Fiction and politics in the 21C: a reply to Emmett Stinson

Over at Kill Your Darlings, Emmett Stinson has written an essay about two Australian responses to Ted Genoways’ much discussed polemic ‘The Death of Fiction’: Davina Bell’s ‘To My Generation of Precious Snowflakes’ (harvest, Winter 2010) and Jacinda Woodhead’s ‘A response to harvest’ (Overland blog, July 2010). Among other things, Genoways argues that ‘most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues – as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism’.

Stinson devotes half his essay to a critical discussion of Woodhead’s post and one paragraph to Bell – and so it reads to me more like an extension of his ongoing debate with Overland (with Woodhead and Rjurik Davidson) about the nature of fiction. I’m particularly interested in Stinson’s piece because it centres on the possibilities – or not, as Stinson seems to argue – of writing politically engaged fiction. And as the new fiction editor (from 2011) of Overland, with its overtly political brief, I’m keen to explore the possibilities of mixing fiction and politics in the 21st century.

Stinson dismisses Woodhead’s call for ‘a literature that engages with the questions of this time’ for reasons which include the fact that language ‘doesn’t have a discrete, unambiguous meaning’, the fact that literature doesn’t have to be ‘about’ something, and his own wariness about writers having moral obligations. But as far as I’m concerned these arguments do not preclude the possibility of writing politically engaged fiction. Perhaps surprisingly, Stinson concedes the same: ‘I’m not saying great literature can’t include explicitly political content … but to claim that all work must be overtly political, or that there even exists some clear demarcation between works that are political and those that aren’t, is simply untrue.’

It seems to me that Woodhead and Overland are not claiming that all work ‘must be overtly political’ – and nor would I. But I’d also say that in my role as Overland’s next fiction editor, overtly political fiction is what I’ll be hoping to publish.

Although Overland has left behind its origins in the Realist Writer, in 2010 it remains a literary magazine with a political bent. And so it seems natural enough to me that Overland in the 21st century would be endeavouring to publish new politically engaged fiction, to experiment with just what this might mean, to be at the vanguard of such writing. There is no shortage of subjects to engage with. In the 200th issue, for example, Christos Tsiolkas writes among other things about the devastation of the Amazon rainforests with the arrival of Europeans and Janette Turner Hospital writes about the transformation of the Australian whaling industry into an international tourist industry of whale watching and reverence.

For me the touchstone of contemporary, politically engaged fiction is Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, which is as far from social realism as the Dreamtime is from the 21st century. It addresses, among many other things, the Waanyi people’s fight against the Century Mine in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the 1990s. Wright has said of her novel: ‘It is about Aboriginal sovereignty of mind. The last frontier we are fighting for is having control of our own imagination and how we define our future.’ And she wrote it in a way that ‘might encourage Aboriginal people to read and understand the possibilities of literature to explain who we are’.

So, writers of Australia with a burning desire to grapple in fiction with the issues of our day – which for me include climate change, the fact most of us live on stolen land, Indigenous–non-Indigenous relations, the wars we’re embroiled in, the plight of the dispossessed, oppressed and the voiceless (which for me includes animals and the planet itself), the privatisation and commodification of much of the world down to the very seeds we plant, the politics of food, racism, homophobia and (my own personal bête noir) patriarchal religions and cultures – send your stories to Overland and together we’ll explore the possibilities of fiction and politics in the 21st century.

Jane Gleeson-White

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

More by Jane Gleeson-White ›

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  1. Jane, your post has me feeling excited about a renewed interest in politically engaged fiction and opportunities for it to be published.

    Perhaps writers, particularly emerging writers, are somewhat fearful about writing or submitting overtly political fiction as we so often read or are told not to mix politics with fiction. The risk is, apparently, that the urge to deliver a political message will take over the writing and you’ll end up sounding “preachy”.

    It would be great to see more journals follow the Overland and Meanjin tradition and encourage writers to tackle the big issues of our time.

  2. It’s kind of interesting that Stinson says there is no more imperative on a writer than a shoemaker to be political. I think this is kind of disingenuous and ignores the writer’s engagement in questions of representation or even in confounding ideas about representation, which then involves some kind or orientation towards an audience. Surely this explains something of why writers have taken a distinct role vis-à-vis politics (distinct from the honourable one of shoemakers anyway).

    I think his points about how texts are read and the importance of a political criticism are well made. But I also think there is something unsatisfying finally about the potential for interminable readings, all potentially true, and the implication that there is nothing to be learned by looking at writers in terms of historical formations, intentions etc. It’s like he is saying ‘yeah sure we are all in favour of good political criticism but is this finally any more legitimate than any other reading?’

