01 June 2008

The Politics of Fiction

I know I've been nattering on in my most recent themed posts on the issues of crowds and politics.  I'm pretty sure I've annoyed those of my readers who are apolitical or angered those of unlike mind or simply bored those of you for whom American politics are irrelevant.  I assure you there are literary reasons behind these feuilletons other than as draft-fodder for future non-fiction essays.  To wit:  one of the two novels I currently have in process has explicit political themes; it's a bit of a thriller, truth be told—though, in conception, it is no less "literary" or "artistic" than the one I've finished or the other one I'm working on.  Thus, these last entries rate in my mind as research.

I'll leave you with a quote from Lydia Millet in the latest Bookforum:
"The most crucial artistry of fiction is the existential question, whose critique of power is found in its linguistic play or symbols or evocations of feeling. And an obvious but key distinction between the literary and the middlebrow, between books that are art and those that simply are not, is not politics per se, which can play a part in either, but the quality of being beyond easy description. If a novel loses little through being synopsized in a page, it is not art but narrative. Narrative can be a skeleton for literature but clearly is not literature itself; that distinction belongs only to fiction that is comparable to other art forms, to poetry, to painting, to music, and cannot be represented by anything other than itself. Language is a landscape whose beauty rises from the unconscious, while narrative is a superficial structure we impose on it consciously—not an end in itself, but a tool.

The problem is that fiction is written about in this country, in places as prominent as the New York Times, in a way that mistakes narrative for art. There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction or genre fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with middlebrow fiction: What’s wrong is that (increasingly, to my mind) opinion-making critics elevate the mundane and the middlebrow to the literary. One dominant reviewing trend, for example, mistakes banal stories about assimilation or interpersonal drama—and often those sagas that marry the two —for literature merely because they may expose insular readers to unfamiliar cultural or ethnic touchstones. Works that are little more than cross-cultural soap operas pass as literary achievements because, in a sense, they also pass for political statements: The politically correct, in other words, is clothed as the political, and apparently, that’s the closest many readers care to come to transcendence.

True literature is almost always truly political—political in a deep sense, political in a way that is felt, that reverberates through the being. It should not be enough that a writer has an identity that is deemed marginal, or writes about identities that are. What needs to matter most is the extraordinariness of the artist’s relationship to language."

Lydia Millet is the author of six novels, most recently How the Dead Dream (Soft Skull Press, 2008).

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