Published 4 November 201026 March 2012 · Main Posts What we talk about when we talk about politics Jeff Sparrow Regular readers will be aware of the back-and-forth between the writer, blogger and academic Emmett Stinson, and various Overland peeps. I’ve been away for the last fortnight, and so missed the most recent installments in the saga. Then, this morning when I started writing in Jane’s thread, my brief comments blew out so much that I’ve decided to publish them here. I’m glad Emmett’s continued to prosecute the debate because it’s a productive and useful one, and I appreciate the comradely tone in which he’s conducted it. As he’s pointed out, there are substantial areas of agreement. If I understand rightly, his main concern is to establish the ‘literariness’ of literature, and to defend that from a Philistine didacticism that insists literature should really be (or perhaps already is) politics. I think Emmett’s mostly (though not totally) correct on this. But I also think he carries the argument way, way too far. But before I get onto that, one of the difficulties with conversations about politics and literature is that it’s not always clear exactly what’s being talked about. It’s probably particularly so in this case, given that Overland is not (you will be shocked to learn) the iron-disciplined Bolshevik outfit it appears, and various editors have articulated slightly different positions (though they’re probably more complementary than contradictory). More generally, the terrain in arguments about literary politics tends to shifts without anyone noticing, from, say, arguments about what writers should write, to the related but separate question as to what writers should do. So I thought it might help to delineate some of the various ways in which politics and literature intersect for Overland. Let’s begin with the Mother Jones piece by Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways that Emmett found so problematic. ‘I’m saying,’ argued Genoways, ‘that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite.’ This was mostly read (and perhaps mostly intended) as an injunction to writers in respect of their writing. I’ll get to that in a minute but I also think it’s equally important for writers as members of an industry – as workers, if you like (even though, strictly speaking, class location is quite problematic in writing and publishing). After all, the first (and in some ways most important) way that politics and literature intersects is in the context of the literary industry. Books are not simply artifacts of culture but also commodities that are bought and sold, a fairly obvious fact that is not discussed nearly enough. We’re living in a time in which the publishing industry – and, in some respects, literature itself – is undergoing major convulsions, and it’s not too grandiose to suggest that decisions made in the next decade or so are going to have profound consequences for reading and writing for years to come. No matter what their aesthetic proclivities, people involved in the industry – whether editors, writers or students – need to engage in these debates. Which means, naturally, politics. It’s probably fair to say that the default position within the writing/publishing scene is a vague liberalism. Unfortunately, the problems that we’re confronting, particularly in the wake of the GFC, increasingly threaten this whole political paradigm. Most obviously, it’s very difficult to talk about the future of literature without coming to some position on the nature of neoliberalism, which is one reason why anyone who cares about writing does need to start coming to terms with radical politics. A straw in the wind: the new government in Britain has just announced massive – indeed, unprecedented – cuts to its arts budget. Now, the best way to respond to this is not by writing a novel (or for that matter an academic paper): it’s by rallying, organising and so on. In other words, literary problems cannot simply be discussed on the terrain of literature: journals (and writers) need to be involved in political debates and political contestation. I suspect Emmett agrees with the need for a politicised writing community in this sense – certainly, through his work with SPUNC, he’s personally been involved in many such debates. At the same time, I wonder if our different reactions to the Genoways piece reflect a political difference as much as a literary one. For instance, Emmett objects to Rjurik’s critique of creative writing courses on the ground that Rjurik blames writers and academic creative writing for what are essentially structural problems: Not only are such programs often the only space in which emerging writers can receive both instructional and financial (via scholarships and stipends) support, but also they are one of the last institutions in which aesthetic merit is held to be a more important criteria of a text than its marketability. Whatever the flaws of such programs, they can’t be held accountable for the larger production of literature (and, indeed, few Australian publishers pay much attention to Creative Writing programs in any systematic way), and I fail to see how attacking either writers or Creative Writing programs will result in any material benefit. To do so is both bad theory and bad praxis. The implication that academic creative writing is quarantined from the market is, IMO, fundamentally wrong, since such courses have evolved as part of the enterprise university, in which creative disciplines emerged as a marketised response to the desire to escape marketisation (hence the fetishation of ‘self-expression’). Nonetheless, Rjurik’s essay was not about ‘blaming’ either individual students or academics for the evolution of higher education: the point was rather to note that, with the university system and the publishing industry so enmeshed