    Also, Stinson evokes the shade of Lukács and social realism behind his opponents but I’m interested to know if this is true any more? What is the attitude of Overland these days to a formation like modernism (often taken to be the diametrical opposite of social realism and a target in the old Stalinist polemics) and the lessons and experiences of a formation like that (Stinson evokes Joyce and Beckett as kind of counter examples to the views of opponents)? Often read as a kind of purely formal apolitical exercise my take would be to notice the intensely fraught relation between art and life, the anti-bourgeois polemics, the utopian elements in the notion of “the new”. That is to say is the relation between aesthetics and politics a zero-sum game anymore? Is part of the answer to the characterisation that Stinson offers to say not only Lukács but also Brecht?

  3. I’m glad you’re feeling excited Trish. I do think it’s possible to mix fiction and politics however fraught the territory – I mean the tendency to heavy handedness and didacticism must be avoided and the human element not lost. But for me as an editor, fiction that engages with the big questions of our time is the most exciting and challenging work to edit. I think of editing ‘Dead Europe’. I’m totally up for it.

    And yes Gary I agree about the disingenuousness of Stinson’s remark about the moral imperatives of a shoemaker, which he argued were greater than those of writers because they’re engaged in the global economy of exchange. Apart from the obvious fact that most writers hope also to be engaged in the global economy through their publications, I agree with you that the moral/political demands on writers, should they assume them (if they have a choice), are greater.

    I also agree that Stinson’s point about the way texts are read and his call for a more politically engaged criticism (because of the multiple meanings of texts) are spot on.

    As for social realism v modernism, I think Overland has moved beyond its origins in social realism, as I say, and as fiction editor I’m certainly open to all forms. As for modernism, I personally don’t see it as apolitical. For example, I think Joyce engages in some powerfully political questions in his fiction, including those that relate to his having to use English, the language of the coloniser – ‘a borrowed canvas and borrowed words’ – much as Oodgeroo Noonuccal deliberately chose to do here, and his many meditations on patriarchy/fatherhood in ‘Ulysses’, as well as his attempt to articulate female desire (Molly Bloom’s soliloquy). So I agree with you on modernism (if I read you correctly). I’m happy to entertain the idea that it’s not a zero-sum game. But perhaps others at Overland would say otherwise.

    1. Ah yeah, that great quote from Portrait:

      “– The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”

  4. The best bit of talk on the politics of writing i’ve heard was from Christos Tsolkias at the merging writers festival one year. He said that the writer should aim to give voice to that which is silent. It’s a motto that i try and keep in mind.

  5. I’m not surprised to hear that Scott – Tsiolkas is brilliant on art and politics. Lucky you to have heard him speak about it. I love the aim you quote from him too, a great motto.

  6. Instead of entering into a debate here, Stinson has replied on his blog.

    He says:

    Earlier this week, new Overland Fiction Editor, Jane Gleeson-White, posted a response to my recent article in Kill Your Darlings on political fiction. By this point, I’ve already discussed these issues at length with several Overland editors, and there’s not too much new for me to say. But it might be useful to try to explain where I’m coming from and why I even took issue with Overland’s position to begin with. I’ll also note from the outset that my article was wrong on (at least) one point: Overland is clearly not advocating social realism as such—my bad, guys!

    As to Gleeson-White’s article, I think she’s misunderstood my point—it’s not that I’m necessarily against including the ‘political’ within fiction (and thus she registers surprise when I point out that it’s possible to write great fiction with explicitly ‘political’ content). My concerns, thus far, have been twofold: 1) I (still) don’t understand what it means to write ‘politically engaged’ fiction and suspect the notion rests on problematic assumptions, and 2) I worry that Overland’s position is basically proscriptive, saying that writing must be ‘politically engaged’.

    Gleeson-White, however, denies this second assertion, claiming ‘It seems to me that Woodhead and Overland are not claiming that all work “must be overtly political” – and nor would I,’ but this doesn’t square with Woodhead’s previous statement that: ‘our generation of writers is confronted by major political challenges; we have a moral and aesthetic imperative to confront them, and write them.’ From my perspective, an ‘imperative’ is imperative, not a matter of preference (but perhaps Gleeson-White is disputing that such fiction need be ‘overt’).

    And so forth.

