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|studiedly irrelevant," exactly as the establishment knows very well how to do.|
It has long since gotten to the point where even Victorian type work that is particularly socially engaged is far too threatening to the establishment, which has exerted pressure to kill such work for over a century now (let alone more revolutionary works). Why did Tolstoy not win a Nobel Prize? Likely because he had become far too much an activist, dissenter, too progressive in face of the status quo, as shown somewhat in his posthumous great short novel Hadji Murad (1904/1912), about a Chechen rebel leader in relation to Empire. It's a novel that should be front and center today, and of a sort we should be reading and writing, especially given the particulars of today's long-standing freshly-explosive crises, especially given the cultural and institutional bigotry of the US (and West) in this regard. Wood cites Hadji Murad in HFW merely for a stylistic brilliance. It's a novel Homeland Security and others should better read, along with contemporary liberatory novels.
Instead, both bizarre and predictable, as we've seen, is this recurring underlying theme in the criticism of James Wood, only slightly exaggerated: Don't bother to create great highly useful fiction of the world, dear contemporary novelists, the masters have done all your work for you. Go shuck peas, or do anything, but please don't presume to work at your art in relation to society. History ended more-or-less, at least in the novel – Dostoevsky and Conrad took it all down. There is no future direction or tendency we can remotely point to. [Liberatory revolutionary – balderdash!] Back to sleep with you now, dear writers. Or do run along and practice your style (whether "free indirect" or whatnot) on something less threatening or less difficult than sociopolitical, engaged fiction for an establishment critic to speak meaningfully about. The thought of which, after all, is "slightly depressing." The loafing about of fly-eyed young men has long represented "the classic novelistic activity" – the flaneur, you know. They are "traumatized" and "numb" so let us partake of their great visions.
Flaneuring – what else is there for those "who belong to the ruling class…those who [have] already won the battle and acquired the spoils…[who can] afford to be above the battle"? More typically, establishment critics intone the ostensible "extreme difficulty" of writing novels about ongoing events, especially in such supposedly "confusing" times. In any event, not for nothing today are Dostoevsky's novels Notes from the Underground and The Possessed and Conrad's novel The Secret Agent safe for the establishment, because they are studies more in retail pathology and retail violence, demonizing of easy targets, novels that fail to offer liberatory explorations of wholesale Western establishment oppressions and aggressions, blind to much progress and possibilities.
Misrepresentation 27 – 9-11 rallying cry for a turn inward, and worse: Less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01, Wood speculated and hoped that the aftermath of the attack would "allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not 'how the world works' but 'how somebody felt about something' – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings)." He then declared, "Who would dare to be knowledgeable [in a novel] about politics and society now?" One hardly needs socialist David Walsh to point out "Who would dare not to be knowledgeable about politics and society now? Wood's counterposing of 'human' versus 'social' novels is deeply false." Crucially, who should not have "dared" ever? Myriad people in general "dared" and have long proven to be sociopolitically discerning both within the US and without. Not the establishment though. Not its literary stars, or scarcely any of its stars, for that matter. Not then and not now. They can't dare, marginal exceptions aside. It would be dysfunctional to the ruling status quo. Thus, had they ever been publicly acute in this regard, they would not have been granted their positions of prominence. Get wise of a sudden, or even accidentally step out of line – they are quickly disciplined, sometimes by a pointed status quo critique, put "on notice," or, especially if they persist, simply "let go." Case studies abound (via reports in independent media and analyses by independent scholars).
