A Few Notes on the Literary Establishment

[This article begins as a modification of "Politics and Art" and is expanded in part with material from "The Social and Political Novel."]

As political consciousness and knowledge grow more prevalent in the broad culture, leading literary stars lag behind, as does much of the literary establishment (as journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has noted in a series of articles). Less than a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks against U.S. financial, military and governing centers, the often-perceptive, leading literary critic James Wood declared absurdly, “Who would dare to be knowledgeable [in a novel] about politics and society now?” Meanwhile the brilliant writer, highly successful novelist Jonathan Franzen stands by his notion that there is “something wrong with the whole model of the novel of social engagement,” and also directly in the face of marvellous and compelling evidence to the contrary, The New Republic’s scholarly art critic Jed Perl writes that works of art are all but inevitably weakened by much political emphasis—an idea that would come as a shock (or a joke) to many great artists of the past and present.

In “Resistance,” the article where Perl makes this central point, his major assertions are often so ambiguous or unsubstantiated (and inaccurate), that it hardly seems worth refuting what is scarcely there, but examining a few of the more lockstep reactionary statements can show in more detail some of the dominant debilitating views on art and politics held by much of the literary establishment. Perl claims, “the trouble with political art remains pretty much constant…for an artist’s effort to speak to a wide audience on a specific topic all too often compromises art’s essential discourse, which is a formal discourse, a discourse with its own freestanding meanings and values”—as if only “political” art (and not, say, â€œpsychological” art) attempts “to speak to a wide audience on a specific topic.” Then there must be no great novels on adultery or on first love or on a particular virtue or vice. There goes Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice. There goes every great anti-war novel ever written. And there goes Antigone, Lysistrata, The Inferno, Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, Hard Times, The Awakening, Native Son, Invisible Man, and every great novel with a purpose, every great problem novel, utopian novel, dystopian novel, in fact most every great social and political novel ever written, along with many great “psychological” novels as well.

“In spite of the crudeness of most political art—” Perl continues heedlessly—as if “political” art, whatever he means by it, can be any more crude than the largely apolitical or politically retrograde art that is endlessly spewed from out of TV, Hollywood, and across the airwaves—so heedlessly that one wonders if as Perl writes he is simultaneously chanting “I must not (appear to) be political, I must not (appear to) be political…” In full he asserts: “In spite of the crudeness of most political art—“ [for some great political art, see here] “and of most of the debates about it” [for over a century of evidence to the contrary, that is of thoughtful, far from “crude,” discussions on political art, see here and here] “—there are very deep feelings involved. Even the cheap-shots and prepackaged effects and self-righteousness poses reflect a very old and honorable debate about the relationship about art and life,” Perl would have us know, with a marvel of condescension.

After a brief discussion of the quality of Guernica (Picasso’s famous anti-war painting of the Spanish Civil War) as political art, Perl arrives at the concluding paragraph, within which my comments are interspersed below for clarity:

“The closer one looks at Guernica, the more one is reminded of how vexed the relationship between art and politics really is. The trouble with many of the arguments for political art”

—but not with arguments for psychological art, for some magical reason, or social art, or lyrical art, or commercial art, or “pure” art, or abstract art, or concrete art, or any other mode of art—

“is that they deny the manifold nature of experience—they aim to fit everything all too neatly together.”

For examinations of thoughtful arguments and examples of political art extending back at least to the 1800s, arguments and works of fiction that do not “deny the manifold nature of experience,” quite the opposite, and that also understand the importance of employing experience selectively in crafting wonderful, distinctive and powerful works of art, interested readers may turn to Michael Wilding’s Political Fictions (1980), or Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature1 (1987), or Michael Hanne’s The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change2 (1994), or John Whalen-Bridge’s Political Fiction and the American Self (1998) and many other quality works on political literature and political art in general.

Perl continues:

“There is no reason that a painter cannot be politically engaged while doing art that has no political content.”

And there is no reason why a painter cannot be politically engaged in making great art with much political content.

“And the painter who believes that art is a formal discipline with little or no room for overt political expression is by no means apolitical.”

Just as there is no reason why a painter who believes that art is a formal discipline that does have lots of room for overt political expression cannot produce great art in that (political) mode, as in an infinite number of other modes.

“There is something troubling, confounding—and also wonderful—about art’s resistance to current events.”

What is “troubling, confounding—and” far from “wonderful—about art’s resistance to current events” is that such notions are groundless, based in no reality past or present, in fact, nor in the future, inevitably. Any imagined “resistance” of art to current events—or any other phenomena and experience—can be overcome with aesthetic sensibility and solid technique, as countless great artists have demonstrated in the wonderful and compelling political aspects of their works. 

“The freestanding nature of art is art’s essential political message.”

