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Flat by design

If there’s one thing we are taught in the United States about literature it’s that above all, it should be politically inert. Our literary figures are irrelevant to politics, and we believe this is correct. Imagine a novelist running for president, or a poet for a Senate seat, or a newspaper columnist for anything. “Hillary Clinton wins coveted endorsement from Cormac McCarthy.” Laughable. There is a division of labor. American literary figures are supposed to sit in coffee shops or at home or in their offices at middle-tier, mid-Atlantic liberal arts colleges and twiddle their words together and leave the governing to the lawyers and the MBAs, you know, people who do real things. Along with that, literature in the US should never be explicitly political, or when it is, the politics should have the kind of status quo obviousness of a Jonathan Franzen novel, you know, the kind that allows us to nod on past to the real meat of American letters: Character, Place, Relationships, Aesthetics, Narrative Arc, Prose, Adulterous Relationships Between Consenting Upper-Middle Class Professional White People.

I brought this American approach to literature with me into class during my Master’s program in Latin American literature in Santiago, Chile. It did not work. It did not work because in Latin America, politics and literature are more or less inextricable. You maybe could argue that Latin America goes too far in this direction in some cases, and at some aesthetic cost, and I maybe would agree with you, but increasingly I have preferred to raise the question from the opposite direction: Why doesn’t American literature have any interest in politics? And does this elision also have some cost? Fredric Jameson sort of addresses the former question in an essay that caused a decent amount of outrage, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multi-National Capitalism” (PDF). Toward the end, after reviewing “Hegel’s old analysis of the Master-Slave relationship,” he muses that

… we Americans, we masters of the world, are in something of that very same position. The view from the top is epistemologically crippling, and reduces its subjects to the illusions of a host of fragmented subjectivities, to the poverty of the individual experience of isolated monads, to dying individual bodies without collective pasts or futures bereft of any possibility of grasping the social totality. This placeless individuality, this structural idealism which affords us the luxury of the Sartrean blink, offers a welcome escape from the “nightmare of history,” but at the same time it condemns our culture to psychologism and the “projections” of private subjectivity.

In other words: Lots of pretty and irrelevant novels about the ennui of academic life, or the trials and rewards of living in a family, or the minute emotional details of a minor historical event. For Jameson, this is the consequential result of a power structure: We in the United States are the masters of a multinational capitalist world, an arrangement that results in an “epistemologically crippling” perspective. American literature resists “grasping the social totality” – or, to stretch a little, engaging in politics – for overbearing systemic reasons.

But what if that’s not true? What if American literature has been deliberately flattened to serve an explicitly political goal? That is, (Marxist alert!) what if the absence of political or social content in American literature is itself highly political?

Which brings me to “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” an amazing essay just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. You should read the whole thing. I just want to highlight two points it makes very well. One is historical. Following WWII, the Iowa Writers Workshop – hugely influential in the development of mid-to-late 20th century literary trends in the United States – received a significant amount of support from Cold Warrior institutions: funding from the CIA, the State Department, a number of foundations, and a variety of big businesses, as well as significant publicity support from the likes of Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. The explicit project was to provide an alternative to the cultural production of Communist sympathizers. In part, this meant bringing in writers from around the world who were sympathetic to the American project in order to encourage those sympathies. (This includes one of the Chilean writers we read during my Master’s program, Alberto Fuguet, who went on to write a Chilean version of Catcher in the Rye and champion globalization wherever he can).

The second point is how this project affected American literature. The author, Eric Bennett, expresses very well something I feel instinctively every time I read the kind of “workshopped” books that Iowa and its peer programs have produced:

At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop between 1998 and 2000, I had the option of writing fiction in one of four ways.

First, I could carve, polish, compress, and simplify; banish myself from my writing as T.S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro. …

Second, and also much approved, I could work in a warmer vein—the genuinely and winningly loquacious. Ethan Canin (my favorite teacher) set the example here, writing charismatically chatty prose that, like the man himself, exhibited the gross health of the fortunate and tenderhearted. Your influences, if you tended this way, were F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, or anybody else whose sentences unwind with glowing ease. Cheever loomed as an undisputed great.

Third, you could write what’s often called “magical realism.” Joy Williams (alumna, teacher) and Stuart Dybek (alumnus, teacher) helped to shape a strain of fable-making passed down to my classmates from Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Calvino or their Latin American heirs.

These first three categories were the acceptable ones. But Category 4 involved writing things that in the eyes of the workshop appeared weird and unsuccessful—that fell outside the community of norms, that tried too hard. The prevailing term for ambitious pieces that didn’t fit was “postmodernism.” The term was a kind of smackdown. Submitting a “postmodern” story was like belching in class.

But what is a postmodern story? In those years, Robinson was already in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, as were Jayne Anne Phillips (alumna) and Bobbie Ann Mason, model citizens of the M.F.A. nation. Joy Williams and Stuart Dybek were certainly not Victorians nor modernists nor best sellers. What was it that you weren’t supposed to do?

At the time I considered Freud and Rabelais my favorite novelists. Later I understood that I was being annoying. But I thought then, and still think now, that the three-headed Iowa canon frustrated as much as satisfied a hunger for literature that got you thinking. Iowa fiction, published and unpublished, got you feeling—it got you seeing and tasting and touching and smelling and hearing. It was like going to an arboretum with a child. You want exactly that from life, and also more.

… I was 23. I knew I wanted to write a novel of ideas, a novel of systems, but one also with characters, and also heart—a novel comprising everything, not just how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt (but that, too). …

This aversion to novels and stories of full-throttle experience, erudition, and cognition—the unspoken proscription against attempting to write them—was the narrowness I sensed and hated. The question I wanted to answer, as I faced down my dissertation, was whether this aversion was an accidental feature of Iowa during my time, or if it reflected something more.

Bennett’s conclusion is that it does reflect something more. He goes on to trace the roots of this “flattening” of literature – this elimination of ideas, intellectual fiber, and (I would say) social content – to post-WWII currents: “… the prewar left merged with the prewar right. Both circles thought that the way to avoid the likes of Nazism or Stalinism in the United States was to venerate and fortify the particular, the individual, the situated, the embedded, the irreducible.”

The result is literature that avoids politics specifically, and in general, troubles no one. With some wonderful exceptions, contemporary American literature is smooth, flawlessly engineered, reliable, professional, and performance-oriented, like a Toyota Camry, or an iPad, or maybe a suppository. You hardly have to think about it. It is not socially challenging, not controversial, not really remarkable in any way outside the little circles where people talk about it as a hobby or as part of their job. It won’t get you fired if you read it, and it will never come up during a confirmation hearing. Contemporary American literature is a ghettoized and irrelevant aesthetic pursuit, like collecting stain glass or cataloging small-batch vinegar. If this is the case incidentally, as Jameson suggests, it would be curious. That it may be the case by design is alarming.


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