I don't think so.
I was reminded of this because a friend pointed me to this recent Huffington Post piece by Rick Ayers, a commentary on the novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. There are flaws to this piece, but I think it's still a good contribution because of its basic points, which I'd sum up as something like this:
- The U.S. war against Vietnam was a world-historic crime.
- This novel does not acknowledge that or portray anything even close to its whole reality.
- All the reams of gushing reviews, all the wild praise Matterhorn has received, as a result of which it holds the #9 spot on today's New York Times bestseller list, is based on a reactionary sensibility oriented toward shrugging off the historic truths about the Vietnam war in service of a renewed patriotism in defense of imperialism's current wars.
When Matterhorn came out a month or two ago and I read the rapturous reviews, I knew immediately that it would be of this ilk and so I had no desire to read it. I'm glad Ayers did, though, so that he could publish this critique.
The point is made sharply in the recent anthology Liberation Lit by Tony Christini, in his excellent essay "Fiction Gutted: the Establishment and the Novel." Christini writes about "award-winning story writer Benjamin Percy, one of the first writers (sanctioned by the literary establishment, that is) to write in any way about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, in 'Refresh, Refresh' (which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2007 and was called the story of the year by novelist Ann Lamott)." Percy's story concerns a boy waiting for emails from his father who's a soldier in Iraq, and how those emails stop coming and the boy keeps hitting "refresh" hoping for another email, hoping to stave off the horrible news he knows is coming. Christini quotes Percy as saying: "I certainly have strong political feelings. But I try not to let them command my fiction. ... I don't want people to come away from my story as if they've come away from an editorial, with a ready-made message shoved down their throat. ... Part of the goal of 'Refresh, Refresh' was to write a war story that didn't say, war is good, war is bad. I instead wanted to say, this is war. And in doing so, I tried to show both sides."
What escapes Percy's regard here (and T.C. Boyle's and George Saunders' in similar comments, as well as that of central establishment writers like E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth and so on, who are often perceived as rather political) is the power and vitality, the value and art, of partisan fiction. Percy makes no note (and seems to imply the opposite) that "strong political feelings" can be expressed as liberatory overt partisan fiction in very accomplished and highly aesthetic ways far from "a ready-made message shoved down [a reader's] throat," as if ostensibly nonpartisan fiction is any less "ready-made," including Percy's own "Refresh, Refresh" given his decision to "show both sides": apparently meaning "war is good, war is bad." Partisan fiction, according to Percy, is "fraudulent and manipulative," but depictions of "war is good, war is bad" are even-handed, which must no doubt prove equally instructive and comforting to both the invaders and the invaded, occupied peoples of the smashed land of Iraq. And so it is that status quo fiction is far less upfront and often in denial--far less willing and capable of declaring what it actually is, ideologically. There are plenty of ways a literary subjective fiction can reveal objective criminal reality. Status quo art, however, avoids doing so, except marginally, in a great number of ways, even though it practically has to go out of its way to cheat reality, to vitiate it of urgent conditions, revelation or phenomena, let alone explore progressive or revolutionary realms and possibilities.Later, Christini asks "how many recent antiwar novels can be named," or novels that portray any of a number of other bitter truths. "Name the muckraking novels," he challenges, "or vivid polemic novels ... " of recent publication. Why can't we? "Writing powerful quality liberatory fiction is in many ways unthinkable and disallowed in the circles of literature, exceptions aside."