Art of Pleasantries, Art of Concern

The art of pleasantries vs. the art of concern and provocation

By Stuart Nudelman  


“Nachtwey works in the tradition of Upton Sinclair whose novel “The Jungle” exposed and instigated reforms in the meat processing industry, and the many visual artists, George Grosz, Kate Kollwitz, Lewis Hine, W. Eugene Smith, whose images have in varying degrees borne witness to man’s inhumanity to man….

“Nachtwey is a gently, sensitive, laconic man with an aesthetic sensibility and an artist’s desire to portray the truth and retain the vision of a better world. He has subjected his body and spirit to injury, pain, discomfort, and the potential of death as he roams the world documenting the many stories of conflict, war, and critical social issues.”

Nazia Peer — House of Peace

Nazia Peer is a medical doctor and author. House of Peace, a book she hopes will be educational as well as entertaining, is her debut novel. She recently won the Nelson Mandela Scholarship and will soon begin a master’s in law at the University of Cardiff, Wales. Her short story, One Love, One Heart, is one of the winners in the 2006 BTA/Anglo Platinum competition.”

“Naquib Mahfouz, 9/11 and the Cruelty of Memory” by Edward Said

From Counterpunch:

Before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was known outside the Arab world to students of Arab or Middle Eastern studies largely as the author of picturesque stories about lower-middle-class Cairo life….

To Arab readers Mahfouz does in fact have a distinctive voice, which displays a remarkable mastery of language yet does not call attention to itself. I shall try to suggest in what follows that he has a decidedly catholic and, in a way, overbearing view of his country, and, like an emperor surveying his realm, he feels capable of summing up, judging, and shaping its long history and complex position as one of the world’s oldest, most fascinating and coveted prizes for conquerors like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, as well as its own natives.

In addition Mahfouz has the intellectual and literary means to convey them in a manner entirely his own–powerful, direct, subtle. Like his characters (who are always described right away, as soon as they appear), Mahfouz comes straight at you, immerses you in a thick narrative flow, then lets you swim in it, all the while directing the currents, eddies, and waves of his characters’ lives, Egypt’s history under prime ministers like Saad Zaghlul and Mustafa El-Nahhas, and dozens of other details of political parties, family histories, and the like, with extraordinary skill. Realism, yes, but something else as well: a vision that aspires to a sort of all-encompassing view not unlike Dante’s in its twinning of earthly actuality with the eternal, but without the Christianity.

Born in 1911, between 1939 and 1944 Mahfouz published three, as yet untranslated, novels about ancient Egypt while still an employee at the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments). He also translated James Baikie’s book Ancient Egypt before undertaking his chronicles of modern Cairo in Khan Al-Khalili, which appeared in 1945. This period culminated in 1956 and 1957 with the appearance of his superb Cairo Trilogy. These novels were in effect a summary of modern Egyptian life during the first half of the twentieth century….

To have taken history not only seriously but also literally is the central achievement of Mahfouz’s work and, as with Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn, one gets the measure of his literary personality by the sheer audacity and even the overreaching arrogance of his scope. To articulate large swathes of Egypt’s history on behalf of that history, and to feel himself capable of presenting its citizens for scrutiny as its representatives: this sort of ambition is rarely seen in contemporary writers….

Impact of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

Blood, Sweat and Fears

Gary Younge

It is difficult to think of a book, let alone a novel, that has forced the state to respond in such a comprehensive manner. And yet, while Sinclair was delighted with both sales and fame, it was not quite the response that he intended. He had dedicated the book to the “Workingmen of America” and had set out to make an emotional appeal to the nation over the plight of the working poor and the prospects of a socialist alternative. Instead he had generated a public panic about food quality. “I aimed for the public’s heart,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The Jungle was very much a novel of its time – an era of mass migration, US military expansion and rapid economic and technological transformation. It earned its place in the US literary hall of fame not for its aesthetic qualities but for its practical effects. Thanks to its polemical style, formulaic narrative and, at times, propagandistic language, it has more currency as a work of literary journalism than of great fiction.