  7. Thanks for bringing Stinson’s reply to my attention, Jacinda. Shall check out the full piece.
    At least he’s cleared up one misconception (which I thought was made quite clearly in Rjurik’s blog piece): that OL is not advocating social realism. Stinson has clearly conflated politically engaged writing with social realism and that seems to me to have fuelled most of his criticism. I’d say ‘We’, ‘The Master and Margarita’, ‘100 Years of Solitude’, ‘Brave New World’, ‘1984’ are politically engaged fictions – and not a social realist novel among them. That’s also why I think Stinson’s wrong to suggest that to long for politically engaged fiction is to long for Dickens and the Victorians.

    For the record – I wasn’t confused about Stinson’s argument re the ‘political’ within fiction. I think he’s confused, seems to want to have it both ways. He seems to be arguing that fiction can’t and can be ‘about’ the world – and therefore can and can’t include political content. My ‘surprise’ was to highlight the inconsistency within his argument.

    I agree that ‘politically engaged fiction’ is a slippery phrase, as I say, and that’s why I’m arguing for exploring its possibilities and suggesting that OL is the place to do it. And it is also why I give not a definition of it but an example – ‘Carpentaria’.

    And yes, agreed – to me an ‘imperative’ is imperative. I can’t speak for ‘Woodhead’. Maybe she meant ‘imperative’ as an absolute, but I read her views as conditional, not absolute – ‘If we want literature to matter in this epoch’; ‘do we not have a moral obligation …?’ and ‘our generation of writers is confronted by major political challenges; we have a moral and aesthetic imperative to confront them, and write them.’

    I also appreciate that Stinson has now engaged with three OL editors on this subject and could be feeling weary of it – must feel he’s engaged with the hydra.

  8. Dear Jane:

    I’ve just read your final comment here; this, to me, makes a great deal more sense to the comments you’ve left on my blog, and at least I understand your relation to the notion of ‘engagement’. As I said in that post, I really have no objection to what you propose in this more tentative and exploratory phrasing (which seems quite different to those in the past).

    I’m also not trying to have it both ways; I’m simply arguing that art can include content, but can’t be reduced to that content.

    1. Who said this debate was simply about ‘content’? And since when is form ‘apolitical’? And since when can ‘politics’ simply be reduced to ‘content’? And if you didn’t understand what was meant by politically engaged fiction, why describe it as prescriptive/proscriptive?

      You seem to be arguing that literature is too complex to have a purpose. Which leaves me confused about what you think all those art and literary movements were doing.

      Despite the fact that the publishing industry is a perverse, neoliberal monster, I do think writers have a responsibility as writers, and the responsibility is this: if you’re going to write, have a purpose. (So, engage with ‘the questions of this time’: questions on form, literature, the world, what is being published, who is publishing it, war, etc – all political questions.)

      I do believe there has to be more to writing that putting words on paper or production for publication (otherwise you fall into the trap of the neoliberal monster: reducing writing to commercial fashions).

      The other thing writers have a responsibility to do, a central point to both Genoways’s and Batuman’s arguments, is to read. There are many relationships the author has to literature. A very important one is recognising the evolution of form and the historical roots of what it is they’re writing. This is perhaps particularly relevant to questions of Creative Writing courses.

      Lastly, as a leftwing journal, Overland has different objectives to the industry, as, presumably, do other small presses.

      So, to avoid any future confusion, what I am saying is that writers should be conscious of what they write and why they write it.

      1. You put it well Jacinda: ‘engage with the questions of this time’: questions on form, literature, the world, what is being published, who is publishing it, war, etc – all political questions’. And in your reiteration of Batuman’s point about the importance of a writer’s relation to the evolution of form and literature’s historical roots.

  9. Hi Emmett – thanks for that. Thing is, I do think that at we fundamentally agree, so I’m pleased that I’m beginning to make some sense to you. I agree with you that ‘art can include content, but can’t be reduced to that content’. Think this is perhaps the essence of both our positions. In my specific role as OL fiction editor I’d just be looking for a particular sort of content, not trying to reduce OL fiction or all literature to it.

    And good you understand my approach is tentative, exploratory – think it’s the only way to go.

    1. A few brief and compressed comments:

      1) Referring to my piece on creative writing programs, Emmett writes that ‘I fail to see how attacking either writers or Creative Writing programs will result in any material benefit’. In fact, my critique of creative writing programs was primarily about their neoliberalisation. I was not wholly critical of those programs. I simply tried to chronicle their emergence in the neoliberal environment, and the ways that environment distorted them. They were – as universities are in general – sites of struggle.

