Tuesday, October 18, 2005
hmmmm . . . either the permalinks are screwed up or I am. Scroll down to Willie Stark.
What in the world is “political fiction”? Lehmann doesn’t seem to think it needs defining, but then he throws Gore Vidal, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Chris Buckley together. Is it “political” in the narrow sense—a novel with politicians as major characters? If so, *Uncle Tom’s Cabin* isn’t a political novel. If “political fiction” is simply fiction that addresses political issues, then Lehmann’s just wrong.
Let’s assume, despite Lehmann’s hodge-podge of examples, he’s talking about novels about politicians. Right there, I see the problem: from Hawthorne, Melville, and Stowe on, American writers haven’t seen “Washington” or “the capital” as the center of politics. Politics was something that happened between people, in the home, on a ship, in the woods. Our best political literature is domestic—the sorts of homebody epics Fiedler talked about, from *Uncle Tom’s Cabin* to *Roots*, from *Moby Dick* to Joanna Scott’s *The Manikin*, from *The Confidence Man* or *Huck Finn* to *Flight to Canada* or *Invisible Man*. Americans *love* their politics; they *loathe* their government. That there’s the issue. Maybe “loathe” isn’t even the right word. They feel powerless to shape what happens at the governmental level.
At the same time, to ignore Ursula Le Guin as a political novelist—I’m thinking *The Left Hand of Darkness* or *The Dispossessed*—is plain ignorance. She might be our first novelist of truly international or global politics. And then there’s Robert Stone. DeLillo. Ishmael Reed. Philip Roth. Thomas Pynchon. Christ, *Vineland* is one the best political novels out there.
Doesn’t it seem strange that Lehmann mentions the first three installments of Vidal’s “American Chronicles” but not the those which meet his rather exacting specifications, i.e. Empire, The Golden Age, Hollywood, Washington D.C., The Smithsonian?
Also, I have to second Luther’s notion that Lehmann’s category’s too narrow to be applicable to U.S. politics or literature; the distribution of power in the American government between the federal, state and local levels is such that it’s difficult to encompass in a single novel unless that novel addresses the life of that rare politician (like Huey Long) who was able to negotiate them all. A novel about machine politics, on the other hand, could; but then you’re not, by and large, concerned with actual politicians so much as the shadowy forces behind them...and that puts you squarely in Pynchon/DeLillo/Reed territory. In short, I think Lehmann’s interest should lie with the way in which American writers have addressed politics instead of applying the Continental standard to American literature and then complaining it hardly applies.
But why should a novel need to encompass the complete distribution of power? And why should an interest in offices, parties, policies, or movements be too narrow for the U.S.? LB makes a good suggestion, I think, in suggesing that it reflects a deep-seated antistatism. But I’m guessing that in the 20th century, professional competition may also be a factor (so that the relative non-prominence of novels of business might be comparable).
UTC, meanwhile? A novel that dealt directly with the most politically inflammatory issue of its day, that indicted specific laws and policies (in part via a cameo part for a professional politician--Sen. Bird), and that implicitly or explicitly pointed toward organized political action (abolition, colonization, arguably war). That’s a long way apart from any Stone, DeLillo, Roth, or Pynchon.
A novel that dealt directly with the most politically inflammatory issue of its day, that indicted specific laws and policies (in part via a cameo part for a professional politician--Sen. Bird), and that implicitly or explicitly pointed toward organized political action (abolition, colonization, arguably war).
You could say that this role is currently fulfilled by other media: West Wing for the “left,” comic books on the “right.”
There’s no need for novels—Wheeee!
Good point. I think it had to merely because of the examples Lehmann chose and the fact that I hadn’t had any coffee yet. Let me venture this, then: Lehmann’s tradition of “American political novels” skews canonical. Next month I start a chapter on a whole slew of them: Silas Weir Mitchell’s Hugh Wynne: Free Quaker, Sometimes Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on the Staff of His Excellency General Washington (1897), The Youth of Washington Told in the Form of an Autobiography (1904), A Venture in 1777 (1908) and The Red City: A Novel of the Second Administration of President Washington (1908); Winston Churchill’s Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), Coniston (1906) and Mr. Crewe’s Career (1908). Americans at the time were intensely interested in politics and the political novel, as indicated by the overwhelming popularity of these works. That’s not to say they’re quality political novels, mind you, but they’re certainly political. (And while not popular, Gaddis’ JR and Richard Powers’ Gain are two quality novels of business. Why do I only seem capable of generating lists this morning?) Churchill and Mitchell may not be “pro-politician” like Brammer, and their protagonists may not be “tortured literary character[s] like Ahab or Winston Smith,” but they were popular, and indicated a national interest in rewriting the terms of the country’s first (Revolutionary War) and second (Civil War) foundational moments.
As for there not being “protest novels” (I’m not touching that debate) anymore, I think there certainly are: the Left Behind series; The Turner Diaries; D.A. Hänks’ Patriot Act; Thorsten Thal’s 6015 A.L.; &c.
On another note, as I was reading a white supremacist message board to “remember” the name of Thal’s book, I found the following strangely familiar complaint:
We still need a seminal novel for the White Nationalist movement that is well-written and carries more currency than something like The Turner Diaries or Hunter. I admire William L. Pierce, but I’m not sure that fiction was his strong point.
Sheri Holman’s *The Mammoth Cheese* is a recent, well-written novel that spans the local and the national, the domestic and the political.
But Sean, I think the fact remains that for many groups in America, party politics were not where the real political action took place. Take Chesnutt’s *The Marrow of Tradition*, a brilliant political novel, one that resonates at the national level, of course, in its investigation of the sick ironies of Jim Crow, but which locates the real currents of political action in the local: the family, the profession (journalists, doctors, servants), the city.
Or *The No-No Boy*—again, American politics here are concentrated into the carceral logic of a locality. Same with *Beloved*.
