Malcolm Finch and the Limits of Liberal Fiction

Or rather, Atticus Gladwell.

It’s telling that one of the most valuable pieces of criticism of fiction to come out of the New Yorker in a while was not written by any of its literary critics but by another staff writer, Malcolm Gladwell. It’s telling additionally that on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the central US novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a review of the novel and its fit in society was either declined by the entire lit crit staff and all adjunct literary reviewers of the New Yorker or was directed away from all of them. Maybe they were all on vacation, forced or otherwise. One can see why. After all, George Packer, James Wood, and Keith Gessen were recently exposed for their severe distortions of another socially central writer, George Orwell; and Louis Menand recently admitted in a review of Pynchon’s latest novel that “I could be missing something, of course. I could be missing everything” in regard to the existence of allusions in the text of a writer famed for allusions. Perhaps New Yorker subscribers don’t mind such cavalier attitude to their subscription funds.

Regardless, Gladwell’s article, “The Courthouse Ring,” goes only a small step forward in New Yorker criticism. Who knew that an early 1960s portrayal of an early 1930s Southern lawyer in a  small town would reveal “the limits of Southern liberalism” rather than “instruct us about the world”? Well but Gladwell may mean that the (white) masses hold this belief that goes against reason. But the masses encouraged and “led” by whom? The publishing and lit industry? The corporate-state, its media and schools? Surely not.

At least Gladwell usefully spells out some points of concern: Continue reading Malcolm Finch and the Limits of Liberal Fiction

New Yorker at Sea

Consider Dave Eggers’ story “Max at Sea” in the recent New Yorker in light of Maxwell Geismar’s comments over half a century ago:

…a negation of the ‘mind’…in favor of the pure and primary world of childhood sensation. That lost world of childhood indeed to which somehow or other, [J.D.] Salinger, like the rest of the New Yorker school, always returns! That pre-Edenite community of yearned-for bliss, where knowledge is again the serpent of all evil: but a false and precocious show of knowledge, to be sure, which elevated without emancipating its innocent and often touching little victims… The root of the matter is surely here, and perhaps all these wise children may yet emerge from the nursery of life and art (208-209)…

More from Geismar in the same book, American Moderns – From Rebellion to Conformity (1958), including the quote above in further context:

The present volume began as a collection of articles and reviews writing in the Nineteen-Forties and Fifties for a more or less popular audience… Some of these articles are in the polemical vein which a critic uses with reluctance when his second nature, or his first, is to inquire, to balance, and to evaluate. The central focus of the volume is on the transitional decade from the Second World War to the middle of the twentieth century – from McCarthy to Sputnik. The historical setting is that of the uneasy ‘peace,’ the tensions of the Cold War, the return to ‘normalcy,’ and the epoch of conformity.

Or was it euphoria? In literature the period marked the decline of the classic modern American writers at the peak of their popular reputation. In criticism there was the movement towards higher and higher levels of aesthetic, or scholastic, absolutism…

There was indeed a state of general inertia in the arts, as the familiar sequel to an age of anxiety: of problems urgent and not resolved, while the surface of the globe, and outer space too, vibrated in the throes of change. The American literary scene of the Forties and Fifties must have presented to the rest of the world an odd and ironic spectacle at times; and perhaps the polemical note was indicated; and meanwhile I trust that this spectacle may also be instructive… (ix-x). Continue reading New Yorker at Sea

Gladwell and Finch

More on this when I get a chance [update: Malcolm Finch and the Limits of Liberal Fiction] but just want to note that – re: Malcolm Gladwell’s article on To Kill a Mockingbird in the recent New Yorker – the novel is more sociopolitically limited by far than Gladwell conveys. Also the novel is far more than a study of “the limits of Southern liberalism”; the novel had huge New York and national imprint and involvement in its production and creation and further dissemination (the film), as well as having strong current relation (in a variety of ways). The work greatly typifies the limits of liberalism in general. Similarly, Gladwell’s article is a study in the limits of liberalism (north, south, east, or west).

The May 2009 book by James A. Miller – Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial covers some of this ground. See in particular the Epilogue and “Chapter Eight: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: The Final Stage of the Scottsboro Narrative.” Continue reading Gladwell and Finch

Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers reviews Jill Roe’s biography of Stella Miles Franklin

Good review, excerpted below, of an important book and author. Stella Miles Franklin’s novel My Career Goes Bung (The End of My Career) has far more going for it than most novels today, also as much as or more than the valuable and acclaimed novels written about the same time, such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. See an excerpt at Lib Lit, as well as an excerpt of another valuable neglected novel, The Marrow of Tradition, by Charles Chesnutt.

