Politicaliterary Dept.


Viet Thanh Nguyen: By the Book - The New York Times

... [genre fiction works, like comics, science fiction, or crime thrillers ] oftentimes have more to tell us about our larger contemporary world than so-called literary fiction (which doesn’t acknowledge that it’s a genre as well). Comic books long ago predicted presidents like Donald Trump, in series like Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’s “Give Me Liberty.” Crime fiction, which often connects low-level crime to high-level corruption, can help us understand the operations and effects of a Trump presidency that unabashedly favors strongmen of all kinds. Science fiction likewise often speculates on grand political questions. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars,” for example, is about the colonization of that planet and the ensuing tragedy wrought by human politics, greed and ambition. It takes place in the future but is really about our eternal human strengths and weaknesses. I like it when literature gets political, and contemporary literary fiction is more often apolitical than not.

Emph. mine. I think this last point is worth zooming in on first.

When people tell me they don't like having politics in their literature, what they really mean is politics they don't agree with. But I've thought about that point of view some more since, and I'm coming to the conclusion that what bothers me most is not when it's "politics I don't agree with", but when it's politics that is ultimately inhumane — the politics of nihilistic, revanchist triumphalism.

I don't think I agree with, say, John le Carré's politics, and I go back and forth about Graham Greene, but I never got the impression they wrote their stories because they wanted to sneer at cowardly liberals or thumb their noses at meathead conservatives. They used the spectrum of political views as a way to inform their works, not justify them. I disagreed with most of what Heinlein said in his books, but he was very good at making his case for it, and his best books are highly enjoyable because of that and not despite it. He and I have the same ultimate goals; we just disagree on how to get there. It's when people proudly proclaim goals that are on their face abhorrent and inhumane that I break rank and walk off.

Teasing this apart can be difficult, because it is possible to make most any kind of political case that is theoretically in favor of humankind. Everyone wants to think of themselves as the good guys. Maybe it's best to say my sympathies lie most with those who are conscious of these difficulties, and who try not to be seduced by its implications — those who know the world is complex and not always friendly, but are also not proud of this fact, and do not see it as a good thing just because they can get some cheap power over others from it.

The other point worth touching on is the idea that literary fiction doesn't admit it's a genre — it sees itself as above all such things, a Platonic ideal unsullied by such vulgar things as commerce or marketability. This is a noble mistake, but still a mistake. It's not that I want to see stuff like the Dalkey Archive or The New York Review Of Books's reprint line vanish — we need more such things than ever — but that most books are written to entertain, and that in the long run we are better off learning how to do that artfully, as an adjunct to informing our entertainments with a pro-human politics, instead of finding ways to pretend the best way to deal with the subject is to simply float above it all, and leave the politics to people who approach the practice of such things with inherent cynicism.

Side note. I think the most enduring works are not the ones that are constructed in some kind of literary clean room, as an appeal to other proponents of pure literature. Rather, they're things that make the most of their moment in time, and the ingredients around them. The Great Gatsby is so very Roaring 20s, but all the more timeless for it, because of all the things it connects to through its setting. I'm fond of Chandler and Hammett and Chester Himes for the same reasons — it was all meant to entertain, but it all plugs back into things that matter. The more effortlessly it seems to do so, the better.


Tags: comics creativity fantasy literature politics science fiction thrillers




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