But E.L. Doctorow writes large-scale political novels: *Ragtime*, *The Waterworks*, and the new one, for example. By the same logic, *Mason & Dixon* is a perfect political novel: it deals with business (the East India Co and Dutch East India Co.), politics (Clive of India, the Indian Mutiny, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the land debate between MD, PA, and DE, the national independence movement, and so on). It deals with the literal shaping of the nation, fer crying out loud.
Same goes for *Vineland*: COINTELPRO, revolutionary movements, Black Power, the FBI, rabid federal prosecutors, the Reagan consolidation of power in the executive branch, witness protection programs. Or *Gravity’s Rainbow*, which is essentially about the collusion of nation and business behind the scenes of WWII.
But Americans write national tales more than “political novels.” Yet again, here’s a distinction someone like Lehmann refuses to make, given his elephant dance through delicate points.
Others not mentioned by Lehmann:
John Dos Passos
Are these political novelists? If not, why not?
LB, I’m not sure why you’re annoyed by Lehmann since you seem to pretty much agree with him. I think you’re wrong, though, about Marrow. It’s a novel about a coup d’etat. So, while I agree, it’s preferences are local and its got a deep interest in family and custom, it doesn’t “locate the real currents of political action” in the family at all. In fact, I think you could plausibly read that as part of Chesnutt’s judgment: it’s part of the evil of radical racism in that novel that it subordinates family to political violence. In this way, it’s arguably in and out of the general pattern we’re discussing. It’s aggrieved at the investment of redemptionists in politics, and yet it also aspired to be a political document--one that Chesnutt sent to every sitting member of Congress, if I remember right. But, of course, though I’d certainly agree it’s a fine book, like No-No Boy, it’s not exactly a revered work of American lit. (In my experience neither the latter, nor Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, say, are prominent in the canons of even American ethnic lit.--though I’m probably a bit out of date on this.)
Pynchon’s an interesting case, not least because GR specifically tells us that formal politics is merely charade. Is that political fiction? In one sense, obviously yes. In another sense, which you noted in your first post, it’s premised on the sense that officials, parties, policies, and even movements are all ultimately insignificant.
This will no doubt be unsatisfactory, blah, but in the interest of economy, I’d say some were and some weren’t. I think that what’s emphasized in Pynchon is shared by Heller through Roth in your list: the assumption that, as LB puts it, the most important political forces are cultural and social and that formal political institutions and actors are at best trivial and at worst destructive or repressive by comparison. As I meant to suggest above, I think that professional and institutional factors are more important here than national character (though I do also think that American suspiciousness of government also plays a role). I’m sure there are a number of reasons that Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway are more influential than their contemporary Dos Passos, say, but I suspect one reason is that they made a robust case for the idea that culture mattered a lot more than politics and their view turned out to be convincing and successful especially among writers and literary audiences. To put it differently, Trilling won the day in the literary world when he attacked Dreiser and said that the only real politics from then on would be cultural politics. Unfortunate for all concerned, I think.
I think from this angle Scott and Foo’s points make a lot of sense, as does LB’s defense of LeGuin. It makes sense in this light that you’d expect to see the most interesting narrative and dramatic representations of politics among less prestigiously literary forms of writing. As far as I’m concerned The Wire, say, is high quality political drama. I eagerly await the resuscitation of S. Weir Mitchell’s literary representation.
I’ve put this badly, but I hope it’s more or less clear what I’m trying to say.
I think it’s interesting to note, in this context, than in Comics politics were pretty much always a British phenomena. I actually think they still are- And I see this connecting to what Luther and Sean suggest, that in America, at this historical point the government seems epiphenomenal to a degree.
But I think perhaps it’s better to look at it in slightly different terms, not of casual importance deduced form an analysis of the system, but their status as cultural symbols epitomizing the forces at work :
Philip K. Dick fetishized Nixon, and much popular music is now fetishizing Bush, but as it seems from where I’m standing (Israel), these reaction are merely lip service compared with the impression Thatcher, as a persona and a governmental system, left on a generation of British writers.
What I’m trying to get at is that for ‘political fiction’ and ‘fiction dealing with official, parties, policies’ to collide, what is needed is more that a sense of a causation between government actions and states of affairs - There needs to be some “fisher king” element in the public consciousness that would make dealing with the government a microcosms of dealing with the national state. Otherwise the energy required to make literature, and not merely scholarship, out of governmental politics isn’t there.
I don’t have to tell anyone that in Israel politics are a huge deal, and that art is often politically charged- But I can’t recall a single work dealing with High-Politics that focuses on politicians and governmental work, except for some light-satire.
More cerebral satire usually deals with the cultural and political conditions.
If there is governmental subject matter, it’s usually in the municipal level - there the politics are seen as a kind of focalization for discussing corrupt ethics.
So, it’s not exactly a matter of how important politicians are considered to be in their effects on the world, it’s rather the degree to which they are seen as manifesting the forces shaping it, and not merely as representational epiphenomena’s of them (the leadrs as puppets of capitalist forces and so on), but as their fiercest practitioners- a Citizen Kane kind of thing.
Sean, I’m not sure you’re distinction between “the political” on one side and “the social or cultural” on the other can be maintained. All political forces are by definition social and cultural, and vice versa. To outlaw abortion would be to affect the everyday lives of men and women. So a novel that traces the life of a woman who cannot get an abortion is political, even if it doesn’t involve a pro-choice rally or even if it doesn’t include the transcript of a letter to her senator. This is the way in which, say, Russell Banks’ novels are political. *Continental Drift* is amazing in this respect: how international politics and economics affects two intersecting lives, the one white, working-class, northeastern, the other black, impoverished, Haitian. But is it not political because it never represents the President vetoing immigration laws? Or doesn’t pose a solution to the problem of outsourcing, post-industrialism, postcolonialism, and immigration?