Those publishers who discarded the manuscript had underestimated not only the potential breadth of its appeal, but the political and journalistic context that made that breadth possible. Middle-class Americans, concerned that the concentration of capitalism in a few hands would leave them at the mercy of trusts and monopolies, began to revolt.

The social commentator Randolph Bourne described it as a period when “a whole people” woke up “into a modern day which they had overslept . . . they had become acutely aware of the evils of the society in which they had slumbered and they snatched at one after the other idea, programme, movement, ideal, to uplift them out of the slough in which they had slept”.

These concerns gave birth to the Progressive movement, which found its literary expression in a more aggressive and socially responsive style of journalism.


See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini

“Books Matter. Stories Matter.”

Welcome to the Impossible World 
Rebecca Solnit 

Books matter. Stories matter. People die of pernicious stories, are reinvented by new stories, and make stories to shelter themselves. Though we learned from postmodernism that a story is only a construct, so is a house, and a story can be more important as shelter: the story that you have certain inalienable rights and immeasurable value, the story that there is an alternative to violence and competition, the story that women are human beings. Sometimes people find the stories that save their lives in books.

The stories we live by are themselves like characters in books: Some we will outlive us; some will betray us; some will bring us joy; some will lead us to places we could never have imagined. George Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t a story to shelter in, but a story meant to throw open the door and thrust us into the strong winds of history; it was a warning in the form of a story. Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang was an invitation in the form of a story, but even its author didn’t imagine how we might take up that invitation or that Glen Canyon Dam might have taken on a doomed look by 2006. “The universe,” said the radical American poet Muriel Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not atoms.” I believe that being able to recognize stories, to read them, and to tell them is what it takes to have a life, rather than just make a living. This is the equipment you should have received.

The University Press and Original Fiction

Until university press after university press after university press starts to publish original fiction, the burgeoning MFA programs are going to be forced to hire professors who publish a lot of fluff and worse — as demanded by the commercial publishing industry — or work that directly avoids many of the most vital stories of our time; and the fate, impact, power and overall quality of fiction — and the seriousness with which the wider culture regards it — is going to continue to plateau or decline.

For those who think it is difficult to publish serious works of nonfiction — and of course it’s quite competitive — consider how difficult it would be if nearly all university press and most independent press options were taken away and such publication only continued via the commercial market, where in fact a lot of serious nonfiction books are published. Consider what effect that radical change would have on scholarship, on creativity, on vital work. The effect would be devastating. This is the situation faced by the serious novelist today, by serious fiction.

Sure some good work continues to be done but compared to what might well be achieved otherwise, I suppose it might take a great speculative novel to fully prophesize the difference.

Until very many — and why not all? — university presses take fiction seriously by publishing numerous works and series of original imaginative writing the universities will be shirking a great responsibility, for as Noam Chomsky notes:

“We learn from literature as we learn from life…. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry [science], which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope. It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do….”

Such work is too important to leave to institutions driven by a profit motive, but such is the abdication of the universities today in the realm of imaginative literature. The abdication of producing serious imaginative literature is not total. If one can afford it, one can pay to enter contests to have a book considered for publication, and many colleges and universities have a journal that publishes at least some short pieces of imaginative work, but I would like someone to tell me what is more needed…another 100 third or fifth biographies of Jordan Letters, or a single culturally critical Iraq War novel? (Of course, university publishing should not be a zero-sum arena.)

Doesn’t it appear to anyone to be the slightest bit irresponsible for all the university presses combined, several years now into the Iraq War, let alone the prolonged build-up, to not have published even a single (as far as I’m aware) culturally critical novel about the Iraq War? One say that critiques and shines the so richly deserved hellish light on the personal and institutional drives to power that, as I’ve noted before, have built and maintained support for an invasion and occupation that has been judged to be illegal by the head of the U.N. and legal experts across the U.S. and the globe, and has had the predicted effect of increasing the likelihood of attack against the U.S., and was based on fraud as known in advance, and meanwhile has killed thousands of U.S. troops, and wounded or debilitated tens of thousands, and has killed well upwards of 100,000 Iraqis and maimed countless others while destroying their country? Where are the didactic novels, the social protest novels? Where are the lifesaving “muckraking” novels? Corporate America isn’t going to publish them. Are authors going to write them? Where are the thesis novels, the polemic fictions, the novels with a purpose? Or even the realistic novels, the info novels, the governmental novels on the scandalous nature of the ongoing U.S. aggression in Iraq? And the novels on a thousand other neglected and revealing outrages or public stories of inspiration?

