What Is To Be Done About The Social Novel?
|Chernyshevsky in prison, painting by Gorovych (1953)|
The new issue of Harper's includes a review-essay by Jonathan Dee that asks a question summed up by the writer of the headline as "Does the social novel have a future?" Ultimately, though, the essay is not so much concerned with that question as with questions of imagination and representation.
Dee reviews (or at least mentions) four recent books (three novels, one nonfiction account) which got him thinking about questions of what tends to be called "cultural appropriation" and the limits of fictionality. He admits he was skeptical of the idea of "cultural appropriation" until he read Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and found himself thinking it's a good novel that also makes choices that he, when reading, grew uncomfortable with.
I haven't read the books Dee writes about, but I expect I would generally agree with his assessment of them, and his description of Erpenbeck's book made me quite certain I would dislike it for all the reasons he offers, and probably more. (I've complained about similar problems of representation particularly with fiction by non-African writers about African people and places, for instance.) I share his discomfort with the term "cultural appropriation", but not his slow awakening to the phenomena it tries to name — my problem with the term is with the term itself, which seems to me vague and also unnecessary when plenty of other more specific and meaningful terms are available; further, I don't like the idea of culture as property, something with boundaries that can be legislated and policed, something one person can own and another cannot. Better to be specific, to talk of stereotyping, ignorance, and assumptions that reveal themselves in a text, and to show how they work, what they do (a fine model for this being Delany's essay "To Read The Dispossessed" in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which shows exactly how Le Guin's assumptions about sexuality render her novel more narrow and less truthful than it might have been otherwise). Better to raise questions not of appropriation, but of power: of hegemonic speaking and subaltern silence.
Dee starts with "the social novel", though. He defines the social novel as one "set in the present and meant to dramatize, with an edge of advocacy, a real-life economic or racial or political crisis". He quickly moves away from this specific definition to discuss novelistic practice more generally:
For most of two centuries the novelist was able to believe in himself as a special surrogate, empathically capable of crossing the border to any experience and returning with its re-creation, thereby forcing his audience to acknowledge a contemporary injustice: Zola and the coal miners, Hugo and the urban poor, Sinclair and the industrial working class, Steinbeck and the dispossessed rural migrant.Here, Dee is stacking the deck so that he can make some arguments not about specific books but about The Novel as a phenomenon. All such endeavors will fail, because even at their best, they are generalizations for which exceptions abound. He is also, perhaps knowingly, telling a very male story — his exemplars are male, and he refers to the novelist over two centuries as "himself".
His examples are interesting not just because they're men but also because their novels have not really stood the test of time well in comparison to other works. (Though, to be fair, they've done remarkably well in comparison to the piles of novels from their eras that nobody has even heard of anymore.) Hugo is best known as an inspiration to one of the most successful musicals of the last fifty years (the social novel turns out to metamorphose into pretty good kitsch). Zola's influence remained strong for a while, but do people still read him today? I suppose they do, especially in France, but his reach and influence are not at all that of, say, Flaubert, whose influence on fiction is so pervasive as to be almost invisible today. Then there are the Americans that Dee mentions: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is a terrible novel in just about every way, and a good example of the failures of agitprop, since Sinclair wanted his readers to become Communists and instead they agitated for the regulation of meat. Steinbeck is still frequently read and much loved, but his writing is often clunky and sentimental, not exactly something to aspire to.
The "social novel" as Dee first describes is, I will admit, unappealing to me. I'm fine with it having no future, because its past is uninspiring (though really I disagree that it lacks a future — people like stories with "messages" that appeal to their own points of view, and what's a social novel if not that?) However, the idea of the novelist — and not just the male novelist — as "empathically capable of crossing the border to any experience and returning with its re-creation" is important to me, even if the result doesn't end up "forcing his audience to acknowledge a contemporary injustice".
Novels are perhaps the least efficient means of confronting injustice short of inscribing a screed by hand into a big rock out in the remote woods of some hard-to-reach nature preserve. It's why Dee has to struggle so hard for examples, and then the examples he gives are hardly inspiring. He might as well have included Atlas Shrugged. At least then he'd have included a woman.