To say that Chesnutt’s *The Marrow of Tradition* is not a political novel is to elide the difference between de jure and de facto politics. Which is to say, Jim Crow was a legal machine, but legal means weren’t enough to end it. It’s also to ignore the fact that any novelistic representation of certain social or cultural *effects* of politics is articulated at the national level: Chesnutt was battling for hearts and minds as much as Stowe. Need Chesnutt have written instead a courtroom novel about challenging Jim Crow laws? Is a novel really only political when it involves a representation of the State At Work? Is *To Kill a Mockingbird* more political than *Marrow* because it takes place in a courthouse?
I mean, in what way is *Sister Carrie* a “political novel” as compared to, say, *The Bluest Eye*? The one shows the demaging role of class, commodities, and gender in turn of the century America; the other reveals the damaging role of class, commodities, gender, and race in mid-20th century America. It’s one thing if we want to restrict the “political novel” to novels centered on war, politicians, mass political struggles, ambassadors, and espionage. But then we’re talking about a genre like any other—which is fine, but we have to be straight on the conventions of the genre.
But if we’re talking about the “business novel” as political, then DeLillo has to be included. His characters are nothing more than their professions: the writer in *Mao II*, the academic in *White Noise*, the operative in *Libra*, the waste manager in *Underworld*. *Cosmopolis* is the worst of the bunch in this sense: there’s no *there* there besides a trader trading and worrying about his trades. But it represents a political rally, so is it then political?
Fascinating, Peli. Thanks. It’s hard to think that Clinton or Reagan, say, didn’t seem to the culture at large as manifesting the important political forces of their world. But placed in a literary context perhaps they seemed merely epiphenomenal. I want to consider all this further.
LB, you’re missing several of my points. Marrow is a political novel--but its history makes clear that it and its style have been marginal to the dominant kind of fiction in the 20th century US. (I may have created confusion by saying that I think the gist of Chesnutt’s novel is to object to the preeminence of political power in his world. That’s true, I think, but it’s not a major point.)
My reference to fiction about business was merely argument by analogy. (Hence the word “comparable.") Few prominent twentieth century American novelists write well or seriously about business or politics because they don’t understand either and they’re inclined to believe that neither is important as literature.
The whole point was to talk about a genre like any other. I think your argument takes us in the direction of saying all novels are political novels, which is arguably true in one very broad sense, but which if so would probably confirm Lehmann’s point.
American politics are *really* not my strongest area (and at the moment, neither is sentence construction, as I’m having a bad cold clouding my mind. So apologies for the creaking grammar of this and the previous message), but aren’t Clinton or Reagan as figurehead as it gets, at least as far as cultural memory is concerned?
Reshaping my idea, I think that in order for someone to function as a good representative for a system or a cultural tendency *in a political work of literature*, it’s not really enough for him to be an extremely typical example of it. He has to also be its shaper. Perhaps a good way to think about it is that governmental figures who inspire a will to write a “concretely” political novels, and make good characters for such a novel, must both be perfect synecdoche, and major casual forces shaping the whole they are a synecdoche of.
Otherwise a ‘concrete’ political becomes too metaphorical, too much a matter of symbolism, as the connection between the characters and the larger phenomena becomes merely one of analogy when the true casual power lies in the system from which it sprang, and not in it.
King Arthur both built the land is the land, Kane is both a major shaper of America, and its mirror image, Thatcher is… well, someone who inspires things like this song (might be deemed inappropriate by some people)(http://www.nomorelyrics.net/song/176600.html) ten years after her reign. I think this song actually says exactly the synecdoche+casual-significance-shaping-the-whole thing.
The reason I’m fixating on Thatcher here is because the british tradition of concretely political writing is so vivid, from Pinter to Grant Morrison- even in avant-garde theatre and surrealist comics, there are politicians and governments all over the place. Most of it by people who took the existence of Thatcher really personally.
Sean, I suppose our difference then is that I see *Marrow* as the start of a tradition that runs through Dos Passos to Doctorow, through Faulkner to Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. I know there are vast differences between Dos Passos and Faulkner, but what they share over against other American modernist novelists is an interest in the historical novel *as* the political novel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that *Marrow* and *The Education of Henry Adams* come out around the same time. That’s the point where I see the historical novel shifting away from “historical romance” (a la Dixon) and toward a more “historiographic” model, one self-conscious about the technologies of historical representation to a large degree. Perhaps this is point when the modern museum takes over the mission of cultural preservation from the folktale collection or romance, creating a space within the novel for reflection on the entire issue of fashioning a usable past? At the same time, much of this work repeats—probably unconsciously—the typical patterns of the British and Irish national tale, in which a marriage plot symbolically manages the real social contradictions explored by the novel. The ending of Doctorow’s *Ragtime* is a perfect example of this; whether ironic or not, the novel can only achieve closure by putting everyone together into a family at the end.
I don’t think all novels are political novels. I don’t even think “the personal is the political.” John Hawkes would be a perfect example of a contemporary American novelist who never wrote a political word in his 60 year career. My original point in this thread was that Lehmann talks about the death of a genre, but gives examples of this genre that don’t add up to something coherent. If it’s really a genre that’s disappeared, I don’t think we need to mourn it. Genres come and go and come again. Rather than fault contemporary writers for neglecting the genre, a real critic would seek to explain the passing of the genre. What social work did the political novel do? What has replaced the political novel?
