How Do We Go On Writing Our Little Fictions When Outside The World Is On Fire?
I’ve never much considered myself a political writer, in the sense that I went out of my way to make some kind of statement about the world in my fiction. This is mostly because I believe one’s politics weave their way into any written work, consciously or not, so there’s no overt need to think in political terms when sitting down to put words on paper (or on a screen, as it were). Whatever your worldview, it will find its way onto the page.
But lately I’ve felt that maybe my writing should be more explicitly political, given the racial justice movement happening in this country, and the pandemic still wreaking havoc around the world (though of course, it’s hitting the U.S. hard right now because large swaths of the nation, including my home state, like to pretend COVID-19 simply doesn’t exist). One of the most uncertain elections in my lifetime looms in November, as does the threat of another four years with a certain sentient lump of cancer currently occupying the White House. Climate change is still a thing, and we’ll still have to reckon with that once the pandemic’s under control. North Korea’s still a thing, too, as is the problem of concentration camps near the U.S. border—basically all the shit we had to deal with and worry about the last four years, before 2020 came along and said “hold my beer.” I feel a responsibility to tackle the state of the world—perhaps not a moral duty, per se, but I definitely feel a sense that writing about anything other than current affairs is a frivolous endeavor.
But is that true? Do writers actually have a responsibility to address what’s happening in the world?
There are basically two camps here: one that insists writers should focus on politics, and one that insists writers can write about whatever they want.
We’ll start with the latter camp first. From a January 2016 feature in The New York Times called Bookends—in which “two writers take on questions about the world of books”— Zoë Heller and Francine Prose analyze the validity of William Faulkner’s famous axiom, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art.” Neither author thinks this is entirely true (with Heller pointing out that Faulkner was more committed to alcoholism and assholery than writing), but both admit that finding a balance between complete moral bankruptcy and subservience to morally-charged writing can be tricky. Prose writes:
We want to write the loveliest, truest, most original and affecting sentence, the most musical poetic line. But meanwhile we may notice that the world is going to hell in a hand basket; and there we are, in our comfy ergonomic desk chairs, pursuing an activity that, we fear, is less socially useful than cultivating hydrangeas. Complicating matters is the fact that writers tend to be observant, which makes it harder not to notice the horrors transpiring in distant countries, and in our own.
This keen ability to “notice the horrors” of the world led writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, and James Baldwin, among others, to create conscientious novels that grappled with various sociological issues, from racism to working class rights, poverty, education reform, industrial factory standards, and homophobia, to name just a few. In many instances, the works these writers put into the world were their way of “fighting the good fight,” of contributing in some way toward societal change. And, as Francine Prose notes, in another Bookends piece from The New York Times, works of fiction can directly affect progress. She mentions Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the likely apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln asking the author “if she was the little lady whose big book started the great war.” While Cabin certainly helped to change minds about slavery by humanizing enslaved people, it isn’t likely the novel had any direct impact on the Civil War; on the other hand, we have Sinclair’s The Jungle, and its “disgusting portrait of the meatpacking industry [which] rapidly led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act,” showing that fiction can spur social change.
Of course, literature can negatively affect public opinion as well. Both Prose and Mohsin Hamid, the other writer in this particular Bookends discussion, point to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a 19th century fabrication purporting to reveal the Jewish people’s secret world domination plot, which directly impacted a worldwide spike in anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazi party (thanks in no small part to car manufacturer Henry Ford, who published and circulated the pamphlet in America). Prose also mentions the “sacred texts of most religions (let’s call them narratives and leave others to debate the question whether they are fact or fiction) have been used to justify unspeakable violence.” That fiction can be used for evil makes the moral imperative to fight hatred and bigotry with words all the more potent.
And yet, when I sit down and attempt to give in to this imperative, to write something explicitly political or socially-charged, I am hit with the proverbial writer’s block. Ideas don’t really flow, and even when they do, they peter out quickly. So I once again have to accept that I’m simply not that kind of writer, and go about my business conjuring up monsters and fucked-up situations—which can, and often do, especially in my case, become stand-ins for various social issues. But even in that case, I find myself overly critical of my writings, insisting that the monsters and fucked-up situations are too hollow, too trivial, too meaningless. They do nothing to address what’s going on in the world, even when, in a subtle way, they are.
In other words, I’m stuck in a vicious cycle, and I don’t really know how to get out.
But I do know one thing: the solution isn’t to stop writing altogether. There is a way through with my fiction, I just haven’t hit upon it yet. Maybe I just need to vomit every feeling I have about current affairs into a terrible short story I’ll never seek to publish anyway and move on. Maybe I need to imagine even more elaborate monsters as stand-ins for everything wrong in the world right now (or perhaps even as symbols of my own discontent). Maybe I need to think about it less, let whatever ideas I have take hold on the page, and worry about what the piece really communicates later, a possibility that relates back to my earlier assertion, that no work of fiction is void of politics anyway. That was certainly the case for Faulkner—despite his assertion that craft should be the writer’s only concern, he often found himself addressing race relations and segregation in his works, albeit in the sloppy, bordering-on-racist-itself approach that only a privileged Southern white man could achieve.
I don’t really know which of these is the best course of action, or if none of them are valid courses, but regardless, there’s an answer, and if I just keep working at it, eventually I’ll find the solution.
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