Lisa Hill:

I’m not in the habit of writing fan letters, but I am very tempted to write to Jill Roe to thank her for writing this magnificent biography. Stella Miles Franklin, A Biography is not just an authoritative exploration of the life of one of my literary heroes, it’s also an intriguing read in its own right.  It’s excellent because it is so well structured, because the author’s prose is a pleasure to read and because the scholarship shines through without being heavy-handed.

Roe has not only read Franklin’s oeuvre and her voluminous correspondence, she has also read the books that Franklin enjoyed and considered memorable; she has read the most obscure of reviews about Franklin’s work, and she has the knack of using an apt comment from her sources to amplify her own analysis of events.  It is this perceptive analysis which sets this biography apart from the Olley biography which relies on commentary instead.

Almost everyone is familiar with My Brilliant Career – from the film if not from the novel – but I was intrigued to see that whereas today this book tends to be analysed in terms of gender and psychology, in Franklin’s day it was viewed through the perspectives of autobiography and class. Sybylla was rebellious and ‘unladylike’ it is true, but it was the gulf between the impoverished selectors and the squatters that lay at the heart of her rejection of Henry Beecham.  Even though she mellowed a little in her old age, Franklin was always radical in her opinions and politics, and nationalism and feminism were equally important in shaping both her professional and personal life.

More Reading for the Revolution in Venezuela

Will Grant, BBC, “Venezuela’s Revolutionary Reading”: “The [Venezuelan] government has given out tens of thousands of free copies of Don Quijote by Cervantes and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, saying that such events ‘promote reading for the construction of socialism and humanist values’.”

Plan Revolucionario de lectura es particpativo


Vital SF

At The Valve, Andrew Seal writes:

“I’m not asking for a canon or a best of [science fiction]—in fact, that’s rather the opposite of what I’m interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which [SF] books aren’t just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?”

Clearly this is going to vary widely, infinitely, depending upon who the reader is.

That said, a problem with work that self or primarily identifies as SF is the primary focus on the fantastic, which is often largely a media creation, a marketing tag or categorical brand, emphasizing fantastical cleverness above all, whatever else gets explored.

Would one call the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Odyssey, or the Inferno, or Utopia, or The Praise of Folly, or Gulliver’s Travels, or Wizard of the Crow SF? Then where are such great, even landmark works (of all literature) in these discussions? These are all fantastical fictions but they are so much more besides that it may sound odd to call them SF, or Science Fiction, or Fantasy, or Speculative Fiction, even though they are. It may seem odd (at first) to include them integrally into such discussions but they should be included, even centrally because they are examples of great landmark works of literature regardless or genre or type that happen to be fantastical. Even while inseparable from their fantastic elements, core elements in some cases, these are stories primarily known and emphasized for something greater than their fantastical cleverness and achievements just as Middlemarch and other such great Victorian novels, for example, are primarily known for something other than their mimetic fidelity or dramatic or comic acuity.

Many of these conversations assessing contemporary SF works are self-confining when they don’t jump out of the SF media/marketing box.

Such discussions often exclude crucial novels that may be in many ways either conventional or unconvential SF works but that aim for and achieve much more than the clever fantastic: works like those that I’ve mentioned and others such as Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper and Ecotopia and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, The Dispossessed, and The Parable of the Sower, and others. And at Lib Lit, the journal I co-edit, stories like Joe Emersberger’s “The Publisher,” “Dave the Prophet,” “Segundo’s Revenge,” and “Wovokia,” among others ( Fantastical works like these long have been and currently are at the very least as challenging to current achievements in SF as those mediated and marketed as SF, as not much more than some clever fantastical trip, maybe marginally topical or otherwise thematic. Their fantastic elements and natures qualify them to be in the SF discussion, and for some of them their genuine landmark reality or normative power and import are a great challenge to what qualifies as vital and accomplished fiction throughout the years, both fantastical and otherwise.

I don’t know that this is news to many but seems worth serious emphasis. Fantastical cleverness is great but normative import and vitality is at least as much a factor in making or breaking a great novel or story, no matter the genre or type of work. Emphasis on the normative achievement and urgency of such works can also help break open the demeaned media/marketing box that SF is too often pushed into or left confined within.