But, if it’s more than a genre that’s disappeared; if what Lehmann is *really* insinuating is that we have no good novels about politics today, then we’re dealing with a very different claim. I think Lehmann is using the decline of a genre as a stick with which to beat current novelists; that is, he seems to argue that the absence of political novels as a genre *means* the absence of interesting novels about politics. (This is the equivalent of arguing that a decline in the puzzle mystery would mean that today’s writers don’t care about crime and punishment anymore.) I’ve simply tried to say that’s not right, that the former claim doesn’t lead to the latter claim. I’m not convinced that contemporary novelists don’t understand—and so don’t represent—politics. Rather, there are a variety of reasons why party politics is largely ignored in today’s fiction: (a) the American distrust of gov’t; (b) the fact that most issues concerning today’s novelists are far to the left of anything being discussed at the local or national level; (c) work by feminist, ethnic, and gay activists to shift awareness of politics away from elections and votes and toward the micropolitics of everyday life; (d) the experience of alienation and powerlessness felt by average Americans in the face of big business, pressure groups, and political elites.
Peli’s points about Thatcher and the “Fisher King” phenomenon would bring us to *Vineland*. A novel set in 1984, which opens with a bearded man waking up, Rip Van Winkle style, to a world very different from the world he once knew. A novel in which Ronald Reagan is the absent evil at the center of the plot. But—and this is where Pynchon is smart, I think—a novel in which the “Fisher King” style of political reaction is taken apart—underneath Darth Vader’s mask is a doddering fool. It’s not “Thatcher” or “Reagan” that’s important—it’s the system in which they play a role that works as the novel’s focus. (Not to start another horrible argument, but doesn’t Zizek write something about how the point isn’t simply to kill a bad capitalist, because then we’d be mistaking the personality for the structural role?) I think *Vineland* is about as good a political novel as we’ve gotten this century (and I think that’s why the critics went after it like they did).
Luther, a minor note: Marrow‘s released in 1901; The Education was privately circulated in 1906, but wasn’t published until 1918. I see your general point--the environment to which they react as opposed to the circumstances of publication. That said, I have much more to say about this topic, and will...once I’ve completed my chapter on the decline of the historical romance and know better all the “much” I have more to say about it.
Luther: Good stuff about taking apart the fisher-king logic. I do wonder though, is this a progression of thinking that leads Pynchon there, or an appropriation of extrapolation to source material?
I’m usually really not one to go for symptomatic readings, but couldn’t it be said that a doddering fool heading the empire of evil has as much to do with the absence of a politician fitting the fisher-kingish profile, as with a thought deconstructing the fisher-kingish way of literary political thinking?
I’m being a bit of a devil-advocate here, but I’m not completely sure I’m wrong either.
Peli: I think Pynchon’s performing this “deconstruction” consciously. I used the Darth Vader comparison because it’s used in *Vineland* itself: as Brock Vond descends on a halter from a helicopter above the sleeping Prairie Wheeler, insinuating he is her father, only to have his orders revoked and the chopper hoist him back up and reveal his impotence.
It’s also the basic method of all of his novels: a slow acceleration of “conspiracy theory” until “They” are finally revealed to be nothing more than a fractal pattern of forces, powers, interests, without center. Whether it’s “V” or “They” or “Reagan,” the Power gets broken down into a field of forces. This goes together with Pynchon’s critique, in *Vineland*, of the New Left: no patience, no distance, no discipline, no analysis. Paranoia replaces critical thinking, projection and scapegoating reveal the eroticism between political “tops” and “bottoms.”
I guess your critique still could hold, but Pynchon’s work seems to always work against the belief in some ultimate Power—a singular figure or Organization or explanation—behind all the world’s evils.
That sounds pretty convincing. I still think the might be at least a correlation between a Fisher-King-Like-Leader (strong synecdoches plus strong casual influence) being around and governmental affairs seeming like the best subject matter for cultural-political literature.
It seems to me as if it would be easier and more natural to think in terns of a system rather than a person in Reagen-land than in Thatcher-land. So it’s interesting that Pynchon needed to shatter the Fisher-King approach in a Reagan based work. Does it mean that the Reagen era was filled with government-based literature with a Fisher King view? Or did he invoke that notion in order to shatter it, without it being prevalent in the literature of the moment?
Leaving the historical terms of emergence of Fisher-Kind political literature aside for a moment, it’s interesting that K. Dick can actually go both ways: Nixon is quite a bit of an evil Fisher-King in Valis, as far as the political goes, though things get deconstructed in the metaphysical hierarchies complementing the mundane political aspects, yet The Simulacrum is all about every hypothesis of political core getting decentralized.
There are two flawed but enjoyable PKD books that might be interesting in this connection: _The Penultimate Truth_ and _The Unteleported Man_.
In _The Penultimate Truth_, a charismatic war-leader is a literal fake, an illusion created by a group of ex-advertising people who use false reports of continuing war to keep the population working away in underground bunkers. _The Unteleported Man_ concerns a situation in which a colony planet has been settled by teleportation, but no one knows what is really going on there since a single organization controls the teleportation stations and they could be faking all the information that comes back. Both are dystopian political novels that don’t have a totalitarian leader, state, or party, but rather a sort of widespread corruption of information, and as such, appear to be strongly influenced by the TV era.
_The Unteleported Man_ is especially interesting, in my opinion, in part because four pages near the end went missing from the manuscript and were never found. So the usual PKD semi-resolution of all the competing theories of what is really going on is itself corrupted, an effect that in this case probably adds to the book.
A few details, LB. Your characterization of Lehmann is quite inaccurate. (He doesn’t refer to the death of a genre. He does offer a real critical argument about why in his view American political fiction is weak [the attraction to fables of innocence abused]. He doesn’t beat any current novelists with a stick and doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in them.)
Marrow is not a historical novel, but focuses on recent events. It’s unlikely to be part of a tradition, since it was entirely forgotten and inspired no imitators. It is wildly unlike anything written by Faulkner or McCarthy and is not much more like Dos Passos. None of those writers but Chesnutt make much use of the marriage plot. The marriage plot itself is a commonplace of the historical romance.