Here's an idea: If you want to force your readers to acknowledge a contemporary injustice, go out into the streets, put your body in the way of the fascists or the Earth destroyers or whoever (there's plenty of contemporary injustices to choose from!), upload a video to YouTube, write up some articles for popular websites, get a Twitter account — whatever. Any of those actions would be more effective than writing a novel.
For one thing, nobody reads novels. Well, not enough people for it to matter, at least. If a novel sells over 20,000 copies in a year, it's doing great. In terms of reaching an audience to inform them of contemporary injustice, though, such a novel is doing about as well as Rocky De La Fuente in the 2016 Presidential campaign (he got 33,136 votes). Hardly any of the biggest bestsellers are selling more than a million copies in a year — if the 1,457,216 people who voted for Jill Stein in 2016 had bought Jill Stein: The Novel, it would have been the bestselling novel of the year by far.
And must a "social novel" confront an injustice? Dee may struggle for examples, and land only on ones from the US and France because he has such a narrow definition, one that requires a novel to become propaganda-of-the-book. Why not define the social novel as one that seeks not to confront the audience with injustice, but rather one that seeks to depict characters and situations of various social positions? That would allow nearly countless examples, among them some of the greatest novels ever written. (Dee's definition would welcome Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done? but exclude the great works of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. [Though it depends on whether you want to see Fathers & Children and The Devils as primarily forcing the audience to confront the social problem of Nechayevist nihilism.])
I think immediately of Virginia Woolf's The Years, an imperfect but nonetheless magnificent novel that resulted from thinking about all of these issues.
One of the things that so fascinates me about Woolf in the last decade of her life particularly is how she struggled against the prejudices she was born into, particularly prejudices of race and class. (I won't bore you with a long discourse on that here. For more, see Jane Marcus's Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race [a book appropriate to this entire conversation, in fact], Alison Light's extraordinary Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Herbert Marder's The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years, and Kathryn Simpson's essay on Woolf and anti-Semitism in Virginia Woolf: Twenty-First-Century Approaches.) Though tremendously progressive in many ways, she never succeeded in fully overcoming some prejudices that today make us squirm at times when we read her, but she recognized that it is the novelist's job to work hard to do so if she wants to capture some of the panorama of life, and she tried hard.
The Years especially embodies that effort, both in its successes and failures. After writing The Waves, Woolf wanted to change her approach, to return to what she called "the novel of fact" rather than "the novel of vision", or, even better, to meld the two modes. She saw what writers like Vera Brittain were doing, writing visceral, tough books. She feared the rise of fascism and paid close attention to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, even going so far as to write an essay on art and society for the Daily Worker, a prominent BUF enemy. And then she wrote The Years, her novel with the most social range, though one that also bucks against all the conventions of the social novel or family novel or whatever other pigeonhole you try to squeeze it into.
We're slipping away from Dee, however. Let's get back on track:
The issue isn’t simply that the art of the novel is too dominated by white writers: The real issue, it is increasingly suggested, is that the art of the novel is itself too white. The supposedly objective principles and values of prose storytelling (as historically understood, and as currently taught), presumed to be apolitical in nature, are anything but. Even an old saw like “show, don’t tell” is not an old saw at all, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, but “the expression of a particular population, the white majority.” Claudia Rankine warns of “the sometimes concealing terms of craft,” which produce “the particular plots, the particular characters, the particular scenarios and personae . . . favored by literary institutions.” In other words, this argument goes, it’s not just that the institutions in question — M.F.A. programs, publishing houses, or literary magazines like this one — are excluding nontraditional voices; it’s that the novel per se contains, and expresses, implicit biases masquerading as postulates of craft.There's a truth here, but it's not that "the art of the novel is itself too white" — it's that the conventions of the literary novel as they have been codified by critics and teachers, especially in the last 100 years or so, are conventions that have been celebrated and transmitted by institutions deeply infested with (and invested in) patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism. As a rule passed down from one writer to another, from teacher to student, from critic to reader, "show, don't tell" is not a universal truth but rather a command with a history, like all other aesthetic claims. It values a particular type of writing and devalues another type.
