In Western and Eastern European countries, as well as in Russia and many Latin American nations, the role of the literary writer is more clearly defined than in the US. Poets and novelists abroad take on the role of intellectual leaders, and as such they give serious thought to what they contribute to their culture and the effect their work will have on their society. For most American novelists and poets today, however, intellectual leadership and social relevance do not appear to be primary concerns, and yet our serious literary writers must be more than mere entertainers. Frankly, I’m not sure what the role of the serious writer has become in today’s America.
Fifty years ago, a novelist could be both popular and intellectual. Fifty years ago, the poet’s role in the US was less ambiguous than it is now, and there was a fairly clear distinction between those who wrote literary works and those who wrote to entertain. Just as classical music was performed on television, both literature and entertainment were considered mainstream fifty years ago. Today that difference has been blurred, with the unfortunate result that American authors are less certain of their identities and are more unsure of their purpose.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was coming of age, I was mostly influenced by American authors who had a highly developed social conscience, writers such as John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut. Still others, the poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka, for example, showed us younger writers how to give expression to a political voice in verse or drama with the intention of bringing more awareness of the corruption of the powerful to the average reader and inspiring them to help bring about a more just society. These authors, and others like them, were read, discussed, valued, and held up as role models for aspiring writers such as myself.
Despite the widespread cultural confusion and dysfunctions, Europeans still seem to expect their novelists to be the moral conscience of their nations, to help shape and define their national identities. With more and more American authors solely concerned with writing a bestseller and, in some cases, fabricating information in order to achieve that goal, it appears that the gap between the mainstream authors of the 20th century and the popular writers of the 21st has grown wider than ever. Kurt Vonnegut, the popular and intellectual author of Slaughterhouse Five, may have been the last of his kind. I hope I am wrong about this, but I have yet to discover a mainstream contemporary novelist with a strong social or moral conscience, and one whose personal agenda is of a higher order than fame and fortune.
In his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung writes that the poet’s work must meet the spiritual needs of his society. If we take the term “spiritual needs” in the broadest sense, it suggests that the psychic health of a nation depends on the poet’s (or author’s) commitment to truth and social justice.
The Italian novelist Italo Calvino has written that the impact an important book “can have on the general struggle to progress is to raise the struggle to a higher level of awareness, to add to its instruments of knowledge, of foresight, of imagination, of concentration, etc.” Surely any author who takes his work seriously must consider this question of the effect his work may have on intellectual growth and social progress, and whether it will be positive or negative.
The most sacred role of the poet is manifold, and it is timeless and universal -- he must have the courage to bring great truths to light, especially the unpleasant ones, he must hold a mirror up to our souls, and he must show us the way towards greater enlightenment and a more perfect society. These are perhaps the hardest tasks an artist is called upon to perform, as they take a good deal of strength and artistic integrity, but they are the ones that provide the greatest good for humanity. The writer himself, being a flawed human being like the rest of us, does not need to live the life of a paragon, he must only create poetry, essays, and stories which can inspire us to become better human beings, to do good and fight evil and corruption to the limits of our abilities.
A. S. Maulucci’s books of poetry and fiction are available from Burgundy Books in East Haddam or directly from the publisher at www.lorenzopress.com. His new guide for fiction writers, The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, is now available from Amazon.com. To join his online writer’s group, go to www.greentigerwriters.info
Causes Anthony Maulucci Supports
Greenpeace, Amnesty Inernational, American Cancer Society, Red Cross, Save the Children