Casablanca and Established Opinion

Casablanca: When Melodrama Trumped History” by David Macaray via Counterpunch:

Not only is “Casablanca” regarded as one of the greatest American movies ever made—throbbing romance, exotic setting, superb cast, memorable song (“As Time Goes By”), signature dialogue (“Play it again, Sam”)—it managed to beat out an astonishing nine other nominees to win the 1943 Oscar for Best Picture. …

But for all the adoration and praise this movie has received, has anyone actually examined its plot?  Has anyone asked themselves what this movie isreally about? Because, if they had, they’d realize the movie’s central premise is patently absurd. …

And for those who think this appraisal is too petty or negative, let us go to the source.  Let us quote Julius J. Epstein, the co-writer (along with his brother, Philip) of the screenplay for “Casablanca.”

These are Epstein’s words:  “It was just a routine assignment.  Frankly, I can’t understand its staying power.  If it were made today, line for line, each performance as good, it’d be laughed off the screen.  It’s such a phony picture.  Not a word of truth in it.  It’s camp, it’s kitsch.  It’s shit!”


Adrienne Rich, Raymond Williams, et al – Lit and Liberation

In her recent essential collection of essays, A Human Eye (2009), Adrienne Rich writes in “Poetry and the Forgotten Future”:

Antonio Gramsci wrote of the culture of the future that “new” individual artists can’t be manufactured: art is a part of society – but that to imagine a new socialist society is to imagine a new kind of art that we can’t foresee from where we now stand. “One must speak,” Gramsci wrote, “of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality and, therefore, a world intimately ingrained in ‘possible artists’ and ‘possible works of art.'”

In any present society, a distinction needs to be made between the “avante-garde that always remains the same” – what a friend of mine has called “the poetry of false problems” – and a poetics  searching for transformative meaning on the shoreline of what can now be thought or said. Adonis, writing of Arab poetry, reminds Arab poets that “modernity should be a creative vision, or it will be no more than a fashion. Fashion grows old from the moment it is born, while creativity is eternally modern.”

Case in point for fiction, the relatively unknown novel Banjo (1929), by the great poet and novelist Claude McKay, which remains these past 80 years easily more fresh, incisive, and urgent than the vast majority of the celebrated works of its time and our time.

Banjo, and the work and thought of McKay in general, is vastly underappreciated, not least in light of the work and thought of Gramsci and Rich, as well as that of Raymond Williams and other progressive or revolutionary – liberatory – critics. Below, an ever-timely excerpt from Williams’ “The New Metropolis” in The Country and the City (1973): Continue reading Adrienne Rich, Raymond Williams, et al – Lit and Liberation

Diane Rejman and music for change

from Counterpunch – “Mothers and Military Lies”:

I only started singing two years ago.  I came to realize the power of a song.  People will listen to a song with words they wouldn’t want to read or hear in a speech.  I realized if I am going to invest my time in learning a song, it should be one that might make a difference.  One that might wake up a soul or two.  That might touch people in a way to at least plant a seed in their soul that maybe there is more to this war thing than pressing “reset” and starting over. 

When I first heard the song, John Brown, it smacked me awake, and woke me up to a new reality.  He wrote it in 1963, years before the Vietnam War peaked, although talk of it was in the air.  It is a timeless message.  And a painful one.  I think it carries a message that many of us would like the world to know.  It’s a message we’d like other mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to understand BEFORE it’s too late.

It’s one thing to go to Vegas and drop a chunk of money on slots or blackjack.  The gambler at least knows the worst case possibility of how much he or she may lose.  It’s important for enlistees and their parents to truly understand that enlistment in the military is a gamble, with the highest stakes imaginable.  The enlistee is agreeing to gamble on the loss of his or her mind, body, and soul.

“John Brown” by Bob Dylan.  Sung by Diane Rejman and Trond Toft Continue reading Diane Rejman and music for change

“Revolutionary Pressures In Niger Delta Literatures” by G. G. Darah

Darah: The radicalisation of the Niger Delta political space has had its effect on the themes and rhetoric of works by the region’s writers, activist thinkers, and cultural mediators. I am currently working on a book of essays on Niger Delta literature as a follow-up to my recently edited anthology, Radical Essays on Nigerian Literatures: Volume I which appeared in 2008.

For the past 20 years or so, I have written passionately about the situation in the Niger Delta region. I have done so through the mass media and in public lectures and discourses. The common theme that runs through my interventions all these years is that a revolutionary process is unfolding in the oil-rich but economically and politically colonised Niger Delta. The manifestations of this political upheaval are more visible in the theatres of politics and movements of change or self-determination.