If this were true, what a great loss to art it would be. Startling gaps and giant holes would appear in the novels of the past, present, and future and entire great works and artists would essentially disappear. Obviously certain types of people and institutions wish for a wide split between politics and art, and/or act in such a way as to try to make it so, and always have. That’s why plenty of political artists around the world continue to be banned, exiled, executed. In the industrialized countries, they are more often talked down, derided, wished away, ignored, or otherwise blocked from mass exposure. In 1943, George Orwell noted this phenomenon in his suppressed preface to Animal Farm, a phenomenon that still very much exists today:

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.

As far back as 1939, in Forces in Literary Criticism, Bernard Smith notes, “It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work ‘propaganda’ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally ‘propaganda’ for something.” Nevertheless, choosing to remain oblivious are many in the literary establishment today—critics, scholars, publishers, and novelists not least, as Andre Vltchek points out in a recent Znet commentary

Despite significant flaws, Robert Newman’s (well-earned) achievement in his geo-political epic novel The Fountain at the Center of the World seems to me to be one of the more crucial political and “socially ambitious” novels of recent times—a work that is today “a rare politically engaged novel…that is” in large part “openly partisan” (Nicolai Gentchev), that is “…[a] spirited attempt to reconcile the larger forces at work in the world through fiction” (Jean McNeil), that is “perhaps the first novel to really explore the human story behind the placard waving and polemics of globalisation” (The Ecologist), that is “like bootleg Chomsky…a serious and intelligent book. It’s a novel that” to obviously but pointedly exaggerate “confronts everything that is wrong with the world and demands that which is right, and it therefore makes a lot of British fiction seem rather tender-minded in comparison” (The Guardian)—an important novel that major 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 this lively, thoughtful novel has been rejected and largely ignored by the literary establishment, thus significantly blocking much awareness and greater understanding of the work in both educated circles and the broad mainstream.

While James Wood is surely correct that the “hysterical realism” of the most highly acclaimed socially ambitious novels does not measure up to the most insightful standards of contemporary thought, experience, intelligence and art in revealing some of the most vital elements of human consciousness and culture, for Wood to agree with Franzen “that bringing ‘meaningful news’ [of society and politics…‘the world’] is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental product,” is little more than wishful thinking that simply ignores the impressive (if marginalized) history of political art in the novel (and in film and other artistic mediums). Wood and Franzen, in lauding, for whatever reasons, types of art they either prefer or have a talent for, largely dismiss a type of explicit political art that not only has a long distinguished history, it has never been more needed than today, an art with strong “social, political, and economic aspects” as Edmund Wilson describes it in “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” art that “plays a political role” and “exerts a subversive” and other constructive “influence,” and “makes life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them…” since

the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered….

As the remarkable critic Edward Said showed in great detail, authors have to be willing to cross certain perhaps difficult borders to attain great insight—national, informational, cultural, political borders put up directly and indirectly by various dominant corporate, academic, governmental, social and cultural ideologies, structures and powers. While exploring “the urgent conjunction of art and politics” in Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said notes:

It is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual [including artistic] mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed “counter, original, spare, strange” [Gerard Manley Hopkins]. From this perspective also, one can see “the complete consort dancing together” contrapuntally…

a vital, needed prospect. Said adds that

Much of what was so exciting for four decades about Western modernism and its aftermath—in, say, the elaborate interpretative strategies of critical theory or the self-consciousness of literary and musical forms—seems almost quaintly abstract, desperately Eurocentric today. More reliable now are the reports from the front line where struggles are being fought between domestic tyrants and idealist oppositions, hybrid combinations of realism and fantasy, cartographic and archeological descriptions, explorations in mixed forms (essay, video or film, photograph, memoir, story, aphorism) of unhoused exilic experiences. The major task, then, is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…. The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is, I believe, the intellectual and cultural challenge of the moment…[not least in] the urgent conjunction of art and politics….

Robert Newman’s recent geo-political epic novel The Fountain at the Center of the World is a crucial recent example of progressive political art that in combining human drama with “news of the world” functions in many of its most political moments at a high level, contrary to what Wood and Franzen believe fiction can do well (as I detail extensively in â€œThe Social and Political Novel”). Newman’s novel is a much needed counter-example and corrective to the dominant degraded apolitical and anti-political and otherwise regressive ethos and beliefs that prevail within establishment literary circles. Coming from two of the brightest most influential talents in literature today, the best work of James Wood and Jonathan Franzen is not to be dismissed, but in a day and age when the literal fate of the world hangs in the balance, neither Wood nor Franzen nor the larger literary establishment currently does much work in realms as epic and urgent—and in my view, as interesting and meaningful—as, for example, may be found in The Fountain at the Center of the World by Robert Newman, and in the work of the great literary critic Edward Said, and in the rest of the rich and vital tradition of literature that explores “the urgent conjunction of art and politics,” historically and currently.