Whether a claim that has been codified within institutions that were and often still are patriarchal, white supremacist, and imperial is itself therefore a reflection of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism ... well, that's a more difficult question, one that requires nuanced discussion, but for our purposes here, I'll just say this: No one way of writing, no particular aesthetic form, is inherently subversive or not subversive, because a writing technique on its own is too abstracted from the realm of social expression: that is, the reality in which the writer and reader live; the world in which the text is written and read; the manifold conventions, histories, assumptions, and institutions that govern values; the forces affecting what is deemed normal; etc. Or think of it more simply: Writing a story that goes out of its way to "tell, not show" will not itself alone produce a text that is free of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism, nor will it produce a text that subverts the dominant paradigm, undermines hegemonies, and institutes full communism now. Such rules themselves are abstractions. How and why they are used, and how and why they are valorized or denounced, matters more.
For ages, people have made arguments that one style of writing was subversive while another was reactionary, but at this point in literary history, we ought to be able to see that most such arguments are self-serving. They do what most litcrit does, the literary equivalent of saying, "My god is an awesome god! Your god sucks!"
Even if a particular technique were itself subversive, it would only be subversive within a certain discourse at a certain time, a time when that technique was not conventional. To smash the status quo, a technique needs to be inimical to that status quo. This is, in fact, the argument for complex rhetoric: Lies are easy to pass via simple, familiar language; rhetoric that makes demands on its audience, that does not make the reading easy, is less easily co-opted by forces of obfuscation because it places the audience in a position of awareness, skepticism, and struggle. That's the counter-argument to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", and it's an argument unresolved by decades and even centuries of various stylistic practices.
"So how, then," Dee asks, "does one make good art about a contemporary social issue about which one feels passionately even while residing among the oppressors?"
This is an excellent question, a key question for our times, even if, like me, you are skeptical that "a contemporary social issue" has anything to do with "good art". But I feel a similar impulse, even if Dee's words are not quite the ones I would use. We want to write about what is important to us, what compells us, what creates passion within us. I'm not at all a political theorist or sociologist, but certain social and political issues have been a major part of my life for pretty much as long as I remember. To not write from such passion would be ... to not write.
And yes, I am among the oppressors. Almost all writers are. People who are not among the oppressors don't usually have the time, energy, or resources with which to write novels, so pretty much by default, if you are writing a novel, you are among the oppressors. (Just a few of the ways I am among the oppressors: I'm writing this blog post on an expensive computer that probably includes minerals mined by children and/or slaves. It's powered by energy that contributes to the destruction of the planet's ecosystem. I drive a car, I eat meat, I travel occasionally by plane, I buy stuff that gets shipped to me from all over the place, I'm middle-class, I'm male, I'm white, and I pay taxes to a government that maintains the most powerful military in the world and uses it to kill people all over. I may not myself be actively oppressing anybody [that I'm aware of], but by being a white, middle-class American male, the oppressions that I passively support and benefit from are substantial. I can't even say, "And there's nothing I can do about it." Sure there is. I could give up everything I have, move somewhere marginal, and live a more sustainable lifestyle. I choose not to.) This is one of the appeals of Wallace Shawn's plays for me: He begins from the premise that his own position is that of an oppressor.
Dee can't answer the question he poses, which is really no great criticism of him. Plenty of people have offered answers, but are they truly satisfying ones? A good argument might be made that it is the wrestling with these questions that leads to good and even great art; that the answering of them is always a chump's move.
Dee begins with things not to do, and while in some ways I agree — there are plenty of embarrassing examples to support his prohibitions — I am also wary. He says, for instance, "not to imagine oneself a refugee and write from that perspective." Yes, most people who did this would produce godawful results: mawkish, stereotyped, maudlin, shallow, and downright counterproductive.
