Thursday, February 11, 2010

Once more unto the breach

I've fulminated often enough here about the U.S. literary establishment's nonsensical dogma that true art can't be political. Anyone who believes that this cant itself is anything but pure politics, in ideological service to reaction, is naive to one extent or another. I don't mean that as an insult or taunt, because this particular type of naivety is practically bred into us as readers and writers brought up and schooled in this country, pounded in most of all to those who write, who study or want to study writing, so that it's very hard to shed it. And who wants to shed it? Who knows enough to even question it? Unless she's already oriented toward or searching for a political approach to art, or, even more radically, an artistic approach to political struggle.

I've been thinking about all this again, and about some specific questions the whole topic raises, because of some stuff I've read here and there lately. For one thing, I've been slowly making my way through the long, fascinating essay "Fiction Gutted" by Tony Christini in the new anthology Liberation Lit. This piece is, on one level, a carefully constructed response to the recent book How Fiction Works by critic James Wood. But it's much more than a polemic against Wood, it seems to me. In "Fiction Gutted," Christini tackles the whole edifice of establishment literary rules, standards, mores, idols, enemies, and exposes it for what it is: a supremely political structure resting on a reactionary, anti-struggle foundation. And this isn't merely one leftist's interpretation. There's ample evidence, for example, of how the ruling class, the government and especially the CIA intervened with all their might to effect the massive shift that changed the entire artistic scene in this country from what it was in the 1930s (pro-labor, pro-socialist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, with many of the great artists of the time directly involved in and devoting their creativity to the great struggles of the day, including organizing their own unions) to what it became in the 1950s and under intense covert and overt pressure has remained to this day (pro-status quo, utterly captivated by bourgeois consciousness, thoroughly imbued with anti-communism).

I expect I'll return to "Fiction Gutted" with more comments, and excerpts from it too, in coming posts, because it's such a sharp retort to Wood et al. But there's a flip side that I want to at least start addressing. Because though the upholders of bourgeois artistic norms hold the reins of culture, there are others, on our side, who wish that another kind of art could break through. Art that explicitly sides with the workers and oppressed. Literature that speaks of, speaks to the great struggles. It's my understanding that FG's author and Liberation Lit editor Christini, for one, thinks that left writers should be writing fiction that is set in the here and now—about the war in Iraq and the fight to stop it, for instance, or about joblessness or people losing their homes or mountaintop removal or any of the other evils of this society that ought to be brought front and center to people's consciousness, all the wrongs against which we should be organizing. Other progressive writers and bloggers have been asking why there is so little if any fiction of that sort being published in this country, whether the only politically engaged fiction that stands a chance of publication is stories that take place in either another time or another country and therefore seem somehow safe to the powers that be in this country. Others ask whether any fiction, earnestly politically oriented or not, can ever have anything to do with the actual material struggles, can ever have any actual effect, move anyone to take action, effect any measurable shift in consciousness.

Must fiction locate itself in the here and now to be of use in the struggles of the here and now? Is there any contribution that historical or, say, speculative fiction can make? Can fiction that does engage with today's struggles find a way to publication? If so, can such books make any difference? Has any novel ever actually mattered in the real world of the class struggle, and can any novel matter for our struggles today—that is, can a novelist intervene, make a contribution, fight the good fight, via fiction?

Also, are there signs of any openings? Any cracks in the wall of reaction through which we might shove some politically conscious work?

These are questions I'm mulling. I hope to do some of the mulling here at Read Red soon.