive, leading literary critic James Wood declared absurdly, “Who would dare to be knowledgeable [in a novel] about politics and society now?” Meanwhile the brilliant writer, highly successful novelist Jonathan Franzen stands by his notion that there is “something wrong with the whole model of the novel of social engagement,” and also directly in the face of marvellous and compelling evidence to the contrary, The New Republic’s scholarly art critic Jed Perl writes that works of art are all but inevitably weakened by much political emphasis—an idea that would come as a shock (or a joke) to many great artists of the past and present.

In “Resistance,” the article where Perl makes this central point, his major assertions are often so ambiguous or unsubstantiated (and inaccurate), that it hardly seems worth refuting what is scarcely there, but examining a few of the more lockstep reactionary statements can show in more detail some of the dominant debilitating views on art and politics held by much of the literary establishment. Perl claims, “the trouble with political art remains pretty much constant…for an artist's effort to speak to a wide audience on a specific topic all too often compromises art's essential discourse, which is a formal discourse, a discourse with its own freestanding meanings and values”—as if only “political” art (and not, say, “psychological” art) attempts “to speak to a wide audience on a specific topic.” Then there must be no great novels on adultery or on first love or on a particular virtue or vice. There goes Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice. There goes every great anti-war novel ever written. And there goes Antigone, Lysistrata, The Inferno, Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, Hard Times, The Awakening, Native Son, Invisible Man, and every great novel with a purpose, every great problem novel, utopian novel, dystopian novel, in fact most every great social and political novel ever written, along with many great “psychological” novels as well.

“In spite of the crudeness of most political art—” Perl continues heedlessly—as if "political" art, whatever he means by it, can be any more crude than the largely apolitical or politically retrograde art that is endlessly spewed from out of TV, Hollywood, and across the airwaves—so heedlessly that one wonders if as Perl writes he is simultaneously chanting “I must not (appear to) be political, I must not (appear to) be political…” In full he asserts: “In spite of the crudeness of most political art—“ [for some great political art, see here] “and of most of the debates about it” [for over a century of evidence to the contrary, that is of thoughtful, far from “crude,” discussions on political art, see here and here] “—there are very deep feelings involved. Even the cheap-shots and prepackaged effects and self-righteousness poses reflect a very old and honorable debate about the relationship about art and life," Perl would have us know, with a marvel of condescension.

Progressive Political Fiction


At Mainstay Press, we publish works of progressive political fiction that are invigorating, urgent, and vital – politically, aesthetically, and otherwise.

Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903): 
[The novel] may be a great force…fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak…..

Upton Sinclair, Mammonart (1924):
…mankind is today under the spell of utterly false conceptions of what art is and should be; of utterly vicious and perverted standards of beauty and dignity. We list six great art lies now prevailing in the world, which this book will discuss…

Morris Edmund Speare, The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America (1924): The political novel…is the most embracing in its material of all other novel types…[and] must be dominated, more often than not, by ideas rather than by emotions

W.E.B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926): 
…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. 

V. F. Calverton, 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. 

John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934):  
A particular work of art may have a definite effect upon a particular person or upon a number of persons. The social effect of the novels of Dickens or of Sinclair Lewis is far from negligible….

Joseph Freeman, Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935): 
To characterize an essay or a book as a political pamphlet is neither to praise nor to condemn it…. In the case of the liberal critic, however, we have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a political weapon which turns out to be itself a political weapon…. 

James T. Farrell, A Note on Literary Criticism (1936): 
Literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influence…. I suggest that…the formula ‘All art is propaganda’ be replaced by another: ‘Literature is an instrument of social influence.…’. [Literature] can be propaganda…and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation. 

Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism (1939):
‘Propaganda’ is…used [here] to describe works consciously written to have an immediate and direct effect upon their readers’ opinions and actions, as distinguished from works that are not consciously written for that purpose or which are written to have a remote and indirect effect. It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work ‘propaganda’ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally ‘propaganda’ for something. 

Roger Dataller, The Plain Man and the Novel (1940): 
That Charles Dickens assisted the reform of the Poor Law, and Charles Reade that of the Victorian prison system, is undeniable…. Such novels influence. 

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941): 
The contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. 

George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press” (1943) (Excerpt from the suppressed preface to Animal Farm):  
The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

*[After the end of Jennifer Howard’s recent article “The Fragmentation of Literary Theory,” notice the gap in the timeline of works of literary “theory” that occurs roughly between the two world wars: That gap comprises much of easily one of the most vital periods of US literary criticism, as partly indicated above, a time that Bernard Smith overviews and analyzes in the last two chapters of Forces in American Criticism (1939). It seems to me that there should be more discussion among political artists and others of the sort arising, both figuratively and literally, from that gap in the timeline – discussions that relate the creation of art and literature today to the urgent concerns of today.] 

Somewhat more recently, Roland Barthes observes: “Then comes the modern question: why is there not today (or at least so it seems to me), why is there no longer an art of intellectual persuasion, or imagination? 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?” 

Pakistan, for one, has made overt its understanding of the cultural potentcy of fiction, as I’ve noted elsewhere, having banned all imports of fiction from India but not all non-fiction. The state of Pakistan apparently fears that the power and influence of fiction will undermine its control. In this case, fiction is even more feared than nonfiction. And why shouldn’t it be, given its very influential history and nature, in public and private realms both? 

The remarkable fact about literary censorship in America is that it is largely voluntary (to play off of Orwell’s comment about England). It is carried out knowingly in some cases and unwittingly by others, in ways that happen to serve the interests of power – in the sense it is commonly understood, that is, economic power, command and control authority – who gets to make decisions – a corporate-state elite, or the people at large.