There is no political notion in Vineland that would be repugnant to the average book reviewer. (Ninja assassins on the other hand might have gotten on their nerves.) If the book is in some respects critical of the New Left, the view you describe (no Reagan, only system) is actually consistent with most variants of New Left theory--which included plenty of analysis.
Thanks, Rich. I’ll add them to my list.
Another small note, LB:
the fact that most issues concerning today’s novelists are far to the left of anything being discussed at the local or national level
Doubtful in the extreme. To the left of the party in control of all three branches of the federal government perhaps, but not at all to what is discussed at local and national levels. Which only lends credence to the thought that state power is actually important and the indifference of recent American fiction to representing it, while quite possibly symptomatic of other factors as you suggest, may well be unfortunate, as Lehmann contends.
My “never found” note on _The Unteleported Man_ above is not quite right, I now remember. Since I mentioned it, I might as well give a longer and hopefully more correct version of the textual history.
The work was first published in magazine form in 1964. PKD wrote another 30,000 words for its book publication, but in the 1966 version of the book publication they weren’t used. Later on PKD agreed to republish the book with extensive revisions. He died with no evidence that the revisions had been made, so the publisher issued the “full” version of the book (with the extra 30,000 words, and four pages missing) in 1983. That is the version that I recommend.
Later in 1983, PKD’s executor found an actual revised version, this time with two pages missing. It was published in 1985 as _Lies, Inc._ Although I haven’t done a detailed comparison, my impression is that it is not as good as _The Unteleported Man_. Perhaps it mixes the ‘60s sensibility of the earlier work with a later ‘80s one? Perhaps PKD was getting ill during the revision, or his style had changed? I don’t know. In any case, the publisher also had John Sladek write short passages to fill the two gaps in the book, passages which to me look nothing like PKD’s style. I’m not sure which version was used for the recent reprints of PKD’s work.
Actually, *Marrow* is included in many discussions of the historical novel in America that I’ve come across. But the fact that the work is based on recent history is why I think it has more in common with the historiographic novel. A historical novel is not simply a novel about the past. All novels are about the “past,” even science fiction, for they all imply a retrospective vision. Coleridge’s take on Scott is still valuable for understanding the genre as such: a historical novel dramatizes historical *process*. It’s not simply a novel in period clothing. To dramatize historical process, historical fiction generally constructs an opposition between characters representing conservative and progressive cultural forces: Highlanders and English; Native Americans and colonists; Puritans and merchants; Old World and New World; South and North. *Marrow* achieves just such a dramatization of historical process, even as it treats recent events. Toni Morrison’s *Paradise* and Pynchon’s *Vineland* are two recent examples of historical fiction of the recent past. With a few exceptions, the entire body of historical novel criticism begins by arguing against the equation of “historical novel” with “novel set in the past.”
And *Absalom, Absalom* plays with the marriage plot to a large degree. Of course, the marriage plot is a big component of historical fiction (and a crapload of other types of fiction). I brought up the national tale because it’s often neglected in discussions of historical fiction, and the two genres emerged around the same time in the same place: 18th century Scotland.
And I never wrote that Chesnutt is “like” Faulker or Dos Passos or McCarthy or Morrison or Henry Adams. Stylistically, Faulkner’s behind McCarthy and, to a lesser degree, Morrison. Dos Passos is Doctorow’s ancestor, stylistically. I do think, though, that the ways Chesnutt uses journalistic techniques in his representation of recent history provides an interesting bridge between the historical romance and the historiographic novel. Basically, I want to use Chesnutt and Adams as a good contrast with Dixon and Twain. And traditions are formed in retrospect—unless you want to restrict literary history to who cribbed from whom.
Finally, you’re right that I bent Lehmann’s argument out of shape—I started blending other contributors to this discussion with Lehmann’s original text. But one further thought: isn’t “innocence abused” part of the very genre of political fiction (narrowly conceived)? Complaining about that theme would be like saying, “I’m sick of all this bildungsroman with their ‘coming of age’ theme.” I’m trying to think of any political novel that isn’t, to some extent, about “breaking one’s cherry.” From *Waverley* to *Nostromo*, it seems simply part of the tradition of political fiction. Again, Pynchon offers a humorous take on “innocence abused” in *Vineland*—one of the few political novels that rabidly goes after the very idea that one would want one’s cherry intact. But Sean, I didn’t say it was the actual political content of the novel that turned reviewers off. Wendy Steiner’s take in *The Cambridge History of American Lit* sums it up: *Vineland* seemed too sincere, too sentimental, too ultimately earnest to be a proper follow-up to *Gravity’s Rainbow*.
Vineland may be a great political novel, but it’s also about a statewide madness, and about cops: Brock Vonds and Karl Bopp (some read Bopp as a premonition of Ahh-nuld); it’s about malls swarming with Thanatoids (are they mad, or ghosts, or zombies? their ontological status so to speak seems to fluctuate) and burnt-out hippies who never questioned that someday California, or at least Marin north, would blossom into an outsider’s ecotopia with a Department of Cannabis and maybe Bobby Weir as The Guv.
As with Crying of Lot 49 there is plenty of cartoony phunn, but no shortage of melancholy, of the stories of the “preterite,” and of betrayal (Frenesi might be said to embody a certain sort of california gal betrayer). I think many current PC leftists (including those who haunt various UC campuses) generally fall in the ‘Toid category, more often than not: the Net and blogopolis itself becoming some sort of gloomy Orwellian zone where simple jokes or insults cause some so-called liberals to start calling the FBI.
A good Snitch respects no party lines, and indeed reading YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO PERFORM THIS FUNCTION in your face enough times and you might begin to wonder if the Feds are running everything. Pynchon, the cyber-Wobblie, has a decent Orwellian fear of the state and the Law, wielded either by neo-con paraquat sprayers or by state- funded Dr. Deeplys. And I think Sir Pynchon was sort of correct (also basing this on other non-fiction stuff of his--intro to 1984, the “Luddite” essay) in that all the dreamed-of freedoms of the Net and computing have generated a great deal of fear and paranoia (even here on the VVVVVVVVValve) and if anything provided more opportunities for J.Edgarism. TP certainly was well are of the possibility for a Reagan-like rightwing populism developing into a virus at any time; in some sense the CA recall was a supremely Pynchonian tragi-comedic affair.
