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Steinbeck, Hemon and Our Progressive Zeitgeist

August 6, 2008

If you click on the Guernica History link in the side bar you’ll get the story behind this magazine. It began as a meeting place between arts and politics and to this day continues to focus on that crossroads. There is the Picasso painting of the same name invoking a brutal and unnecessary massacre in an historic Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, which, maybe as well as anything, captures the synchronicity of arts and politics.

The magazine also grew out of a poetry and fiction reading series that took place at a bar called Guernica.

The essence of this magazine is therefore cradled in the arms of arts and politics, and the magazine itself nurtures the notion that art and literature can have an immediate and lasting effect on the political sphere. Likewise, our current political state (“our current” meaning everyone, at any present moment) is reflected in the dialogue artists and writers attempt to have through their work.

Today on Guernica’s blog we welcome a new voice that comes with a grand challenge for us–one that, if risen to, would surely have a positive effect on our current state. Here Jennifer Nix calls for a resurgence of a Gilded Age where Henry James, Mark Twain, William Thackeray and Joseph Conrad, among others, ran short stories and serialized novels in newspapers, offering the public an alternative to the world they saw in front of them. An alternative that, though written on the page, was every bit as real as their own.

How does literature do this? “Great literature creates a level of empathy for other people’s lives,” Jennifer writes, “with all its emotional, intellectual and philosophical complexities, in a way that no polemic or journalism, memoir or blogging can do.”

Edward Abbey once wrote to Annie Dillard that he thought a novel could change the world, he just wasn’t sure how long it would take. So he constantly called for people to take action in the present. Yet he could not keep himself from writing novels. Jennifer, like many of us over these last few years, has questioned whether literature can really do anything to change what we’ve seen in the Bush years. This is not new. Ed Abbey had to ask himself the same question in order to come to his conclusion. The key, as Jennifer points out here, is this: There is no need to choose between the two. A great novel will open a reader’s mind, forcing her to see the world anew, and, seeing anew, she will react differently to the world. That is why we need literature to permeate the political scene. To allow for that “level of empathy for other people’s lives.” To make it so the “reality makers” don’t overshadow the “reality interpreters” and show us only the reality they want us to see.

How best to do this? Jennifer has an idea of how to bring about a new Gilded Age.

As always, thanks for reading.

– David Doody

Steinbeck, Hemon and Our Progressive Zeitgeist

by Jennifer Nix

True story. The scene is a Manhattan supper club, circa 1952. Eleanor Roosevelt approaches a table at which John and Elaine Steinbeck are dining. Elaine makes introductions, and then…

Eleanor Roosevelt: “When I go to the Soviets, they ask, ‘Does that awful treatment of farmers still happen in the U.S.?’ I say, ‘No, my husband and John Steinbeck took care of that.’”

John Steinbeck: “That is the best literary review I’ve ever received.”

National Steinbeck Center video archive

I hope this Steinbeck anecdote will help persuade you to support an idea that can once again democratize serious literature, and heal our Bush-wounded collective soul. This idea will also help to build bigger blog communities–and a new study claims that it will even improve our social skills.

Win, win, win!

I wrote last week about how reading Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project resurrected my belief in the power of literature, after my four-year abandonment of reading and writing fiction, to fight Bush in more immediate ways.

“Great literature creates a level of empathy for other people’s lives, with all its emotional, intellectual and philosophical complexities, in a way that no polemic or journalism, memoir or blogging can do. Lazarus rocked my world because it magically weaves historical fact, autobiography, journalism, fictional narrative, and real and imagined characters into a work of art that draws haunting parallels between the anti-anarchist hysteria of 1908 Chicago, the violent nationalism and wars in the Balkans, and America’s post-9/11 xenophobia and politics of fear. More amazingly, it helped me to feel the struggles, as I sit here in lilly-white Marin County, of not only the book’s main characters, Lazarus Averbuch and Vladimir Brik, but of every Muslim, Mexican or dark-skinned immigrant–or citizen–in America today.”

My initial thoughts on this matter prompted Chris Bowers and Firedoglake’s Emptywheel to share their own stories about leaving literature behind for activism, with Chris positing that perhaps I’d touched on a zeitgeist of this decade for many progressives. I’ve since been ruminating on how to get artists and progressive activists engaged in a public dialogue, because while these two communities are very much part of the same continuum, over the past eight years there has been a kind of damaging divergence between art and life, for many progressive activists.

As activists, we must not lose sight of art, or its value to the work we do and the sustenance and inspiration it can provide. In talking with Hemon, I also realized that we needn’t choose between the “activist path” or the “artist path” either. We can do both. This epiphany made me want to have these issues discussed in public forums, particularly on progressive political blogs, because I believe bringing more art into our mix will have a profound effect on our individual and collective imaginations.