1Barbara Harlow writes in Resistance Literature (1987):

“Resistance literature, as this study has attempted to show, has in the past played a vital role in the historical struggle of the resistance movements in the context of which it was written. That same literature continues to enlist readers and critics in the First as in the Third Worlds in the active reconstruction of interrupted histories. Omar Cabezas, former FSLN guerrilla and author of The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green (published in English as Fire from the Mountain), and now head of the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior’s Political Section, still maintains that:”

To have participated as a guerrilla, to have written this book, son of a bitch: it’s dealt a real blow to the enemy. You feel like you could die after something like that. After that book and one more. Or that book and two more. Or that book and five more. Or just that book. What I want to say is it’s dealt a blow to imperialism. I saw a photo, once, of a dead guerrilla in a Latin American country, and they showed everything he had in his knapsack: his plate, his spoon, his bedroll, his change of clothing, and The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green. And I think back to when I was a guerrilla; when a guerrilla carries a book in his knapsack, it really means something.

Michael Hanne writes in The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change (1994):

“Can a novel start a war, free serfs, break up a marriage, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about a law change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the large-scale, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of fiction over the last two hundred years or so. How seriously should we take such claims?

“In their crudest form, assertions of this kind are obviously naïve, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary texts can be said to ‘work in the world’ and oversimplifying, too, the causal processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? This book explores that general question through the close examination of five works, from several different countries and periods, for which remarkable direct political effects of one kind or another have been claimed…”

“Storytelling, it must be recognized from the start, is always associated with the exercise, in one sense or another, of power, of control. This is true of even the commonest and apparently most innocent form of storytelling in which we engage: that almost continuous internal narrative monologue which everyone maintains, sliding from memory, to imaginative reworking of past events, to fantasizing about the future, to daydreaming…. It is a curious thing that, in the liberal democracies, the word ‘power’ is used more frequently than any other by publishers and reviewers to indicate, and invite, approval of a work of narrative fiction…. This flooding of popular critical discourse with the term ‘power’ does not, of course, indicate a widespread belief in the capacity of narrative fiction to ‘change the world.’ The use of ‘power’…indicates little more than approval of the novel’s capacity to involve and move the individual reader emotionally. Indeed the term is so devalued as to imply a denial that narrative fiction can exercise power in a wider social and political sense…. Power, as is usual in a liberal democracy, is treated as individual and unproblematic, rather than collective, structural, and problematic.

“Two important corollaries follow from this: a) there is no public acknowledgement that literature plays a role in the maintenance of existing power structures and b) literature is seen as incapable of playing a seriously disruptive role within such a society…. If, in a liberal democracy, a piece of imaginative writing seeks or achieves social or political influence that goes beyond such a limited conception of its proper power, it must either be nonliterature masquerading as literature or a literary work being manipulated and misused for nonliterary, propagandistic purposes…. In overtly authoritarian states whose form of government does not rely on liberal bourgeois conceptions of constitutionality, such as Russia under the Tsars or the Soviet Union under Stalin, these assumptions are entirely reversed. Literature is required, by a combination of censorship and patronage, to contribute to the maintenance of power as constituted at the time. The government’s insistence on retaining tight control over what is written and published reflects the belief, which is most often shared by the regime’s opponents, that fictional writing possesses an extreme potential for disruption.”

“To anyone who is skeptical about the assertion that narrative fiction, in certain circumstances, plays a central role in the lives and political thinking of ordinary people, I recommend the earthy reminder provided in a letter to Solzhenitsyn by a reader of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich living in the Ukraine, who wrote to the author: “In Kharkov I have seen all kinds of queues—for the film Tarzan, butter, women’s drawers, chicken giblets and horse-meat sausage. But I cannot remember a queue as long as the one for your book in the libraries.”

“One of the earliest, and best known, examples of a novel which is claimed to have exercised a massive, direct, social influence is Goethe’s story of hopeless love, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which is said to have so stirred the feelings of a whole generation of young readers all over Western Europe that a number were recorded as committing suicide in imitation of its lovesick hero. Of a very different kind is the impact claimed for the novels of Dickens and Charles Kingsley, which have been credited with contributing, through the exposure of some of the social evils of mid-nineteenth century Britain, to the most important pieces of reform legislation enacted in the later part of the century. Perhaps the most specific (and best-documented) claim for a novel’s leading to significant legislative change relates to the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which, through its depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry, is reliably said to have been instrumental in ensuring the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S. Congress a few months later…. (A curious knock-on effect of the widespread anxiety about the health risks associated with canned foods provoked by The Jungle was the immediate collapse of whole communities based on canning quite remote from Chicago—including those in my country, New Zealand.)”

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