Aditya Chakrabortty's title "Why are English and American Novels Today So Gutless?" provoked me.[i] I have been turning further and further away from contemporary American offerings for literature that matters. I read his article expecting an insight or solution to a contemporary problem in fiction: novels lacking bowels, entrails, stomachs, and intestines. The organs of digestion, absent. Grit transforms the masticated into nutrient and waste. Our bodies absorb one, and release the other.
I think of the Apache and their story Shades of Shit.[ii] Especially several lines spoken to selfish relations who hoard their food while their relatives starve: "Why do they not offer to help us? They're treating us like we don't exist, as if we are nothing to them." Over time they were threatened by those they refused to feed, and were unable to leave their homes. They were forced to shit in their own shade. Over time a man with a little corn went to talk to them. He said, "You have brought this on yourselves. You should have shared your corn with us as soon as you knew you had more than enough. As relatives we make each other rich because we help each other in times of need. It has been this way since the beginning. What made you forget this? What made you ignore us? Well, I don't know. But now you live in shades of shit! Now you are getting sick."
The people learned.
Chakrabortty's article disappointed me. He identified a problem but he framed it inadequately. People desire "a more imaginative politics," but they won't find it in his idea of the political author. He praises Arundhati Roy as "the stand-out example of the author-turned-activist" while adding that she seems to have "traded fiction for campaigning" quashing his challenge to English and American authors to find some innards and confront the political landscape. Writers who explicitly take the political arena head on, or who use their celebrity as spokespeople in the public forum, are often accused of being transformed from authors into activists. In this world choosing to be a political author is to willingly kill your fiction.
The rest of Chakrabortty's world is filled with missing writers, writers with no time for politics, or writers whose novels "address themselves directly to society [but] often fail to sustain them as full-blooded fiction." Novelists who grievously fail to "deliver an actual plot" are particularly loathsome in today's publishing world, which has very punitive ideas about what is considered plot, narrative and character. Ideas that refuse accountability to the millions of stories that stand outside these parameters and as a consequence are marked absent.
In her forward to Political Fictions Didion examines who is allowed, and expected, to be a political conversant and under what terms. For many writers: "They were never destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the US, 'the process.'"[iii] More specifically she relays a situation where her validity as a political writer is called into question, not by her position as a woman, or as a woman of a particular heritage, but because of her customary content. "I didn't realize you were a political junkie. . .the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialist but also legible only to its own specialists."[iv]
Didion's characterization of campaign journalism mirrors a similar content crisis popular in many of today's novels. "American reporters 'like' covering a presidential campaign . . .which is why there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported. They are willing , in exchange for 'access'. . . in exchange for colorful details. . .to present these images not as a story the campaign wants told but as fact."[v] These are Chakrabortty's gutless authors. They are concerned with the rise of experts, careerists who agree to the necessity of developing "their platform" and the professionalization of the writing life by delivering, on demand, recycled narratives that make no one uncomfortable, not even themselves. They like to earn a living, and they like to be published. You can bank on them. Their goal is to go down easy, offering no challenges, and asking no one to be, feel, or think unusually.
Writing about politics is not an equivalent to political fiction. I want to tease the knot of this idea of the political author, in part because I agree with Chakrabortty, the American market is flooded with gutless novels. I part with him though, and offer two significant observations: there is a body of work not being acknowledged as existing, and there is a means of "addressing themselves directly to society in full-blooded fiction" in contemporary fiction that is going unrecognized (anthropologized).
I am particularly concerned with the politics of recognition.
A healthy body of American novels address themselves directly to society and retain full blood: Otsuka (The Buddha in the Attic, When the Emperor Was Divine), Krauss (The History of Love), Lahiri (The Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake), Silko (Almanac of the Dead, Gardens in the Dunes, Ceremony), Welch (Fools Crow, The Death of Jim Loney, The Heartsong of Charging Elk), Walker (Meridian, The Color Purple), Walters (Ghost Singer), Morrison (A Mercy, Jazz, Beloved), Naylor (Linden Hills), Bambara (Salt Eaters, Those Bones Are Not My Child) to name only a few.
The issues, in regard to the politics of recognition, are: What qualifies as society, and what qualifies as narrative (language and form).