Are such tasks for imaginative literature — fiction, drama, poetry — improper, inappropriately propagandistic, nontraditional, impractical? We can find such claims made virtually every day despite their being refuted again and again and again and again — such is the tremendous and perceived vested interest in imaginative literature that essentially serves the status quo, apparently no matter how unjust, even with much writing that appears or is said to be progressive, liberatory. Some of it is. But huge gaps remain, for which university publishing has a responsibility that it has greatly shirked, as has the government in general, let alone other institutions.

Liberation Criticism

Liberation criticism: imaginative literature and the public:

“Its militancy is the most obvious characteristic of American criticism since the war. In the whole of nineteenth century there was only one critic, Poe, who was deliberately and consistently disputatious. No one else made polemics the basis of a critical method. Whitman was a maverick, but he was exclamatory rather than argumentative. Now, however, it is customary for critics to be bellicose, and there are few who have let politeness stand in the way of controversy. The reason is not hard to find. Criticism in our time has been largely a war of traditions—a struggle between irreconcilable ideologies…”

— Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism (1939)

Liberation Lit Criticism: The Buried US History

more excerpts

Orwell’s Problem and Partisan Fiction

To help ground the weblog, over the next couple weeks I’ll excerpt from some of my articles on fiction and social change. At some point I may serialize an antiwar novel and other partisan fiction.

Speaking of which:

Orwell’s Problem and Partisan Fiction
An Obvious Deficiency — the Lack of Fact-Based Partisan Novels

…what about progressive partisan fiction? How about a great novel of ambition — literary or popular — portraying figures like some of the most ambitious and powerful strivers of our day: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and others? There is a problem. Progressive partisan novels about such figures would have to be in definitive part scathing, well beyond what plenty of literary (and commercial) authors would find acceptable, since they generally support at least some of these figures, and their types, and if they do not, the dominant publishing houses and the dominant media do. This support of the status quo is very similar to what existed in the day of Orwell, with equally troubling implications for literature and the society and world it helps create. As Noam Chomsky notes:

About Orwell’s 1984, I thought, frankly, it was one of his worst books. Could barely finish it. Some parts (e.g., about Newspeak) were clever. But most of it seemed to me–well, trivial. The problem is not a very interesting one; the modes of thought control and repression in totalitarian societies are fairly transparent…

The Social and Political Novel, and Social Change VII: The Future of Imaginative Literature

Possibly it is taken for granted-true or not, consciously or not-among the powers that rule that fiction is far more powerful than non-fiction, often far more emotionally compelling and therefore far more energizing, and thus far more threatening to illegitimate (however legalized) power. Given this possibility for the power of fiction, Roland Barthes asked what he considered to be

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?

Continue reading The Social and Political Novel, and Social Change VII: The Future of Imaginative Literature

Great Lit Is Based on Principle: Letter To ULA


Most of the greatest works of literature are based on principle and driven by it, whether the principles are humane/political, scientific/technical, or sacred/idealistic. Closely observed details carefully selected and issues of inspiration and energy, style and structure all come in to play but are based on the driving, purpose-giving principles. For populists, these principles are rooted in the values of the people, values such as freedom, justice, loyalty (or solidarity), equality – in other words some of the key values this country was founded on, and key values of democratic movements and struggles the world over – values and principles that are spelled out in much more detail in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which aims to guarantee what we all want: meaningful employment (and leisure), real education and educational opportunities, guaranteed health care, adequate standard of living, personal safety and security, and so on.

These principles go far beyond those laid out in the ULA manifesto, which in its main focus dissents from the style, manner, and general corruption of the literary establishment but does not express much solidarity with the great historic and current populist movements and ideals of humankind. This is a severe limitation of ULA, it seems to me.

Continue reading Great Lit Is Based on Principle: Letter To ULA