There are worse contemporary writers one might serve up to the current crop of academic Thanatoids and Oedipa Maas replicants strolling about the quads of Cali in hiphuggies with I-Pods stuffed in their brain and their $3000 laptops in their pack.
Hey, if we are talking about novels that explore politics as an expression of psychosis, (as in Vineland), let’s put in a word for Stephen Wright’s two novels, M31 and Going Native. M31 in particular really understood something about the souring of the utopian impulse in American culture—besides predicting, eerily, the end of the Heaven’s Gate cult. I think the last chapter of that novel, with its vision of an ectoplasmic host of UFO angels over Washington D.C. enacting the rapture gives us one one hell of an image of the New Jerusalem that millions of Americans actually expect. And Wright is definitely tuned into the do it yourself approach of the American fringe, even as he sees its murderous consequences. Since that fringe has transformed itself into the Republican House leadership, I figure M31 is one of the prophetic political novels.
So, is it time to deduce from the examples that good directly political (rather than cultural and political by implication) novels are now mostly to be found in science-fiction and borderline science-fiction form, or id the science-fiction ratio in this discussion more of a Valve readerly tilt?
Is there any readership these days that does not have a tilt towards SF? We’ve already been through the stage where most major comtemporary literary writers seem to do one “SF novel”, and other genres can not be far behind:
“Is it my destiny,”
wondered Flora, “that my attempts to make an impression on society shall always be muddled and interrupted by the assaults of strange alien monsters?”
80 Sci -fi-- Aliens? Rocket ships? Starship Troopers? I think Pynchon would chuckle at being tossed into that bin, alongside Heinlein and Asimov and Dick. I’m one who’d much rather read A Scanner Darkly than anything ever excreted by Virginia Woolfe, but hey. There are Orwellian and yes “cyberpunk” aspects to Vineland perhaps (before cyberpunk--as done, quite righteously, by say William Gibson--became another of the lit. mavens pejoratives). Sci-fi, in the Asimovian manner, Pynchon is not. And that sci-fi rates beneath mainstream lit. is another of those academic assumptions never really questiotned but never proven either. I think a Pynchon’s or PK Dick’s fiction are superior to, well, say Sartre’s No Exit, and close to say Kafka, but I’m sure there are countless cafe-artistes who would do a spit-take with their espresso were they to hear such a thing.
Zoyd- Well, I rather consider SF in an inclusive rather than exclusive manner, not as works who are essentially speculative, but as works who are significantly speculative. That is, it’s SF if the represented-world\elements-in-the-represented-world are both following a mimetic logic (to separate SF from surrealism, for example) and do not fit with the world as we know it to be\to have been, and these differences serve a narrative or thematic function.
I haven’t read Vineland, so perhaps under these parameters it is still not SF, but from Luther’s description it pretty much sounded in that zone.
I came across this conversation on Lehmann’s political fiction article late, but since it is the most involved one I’ve found I would like to add to it, by lifting some of my own words from several different sites and an email that address this topic, especially since my comments pick up on a number of the points here.
I think there’s some truth to be found, though qualified, in Peli’s remark that-
“in order for someone to function as a good representative for a system or a cultural tendency *in a political work of literature*, it’s not really enough for him to be an extremely typical example of it. He has to also be its shaper.” And that “a good way to think about it is that governmental figures who inspire a will to write a ‘concretely’ political novels, and make good characters for such a novel, must both be perfect synecdoche, and major causal forces shaping the whole they are a synecdoche of - so “figurehead” leaders (Reagan being the archetype) , even if they are a perfect example of the social tendencies that shape the world, and thus good synecdoche, don’t inspire concrete political writing.”
Perhaps in support of this, for example, I struggled for over a year to write an anti-war novel about a prominent pro-war US Senator. He wasn’t the “shaper,” he wasn’t “a major causal force,” as Peli says, so it was difficult to carry on with a book like he suggests, but the Senator was more than symbolic, since he was an active participant. Fittingly then, his story became a single chapter in my eventual anti-war novel, Homefront.
On the other hand, recently in a mere two months I wrote an 80,000 word political novel about an MFA graduate student who breaks the mold of conventional writers in penning a politically progressive or even revolutionary (anti-war) novel.
So both these characters are shapers - US Senator Sam Washburn and student Mike Penner - one a shaper of policy and one a shaper of books, but only the student is as Peli says “a major causal force” in his endeavor (in relation to the fictive world, and correlative to our time). So perhaps Peli is keen to note that such a “major causal force” figure can carry a book. However, a representative of a type may play a lesser role in a book-length collage in which no single main shaper appears. Either way, a concrete political novel, etc., can be written...at least in my experience.
As for Peli’s query about where “good directly political (rather than cultural and political by implication) novels are now mostly to be found” – I propose at Shakespeare’s Sister weblog that such novels (“governmental novels” is really what Lehmann seems most focused on and interested in) or the best example of such “American” fictive governmental/political writing is to be found in the long-running TV series The West Wing. As I write at Shakespeare’s Sister:
“notice that your accompanying item from the NY Post brings out an extreme weirdness about Lehmann’s piece: the political/governmental fiction – writing and filming both – that the American series The West Wing delivers in abundance is everything that Lehmann claims “Americans can’t write” and aren’t writing. Except apparently when they are, and have been for years, and at a very high level – albeit, for television.
