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Erik Raschke: The Great American Novelist

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January 23, 2011

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erik_raschke.pngOnce, during a lecture here in Amsterdam, James Ellroy riled several audience members for referring to Obama as, ‘a black Jimmy Carter.’ An argument ensued and Ellroy threw out persuasive fact after fact pertaining to what he considered ‘well-intentioned, but misguided’ choices by the White House. Ellroy made it clear that the audience’s advocacy of the president stemmed primarily from their intellectual love affair with American multi-culturalism and little else.

Afterward, I told James Ellroy that I was in awe over how eloquently he had won a conservative argument in a room filled with preening European intellectuals. Tapping my chest with a pen, he told me that being a writer meant enlarging one’s testicles (expressed in rougher, less eloquent terms) and taking the world by the horns. ‘And if you don’t,’ he said, ‘then you shouldn’t be a writer.’ He signed my book, ‘To Erik—Read, Write, Blood’ and filled three-fourths of the page with his signature.

Over the years, I’ve met Dutch writers who were forced to leave the continent because of death threats by Muslim extremists. Mehmet Guler’s novels so infuriated the Turkish government that he was handed a 15-month jail sentence. The Chinese government denied Liu Xiaobo his Nobel Prize. Recently, there was a line of people down my street, in the rain, waiting to get through a series of security clearances so as to hear the French novelist, Michel Houellebecq (who was also forced off the continent).

Tapping my chest with a pen, he told me that being a writer meant enlarging one’s testicles (expressed in rougher, less eloquent terms) and taking the world by the horns.

America has always been the place exiled writers go to, but during the last decade I’ve been wondering, where is the American novelist who fears being exiled? And I don’t just mean politically. I mean within academia, the large book chains, amongst the whimsical idealists. Where is the novelist who has taken the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Virginia and Arizona shootings and transformed them into some universal language that not only lifts us out of our profound complacency, but makes us burn for change? Why aren’t there novelists who have a commanding voice over our country’s high-pitched, fierce, and often violent rhetoric?

I am aware that these novels and novelists do exist, but they are hardly in the forefront. Every week a new book runs the press mill traveling from NPR to the New Yorker. It is always the same writers, writers who touch on difficult topics, but know exactly when to pull back, writers who engage, yet rarely challenge. It is only once in a while that something daring and slightly dangerous gets attention. Such an occurrence feels almost like a fluke, as if the editors and bookings departments were on holiday and a hostile intern with a comparative literature degree decided to mount an offensive. I was surprised this year when Lydia Davis, a master of the short story and enduring presence in American fiction, had her rather large volume of collected pieces lauded on the main circuit. I’ve been teaching her stories for years and to many Francophiles, she is one of the freshest translators working today. But to see a review on Oprah sent me bursting with hope. When a writer like Lydia Davis gains a certain momentum beyond fellowships and grants, I feel as if there might be a change in the wind, a mighty sword to bring us out of the dearth of literary yet, folksy historical or quirky paranormal offerings.

America has always been the place exiled writers go to, but during the last decade I’ve been wondering, where is the American novelist who fears being exiled?

But then, once the week has passed, and another book, usually with a premise that can be summed up in one sentence, storms through, the silence descends and the writer with teeth, the one who writes with purpose and passion, is as loud as a tree falling in the forest.

With all the anger and resentment in America right now, with all the sadness and suffering, why have our well-crafted words seemingly fallen on deaf ears? Is it that we have nothing to say or that what we say is no longer connected to the blood flowing through our country? Or is it that all readers have reached the level of A Brave New World, a gentler existence filled with pills and apathy? Or is it even simpler, the modern American novel is no longer about debate, but about appeasing an audience.

I’m hardly advocating that art be political, or that art should be anything really…but I do wonder why some literary magazines aren’t wiretapped? Why doesn’t Bill O’Reilly ever attack novelists as ruining the fabric of America? Why haven’t the editors of some of our more precious rags been brought before Congress? Shouldn’t we writers, and not the political pundits, be leading the national dialogue, parabolically speaking? I am well aware of the comforts of intellectual insularity. As I write this, in my pajamas, I can see ordinary people bumping their way to work, a collision of human minds and bodies, connected in the torments of commute. I have no inclination to join them, to get dirty in that world, but to be an honest writer, a chronicler of our shared humanity, I must leave my desk and interact with my brethren (for which I am eternally grateful for alcohol).

But here is the catch. Once I am amongst people, discussing, mingling, I am immediately vulnerable to criticism. I often find myself worrying about being too controversial because I know what it is like to be confronted by someone I’ve offended. My insecurity demands praise, and therefore I am, quite insincerely, the first to apologize. But I also know that at the age of twelve and thirteen, desperate for heroes, I was easily snatched away by Kesey, Wiesel, Kosinski, Steinbeck, and Heller, mesmerized by the way they wielded power with their sharp commentary. I have since been in love with any writer who frames the absurdities of the world into an inspiring narrative or mocks authority with a poetic wit. Their messages have always been adopted into my worldview.

The novel is rebellious and cantankerous and defiant and healing by nature. The novel is the only medium where an audience can have a sustained intimacy with our most complex issues. It has the power to connect a fragmented, disjointed, imploding culture within a few hundred pages. Now, more than ever, should the novel have its time in the sun and we the authors, plump with inspiration.

In a recent article in Guernica Magazine, Edwidge Danticat said that she wouldn’t not write about a person or place simply ‘because I might risk offending or alienating some people.’ We must remember that the only rule, in writing, is that there are no rules. Many critics and academics and publishers are allied against us on that point. The boundaries have become intimidating. The American novel, that great trickster, has been suppressed, but we, the writers, can always bring it back and put it to work.

Copyright 2011 Erik Raschke

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Erik Raschke graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in creative writing. His short stories have appeared in over a dozen magazines and his first novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin’s Press in October 2009. You can read his story “A Rare Sighting” here.

For more on this topic and others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

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