Not only star critics, but leading liberal "political" novelists are atrocious in this regard (let alone conservative or reactionary writers). For example, in 2008,The Nation magazine published EL Doctorow's 2007 keynote address to a joint meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, in Washington DC, in which Doctorow states near its beginning that the leaders of "a religiously inspired criminal movement originated in the Middle East…[have] mentally transport[ed] their rank and file back into the darkness of tribal war and shrieking, life-contemptuous jihad. [This]…declared enemy with the mind-set of the Dark Ages throws his anachronistic shadow over us and awakens our dormant primeval instincts." In other words, until the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the primitive impulses of the US were sleeping soundly, only to be terrorized awake by those "criminal" and "tribal" and "shrieking" war-mongers from the lands of the richest oil fields. That's quite a story. It leaves something out. Reality. The reality of decades-long US hopes, plans and efforts to control those oil fields, including support for the state tyrants of those rich kingdoms, not least Saudi Arabia, from where nearly all the 9-11 terrorists originated, which was considered to be an occupied country by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, due to the US military presence there, subsequently withdrawn. Doctorow sends down the memory hole the reality of the murderous US-UN imposed economic sanctions against Iraq that helped destroy that country and other inconvenient facts, such as decisive US support for the state of Israel and many of its militant endeavors against its regional neighbors, including longstanding invasions and occupations.
After carefully inverting cause and effect of the current ongoing crisis, Doctorow pronounces to his intellectual audience about "knowledge deniers. Their rationale is always political. And more often than not, they hold in their hand a sacred text for certification." Shortly thereafter he goes on with brazen (and ludicrous) hypocrisy to both romanticize and all but deify the "sacred text" of the US Constitution and its history:
The ratification parades were sacramental – symbolic venerations, acts of faith. From the beginning, people saw the Constitution as a kind of sacred text for a civil society. And with good reason: the ordaining voice of the Constitution is scriptural, but in resolutely keeping the authority for its dominion in the public consent, it presents itself as the sacred text of secular humanism.
Meanwhile, some of the founders and states viewed the Constitution as likely inherently tyrannical, and so several states barely ratified it, and did so only by attaching lists of amendments and rights. Doctorow refers to the "sacred text" of the US Constitution at a time when it contained none of its amendments, thus, no Bill of Rights protecting many of the most important freedoms of the people. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are far greater texts of liberty than the original and still highly flawed US Constitution. Doctorow eventually levels some fairly strong criticism of US policy and acts generally but mostly confines his critique to Bush and the Bush regime. Along the way, he neglects to mention "oil" or "occupation" and rather haplessly refers to two iconic establishment novelists, Herman Melville and Henry James (see misrepresentation next). Near closing, Doctorow calls the US a "democracy that is given to a degree of free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate, [in which] we can hope for the aroused witness, the manifold reportage, the flourishing of knowledge that will restore us to ourselves, awaken the dulled sense of our people to the public interest that is their interest…" The US surely is in many ways a very free society. All the greater then is the delinquency, however predictable, of an establishment literature that cannot be troubled to create and produce topical anti invasion-and-conquest novels of oil rich lands in the spirit of what liberatory scholar Edward Said calls "the urgent conjunction of art and politics." Nothing might stop the established authors and publishers in this "democracy" of the free but their investments and ideologies, their false realities and illusions, their misrepresentations of others and themselves. And how ever much they care.
Misrepresentation 28 – Henry James, TS Eliot, the CIA, and the cultural cold war: The establishment's ideological commitments render it unqualified to comment with much insight on vast sociopolitical domains both within fiction and without. It's incapable. This may or may not be why Wood feels at least "slightly depressed" at the thought of social novels representing the times. If he's truly a perceptive guy, widely aware, he knows he's handcuffed in what he can write. Establishment pressure against speaking out creates fear of job loss, isolation, obloquy, and other disincentives. On the other hand, status quo ideological constrictions may either be readily accepted by Wood and establishment writers, or may likely have been long since internalized as reality. If they were to write strong, comprehensive, perceptive analyses, they would be vilified, including by publishers and owners, or quietly cut off, effectively removed from history, as was, for example, once prominent literary critic Maxwell Geismar. Thus the need for independent writing and independent publishing houses. Currently: the few Davids against the many Goliaths.
