In the New York Times, Finder wonders Where Have All the Strivers Gone?– what happened to “ambition” as theme in novels, the “Young Man From The Provinces,” the “typical literary hero [who] was a man on the make,” the “go-getters [who] have [now] gotten up and gone.” He wonders why so few people write “literary novels about worldly advancement any longer,” why it is apparently “off limits.” He writes: “The drive to get ahead is registered, recognized and, usually, reviled: but it’s seldom owned. How come?” Such writing is seldom produced in literary fiction, though it’s much more common in popular fiction, he claims.
Is he right? I have no idea, not having seen a study. It’s not clear to what extent Finder has studied the issue either. After all, one of the most lauded literary novels of the past decade is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which if it is not largely about ambition, status, and monetary success, then it is about nothing. The Corrections was also a popular success, so Finder may have a point, of sorts. Maybe Finder fails to mention The Corrections because arguably the most ambitious characters in the novel are women and Finder claims that “these tales tended to be about, and by, men.” Again, a study would prove interesting because when I think of ambition in novels, I’m as likely as anything to think of the supremely ambitious heroines “From the Provinces” in the greatest novels of Jane Austen and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) among other female authors.
And what about progressive partisan fiction? How about a great novel of ambition — literary or popular — portraying figures like some of the most ambitious and powerful strivers of our day: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and others? There is a problem. Progressive partisan novels about such figures would have to be in definitive part scathing, well beyond what plenty of literary (and commercial) authors would find acceptable, since they generally support at least some of these figures, and their types, and if they do not, the dominant publishing houses and the dominant media do. This support of the status quo is very similar to what existed in the day of Orwell, with equally troubling implications for literature and the society and world it helps create. As Noam Chomsky notes:
About Orwell’s 1984, I thought, frankly, it was one of his worst books. Could barely finish it. Some parts (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….
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 Orwellâ€™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.
*[Orwellâ€™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?
How many imaginative authors are willing to be “hated and reviled and marginalized” for writing “the hard and important thing”? How many — literary or commercial, especially among those who wish to appear in the New York Times, or to be published by a dominant publishing house (or virtually any publishing house)?
Where are the great imaginative polemicists of today, the great partisan authors, the progressive ones? — the Jonathan Swifts of “A Modest Proposal,” the Aristophanes of “Lysistrata.” (There may be more partisan plays than novels.) And “Why are we so slow,” in left/progressive circles not least, it seems to me, “so indifferent about mobilizing narrative and the image?” asks Roland Barthes. “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?”
Maybe a large part of the reason “the antiwar movement is flat on its back” in the words of more than one progressive commentator is due to its failure to take advantage of, virtually at all, fact-based partisan fiction — stories and tales full of not only information and ideas but emotion as well, the way the great majority of people come to the world and interact with it and help shape it each day (as Stephen Soldz, for one, has recently demonstrated).
After all, don’t most people come from the Show Me state? If you want to talk vision, and if you want to show it, and if you want to reach people in the way they reach out to the world each day, emotionally largely, and if you want them to feel what you are showing, so that their feelings might bear fruit in actions, then you had better do it — create the culture now, show it in a way that is felt. And that means in no small part, it seems to me, using fact-based works of the imagination that resonate emotionally (as well as intellectually). Single books not infrequently change people’s lives and thus their subsequent impact on society. For some women, at least, one survey shows that such life changing works are usually works of fiction. For some men, it usually appears to be nonfiction. It seems to me that greatly fact-based fiction would cover everyone.
Russell Baker of The New York Times once said of much corporate officialdom that it leaves people in “in the hands of men who make no music and have no dreams.” A progressive movement and culture that neglects to foster fact-based partisan novels and other such literature threatens to do the same. Such a culture is also an intellectually deficient one. As Chomsky comments:
We learn from literature as we learn from life; no one knows how, but it surely happens. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry [science], which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope. It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do…. If you want to learn about peopleâ€™s personalities and intentions, you would probably do better reading novels than reading psychology books. Maybe thatâ€™s the best way to come to an understanding of human beings and the way they act and feel….