      2) More broadly, Emmett seems to have begun with an equation Overland’s position = a Lukacsian version of social realism. Emmett understood that Overland (to the extent that we seem to agree with each other) is not advocating for social realism, but he seems to still believe that we hold the the very theoretical basis that led to his initial equation. I.e. that we hold to a whole lot of ‘uninterrogated’ (i.e. unsophisticated) assumptions, basically having missed the moment of structural linguistics and poststructuralism. We hold, he implies ‘a basically anti-intellectual notion of the “literary”.’

      This is, of course, an old theoretical strategy common to many postmodernists. The left, in this view, is theoretically outdated. But in making the argument, Emmett threatens to fall into the worst of post-structuralist platitudes. In their worst form these are, as Perry Anderson has noted, the ‘exhorbitation of language’, the ‘attenuation of truth’ and the ‘randomisation of history.’ In simple terms, he seeks to de-anchor language and text more broadly from history and society. Perhaps it’s not that we hold to uninterrogated assumptions, but that we don’t quite agree with these poststructuralist axioms? (Which, I might note, are hardly the cutting edge of contemporary theory anyway).

      3. It may be that – despite all this – in practical terms Emmett and Overland does not have such a vast chasm between them.

      4. Overland does not, of course, have any kind of official line. While we have broad political and, I think, aesthetic agreement (Jane – I particularly like your list of politically engaged works), I’m sure we have a variety of positions with that broad space.

  10. Yes, very well put Rjurik, I especially like your analysis in (2). And think you’re right in (3).

    And yes to your fourth point too – from my brief experience as not-yet fiction editor of Overland, it’s refreshingly democratic and multivocal. I think, as you say, that we do ‘have a variety of positions’ while having a broad political and aesthetic agreement. (And glad you like my list of works, ‘We’ and ‘The Master and Margarita’ being two of my all time favourite novels.)

  11. Rjurik, I agree that I was wrong in a blog post long ago to suggest that Overland had a ‘party line’. Instead, what have been presented are three, distinct positions: 1) Jacinda discussed intent, focusing on issues of ethical and aesthetic imperatives, diversity, identity politics and speaking positions, 2) Rjurik focused more on textual effect (discussing forms as representation and Anderson, and 3) Jane outlined a more tentative curatorial strategy. In no sense do these three arguments add up to a single point, but rather a series of shared affinities.

    From my perspective, having any discussion at length about this issue is virtually impossible with three interlocuters who all have quite different ideas and, in some cases, re-interpret OL’s own earlier arguments in terms of their own position.

    It’s also simply incorrect to label me as a ‘postmodernist’. Many of the positions I hold on literature existed prior to postmodernism (like structuralism), and exist now. Hugh Kenner, who I cite in the article, is hardly a postmodernist (indeed, the guy was a far-right conservative who was friends with William F. Buckley). The notion of art’s inability to communicate the kind of political engagement you discuss (although I’m guessing as I’m still not sure what the term means) appears in more ‘current’ theory, too. Giorgio Agamben, for example, obliquely addresses the issues of art’s separation from critique in ‘The Man without Content’ and ‘Stanzas’ (in a certain way, anyway).

    I still think there’s a confusion authorial intent (i.e. ethical/political imperatives), textual effect (form/content and language), and discrete readings of book (including political readings) in at least some of OL’s three arguments, such as when suggesting it’s a writer’s duty to write ‘about the world’ or be ‘politically engaged’. There’s a big difference in saying that literature should be ‘about the world’ (which still suggests a basically mimetic understanding of art) and a discrete reading of a book as ‘about’ something (although, to use the cliche, it’s inevitable that every reading, by limiting the possibilities of a text, will be a misreading).

    I thin literature is complex and ignoring that complexity doesn’t help anything. But I don’t think the above stops the possibility of political readings–or of Marxist critique (which, as I’ve mentioned, is very important to me personally and intellectually). In this sense our positions aren’t so very different.

    1. I agree Emmett about the impossibility of having a two-blog discussion with a three-headed Overland position. And I apologise for that – I should have left the ‘a reply to Emmett Stinson’ out of my blog title, because it’s not really that at all, it’s more, as you put it, a ‘tentative curatorial strategy’. You have, however, been impressive in your singlehanded defence!
      cheers, Jane

  12. Sorry–the last two paragraphs want editing. Here they are w/o copy-editing errors:

    I still think there’s a confusion of authorial intent (i.e. ethical/political imperatives), textual effect (form/content and language), and discrete readings of books (including political readings) in at least some of OL’s three arguments, such as when suggesting it’s a writer’s duty to write ‘about the world’ or be ‘politically engaged’. There’s a big difference in saying that literature should be ‘about the world’ (which still suggests a basically mimetic understanding of art) and a discrete reading of a book as ‘about’ something (although, to use the cliche, it’s inevitable that every reading, by limiting the possibilities of a text, will be a misreading).