Henry James – "a primary Cold War literary figure" – has been such a politically favored author of the establishment because he was a relatively prominent member of the privileged class whose stylistically accomplished sometimes labyrinthine writing hews to status quo lines at exhaustive length. Since, as famously noted, he chews more than he bites off, his novels function as elaborate upscale crossword puzzles for people of leisure and position. In a corrupt culture, the symptom of a corrupt system and vice versa, such fiction cannot fail to be revered for its charming, slight and "safe" qualities – ostensible or otherwise. Henry James and TS Eliot rate very high, or at the top, among the establishment's most admired American novelists, poets, critics. Both moved to England and became English citizens, as if geographically and geopolitically trying to go back in time, at least figuratively. They have been sort of wonderfully symbolic anti-revolutionaries, perfect for CIA purposes. The CIA in its propaganda efforts "airdropped translations of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets into Russia," and its cultural emissaries hastened to appear on national television to defend James, as we have seen.
TS Eliot is still highly revered in writing circles, in poetry workshops especially. Yet how many writers actually know and understand the faith based line of his full thought? At the end of Forces in American Criticism (1939), scholar Bernard Smith puts Eliot's views in perspective:
“[T.S. Eliot wrote,] ‘There are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the Catholic and the materialistic [i.e., Marxist]. It is quite possible, of course, that the future may bring neither a Christian nor a materialistic civilization. It is quite possible that the future may be nothing but chaos or torpor. In that event, I am not interested in the future; I am only interested in the two alternatives which seem to me worthier of interest….’
“Eliot chose not only the Catholic hypothesis, but also its political corollaries. His literary opinions were thus given a firm philosophical base to rest upon, and from that fact he drew the reasonable conclusions…[that] ‘Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint…. The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.’
“To this has esthetic criticism at last come – to a realization that non-esthetic criteria are the ultimate tests of value. Whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social criteria, they are still the ideas that men have about the way human beings live together and the way they ought to live. The quest of beauty had become the quest of reality. It had become, in essence, literary criticism as socially conscious and as polemical as the criticism of the Marxists.
Eliot the partisan – but for the establishment.
Misrepresentation 29 – liberatory lit attacked, buried: This combined liberal/conservative and reactionary political literary attack against the increasingly progressive literary stalwart Maxwell Geismar, having occurred on national TV no less, is (in retrospect at least) one of the most significant moments in all of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century – and it remains virtually unknown. Details may be found in Geismar's decades-delayed, invaluable memoir, Reluctant Radical (2002). Sometimes entire careers are buried, other times particular books. Similarly shot down the memory hole are landmark works of progressive or liberatory literary criticism from the first half of the twentieth century. Sheer scandal is the burial of Upton Sinclair's studied book of economic literary criticism, Mammonart (1924). Other inexcusable great losses include VF Calverton's The Liberation of American Literature (1932) and Bernard Smith's Forces in American Criticism (1939). It's difficult to be ignorant of these three momentous works and yet be able to fully appreciate Kenneth Burke's tremendous collection of 1930s essays, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), a book containing particular essays that consummate the progressive literary tradition, or liberatory tendency, of the preceding four decades at least. Ignorance of these landmark books makes it more difficult to understand the significance, isolation, and persecution of the once prominent (when liberal) accomplished literary critic Maxwell Geismar, as he was marginalized and forgotten through the sixties and seventies and today. It's difficult to be ignorant of these books of criticism (still almost entirely disappeared, despite much renewed interest in the 1930s) and yet be able to make full sense of the vital socially engaged criticism prior to the 1940s that was forcefully curtailed in subsequent decades, with corrosive effects very much evident today, despite some progressive gains, not least by way of the multicultural expansion.
The problem remains that establishment ideology continues to enormously disfigure fiction and criticism, as James Petras remarked.
Scholar Terry Eagleton notes in "Only Pinter Remains" (2007):
For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life. One might make an honourable exception of Harold Pinter, who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all; but his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.
