Saturday, April 3, 2010

Back to the question at hand

Upton Sinclair famously said about the success, the impact, of his 1906 novel The Jungle that he'd been aiming for people's hearts and he hit their stomachs instead. Sinclair, who for most of his life considered himself a socialist, would live over 60 more years, to age 90. He would write more than 90 books, both fiction and non-fiction. He would run for governor of California in 1934 as a Democrat and nearly win, defeated ultimately only after the business establishment bankrolled a dirty red-scare campaign against him. He would remain an activist fighting for progressive change all his long life. Yet he is known for The Jungle. And The Jungle is known not for its depiction of the horrors of wage slavery, which was Sinclair's intent, but rather as a muckraking polemic against the excesses and unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry. The book is credited with giving rise to a movement to clean up and regulate food production, leading eventually to a slew of laws and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

So ever since, The Jungle has stood as a sort of cautionary tale to writers hoping to craft fiction in the service of left politics. There's no point even engaging with meaty questions about how to write such fiction, how to get to readers in a way that touches their hearts, opens their minds, raises their consciousness about the foundational inequity of capitalist society and the need for revolutionary change and how to make such change--it's futile to bother wrestling with any of this, we're told, because the fate of The Jungle shows that even fiction written with this explicit intent will inevitably miss the mark. If it doesn't simply fall flat--which of course is what we're promised is the preordained fate of 99 percent of political fiction since the first rule of bourgeois aesthetics is that art cannot be political--if somehow it finds a readership and, even more miraculous, somebody thinks it's a halfway decent book, it will be misread, misunderstood, received as anything but the call to arms its poor misguided author thought she/he wrote.

Why even bother? Give us family dysfunction. Give us slick, satiric comedy. Give us irony. Cynicism. Despair. Give us individual tragedy, personal redemption. Because this is what people want to read. This is how they'll read your story even if it's not the story you thought you wrote. Otherwise they won't read your story at all. Because nobody wants to be preached at. No one picks up a novel to be told it's time to change the world.

This is pure cant, in my opinion. It's a rule, a dogma--a bourgeois rule, bourgeois dogma concocted out of whole cloth and recited as if it's merely a statement of natural law. Who says? The arbiters of bourgeois ideology say. Who are they? Why, everyone whose say gets a hearing in this country whose arts are more fully under the thumb of the capitalist ruling class than they are just about anywhere else.

Dump it. Discount it. It's noxious. You've breathed it in, sure, we all have, it's everywhere. Now clear it out of your system. Spit it out. Detoxify your mind and spirit. Open yourself to the possibility that literature can take another road. Which road, exactly? How far can it go? How fast? These are questions I've raised before and, though it took me too unconscionably long to take them up again, I'm now ready to give it a shot. I've been thinking about some specific books that have had a big impact politically--or might--or could--or didn't--and why not--and the more general questions thinking about these specific books raise, questions about the potential for revolutionary literature. I'll get to these thoughts and questions next.