“Strangely, Lehmann says, “In considering how literature might grapple with the moral issues at the heart of today’s politics, one could do worse than ask, what would George Orwell do?” which may hold some truth but is beside the point of pushing a button and listening direct to the far more immediate high quality governmental (Lehmann’s main focus) fiction writing, and performance (most of which happens to be appallingly nationalistic and criminally status quo minded – a related issue that I address elsewhere). For those who want to write high quality governmental fiction of the sort Lehmann is talking about – novelistic or otherwise – the real challenge is how do you compete with the often superb (if often politically appalling) political fictive writing found in The West Wing.”
And much more could be said about Lehmann’s Orwell comment. I add too that:
“Lehmann appears to be speaking mainly of governmental fiction rather than of a broader understanding - in fact a more democratic understanding - of political fiction. Regardless, one of the main problems for writing well in either arena is overcoming ideology. As I note in my brief response “Write a Political Novel,” Lehmann doesn’t seem to have overcome that problem himself - a problem common not least to leading critics and novelists in the U.S., as I’ve detailed at length elsewhere, in part here:
I haven’t discussed this elsewhere, but it might be asked – if you accept that what Lehmann would like to see in novel form can essentially be found as written for and performed on TV, why do we not see a novelistic equivalent? As answer: probably because the money, etc., is not there for it. What novelist would be senseless enough to write a political novel of the White House in direct competition with The West Wing’s focus, given their *team* of no doubt highly paid writers, who are no doubt provided with ample resources of all variety? On the other hand, for those interested in writing fiction/novels about mainstream government or corporate or other related professional activity a lot can be learned from much, though not all, of the writing and the performance of The West Wing.
Of course the writers of The West Wing are bound by the ideological constraints of the corporate establishment, so it makes sense for, say, politically progressive or/even revolutionary novelists to write political novels that are of necessity more broadly understood or very differently focused – the further difficulties of both writing and publishing such works are another story altogether.
Even V.S. Pritchett, a mainstream critic of the sort ridiculed in the film Dead Poets Society, could observe in passing that “The fact is that, from the beginning, the English novel set out to protest and to teach. Its philanthropic campaigns in the nineteenth century are paralleled in the eighteenth century by its avowed desire to reform the brutal manners of the age. The explanation is not necessarily that there has been an extra allowance of public spiritedness in our novelists; it is simply that the crucial problems of his own time provide a novelist with his richest material, whether he deals with it directly or by inference. The reform of manners was as vital in the eighteenth century as the reform of the Poor Law was in the nineteenth….”
Yes, but be careful how much you, striving novelist, make clear and concrete what John Dewey took for granted years earlier that “politics is the shadow cast by business” if you don’t want to suffer the fate of progressive political novelist (and comedian) Robert Newman when he tried to find publishers for his political novel The Fountain at the Center of the World, a novel that mainstream publishers spurned, because, as noted by Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press, the novel’s U.S. publisher, “big corporate publishers [acted] like big corporate publishers,” rejecting the novel on ideological grounds, sometimes by way of “five-page, single-spaced screeds about the book’s politics,” Suzanne Charlé reports in The American Prospect.
And so it seems, as I also note elsewhere that you would have to be a fool or a masochist to write a [“progressive”] political novel in the US, because to write one that bears anything like a close relation to reality, given the US political climate, would be like someone in a fundamentalist church congregation standing up in the middle of a religious service and suggesting that everyone discuss the merits of being a good atheist. You would be lucky if you were merely ignored rather than vilified or worse. Doubtless though, writing a political novel in the US that actually bears serious relation to reality is a hard and important thing to do….
Tony, this is one of those times when I know that I shouldn’t reply. But none of your examples or claims show what you say that they show.
You write about the “shaper” idea:
“Perhaps in support of this, for example, I struggled for over a year to write an anti-war novel about a prominent pro-war US Senator. He wasn’t the “shaper,” he wasn’t “a major causal force,” as Peli says, so it was difficult [...] On the other hand, recently in a mere two months I wrote an 80,000 word political novel about an MFA graduate student who breaks the mold of conventional writers in penning a politically progressive or even revolutionary (anti-war) novel.”
Let me guess which has been closer to your life experience, and what the chances are that you’ve ever been a Senator vs a humanities grad student. I suggest that this one has nothing to do with the “shaper” idea and everything to do with the banality about writing what you know.
You write: “if you accept that what Lehmann would like to see in novel form can essentially be found as written for and performed on TV, why do we not see a novelistic equivalent? As answer: probably because the money, etc., is not there for it.”
Yes, because no one ever writes novels on the same subjects that are treated on TV shows. There are no detective novels, light books about young people sleeping with each other, etc., right? There may well be few political novels, but I don’t see how this would have anything to do with competition from TV or TV writer’s pay rates.
“And so it seems, as I also note elsewhere that you would have to be a fool or a masochist to write a [“progressive”] political novel in the US [...]”
Because progressive political books just aren’t acceptable in the U.S., right? Hmm, let’s see maybe here or, perhaps, The Onion. Again, there may be few political novels, but you can’t say that the reason is because the US political climate suppresses progressive political books, or with being ignored or villified.
Here’s an alternative theory, if you really want to focus on the present day: there are few progressive political novels because people who are interested in progressive politics see no need to fictionalize what’s going on in order to provide drama.
Drat, the broken link to The Onion above was supposed to be to their headline which you can Google as “Disgruntled Liberals Publishing At Furious Pace”.
I’ll go point by point, interspersing my comments below.
> You write about the “shaper” idea:
> “Perhaps in support of this, for example, I struggled for over a year to
> write an anti-war novel about a prominent pro-war US Senator. He wasn’t
> the “shaper,” he wasn’t “a major causal force,” as Peli says, so
> it was difficult [...] On the other hand, recently in a mere two months I
> wrote an 80,000 word political novel about an MFA graduate student who
> breaks the mold of conventional writers in penning a politically progressive
> or even revolutionary (anti-war) novel.”