The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment's reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Hare caved in to the blandishments of Buckingham Palace some years ago, moving from radical to reformist. Christopher Hitchens…[has] thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons. Martin Amis has written of the need to prevent Muslims travelling and to strip-search people "who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan". Deportation, he considers, may be essential further down the road.
The uniqueness of the situation is worth underlining. When Britain emerged as an industrial capitalist state, it had Shelley to urge the cause of the poor, Blake to dream of a communist utopia, and Byron to scourge the corruptions of the ruling class…
In the US, the situation is not much better, despite playwright Tony Kushner's writing in Theater:
I do not believe that a steadfast refusal to be partisan is, finally, a particularly brave or a moral or even interesting choice. Les Murray, an Australian poet, wrote a short poem called 'Politics and Art.' In its entirety: 'Brutal policy / like inferior art, knows / whose fault it all is.' This is as invaluable an admonishment as it is ultimately untrue.
What is James Wood's role in all this? Maybe aside from his relative prominence, it's very similar to the overwhelming flood of establishment writers and publishers – conservative, reactionary, and liberals not least. They bulwark the status quo, more or less, often even when they think they do not or think they are progressive. Meanwhile, "liberatory revolutionary" is virtually altogether out of the realm of thought, let alone comprehension.
Misrepresentation 30 – fiction shrunk: James Wood shows and tells quite a bit of quality in his criticism, and of course one can learn a lot from view and voice, style and character studies – purview. Though he shuns the forest for love of the wood in many ways, there's no denying that the wood, even a solitary tree, may be impressive. Noam Chomsky is far from alone in claiming:
If you want to learn about people's personalities and intentions, you would probably do better reading novels than reading psychology books. Maybe that's the best way to come to an understanding of human beings and the way they act and feel, but that's not science. Science isn't the only thing in the world, it is what it is...science is not the only way to come to an understanding of things…. If I am interested in learning about people, I'll read novels rather than psychology.
Moreover, fiction can be used to illuminate or engage what Chomsky calls "Orwell's problem": How is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to "instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?" The political refrain, "What's the matter with Kansas?" means more expansively, What's the matter with the USA, and the world? As Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and political worker notes, "Criticism, like charity, starts at home." Little may strike closer to home than the novel, a great and indispensable form for engaging Orwell's problem, terribly our own. Orwell's problem, in other words: How is it that people are persuaded to act against their own interests and values, often viciously, which they otherwise hold dear? Fiction can debunk harmful propaganda and taboos; it can help energize, motivate, inspire while maintaining vital literary and popular quality by staying focused on fiction's core strengths (and not excluding those emphasized by Wood and the establishment). Fiction can do, and does, far more than the establishment gives it credit for ad nauseam. Such novels, short stories, and satires intensely explore both the private and the public, those realities and their relations, not least but not only as revealed in the personal.
One cannot expect the status quo to abide liberatory fiction too far of course, for as Chomsky notes: "If Orwell, instead of writing 1984 - which was actually, in my opinion, his worst book, a kind of trivial caricature of the most totalitarian society in the world, which made him famous and everybody loved him, because it was the official enemy – if instead of doing that easy and relatively unimportant thing, he had done the hard and important thing, namely talk about Orwell's Problem [as pertains to the West], he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized" by the establishment, by the civilized. Reporter: "What do you think of Western civilization?" Gandhi: "I think it would be a good idea." Even the bright new prominent literary magazines and sites such as n+1, The Believer, and others distinguish themselves as little more than the flotsam and jetsam of the establishment. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of academic literary magazine production is similarly tamed. It's not that they are of no value. It's that they primarily and essentially perpetuate the basic status quo. To gain at least a little more humanity and vitality, possibly they could create or far better augment "left" or particular "liberatory" sections. The establishment might tolerate that for some while.
