Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ms. OOW vs. Mr. AYW: the 60s

(I know I promised shorter posts in my ongoing response to Mr. AYW. Well, it's something I aspire to.)

Despite our different approaches to reading and writing, we have some similarities, the Acclaimed Young Writer and me, the Obscure Older Writer. We're both white, both grew up in similar settings and relatively similar circumstances. But he's a good deal younger than me. I, Ms. OOW, came of age in the 1960s and was profoundly influenced by the grand, righteous struggles of that era, whereas he, Mr. AYW, came to consciousness during (or rather and through no fault of his own never became conscious which is probably partly because it was) the Reagan-Bush-Clinton period of reaction.

I bring this up not to offer some reductive silliness about our literary leanings being at variance because of our ages, but because my experience and continuing view of the 60s as a beautiful time--the time of successful drives to oust the colonial powers from African nations; the time of uprisings of workers and students in Paris and Mexico City; the first decade of the shining Cuban Revolution; the time of the Vietnamese war of national liberation against the U.S. and the concomitant rise of youth and student movements here; the time of the great civil-rights movement, of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, the Black Panthers, Dr. King; the time of the bold Cultural Revolution in People's China; the time when the women's liberation movement and the gay rights movement burst onto the scene; the time when young people worldwide read The Communist Manifesto and carried Mao's Little Red Book and pledged allegiance to the working-class struggle--is at odds with so much fiction championed in this country today.

Fiction that is inarguably political and yet so fervently embraced by Mr. AYW's cohort that they should blush at the hypocrisy of their art-can't-be-political nonsense.

There is, for example, an entire genre that I think of as "the madness of the 60s" novels. Prominent among these in recent years was The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez and My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru. Both were critically well received; Nunez's garnered giddy adoration and, if I remember right, a number of awards or at least award nominations.

Each of these two novels was, by my read, a revisionist, reactionary tract. Each was an offense against the spirit of the 60s--a spirit that was not about insanity, mindless excess, or, and this is the favorite lie and the one that both these novels promote, rich white kids blowing off steam, but rather was about the effort, halting and contradictory and flawed as it was, to rebel against and break free of bourgeois cultural constraints and bourgeois consciousness and to build solidarity and do your part to try to help make the world a better place.

In other words, Nunez's and Kunzru's novels were, by my lights, lies. They were beautifully written, no argument there. But they did not tell the true, or even a true, story of the 60s. They were crafted, sadly, in the service of a very particular politics, an anti-struggle politics. They promulgated the lesson, forthright as a morality tale, that the militancy of 60s youths was a terrible mistake. And who does that serve? It serves the ruling class. Good golly, can there be a more political literature than this?

If art should aim for truth and beauty, the madness-of-the-60s genre, even the best of it, hits only half the mark. Yet it is widely celebrated, most fervently by the art-and-politics-don't-mix crowd. Why?