The vision and trajectory of these movements and actions are to promote a radical change in Nigeria’s political configuration so that the nations and peoples who are victims of local colonialism can emancipate themselves. The nations and peoples of the Niger Delta are determined to enjoy the freedoms and privileges that should flow from their resource endowment and strategic location in the world’s economy. My position is that the themes and idioms of this liberationist endeavour are reflected in the arts and literatures produced in the region. This address aims to highlight the manner this politics is reflected and refracted.

In his edited book, Before I Am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Literature, Politics and Dissent (2004) Professor Onookome Okome observed that the “tales coming out of the Niger Delta are not evidence of dead dreams. Rather, they are examples of dreams which the suffering people are trying to make into reality”. From the genres and generations of literature that I have reviewed in this address, we can confirm our tentative judgement that the Niger Delta is both the locomotive of the Nigerian economy as well as the centre of gravity of the best traditions of the nation’s literatures and letters.


Professor Darah is of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Delta State University, Abraka. This is a slightly revised version of the address he delivered at the 2008 Convention of the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artistes at the University of Benin.

What Would Not Do To Say – The “Cleansing” of George Orwell

Below are parts 3 and 4 of a six part section on James Wood’s April New Yorker article on George Orwell, “A Fine Rage.” The full version of “What Would Not Do To Say – The ‘Cleansing’ of George Orwell” will appear as part of an expanded version of “Fiction Gutted – The Establishment and the Novel” in paper form in the Liberation Lit anthology forthcoming this summer. The parts of “What Would Not Do To Say” that may be found only in Liberation Lit are “A Real Shove From Above”; “Establishment Innuendo”; “Moving Beyond Class Structure”; and “Valuing the Work of Orwell.” See below: “Establishment PR,” “The Sinister Fact,” and an appendix. [full article, all 6 parts, now available online] Continue reading What Would Not Do To Say – The “Cleansing” of George Orwell

Science Fiction From Below

by Mark Engler
ZNet / Foreign Policy In Focus

Tapping into a long tradition of politicized science fiction, the young, New-York-based filmmaker Alex Rivera has brought to theaters a movie that reflects in news ways on the disquieting realities of the global economy. Sleep Dealer, his first feature film, has opened in New York and Los Angeles, and will show in 25 cities throughout the country this spring. 

Set largely on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sleep Dealer depicts a world in which borders are closed but high-tech factories allow migrant workers to plug their bodies into the network to provide virtual labor to the North. The drama that unfolds in this dystopian setting delves deeps into issues of immigration, labor, water rights, and the nature of sustainable development.

Rivera’s film drew attention by winning two awards at Sundance–the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for the best film focusing on science and technology. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote of the movie, “Adventurous, ambitious and ingeniously futuristic, Sleep Dealer… combines visually arresting science fiction done on a budget with a strong sense of social commentary in a way that few films attempt, let alone achieve.” 

Rivera spoke with Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Mark Engler by phone from Los Angeles, where the director was attending the local premier of his movie.

Democratizing PEN

Z Magazine Net Briefs – “Petitioning PEN”:

From and comes the news that PEN American Center in New York, an organization to protect and defend dissenting, outcast, and marginalized writers, has virtually shut out impoverished writers. The centerpiece of the PEN American Center is its gala, which occurs every year in late April. The funds are raised by wealthy attendees—$766,625 gross receipts in 2007. (Tickets are usually in the neighborhood of $1,000 a head.) The expense to hold this swanky aristocratic affair was $247,773 in 2007. PEN holds other literary affairs every year—such as the International Writers Festival, staged at the mind-boggling expense of $536,005. PEN promotes its festival as an “answer to American cultural insularity.” Of the $111,000 monetary awards to individual writers in 2007, the top three were: $40,000 to Philip Roth, who’s published by both Houghton-Mifflin and Random House; $35,000 to Columbia professor Janna Levin, published by Alfred Knopf; $10,000 to James Carroll, published by Houghton-Mifflin. By giving grants to authors who should be fully paid by their giant publishers, PEN American Center is in effect subsidizing billion-dollar book conglomerates. Various writers are petitioning PEN, asking people to sign the following:

“We the undersigned petition PEN American Center in New York to democratize their organization by appointing, as Trustees, not solely writers who are entwined with book companies owned by media monopolies. This includes writers who’ve dissented against the established U.S. literary mainstream. We ask all writers, from all backgrounds, to sign this Petition, including current PEN members and Trustees, in the interest of realizing the PEN mission, voiced by PEN’s Larry Siems, of ‘bridging intellectual chasms and cultural divides’.”

Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell oil, and Murder

A Writer’s Violent End, and His Activist Legacy – by Patricia Cohen, NYT:

[Ken] Saro-Wiwa, a popular author who helped create a peaceful mass movement on behalf of the Ogoni people, was executed in November 1995 along with eight other environmental and human rights activists on what many contended were trumped-up murder charges. His body was burned with acid and thrown in an unmarked grave.

PEN, an international association of writers dedicated to defending free expression, along with Guernica, the online literary magazine, sponsored the panel with Mr. Patterson, Mr. Ndibe and Ken Wiwa, Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s son, to discuss Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s literary and political legacy.

Fourteen years have passed. General Abacha has died, and Mr. Saro-Wiwa has had a proper burial, but the circumstances surrounding the nine executions, along with related incidents of brutal attacks and torture, are getting another hearing. This month the Wiwa family’s lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell over its role in those events goes to trial in federal court in Manhattan.

“We feel that Shell’s fingerprints are all over,” Ken Wiwa told the audience. “Clearly Shell financed and provided logistical support.”

Among the accusations are that Shell employees were present when two witnesses were offered bribes to testify against Mr. Saro-Wiwa, said Jennie Green, a senior lawyer at the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the family. She said Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s brother Owens has also stated that Shell’s managing director, Brian Anderson (now retired), told him, “If you call off the campaign, maybe we can do something for your brother.”

Under American law you don’t have to be the one who “tightened the noose” to be found guilty, Ms. Green said.

During his imprisonment Mr. Saro-Wiwa said that he often envied Western writers “who can peacefully practice their craft.” Yet he also recognized that wasn’t his path. As he wrote in 1993, “The writer cannot be a mere storyteller, he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils, he or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”

See also: Ten Years On, Nigeria’s Ogoni Minority Mark Saro-Wiwa’s Death

Remembering Bantu Mwaura – by Shailja Patel

The man with the Mau Mau spirit
Remembering Bantu Mwaura

Shailja Patel

Pambazuka News

Poet and performer Shailja Patel celebrates the life of Bantu Mwaura (1969-2009) – Kenyan artist, activist and academic – through a series of reminiscences about what he meant to different people. Mwaura, husband of Susan and father of Makeba and Me Katilili, died on 26 April. ‘He was expression without hindrance; the way Africa used to be. He left behind power and energy; people speaking. In his dreadlocks and movements and smile and dress, Bantu carried an entire people.’]

‘It’s what we do at a very determined individual level that changes what happens in whatever field we work in.’
Bantu Mwaura, interviewed by Doreen Struahs and David Paul Mavia, 2006

‘Nothing was usual about him. He stirred people to thought. You could not ignore his presence and sense of things. A level of responsibility of the highest order. A passionate desire to think clearly and to be useful to all. A certain level of service; when I saw him I felt things were being taken care of, in freedom and resistance so powerfully merged. You would be tempted to ask him, which goddess asked you to do things this way? We should follow her ways.’
Philo Ikonya, president, PEN (Kenya chapter)

‘See, Bantu was not just all argument; he was a complex human being with an even more complex personality that perhaps society saw too harshly, or chose to not to see at all, because what he said disturbed us.’
Mbugua wa-Mungai, Ohio State University, Centre For Folklore Studies

The first time I met Bantu Mwaura, a few years ago, he showed me, unprompted, his cellphone display: A photo of his wife, Susan, and two children. When he told me his daughters’ names: Makeba (after Miriam Makeba) and Me Katilili (Kenyan woman who led her Giriama people in armed struggle against the British in 1913), I teased him: ‘No pressure there, huh? No burdens of history on two gorgeous children?’
He laughed, his face alight with love and pride in his family.

The burdens of history caught up with Bantu Mwaura four days ago. We still do not have a definitive, trustworthy account of how he met his death. Kenyan press reports that his body was found on Monday morning, on a path of the Nairobi housing estate where he lived. An autopsy was carried out on Tuesday, where a pathologist from the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (a Kenyan human rights organisation) was present alongside the government pathologist. The certified cause of death was ‘chemical poisoning’. I am told that ‘investigations continue’ into how the poison was administered – and by whom.

Bantu’s voice unspools in my head as I write this. With all his fierce righteousness, honest rage, passionate scholarship, loathing of hypocrisy, love of true art, uncompromising rigour of standards, commitment to making good work, activist power, courage of spirit, and largeness of heart. Continue reading Remembering Bantu Mwaura – by Shailja Patel