Misrepresentation 31 – the partisan orthodox nature of status quo lit: If we are not also writing and reading novels "in order to benefit" practically, usefully, then surely it's long past time we started doing so. Wood may be depressed by the thought of a flood of novels that "explain the times" for any variety of reasons, but he has indirectly said as much for them in a quip (Homeland Security should read), maybe more, as he has argued repeatedly against. The ideological lines of establishment fiction and criticism are evident, revealing, and follow an instructive trajectory of plot. They sometimes appear (in Ngugi's words) as "tragedy that manifests itself as comedy." When not worse. Clearly detailed or not in the minds or writing of star critics who may or may not wish, after all, to matter too much, this too is how fiction works, for real – and how does it ever.
Even Sean Wilentz in "The Rise of Illiterate Democracy" in the New York Times notes that "The nonfiction best-seller lists these days are often full of partisan screeds labeling Democrats as elitist traitors and Republicans as conniving plutocrats. But look over on the fiction side, and politics appears almost nowhere. …the separation of literature and state seems to have become absolute." Wilentz is scarcely referring to progressive political fiction here; however, his observations apply beyond party politics, since many crucial and enduring public issues are not taken up in fiction from much explicit progressive let alone revolutionary perspective. Who would solicit or publish them? Who has? Hollywood? The publishing houses with money and clout? Even the liberal ones? The liberal magazines? The literary magazines? Many of these operations cannot beg off, as progressive operations often must, for not having resources.
One author has suggested that fiction writers could "tithe" some part of their writing time and talent to producing nonfiction political works. The notion of enlightening and moving and aesthetically accomplished political fiction of various sorts seems that which cannot be thought. Take award winning story writer Benjamin Percy, one of the first writers (sanctioned by the literary establishment, that is) to write in any way about the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, in "Refresh, Refresh" (which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2007 and was called the story of the year by novelist Anne Lamott):
I certainly have strong political feelings. But I try not to let them command my fiction. There is a difference between writing about a political issue — and writing politically — and I try not to cross that line in the sand. I don't want people to come away from my story as if they've come away from an editorial, with a ready-made message shoved down their throat. An audience should feel betrayed by such fiction, because it's so obviously fraudulent and manipulative, the characters hollow puppets the author crudely shoves his hands into. Part of the goal of Refresh, Refresh was to write a war story that didn't say, war is good, war is bad. I instead wanted to say, this is war. And in doing so, I tried to show both sides. I can't tell you how many emails I've received from people who have read Refresh, Refresh and called me A, a liberal pantywaist, or B, a right-wing nut job. When you piss off everybody, I guess you're doing something right. On the other hand, I've also received emails from soldiers, from vets, from protestors, from politicians, all of them moved by the story for completely different reasons.
What escapes Percy's regard here (and TC Boyle's and George Saunders' in similar comments, as well as that of central establishment writers like EL Doctorow and Philip Roth, and so on, who are often perceived as rather political) is the power and vitality, the value and art, of partisan fiction. Percy makes no note (and seems to imply the opposite) that "strong political feelings" can be expressed as liberatory overt partisan fiction in very accomplished and highly aesthetic ways far from "a ready-made message shoved down [a reader's] throat," as if ostensibly nonpartisan fiction is any less "ready-made," including Percy's own "Refresh, Refresh" given his decision to "show both sides": apparently meaning "war is good, war is bad." Partisan fiction, according to Percy, is "fraudulent and manipulative" but depictions of "war is good, war is bad" are even-handed, which must no doubt prove equally instructive and comforting to both the invaders and the invaded, occupied peoples of the smashed land of Iraq. And so it is that status quo fiction is far less upfront and often in denial – far less willing and capable of declaring what it actually is, ideologically. There are plenty of ways a literary subjective fiction can reveal objective criminal reality. Status quo art, however, avoids doing so, except marginally, in a great number of ways, even though it practically has to go out of its way to cheat reality, to vitiate it of urgent conditions, revelation or phenomena, let alone explore progressive or revolutionary realms and possibilities.