with neoliberalism, some involvement with academic creative writing has become almost necessary for aspiring and established authors. In some senses, then, the task is not to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the academicisation of creative writing, so much as it is to analyse what is taking place and why: ‘not to laugh, not to weep, but to understand’, and all that. But I think the difference here is partly to do with political orientation, as Rjurik hinted in an earlier comment. It’s necessary and worthwhile to identify the social and economic structures that shape the political terrain but after that what matters is politics. We might not make history on the terms of our choosing but we do still make it, and we have to be careful not to allow our broader analysis to become an alibi for political inactivity. In other words, there are reasons why so many of us study creative writing (such as the institutional and financial support Emmett mentions), just as there are reasons why most of us have to work for wages. But the necessity for paid employment renders industrial militancy more important not less, just as the growing role of academic creative writing makes such courses an inevitable site of contestation. That’s one reason I like the implied combativity of the Genoways piece (‘Stop being so damned dainty and polite’) because, perhaps more than anything else, what we need at almost every level of the literary industry in Australia are – whisper the word! – activists. Consider the recent tussle over parallel importation. Yes, a lot of writers and publishers became quite worked up about it. Yes, there were lots of OpEd pieces and forums. But did the literary community manage to articulate a convincing and forward-looking alternative to a free market perspective, one that positioned Australian-writing for a digital age? I don’t think we did – and nor did we display any real ability to organise or take collective action. Certainly, in the course of that debate, we could have done with a layer of radicals prepared to ‘put themselves on the line’. But I also like the Genoways piece in the context of a slightly different intersection between politics and literature. Perhaps it’s too grandiose to call writers ‘public intellectuals’ but over the last few decades a festival scene and events program has evolved in which writers (including emerging ones) are increasingly asked to speak in public, in a way that many other people are not. This means, IMO, that they have a moral responsibility to engage with – and know something about – the issues of the day. That’s why most writing courses nowadays will advise young writers to learn something about oratory: public engagement is no longer an optional extra but a central facet of a writers’ life. Yet this engagement is usually pitched in terms of self-advancement: a matter of branding and promotion more than politics. So when Genoways suggests that ‘young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world,’ I think of all the festivals with panels dominated by people incapable of talking about anything other than themselves. In the piece that kicked off this whole discussion, Jacinda asked: ‘In this time of mass education, media and information at out fingertips, do we not have a moral obligation to engage with these atrocities and expose the actualities of never-ending war, and what this war – not the clinical, sanitised version – honestly involves?’ Well, yes, I think we do. Emmett says he is wary of ethical imperatives and so I guess, if need be, we can debate what ‘morality’ means in this context but, personally, I don’t have a problem arguing that, precisely because writers have public opportunities that others lack, they have an obligation to speak out, to cheer up slaves and horrify despots, as it were. Again, I’m not sure how much we disagree over this. But it’s a point I wanted to make, because it’s not articulated often enough. OK, so far I’ve talked about the politics of literature largely outside the book. But what about the politics of writing itself? Novels have, on occasion, explicitly functioned as political interventions. Overland itself emerged in the backwash of Power Without Glory, a book that genuinely made a real difference in the Victorian labour movement. Elsewhere, you could think about The Jungle, the Upton Sinclair book that led to reforms of the Chicago meatworks, or Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, said to have helped Labour win the 1945 general election. But these are exceptions, interesting precisely because their political impact comes not from their literariness per se but rather because their status as novels serves as a Trojan horse to smuggle particular ideas or politics into the public sphere. The relative decline in the cultural status of literature makes this less likely today. A biographical film might (perhaps) bring down a politician but it’s difficult to imagine that a contemporary John Wren would have much to fear from a contemporary Frank Hardy. The days of the novel as activist intervention are, I suspect, over. I do think, however, we could have an interesting discussion about the activist possibilities of literary non-fiction – but that’s a debate for a different day. In any case, as I said, I pretty much agree with Emmett that literature isn’t activism, and that the confusion of the two is, in most cases, a category error. Nonetheless, I also agree with Jacinda when, following Genoways, she writes ‘If we want literature to matter to this epoch, then we need a literature that engages with the questions of this time.’ To tease out the implications of this, it’s worth going back to some of the earlier arguments in this debate. In his Kill Your Darlings piece, Emmett writes: It seems here that Woodhead and Genoways both make a questionable assumption about the way both literature and representation function. Woodhead and Genoways appear to share an Aristotelian conception of ‘mimesis’ in which art effectively holds a mirror up to the world, reflecting reality (or ‘reality’). To put it another way, they seem to assume that literature has to be ‘about’ something, that it must have a ‘point’ – but this is not really the case. […]To explain it simply, language doesn’t have a discrete, unambiguous meaning, and any two readers can read a text and come to very different (and mutually exclusive) conclusions about it. But here’s the problem: they may both be right. This has profound effects on Woodhead’s claim. … [I]s [Waiting for Godot] apolitical aestheticism or a post-World War II fable? The answer, sadly, is dependent not on the text itself, but rather on how you read it. But Genoways and Woodhead ignore this and speak about literature as if we all already know what it is, as if it were a thing like a table – and a thing that must have a clear and practical ‘use’. […]This return to antiquated notions of literature is worrisome, because, too often, the claim that literature isn’t ‘political’ enough results in a nostalgia for nineteenth-century social novels, like those of Dickens and Gissing, that offer clear morals. With the greatest respect, that twanging noise is the sound of a pretty long bow being drawn. Firstly, the claim political literature necessitates nostalgia for nineteenth century realism is simply factually wrong, given the whole alphabet of the radical avant-garde (from A for Acker, to B for Breton, and so on and so forth). But let’s leave that aside. What’s far more problematic is that Emmett massively over-eggs his theoretical pudding. He explains that representation is a fraught concept, which is fine, though hardly controversial. But the fact that political engagement is problematic doesn’t mean that texts don’t (or perhaps, as Emmett sometimes suggests, can’t) relate to political realities: it simply means that the processes by which that relationship takes place are complex, mediated and contradictory, which is, of course, precisely why we need theory. Instead of teasing that out, Emmett embraces an extreme philosophical idealism, the implications of which he doesn’t seem to have thought through. That is, he suggests that literary meaning is produced exclusively in interpretation, and is, in fact, totally independent of the novel itself. Now, he puts this forward as a critique of political literature, but, if taken seriously, it’s really a negation of literature per se. Quite obviously, if any interpretations of texts are equally valid (which is what Emmett suggests), the novel itself becomes entirely moot, since critics can find equally profound and equally correct readings in Shakespeare, in a Mills and Boon novel or in a bus ticket. This position – which you normally only encounter in right-wing parodies of cultural studies – is so theoretically untenable that you might think that the passage is just poorly phrased. But then there’s this paragraph from Emmett’s blog. Everyone who is currently holding the position that art needs to take on the real world, engage with real issues, adhere to standard notions of plot and characertisation, or think more about content, repeat after me: ‘I am a complete and total philistine. I have rejected completely the innovations of modernism and have a deep, profound and aesthetically conservative nostalgia for the classics of literature (as I have chosen to define them in my own personal cannon). To be sure, this is, as Emmett makes clear, tongue-in-cheek (he calls it a ‘rant’). Nonetheless, the egregious misreading of modernism seems to confirm that he really does think that there’s no relationship between the novel and the world, almost as if a piece of fiction represented pure abstraction, like theoretical mathematics, except without the rigour. In any case, aside from anything else, the cited paragraph serves as a reductio ad absurdum for the whole argument, simply because of its grotesque implications for twenty-first century art. Ignore the real world! Don’t engage with real issues! Think less about content! If that’s a manifesto for contemporary literature, well, we’re all fucked. Emmett’s reaction is so extreme that one almost imagines Genoways as a new Zhdanov – and, indeed, the bogeyman of socialist realism has been invoked more than once in this argument. Yet let’s remind ourselves of what socialist realism meant. In the high Stalinist period, Zhdanovism required leftist writers to follow a detailed blueprint (a positive hero, simple prose, upbeat ending and so on). Genoways suggests nothing like that. He puts forward no model, offers no blueprints, backs no particular style. Indeed, in his very brief polemic in a generalist magazine. Genoways specifically does not argue (as Emmett claims) that ‘everything will be OK’ if writers turn outwards. He simply contends that an outward turn would be a step forward, a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a literary revival – and, to be honest, I’m rather surprised at the hostility that this fairly unexceptional proposition engendered. Yes, Emmett’s right to say that a call to ‘engage’ with the world begs a lot of questions: questions about politics, about ethics, about representation. But that’s precisely the point of both Jacinda’s and Genoways’ articles (at least as I read them): to provoke a discussion of what an outward turn might mean under today’s conditions. In any case, let’s look specifically at what Genoways says. In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. Bemoaning a lack of novels about the Iraq war does not entail a confusion of fiction and politics, nor does it inevitably push you back to the nineteenth century. On the contrary, it recognises the ability of literature to function as literature – that is, to provide a kind of insight that no other mode can replace. Since we’re talking wars, let’s consider how writers responded to the Great War, a topic that’s always fascinated me. The poems written during and about that conflict were poems, nothing more and nothing less. Counterattack is not The Junius Pamphlet, and anyone who mistook the one for each other was sorely mistaken. In terms of politics, Sassoon’s work didn’t – couldn’t – do the same work as Luxemburg’s. But that’s not to say that poetic engagement with the war was a waste of time. Poetry does different things, operates on a different level, provides different kind of knowledge. If you read Owen, you didn’t get the same understanding about war as you do from reading Bukharin. But that’s not to say Owen would have done as well to write poems about buttercups rather than trenches – it’s simply to reaffirm that literature functions in a literary register. The writers of 1916 didn’t stop the war. But they did change the way we think about it. Again, it’s precisely because literature matters as literature that the lack of fiction and poetry about Iraq and Afghanistan is a problem. No, of course, today’s writers can’t simply imitate the war poets of the past. But, again, that’s the whole point about trying to face up to the specific issues of your era – the process necessarily problematises the tools at your disposal (as modernism itself showed). Just as the Georgian poets proved incapable of dealing with trench warfare, the best writing about war today will require a struggle over technique and form and so on, a struggle that will inevitably tackle the questions about representation that so concern Emmett. Again, the call for engagement is the beginning of the argument, not its end. Equally, none of this means that the only decent novels of 2010 will deal with wars. Nor does it imply that the only way to come to terms with an age of permanent conflict is to write realist fiction set in Afghanistan. You can make profound and important fiction about any subject; you can create an intensely political novel out of your failed love affair. Of course you can! In some ways, though, the argument’s not dissimilar to a call for writers to engage more with theory. You can write a powerful and innovative book despite knowing nothing whatsoever of theory – and many people have. Conversely, you can be the most theoretically astute writer around, and still come up with terrible fiction (cf Terry Eagleton, Tariq Ali, etc). But what do we conclude from that? That because some trades people do good work without any tools, and others ruin their material despite having top-notch equipment, tools are therefore useless? You can see the analogy with political engagement. Yes, Emmett’s right to say that it’s not necessarily obvious what writing a poem ‘about’ Iraq means in the current context. But, really, isn’t that the whole point? It’s the task of our generation to come up with new answers to those questions, not to simply throw up our hands at the impossibility of it all. I really don’t see what about that should be controversial. To be honest, I would have thought the problem for most writers in Australia is not that they come under fire from commissars like Genoways or Woodhead but rather that political and aesthetic questions are almost never discussed, at least in the public sphere. When, for instance, was the last time that any major Australian writers feuded about particular conceptions of the novel? That’s precisely why this whole debate has been so refreshing – it’s the kind of argument almost entirely lacking in either the literary mainstream or the Australian small press scene. And that’s important in terms of the practical repercussions of these arguments. Emmett worries that Overland is committed to social realism (which, to be honest, struck me as odd, since there’s quite an overlap the writers published in Overland and many of those who appear in Wet Ink). The point is, however, that in the current climate, it would be very difficult to be so prescriptive, even if we wanted to (which we don’t). One of the real problems for literary journals in this country is that there simply isn’t any explicit contestation between aesthetic schools taking place, which is why so many of the publications simply define themselves as publishing ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ writing, and why so many of the same people appear in all the journals. I think this is bad news, not good. But we are where we are. Again, the problem is political, as much as literary. Historically, there tends to be a pretty close association between periods of political ferment and periods of aesthetic experimentation, while eras of social stagnation (such as this one) tend not to be conducive to literary breakthroughs. That’s why, in terms of political writing, Overland’s goals over the last few years have been fairly modest. We’ve tried to encourage dialogue between writers and activists, we’ve explored political issues relevant to the industry, we’ve published reviews and critiques of various radical novels, and we’ve encouraged submissions from people who we think are producing important political writing. Yet, just as we can’t summon up a political mass movement from out of nothing, we’re pretty limited in our ability to foster a resurgence of political writing. But we don’t think that when that resurgence takes place, it will be in the form of a single aesthetic mode, which we will then ruthlessly enforce. On the contrary, it seems to me that the function of a journal like Overland is rather to provide a forum in which questions about politics and literature can be debated. Which, hopefully, is what we’re doing with this debate. Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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