> Let me guess which has been closer to your life experience, and what the
> chances are that you’ve ever been a Senator vs a humanities grad student.
> I suggest that this one has nothing to do with the “shaper” idea and
> everything to do with the banality about writing what you know.
There’s nothing necessarily banal about writing imaginatively about one’s own more-or-less intimate and public experiences of course. Also, the qualitative difference in the characters in relation to their fictional worlds is real, as I noted. The Senator is one of a pack. The student writer bucks the tide. It doesn’t seem difficult to me to understand how the latter situation could be far more energizing, more explosive, than the former - though of course it need not be to all writers in all cases. And remember, I have not argued that such a set-up has everything to do with being able to generate a novel, nor that it is the only way to do so, but it seems to have been important in my case. (I’ve got the evidence of the novels if you want to scrutinize them direct....) Also, it’s not the same as living the life of course but I did try to immerse myself in the life of the fictive senator by reading autobiographies, biographies, news reports, interviews, etc....
> You write: “if you accept that what Lehmann would like to see in novel form
> can essentially be found as written for and performed on TV, why do we not
> see a novelistic equivalent? As answer: probably because the money, etc., is
> not there for it.”
> Yes, because no one ever writes novels on the same subjects that are treated
> on TV shows. There are no detective novels, light books about young people
> sleeping with each other, etc., right? There may well be few political
> novels, but I don’t see how this would have anything to do with competition
> from TV or TV writer’s pay rates.
Wasn’t The West Wing until just a month or two ago one of a kind? The sole governmental TV epic? Whereas the detective and teen shows you mention are a dime a dozen. Maybe because they are easier to do for both TV and for a novel. My contention still holds. I challenge a single novelist to match in novel form equivalent what The West Wing accomplishes in TV form. That would be astounding, for the reasons I indicated. But of course there may be other reasons for the lack of governmental novels of the sort Lehmann prefers, the most likely of which it seems to me is that the business of government is seen as being inherently far less interesting than teen stuff or than the gun and glitz detective shows.
> “And so it seems, as I also note elsewhere that you would have to be a fool
> or a masochist to write a [“progressive”] political novel in the US
> Because progressive political books just aren’t acceptable in the U.S.
> Again, there may be few political novels, but you can’t say that the reason
> is because the US political climate suppresses progressive political books,
> or with being ignored or villified.
I was speaking of novels, not non-fiction - again a qualitative difference that may well matter, for reasons I can discuss in detail, if you like, a number of which are directly related to this claim by Roland Barthes:
“Then comes 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?”
The links you provided to books didn’t work for me, but I assume they are all non-fiction? Overt politically progressive contemporary fiction is virtually non-existent compared to the amount of overtly politically progressive non-fiction. That’s just a fact. I gave the evidence of Robert Newman’s run-in with political ideology. I could give a number of similar examples involving myself and other such authors I know personally. So - once again, my conclusions follow logically from the evidence. You can debate them of course, but evidence does in fact exist to support them.
> Here’s an alternative theory, if you really want to focus on the present
> day: there are few progressive political novels because people who are
> interested in progressive politics see no need to fictionalize what’s going
> on in order to provide drama.
Who said the goal of writing progressive political fiction was to “provide drama”? Not me, though the best politically progressive fiction that I know is dramatic and plenty illuminating and inspiring and so on...and of course historically there are quite a number of “people who are interested in progressive politics” that have seen a need for using fiction to “entertain and enlighten,” in the classic formulation, and to otherwise help create change. The historical, literary, and imaginative literature on this is plenty rich and I document it in extensive detail at my two websites.
The moment may have based but it might be worth noting some comments by Chomsky on Orwell in light of Lehmann’s Orwell reference and a couple other recent threads here at the Valve about the value and social and political functions of literature.
About Orwell, Lehman says in passing:
“In considering how literature might grapple with the moral issues at the heart of today’s politics, one could do worse than ask, what would George Orwell do? In 1984, the political novel’s most famous modern exemplar, Orwell reckoned with the most decisive forces loose in the modern world: not merely the rise of totalitarian political regimes, but also the triumph of a depersonalized mass culture, the humorless bureaucratized workplace, and the abolition of historical memory. Long after the Stalinist nightmare dissolved, 1984 has survived as literature—conjuring the vivid stink of Victory gin, the grim footage of mass carnage played for laughs, and the furtive state-forbidden sex of Winston Smith’s Oceania. The novel’s continued relevance was more than a function of Orwell’s imaginative genius; it flowed at least in part from his service as a British propagandist during World War II, which awakened in him both a reverence for the democratic culture he had worked to save, as well as a nuanced understanding of the corruptions of politics and spirit that occur under totalitarian regimes shoring themselves up with propaganda campaigns.”
Chomsky counts Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a great book and has noted that
“Animal Farm is pretty good, in my opinion. But 1984 I thought was a serious decline from his best work.... 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 England and western states], he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized.... Some parts of 1984 (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. In fact, they often tend to be rather lax. Franco Spain, for example, didn’t care much what people thought and said: the screams from the torture chamber in downtown Madrid were enough to keep the lid on. It’s not too well known, but the Soviet Union was also pretty lax, particularly in the Brezhnev era. According to US government-Russian Research Center studies, Russians apparently had considerably wider access to a broad range of opinion and to dissident literature than Americans do, not because it is denied them but because propaganda is so much more effective here. Orwell was well aware of these issues. His (suppressed) introduction to Animal Farm, for example, deals explicitly with ‘literary censorship in England.’ To write about that topic would have been important, hard, and serious—and would have earned him the obloquy that attends departure from the rules.”
*** 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?”
Here is the part of Orwell’s preface that Chomsky refers to:
“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.” -"The Freedom of the Press” - from the suppressed preface to Animal Farm; published 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement, also 1993, in the Everyman’s Library edition of Animal Farm.