The criticism of James Wood further muddles the shallow sociopolitical component of the human condition as explored in fiction, and further impedes and discourages its badly needed engagement. Pathology in terrorism – Wood claims. In part, but it's largely tactical and rooted in injustice, the main problem by far. Jealousy of the West? Rather, justified outrage. Them as the West's "current problem"? Our (the West's) longstanding outlaw acts. How Fiction Works? How Purview Works, in Part. "Free indirect style"? Purview meld. The intimate human may be revealed in the novel? And the epic social and political too. Subtlety of analysis, nuance, limning – establishment sign language for toeing the line with style, for creating work nonthreatening to the interests (often criminal) of establishment power and control.
Misrepresentation 32 – basic public realities denied, distorted: The current crises of the US in the "Middle East" are widely misrepresented by the establishment – fiction and nonfiction both. Take the Iraq war for example. The media is full of articles stating that Iraq war movies and films (the fiction features) have not done well at the box office, but compared to the relative lack of, say, Hurricane Katrina movies, or, say, the ongoing national slaughter of the impoverished by the impoverishers movies, the growing numbers of Iraq war movies, by their very existence alone, are doing extremely well. Far more such movies have been made now than were remotely ever made about the Vietnam war at a comparable time. And far more people see most any of these movies than see most any such documentary. But it's no cause for celebration, far from it, because these movies are very careful not to be too "antiwar," if at all, not too revealing of the basic illegality and immorality of the US conquest of Iraq and surrounds.
Of course all wars are brutalizing in their everyday and peripheral realities (true of even justifiable wars), which is about as far as any of the movies go, and that typically isn't even as far into the fundamentals as Michael Moore's relatively circumscribed documentaries venture with the various issues he examines. The central reality of the US conquest of Iraq and beyond is distorted or falsified, or goes studiously ignored, the fact that the US has committed the supreme crime of aggression, "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole," in the words of the judgment of Nuremberg. None of the dozens of Iraq war movies, shows, and novels I'm aware of renders this reality explicit and central. Instead, central reality is buried.
Very few of these various works of fiction even begin to approach that central framing context, and consequently they either greatly falsify or evade the crucial reality. On those grounds, those grounds that are central to the whole calamity, the movies and novels don't deserve a large audience, even if they do on other grounds. Until this "major and crucial point overlooked" is made clear in relation to the US role in the aggression against Iraq, as Noam Chomsky notes, "until at least this is recognized, all other discussion is merely footnotes, and shameful ones." And that's the shame of the Iraq war movies, and novels too; they are essentially about the "footnotes," however monstrous, rather than the "major and crucial point overlooked." And what's worse, overlooking the central point means that even the best intentioned films may more likely "act as cultural 'softeners' before the bombing starts again for real" or continues without end, as John Pilger notes of films like Black Hawk Down, in "Hollywood Hurrah." (Not that he regards BHD as well intentioned.) Pilger adds:
Even in finely crafted films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon that look as if they might break ranks, there is an implicit oath of loyalty to imperial culture. This was true of Three Kings, a movie that seemed to take issue with the Gulf war, but instead produced a familiar "bad apple" tale, exonerating the militarism that is now rampant. So dominant is Hollywood in our lives, and so collusive are its camp-following critics, that the films that ought to have been made are unmentionable. Name the mainstream movies that have shone light on to the vast shadow thrown by the American secret state, and the mayhem for which it is responsible. I can think of only a few: Costa-Gavras's Missing, which was about the destruction of the elected government in Chile by General Pinochet's puppet masters in Washington, and Oliver Stone's Salvador, which made the connection between Reagan's Washington and El Salvador's death squads. Both these films were quirks of the system, funded with great difficulty and, in the case of Missing, dogged by vengeful court actions.
