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Should I Bring My Politics Into My Novels?

Jewcy giddily presents the second in our series of Book Klatches, wherein five authors spend five days dishing over e-mail about the writing life. On Day 4, below, moderator Ed Schwarzschild asks the group whether literature ought to be political.

From: Ed To: Adam, Chris, Daniel, Peter

William Kennedy, Pulitzer-Prize winner and one of our finest writers, end of sentence, but also one of our finest writers about politicians, corruption, and the trappings of power, recently cited Camus when asked how writers should engage with/in politics. The Camus quote he referenced:

"It would appear that to write a poem about spring, would nowadays be serving capitalism. I am not a poet, but I should have no second thoughts about being delighted by such a poem if it were beautiful. One either serves the whole of man, or one does not serve him at all. I like men who take sides more than literatures that do."

I've been thrilled by the appearance of LitPAC and look forward to doing what I can to help that writers-based PAC grow and prosper. I'm curious, though, about where/how you draw the line between giving political support when you see fit and bringing/letting politics into your writing lives?

Another way to think about this goes back to Peter's point about the actual decrease in the space fiction writers are given these days in traditional magazines/newspapers/etc—I mean, it's a relatively clear indication that fiction is, on some level, seen as less relevant, less important, less of-the-moment than all the other work for which those magazines/newspapers/etc reserve plenty of pages. Or, to alter slightly that Camus quote: What do we do in a culture that likes men who takes sides more than it likes literature? And, hey, you've heard, of course, that Pres. Bush has been reading Camus, too, right? P.S. I hope everyone is in good health this morning, with the buckets cleaned out and back under the sink…. *** From: Daniel To: Adam, Chris, Ed, Peter "Political" is like "experimental," "realistic" or thousands of other adjectives applied to fiction—I'm more convinced by an individual example. Mr. Orner's last novel was so swell it made me think every novelist should be engaged specifically and directly with culture. The Yiddish Policeman's Union made me think, scratch that, the fantastical is the best way to get at large cultural ideas. Whenever I read David Markson I think, never mind, the novel's over, this is the direction writing is going in. A great novel makes you think all novels should be like that, in the way that if I'm driving around with the windows down listening to Revolver or Purple Rain or Velvet Underground With Nico I can't believe I ever listen to anything else. Until I go the opera and then I think pop music is ridiculous. I'm happy to be politically active and to put my money where my mouth is. In terms of my work I can't picture writing a novel that's overtly political. But then again, my literary agent says all literature is political—it either supports the status quo or doesn't, and the good stuff doesn't, and she sees representing the Snicket books as part of the political literature she's represented over the years. So here we are again with the slippery adjectives.
*** From: Peter Orner To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Ed Schwarzschild I'm of two minds on this, on the one hand, there's a war on, and on the other, when isn't there a war on? The Clinton years were like a strange dream. The fate of the republic hinged on a stain in a dress. I long for the days. What this has to do with writers, any more than accountants though I'm not sure? I've also had a few beers tonight so maybe I'm not in position to say anything relevant, but I will say we have a responsibility to be engaged citizens no matter who we are. But I think this should only leak into our stories so far as it doesn't make them boring. If Daniel's books are political because they question authority and more—they make a complete mockery of authority—then all books should be so political. And I think that's the upshot. I'm with Kennedy—who also understands that politics is about people and if your people are real and if your people make trouble, your politics will never be boring. Long live Roscoe. *** From: Chris To: Adam, Daniel, Ed, Peter Writers are truth-tellers, and telling the truth is an inherently political act. In writing nuanced dramatizations of the lives of people in your (fictional or nonfictional) town, family, or country, you create empathy among readers. You create documents of a particular time and place, and those documents become a sort of history. I love that oft-quoted line about history being written by the winners and literature by the losers; we need both perspectives. In fact, we need lots of losers and lots of winners giving us their various perspectives on any event. I do think writers have an obligation to be politically engaged, but mostly because writers should have an insatiable curiosity about what makes the world tick. *** From: Ed To: Adam, Chris, Daniel, Peter Yes and yes and yes to being swept up and engaged and insatiably curious, and a big No in thunder to being boring about politics or anything else—nothing worse than that. Sometimes seems to me we need a politics of reading, or a politics that includes much more reading. The recent stat that had 1 in 4 Americans stating they hadn't read a single book during the last year (zero, zilch—no Dan Brown, no Harry Potter, no nothing) is a bad, bad thing for this land. Tricky, I know, to say that writers are/should be role models, but this need for writers to be engaged and insatiably curious and absorbed by what James Agee called "the certain normal predicaments of human divinity" is really, I like to think, a crucial political statement, a political demonstration of how to study and make sense of the world around us. Maybe it's naive of me to say, but here it is anyhow: people who read Orner, Castellani, Handler, Johnson, and their literary ancestors will be, I guarantee it, better political—and human—beings. ***

* Next: Book Tour Horror Stories


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