Ron Charles' recent derision of Otsuka's win of the PEN/Faulkner, because the novel did not develop a single character or narrative begs the question: who qualifies as a person and what qualifies as a narrative (story). These are particularly relevant issues for invisible people and those speaking "foreign" languages (people who belong to speech communities not in power or not engaged in supporting the status quo, in Didion's terms, those outside the process). Often we are denied an existence altogether and only allowed a reality as it bares upon the existing norm or normal people. More often, our concerns (language and content) and our experiences (philosophies, narrative practices, spirituality) are irrelevant. They, and we, fail to leave a significant impression. In this way, even though we are here, speaking, we are absent, illegible, unintelligible: eviscerated.
Many have a growing and pervasive fear of the realm of ideas and share the dominant (in the market among readers and publishers, which effects writers who are attempting to earn a living) belief that literature's job is to entertain. Questions of craft are a matter of convention: something we agree on. We make these agreements for our own reasons and but we do not always acknowledge the scope and character of this we. Those left out are customarily assumed to be wrong (poor, bad), uninteresting (a niche market) or nonexistent. When we fail to pursue the terms of those agreements, or their consequences, we damage the very society we are reputedly addressing—its stories and its people.
Not everyone has lost patience with the long sentence. Good writing cannot afford disdain for readers. Writing and publishing some old story, heavy in familiar characters and plot line is disdainful to readers. Novels are newfangled, recently sprung, mostly odd and peculiar. They challenge the writer writing them, and they challenge readers reading them. Not everyone in the publishing industry, or every reader, shares this sentiment, but every reader's taste and palate are being asked and shaped to accept and prefer less—complications and confusions. If we are to write deeply, we must ask readers to read deeply.
In 1957, Irving Howe defined the political novel as "a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting."[vi] We have moved past this narrow definition. But this language and this idea of politics continues to inform readers, activists and writing professionals. Novelists write in relation to it, and continue to be judged by it (as evidenced in Chakrabortty's piece and his definition of the political author.)
"On several occasions I asked myself what place there could be for low-key literature like mine in a country that was entirely ideological, full of words and arguments and counter arguments; a country that spewed out words like a machine. a country where any nuance would be trodden underfoot, and where people were continually asking: 'are you with us or against us?' In such a country, is there a place for writing like mine?"[vii]
There are endless reasons to refuse a voice or a story its existence. Appelfeld asks himself and we must bear the same intimacy of scrutiny. Political slogans and pompous phrases are an assault on language; they kill conversation and creation. Speakers, and readers, must realize this and alter their habits and expectations. "Every era's art has its structural problem; that is what lures the artist to search for original solutions and thereby sets off the evolution of form."[viii] Structurally we are faced with the problem of an overflow of information and technology, with the division of the political, the fictive and the real into separate categories, which leak, despite the insistence that they don't.
We need writing that asks more.
"If the book we're reading doesn't wake us with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . We need books to affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside."[ix]
Many Americans are reading their lives as poorly as they are reading contemporary novels. If we, readers, writers and publishers, give ourselves over to direct action it begins with answering for our existence. Novelistic thinking, in Kundera's world, offers us a process that may allow us to answer what is required by life.
That thinking is: "Purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, fanciful, and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its character's lives; those lives that feed it and justify it."[x]
Returning us to the central questions of this essay: who qualifies as a character, a living creature, a being full blooded and fully spirited; and what qualifies as a place, a life, a circumstance that warrants and requires narration.
In order for the novel to never leave the magic circle of its character's lives, if those lives feed and justify its existence, these most sacred of beings must form the center, a location of intensity, power, intimacy and substance. Taking us beyond Howe's notion of the political toward an ethics that acknowledge that the political is "the way we organize our social life together, and the power—relations which this involves."[xi] This acknowledgement is animated by the particulars of material practice, social relations, and ideology. This is not a literary theory but concrete, practical substance manifest in material conditions: language, health, access to power (food, shelter and creation). Recognition requires conversation, negotiation, translation and balance, a sort of coalition politics[xii] where people unite to accomplish a finite goal: stop AB2109, read Almanac of the Dead, or maintain endangered linguistic communities.
The political: Gadda's Awful Mess on Via Merulana.
Calvino tells us, "Gadda tried all his life to represent the world as a knot, a tangled skein of yarn; to represent it without in the least diminishing the inextricable complexity or, to put it better, the simultaneous presence of the most disparate elements that converge to determine every event."[xiii] As Alice Walker says, writers must tease the knot; stories, lost and broken people and things, the truth of connection and existence within the world we used to live in, realizing this is the world we used to live in. An honoring of complexity not plot, without preconceived or formulaic narrative arcs, where beginnings sometimes end and sometimes unfold in another place, another story, where the future is behind us, because we cannot see it, while the past is before us, because we can see it, if we choose to.