In sum, seen as a Hollywood meal ticket (make that, yacht ticket) the Iraq war movies are a commercial disappointment, while otherwise an extreme and growing success compared to their (virtually nonexistent) Vietnam war counterparts. But to call these movies a cultural success is an extreme overstatement, except as footnote. Most of the films I've seen have some limited worthwhile qualities, even though one sees these films for what they are and gets the antagonizing and sometimes intolerable sense that goes along with it. The most worthwhile thus far are probably, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, War, Inc., and above all, the relatively low budget GI Jesus. Even slimmer pickings exist among the novels, seems to me, though the relevant novels of Yasmina Khadra compare.
Hollywood and the literary establishment are as stark in their partisan nature as in their denials of such. "Multicultural" fiction is far more pronounced in recent decades than it has been traditionally and some of this is progressive or has progressive aspects, some even overt progressive and revolutionary aspects. But, for merely one example, how many recent antiwar novels can be named? The US has been smashing Iraq since 1991, taking a toll of over a million Iraqi lives through bombings and sanctions in the 1990s alone, long before the deeply unpopular ground invasion and occupation killing as many or more again, and creating millions more refugees. And the US for years has allowed corporations the use of patent laws, which have prevented HIV vaccines from reaching Africa resulting in millions of lives lost. Where are the exposé novels? Name the so-called muckraking novels or vivid polemic novels about the unconscionable US health care system, or poverty rate and the outrageous economic system. Or US global militarism and outlaw threats both military and economic. Or avoidable environmental catastrophes. Etc and so on. Not easy to do, though it's possible to come up with a few, including John le Carré somewhat recently in The Constant Gardner – an exception to the rule. Even le Carré recently said he underestimated, underportrayed the damage done in Africa by the unconscionable economics and policies of the West. Writing powerful quality liberatory fiction is in many ways unthinkable and disallowed in the circles of literature, exceptions aside.
Misrepresentation 33 – the immateriality of the status quo: As James Wood puts forth an "aesthetic" of pursuing "the real, which is at the bottom of [his] inquiries," there is every reason to believe his assertion and every reason to doubt what it might reveal, when his pursuit of the real is eviscerated by reality, the status quo stake, that long blade of ideology, manifesting itself via inane or hapless notions like "the essential juvenility of plot." Plot and purpose and the world be damned – not least for US novelists (or critics) writing about explicit investigations of the immoral and illegal invasions, occupations and other state crimes of the US. Conditions far too real for publication. Now, if other authors, not from around here, want to create epic masterworks of the real for publishing, review, and distribution in the West, then okay, to a point, especially if allegorical, or otherwise limited, and preferably about them (if not to the people), but don't subtly limn the nuance too far, too explicitly, too purposefully so that we of the status quo cannot plausibly deny what must be denied.
Just so, we may review, we may praise an other masterpiece, either not from here or about not here, and we may write glowing analyses, including a genuinely illuminating one – though with a key flaw – as did Scott Esposito on Ngugi wa Thiongo's accurately self-described "global epic from Africa," Wizard of the Crow. The ideological flaw in his essay (if not a simpler mistake), where establishment perspective, wittingly or not, gets the better of an otherwise astute work, is where Esposito, exactingly, in much more detail than I quote below, assesses Ngugi's vibrant fictive depiction of a particular sort of politics as "African" and, by misleading inference, not American – not quite, not remotely:
[In Wizard of the Crow] storytelling exemplifies the techniques and the architecture used by political actors in [the fictitious African country] Aburiria as they continually invent tales that, with breathtaking speed, become the new realities that the country must live by. Whether it is the Ruler purposefully creating realities with an iron hand, businessmen doing it in ignorance as they arrange deals, or even the resistance innocently slipping into stories that help them toward their goals, the creation of stories remains central….
In the space of just a few pages, a miraculous inversion has been effected. Marching to Heaven [an incredibly corrupt Tower of Babel building project] has gone from a boondoggle that has revealed Aburiria's desperation to a vision of national strength, fervently attended to by popular demonstrations all over the country. Significantly, the Ruler has not said a word to create this new reality. Merely by indicating his displeasure with the story that reality has given him, he has spurred his ministers to invent an entirely new reality, and to find methods by which to force it into existence. If Thiong'o is correct, and I think he is, this is how an African dictatorship functions.
