In 2006, while at a writers’ retreat, I made plans to travel the short distance to New York City so that I could participate in a protest against the Iraq War. That evening, when the ten writers in residence dined together, my forthcoming trip quickly became the subject of table conversation. Didn’t I think—one of my fellow residents pointed out—that writers should avoid political involvement? Obviously I explained that I saw no reason why that might be the case. As the discussion progressed, most of those at the table agreed that writers should be political neither in their writing nor in their actions but should focus on “the larger questions” as well as on craft. Only one, an English novelist, strongly sided with me, asking the others how an individual could even distinguish these larger questions from current political issues. By the time dessert was finished and the plates and wine glasses were taken away, we had not managed to have much of a discussion. The writers who felt themselves exempt and unaccountable had remained smugly dismissive, as if dealing with idealistic children or those who had yet to understand the value of true art.
RECENTLY, THINKING BACK ON that conversation at the writers’ retreat, I reread George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” an essay in which he tries to reconcile his aesthetic and political goals. He states: “… the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.” Virtually unexamined in this statement is the question of why politics and aesthetics have to be reconciled in the first place—why affluent Western cultures have so diligently separated the two.
The answer that I hear most frequently—one no doubt of Soviet-era vintage—is that political writing is usually propaganda. But as a writer who meets many other writers, I think that the answer is not so obvious. Rather, our culture increasingly privileges fiction that does not deal with imminent political issues—that, in so doing, limits the scope of our concerns and even pacifies us. Orwell puts his finger on the problem when he says, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
Fifteen years ago, when I began studying literature in university, the attitude that Orwell describes prevailed among the writers I met. Idea-driven work was dismissed as “allegory” or “symbolism.” Young writers sought to portray “the world” (what was in fact their domestic world): the daily shuffle of worries, the petty anxieties that appropriately betray our very pettiness. I found astounding the sheer quantity of depressed, bedridden and anguished protagonists (if they can deserve such a designation) who could not act or choose or who, at best, enjoyed a brief epiphany (usually suggesting the meaningless of their lives) before returning to their suburban family or office job. Many student-writers felt that using conventional speech and offering a simple vision of life was, in itself, an act of rebellion—though one primarily aimed at the ivory tower. Urgent global politics, though acknowledged in headlines, did not appear to figure largely in the lives of many undergraduates, and whether people wanted to admit it or not, the 1990s was a time when the majority behaved as if the influence of Western democratic capitalism would inevitably convert the entire world into one large, happy-go-lucky free market. Politics had been relegated to remote places where people insisted on fighting for absurd and anachronistic reasons. Of course, a clement September morning dispelled those illusions.
The political realities at the beginning of the twenty-first century should compel us to challenge our passivity and investigate our artistic shortcomings. Yet since 9/11, I have seen few esteemed authors change their approaches to writing. I read the same coming-of-age stories, the same immortal suburban dramas. Even our entertainment-oriented media cannot entirely avoid the pressing issues of government and corporate corruption, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism at home and abroad, nation-building and the mythologizing of power, or the expansion of corporate mass media with strong government interests.
I do not mean to say that there is suddenly more injustice in the world, but when the injustice is revealed through calamity and bellicose acts of greed, our culture hardly acknowledges either these problems or their causes. In fact, we have grown so accustomed to iniquity that we gave little attention to the source of the problems because we are comfortable in our daily lives. We continue to give insufficient attention to new sources of conflict.
If I write this essay now, it is not to denounce the bad books—there has always been a vast majority of self-indulgent, disengaged writers—but rather to begin a process of careful self-examination and vigilance. We, as authors, must resist the comfortable versions of ourselves we could become, making sure that exterior factors, such as the pressure on literature to serve the entertainment industry, do not define us.
How do we investigate the comfortable indifference of the West, the acceptance and even the preference that the machinery of power be kept hidden from us—the belief that individual agency cannot create change in the world? A writer’s job, as I see it, is to challenge the norm, to provoke questions in the most stable identity. If we can accept this as a starting point, then the real question is not “Why do we write?” but “How?”
I WROTE MY FIRST NOVEL in my twenties, at a time when I had personal questions and wanted to re-examine North American history, to follow the movements of the various peoples across the continent. But the questions that haunted me during the writing of that book have changed. I write with the same love of language and story, but I am more aware of our history and questionable future. I have written drafts of several projects only to set them aside while my ideas mature and I question further my intentions and vision.
I find myself more and more bothered by our sanitized culture that has taught us to believe that we are different and better, that social upheaval is ephemeral and that the world will remain as it is. Our self-assurance is a blip on the road map of history.
If I have found one good answer to my question, it lies in representation, in seeing and showing. How little is shown, revealed, or examined in much contemporary fiction (with the exception of some post-colonial literature and some novels written in the “third world”). There are a few major authors who do struggle with these questions, but the majority of fiction is complicit in the process of covering and hiding without examining the mechanisms of that compulsive dissimulation. The art of writing is that of looking closely at the world around us, at the institutions that control and enable us, and of describing the mechanisms of power and belief within our intimate relationships as well as within the public sphere. Rarely, however, do I see fiction examining the normalized state of our double lives: the quiet streets beyond our windows in contrast to the neatly televised images of corruption, inequity and constant, dramatized war.
I do not ask that fiction rant and rave against injustice but that it turn its gaze to present the images that encircle us: images of strife and social change, violent passion and brutal indifference, and grotesque military forms dressed up as security. The glorious illusion of our age is that we don’t believe in anything and that we are free. Nothing limits our questioning of our assumptions more than these beliefs.
IN ONE LAST DIGRESSION, let me elucidate the nature of self-indulgent writing with the following quotation from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would, too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him than this paltry misfortune of his own."
I do not expect artists to flock to calamities like journalists, but there is a middle road, a vocation of examining larger questions. A writer can investigate our self-obsessed nature that causes us to mourn the lost little finger, but his work itself should be more than that inevitable and pitiful act of mourning.
IN THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW of July 8, 2007, John Irving writes about Gunter Grass and describes how, after a dinner party in New York during the early 1980s, Grass took him aside and said that he was worried about Irving, that Irving wasn’t quite as angry as he used to be. And so I would emphasize this above all: Be angry. Believe that the actions of your society are your own, and that you must speak for them, like Grass facing German history or Faulkner trying to reconcile himself with the brutal and racist power structures of the postbellum South. You must make sense of the society to which you belong.
Though we should not ignore the study of any one type of individual, desire or frustration, all self-examining literature should go beyond the self to provide a glimpse into the repressed elements of our culture. We should compel others to this place of discomfort so that they will look from themselves to the world. Let us recall The Iliad whose characters embody the values of their people, revealing conflicts more profound than war. It begins: “Rage-Goddess, sing the rage…”
The initial question that Orwell articulated remains strong: how does one write an aesthetically pleasing work and also ask political questions? We must go beyond our safe narcissism to find urgency where we are told there is none, and engage a world that, at least immediately, seems to offer too few critical challenges. We must show the myriad faces of our society and the underpinnings of our beliefs that we persistently refuse to see. I cannot say with certainty whether our age is more or less passive than others. I can say, however, that it is passive, that we like comfortable art and, as writers, manageable projects—that we live as those who lack enemies and feel no rage.