In much the same way that progressive blogs have opened up the national discourse and increased civic and political engagement, these same blogs can help to usher in a very necessary resurgence of serious literature in this country.

***

During the Gilded Age, in America and Europe, newspapers ran short stories and serialized novels. The greatest novelists of the time, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Mark Twain, William Thackeray and Joseph Conrad published their works of fiction in installments in daily newspapers. Because this format was more affordable, people outside of the upper class had access to books for the first time. The publishing phenomenon sparked a growth not only in the number of people desiring to read, but also in literacy rates. The masses were able to read fiction and to imagine better realities than those put forth and controlled by the era’s robber-baron elites. This sounds quite similar to Hemon’s analysis of our current situation:

“The Bush administration’s attitude has always been that they can construct the most outrageous realities and then sell them as self-evident, much like Project Runway. That is what Karl Rove’s famous remark dismissing journalists as a “reality-based community” referred to. Rove was–and still is–a reality creator, not a reality-interpreter. They have also taken over our language–I cannot say the word “freedom” any longer without retching, and “the war on terror” gives me hives. I cannot stand “freedom” and “the American people”–put me on the terror-watch list right now! The ascendence of “reality-based” aesthetic is not a form of resistance to the ideological and human atrocities orchestrated by the Bush regime. On the contrary, it is a symptom of the pressure against civic engagement which requires imagination and sovereignty of the mind. Citizens read books about other people. Subjects flip through channels and read about people like themselves because they cannot imagine a life different from this one. They cannot see that it does not have to be this way, that this is not the only available reality.

Which is all to say that if you want to organize a demonstration or establish a third political party or influence a legislation, reading a novel, let alone writing it, is not the way to go. But if you want to regain the sovereignty of your imagination and the right to resist the imposition of self-evident realities, if you want to restore the democracy of language, then you would be well advised to skip watching reality TV and read some novels. Say Jose Saramango’s Blindness, which tells you a lot about the breakdown of a civic society, or Edward P. Jones’s The Known World which tells you how the crime at the heart of a society corrupts everyone in it, or Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which tells you how one carries history inside one’s body. And once you have read these books, you go and kick some lying, oppressive, reactionary ass.”

With newspapers cutting book sections and reviews-and entire news operations shrinking by the day-progressive political blogs could help to integrate literature back into American life. We know the value of pulling people out of their consumer-driven television comas, and getting them reading, informed and connected. Bringing literature back into people’s everyday lives, via blogs, will provide sustenance for the progressive soul and lead to more hope, engagement and action. Hemon is hopeful about this possibility as well:

“Somehow, somewhere along the way thinking while reading became undesirable, a lot of readers started reading for comfort, not for doubt…To me, this is at some level definitely connected with the decrease in civic agency–people are afraid to think for themselves and then voice those thoughts in a public space. There is a loss of intellectual self-confidence all across the board, for capitalism prefers a non-thinking consumer to a thinking citizen. The restoration of public space in blogosphere, I think, alleviates that problem. I hope it can also provide space for a resurgence of serious literature.”

***

There are many ways this could work. Certainly, political blogs that have book salons could be discussing more novels (I’ve seen a few discussed here and there, but I’m talking about a sustained effort). Political blogs could partner with literary blogs to have online forums to discuss the books and to dream up possible collaborations inspired by these novels. Progressive blogs could also serialize novels and run short stories. Literary blogs are doing some of this, but we need more cross-pollination between these disparate corners of the blogosphere. Perhaps literary blogs could be invited to join political blog communities, much like Jane Hamsher has brilliantly done at Firedoglake, with her stable of political blogs, to increase audience and amplify voices. Guest fiction editors from literary blogs, and literary critics from magazines, could introduce more literature on politics blogs, and guest political editors could introduce lit-blog readers to more political reporting and activism. Mixing it up will most certainly lead to new readers for both political and lit-blogs, and could help to democratize literature in American life once again.

If you have a political blog, and would like to start featuring fiction, contact me via LiteraryOutpost. I can start you off with The Lazarus Project and can offer excerpts and art to run on your blog. I can also put you in touch with some literary blogs if you’d like to start a dialogue or partnership of your own. I would also like to see an anthology of short stories, which appear first on political and literary blogs, published in book form.

Literature can help to cure societal ills–as Eleanor Roosevelt told John Steinbeck. Let’s open up the public space for serious literature again. It will help to build bigger blog communities, but more importantly, it will further awaken the country’s imagination to new and better–and possible!–realities.

Won’t that be refreshing after eight years of Bush? And, really. Who among us doesn’t need a little help with our social skills?

Jen Nix is a writer, editor and publishing consultant, and is currently a fellow of the New Politics Institute.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos

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