Far more to point however: this is how centralized governments in the age of propaganda function globally, more or less, not least in the US (where Ngugi has lived and worked for 16 years, since 1992, the beginning of President Bill Clinton's terms). The Clinton-Bush regimes in Washington DC were forced to "continually invent tales that, with breathtaking speed, become the new realities that the country must live by" whether to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely, or to demonize welfare, or to endlessly bailout high finance, or to flood prisons with non-violent drug-law offenders, or to continually prop-up pharmaceutical and insurance companies while demonizing Medicare for all, and on and on. President Bush II shoved the military into Iraq and Afghanistan with his "iron hand" and by way of "dealing businessmen" in the media and elsewhere (often not so "ignorant"). The Bush regime could and so it did, even though the majority public opposed it, even in the US except for a few months in the beginning of the invasion when the massive fraudulent propaganda deluge worked its effect, mentally cleansing the US majority ever so briefly. And now the Barack Obama incipient regime, only slightly less status quo aggressive and fanatic, has more subtly maneuvered, but in just as wholesale a fashion, America's "desperation" in grasping at fake change "to a vision of national strength, fervently attended to by popular demonstrations all over the country" and beyond (hundreds of thousands gathered to cheer him on while in Europe prior to the US election). "Significantly, the [presumptive] Ruler has not said a word to create this new reality," not a word that is meaningful in any basic concrete way. "He has spurred his [PR] ministers to invent an entirely new reality, and to find methods by which to force it into existence" at least in appearance.
While not from America but Africa as Ngugi points out, Wizard of the Crow is far more a global novel than Esposito indicates, far more an American novel than he hints. Commenting at Amazon.com, Patricia Kramer writes, "The satire is biting, the laughs come often but then the reality of our country's present policies sets in. We would be lucky to have a Wizard of the Crow right now in America." Such a pointed global epic from America rather than "from Africa" or Asia, et al, would preferably be one that advances well beyond even the mighty Wizard. Such a novel and any clear-eyed criticism will have to wait, and if and when that day arrives, will have to be fought for. That's the reality.
Misrepresentation 34 – the public chopped from the personal: As for "puerile" prose, Robert Alter clarifies in his critique of contemporary fiction, "I have no quarrel at all with fantasy or flaunted artifice in the novel but only with their deployment in ways that are ultimately self-indulgent and mechanically repetitious, that tend to turn the imaginative energies of fiction into a crackling closed circuit" where little meaning or sensibility escapes the smoke and sparks of the swirling (yet somehow dull) words. Five years later (1980) in "The American Political Novel," while critiquing Robert Coover's The Public Burning, Alter notes: "One may wonder why so many gifted and serious novelists have chosen to treat politics in such a fundamentally unserious fashion…. One would think that the political novel, perhaps more than other kinds of fiction, requires adult intelligence…."
Then sounding like Wood today, though both more apt and too narrow, Alter focuses on character, noting: "The novel's great strength as a mode of apprehension is in its grasp of character, and the political novel at its best can show concretely and subtly what politics does to character, what character makes of politics." Ah, "subtly"! for Alter too is establishment but like Wood sheds some light around his distortions. He critiques Norman Mailer's attempts to craft effective political fiction and concludes that (as of over three decades ago) he seems to come closest to this in The Deer Park :
What he confronts centrally for the first time is the special power of American society to mask, sham, evade, forget reality, to seduce its individual members into giving up on engagement in the real world; and the ultimately political nature of his moral imagination is reflected in his effort here to show how this American style of cotton-candy insulation from reality allows a society to perpetrate horror and obscenity at home and abroad with hardly a twinge of conscience.
If only the novel did greatly reveal such reality. Unfortunately, The Deer Parkseems to me to be far more focused on characters' private lives and relationships than on any public realms within which they exist. Perceptive mid-century critic