In this world, teasing the knot, seeking fields of experience, we as readers and writers must step inside stories, and accept the truth that they walk among us. Then we can live a life conscious that our worlds are informed and organized by their movements. Those who have protected and maintained oral histories and live lives bound by seasons (storytelling having an especially disciplined place within the cycle of each day, each life, and each generation) know that stories are applied to daily direct action: we store our recipes, our maps, our code of ethics and knowledge inside them. They are the guides we have followed in our travels from previous worlds to this one.
"In these brief pieces, as in each episode in one of Gadda's novels, the least thing is seen as the center of a network of relationships that the writer cannot restrain himself from following, multiplying the details so that his descriptions and digressions become infinite. Whatever the starting point, the matter in hand spreads out and out, encompassing ever vaster horizons, and if it were permitted to go on further in every direction, it would end by embracing the entire universe."[xiv]
Not every community (people or literary practice) retain such knowledge, and many do not know how to relate to people who do. Many do not have their stories, their histories and their philosophies. They've given themselves over to what they've been told. They've accepted "the world" without question. They've not answered. They are Hitchock's Plausibles complaining "this cannot happen." They are angered by their confusion. They are unwilling to participate with others (characters and the magic circle of their lives). The Plausibles will do, read, say, and think what you tell them to. Just don't ask them to think. They have no way to recognize the novel when they encounter it. They seek comfort, comfort in the confirmation of their real, and in the policing of all language and narrative.
In Kundera's latest book of essays, Encounter, he recounts the story of a couple who were interned in Terezín.
"A year or two after the war, as an adolescent, I met a young Jewish couple some five years older than I. They had spent their youth in Terezín concentration camp and later in another camp. I felt intimidated by their fate; it was beyond me. My awe irritated them: 'Stop that! Just stop that!' And they insisted I see that life there had retained its full range, with jokes as well as tears, tenderness as well as horror. For love of their own lives, they refused to be transformed into legends, into statues of misfortune, into a file in the black book of Nazism."[xv]
The couple refused death. Reminding us that we live by staying alive. They refuse the stories made about them. The words, the phrases, the slogans of survivors. The very language and narrative of the political. Survivors. Complicit. Artists. This is a question of language, your relationship to and use of it. A respect for and a dedication to an open ending, pas la fin, where there is no final word on anything, where life is creation. These novels do not leave their legacy in short, windfall sales. These novels do not get published. These novels are not taken into consideration. In the same way, these lives make many uncomfortable and consequently must be rendered unintelligible or invisible.
"There was no language which was not caught up in definite social relationship, and these social relationships were in turn part of broader political, ideological and economic systems."[xvi] In the confrontation and wielding of power, speakers, readers and writers must repudiate the reduction of their lives, often resulting in a confusing and formidable knot that must be picked at over time, yielding, snaggling, and taking new shape. Any action—in language, in life—that kills or damages people and communities (their environment—social, psychological, physical and spiritual) violates the magic circle of characters and their lives, producing more than gutless novels. These actions destroy people. They destroy lives. They result in political industries (legal, economic, artistic) that prosper because readers and writers fail to wield Kafka's axe, they desire shades of shit.
[i] Chakrabortty, "Why Are English and American Novels Today So Gutless?" The Guardian, April 9, 2012.
[ii] Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. pp. 23-27.
[iii] Didion, Joan. We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live: Collected Nonfiction. New York: Knopf, 2001. pp. 774-775.
[v] Ibid. p. 750
[vi] Howe, Irving. Politics and the Novel. Clevelend: Meridian Books, 1975. p. 17
[vii] Appelfeld, Aharon. A Table For One: Under the Light of Jerusalem. London: Toby Press. p.21
[viii] Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. Translated by Linda Asher. New York, HarperCollins, 1993. p. 154
[ix] Kafka, Franz. Letters to Family, Friends and Editors. New York: Schoken, 1959.
[x] Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed. p. 154
[xi] Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. p. 194
[xii] I am referring very specifically to Bernice Johnson Reagon's idea of Coalition Politics which can be found in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith and originally published by Kitchen Table Press in 1983.
[xiii]Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988. p. 106-7
[xv] Kundera, Milan. Encounter. Translated by Linda Asher. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. p. 151
[xvi] Eagleton, p. 117