While it may be, as Joseph Finder claims, that novels of ambition are missing in literary culture, it is certainly true that overt partisan novels are greatly missing in progressive culture, let alone popular culture. For those who want the theory, the rational explanation, behind overt progressive fiction (what I often call partisan fiction as shorthand) that’s easy enough to find. That’s the easy part. The hard and more important part is the thing itself. And that can be found at Mainstay Press, for one. Like cutting edge authors of the past, we’ve had to establish the press ourselves, because what we do is too challenging of the status quo, too politically challenging, that is, to be produced otherwise.
Such work is not necessarily easy to write, and for that may be all the more powerful and insightful. Morris Edmund Speare notes perceptively:
The political novelist has…many difficulties to overcome before he may draw a spark and then fan it into a flame of enthusiasm in the minds and hearts of the reading class, which is everywhere a democratic class. He finds that success in this field requires that he perform adequately a two-fold task: he must not only be able to create his character, and paint his situation accurately…he must translate both for us into our own experience and embody them in such forms that we may understand them and be fascinated by them. The act of doing so may not require a greater technique than that employed by the social writer; but it is an entirely different technique. The former writes of things and in language so that he who runs may read; he does not have to educate his audience as wellâ€¦.*
When I was growing up and learning of the injustice of things, of the status quo, it was a few books of fiction that helped show me in life-marking ways that another more just, equitable, and lively world was possible — and this was incredibly exciting, motivating, eye-opening and affirming, that is, strengthening. Later, books of nonfiction came to fill this role — largely because such works of fiction seemed scarcely to be produced for adults. But there are some works that show this need not be the case. And Mainstay Press is helping to produce more such works that progressive movements would sensibly take advantage of, use and foster, it seems to me. A progressive movement that attempts to advance the culture socially and politically while making little use of what in some vital ways is the most powerful and insightful type of writing — partisan fiction — is clearly shooting itself in the foot, to say the least, if not the head, and the heart.
Mainstay Press picks up where the rest of literature leaves off, by way of fact-based illuminating novels that dare to portray status quo figures and their criminal policies and modes of operation in the hellish light they so richly deserve. Such novels name names and highlight crucial facts and situations. Such novels expose oppression and expand liberation. And such novels portray fantastic and realistic progressive figures creatively working their way to a better world. Such novels are empowering and powerful, informative and useful — the type of literature that helps change the world.
*More views by Morris Edmund Speare on governmental and political fiction, from his book The Political Novel:
In the political world [an author] had to know his material not as a reporter knows the facts which he has covered in an ‘assignment,’ nor even as some scholar probes and garners the fruits of his study, but rather as the fisherman knows the sea or the ploughman follows his furrow. To be able to wed politics to art and bring about a consummation where neither the first became tractarian or statistical nor the other too honey-sweet, required not only an imagination of a particularly high order, but a knowledge of material which had been gathered at first hand, with the accuracy which only a participant himself could possess. One had to be able to think in political formulae, to adorn his thoughts in the natural imagery of the political life. Then only could he interpret it intelligently and interestingly to the reader.
We deal here with a genre of the novel which, if excellently developed, must make its appeal to the reader not primarily as a social force but as an intellectual force.
And if he succeeds in endowing his characters and his situations with warmth, color, and vitality, and if his world of statesmen, diplomats, and all lesser figures–man, woman, and idealized youth–are spread in an intelligible pageant before us, there is yet a philosophy of politics, so to speak, to represent in a legitimately artistic mannerâ€¦.
The attempt, then, to combine impersonated characters with fiction, and to add to the result some significant political or social moral, aside from acting as a check upon the genius of every writer in this field except only the greatest writerâ€¦is fraught with peril. It is unfortunate indeed that in this milieu the critic is swift to find what may easily be termed ‘propaganda’ when it is actually nothing but an impassioned view of some political ideal of the novelist’sâ€¦ It is not difficult to make out a case for the statement that in a sense all art is propaganda.â€¦