    I think literature is complex and ignoring that complexity doesn’t help anything. But I don’t think the above stops the possibility of political readings–or of Marxist critique (which, as I’ve mentioned, is very important to me personally and intellectually). In this sense our positions aren’t so very different.

  13. Maybe the spectres haunting this discussion are those of social realism and formalism, with the recognition on all sides that neither of these positions are adequate? On the one side, some interesting works have been cited as models for Overland but how do they work as both literature and examples of political writing? In response, the complexity and multiplicity of potential readings of literary works has been raised, but how does this disqualify a journal like Overland calling for deliberate experiments in political writing? I think it would be pretty interesting for Overland to reflect on its history over questions like social realism, nationalism, political writing and the like and try settling accounts with the tradition from which it has worked, positives and negatives, and begin to outline a current view on where we now are on things like the ‘politics of form’.

    1. I think you’re correct that neither social realism nor formalism are desirable positions, but I think it’s easy to forget the context that all of this came out of: Genoway’s piece which hyperbolically called itself ‘Death of Fiction?’ (the question mark doesn’t really soften the title for me) and the notion of ethical/aesthetic imperatives for writers (Also N.B. that my Kill Your Darlings piece was written before any of these online discussions began, since print is slower than the internet). I still object to those positions.

      I doubt I’d ultimately agree with Rjurik, but I find the notions of forms and politics very interesting (and this was certainly a key issue for many of the modernists–to find a form adequate to the complexity of modernity). My own (personal) interests are related to trajectories stemming from the historical formations of avant-gardism, and what possibilities remain for what I guess one could call either ‘experimental fiction’, or the exploration of textual possibilities.

      What I object to are proclamations that fiction is dead (or dying), blanket statements that contemporary literature is no good (which usually reveal that the author knows very little about contemporary literature), and the variety of arguments over the last decade for a return to a fiction focused on ‘issues’ as if the job of literature is simply to comment on important social/cultural/political events and nothing more (or less!). (These calls are of the same order as the old saws that literature must reveal ‘the human condition’ or ‘universal truths’ or (in the fashion of Leavis and Arnold) offer some kind of moral instruction.) To me, OL’s piece on Harvest did recapitulate several of the above positions.

      It’s now clear, though, that the various positions held by many of the OL editors are more complex than theat, and I think the desire to explore new possibilities for texts is great!

  14. You make some great points Gary – re social realism and formalism – and an excellent suggestion about Overland reflecting on its history over questions like social realism, nationalism, political writing, etc. And curiously enough something I was in the middle of doing (trawling through every Overland from day 1) when I was struck down first by sickness and then by the edit of my next book … but hopefully something I’ll have time to return to next year. Or perhaps someone else. But I agree with you that it would be a brilliant and illuminating way to sort through all the issues and see how they square with what we might hope to do today.

  15. Thanks for your thoughts Pierz, never to late for more of this discussion. I’m very interested in what you say and your weighing of the various points of view and in your own view (which manages to disagree with everyone and agree – such are the shifting sands of this debate).

    And this idea of political fiction came up recently on OL blog in Jennifer Mills’ excellent post ‘Occupy the story’, where she says this, which pretty much sums up my current thinking:

    ‘It is a truism perhaps that fiction does the empathic work of allowing us to imagine another’s life, without which cruelty is so much more possible. I have written before that writing can be a form of political action. I don’t mean that we should write from a place of ideology, which fixity would deaden the imaginative impulse, but that it is political to write fiction: to write from a place of figuring-out, a place of listening and witness. That through books we are able to imagine others, but also other relationships with the world … I don’t mean we should all write revolutionary utopias. I simply think that revisioning the world must be a matter for constant, conscious work.’

    Having been OL fiction editor for a year now, I’m still looking for stories which grapple with, oh, the issues of the day, the times, the era, whatever they are. I don’t think all literature must or should do this, but I do think it’s appropriate that the fiction Overland publishes should attempt to. And I think that a story that tackles issues can also be ‘a plain old good story’, although what one means by a ‘plain old good story’ might be as fraught as what we mean by ‘politically engaged fiction’. I’m planning to write about my first year as OL fiction editor here in the next month or so, so stay tuned.

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