And yet ... must we say that the only people who should write imaginatively about a situation are people who have lived that situation themselves? That would pretty much eliminate all novels except romans à clef, and even there, if we followed Dee's prohibition, the only perspective allowed would be that of the novelist.
Novels need imagination and they need writers to imagine beyond their own experience. One of the great problems with social policy at the moment is that too few people — particularly people in power — are able to, for instance, imagine the perspective of a refugee.
And yet ... I don't want to read Erpenbeck writing from the point of view of a refugee. Or, more accurately, I don't want to read the Erpenbeck that Dee presents writing from the point of view of a refugee. But is that because it's the point of view of a refugee? I don't think so. The writer that Dee's description and analysis create in my mind is a writer who in inadequate to the task. And it's an important task.
It matters more that a refugee's perspective be rendered sensitively, thoughtfully, and accurately than it matters that, for instance, the perspective of a middle-aged, middle-class white guy in New Hampshire (like myself) gets rendered in such a way. My perspective is one that gets represented all the time in all sorts of different ways. My white-male perspective is hegemonic. Inaccurate and stereotyped representations of a point of view similar to mine won't do much in the world. But inaccurate and stereotyped representations of people whose perspectives are not as frequently seen, or which are seen primarily through stereotypes already, will contribute, each in its own little way, to the discourse that marginalizes and oppresses such people.
The Erpenbeck that Dee describes is a writer inadequate to the task of representing a nonhegemonic group outside of her own immediate life experience. That's no crime; most writers are such. If we want to get better at such a task — and I do think the task is important — we must strive for rhetorical and representational techniques that will make us more adequate to that task, with the full recognition that, unless we are truly some sort of genius, we will still fail in the end. But perhaps we will fail less badly, less destructively.
Dee makes an interesting point about realism and both Mohsin Hamid and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s abandoning of it in their novels, ones he considers more successful than Erpenbeck's, but it seems to me that in setting up a simple opposition between realism and fantasy, Dee misses the complexities of certain literary techniques.
The conventions that make realism feel real to an audience are just that: conventions. That those conventions no longer seem to get the job done is an old complaint — a hundred years ago, Modernism became a movement because of it, and it wasn't the first. The problem with Dee's argument about realism is that it is too generic. The Modernists didn't, for the most part, argue that we ought to turn to fantasy because realism was no longer working; they argued that realism was no longer realistic, that its conventions were worn out, and thus new conventions (e.g. stream of consciousness) were necessary. (Now, of course, the conventions of Modernism are mostly pretty old and in need of retrofitting if they are to feel, once again, fresh and invigorating.) One type of fantasy relies on conventions of realism — indeed, you'll find few books that so fervently adhere to the techniques of 19th century realism as genre fantasy novels. This is different from the type of fantasy that feels like surrealism, a fantasy that does not fire up the engines of verisimilitude to get its work done. Thus, it seems to me that the question of realism is separate from the question of fantasy as a technique, because most of what gets called "fantasy" is something that relies on the techniques of realism. And though Dee seems to think the use of fantasy is it a recent question suddenly stumbled upon by a young generation of writers, it's very much not — any question of fantasy that doesn't go back at least to Alejo Carpentier, or to Woolf's Orlando, or Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, or perhaps to Cervantes, is missing a whole literary lineage.
Dee brings up Valeria Luiselli's recent book of nonfiction to raise another possible route for a socially-aware writer: "Or one could leave fiction behind entirely." Indeed, one could. And perhaps should. I think of this as the Oppen Option, well summarized by Joy Katz:
In 1935, [George] Oppen, 27, had just published a slim volume of poems, his first. He wondered, amid the spread of fascism, “is it more important to produce art or to take political action?” For Oppen, it had to be one or the other. Poetry, he felt, did not do the urgent work of the world -- a world in which there were things going on that made writing poetry not only irrelevant but also deeply wrong.The Oppen Option exists in two forms: the soft option, in which the writer abandons the literary genres in favor of journalism and propaganda; and the hard option, in which the writer gives up writing altogether.
Certainly, if one is, like me, a white male, perhaps the best thing to do would be to stop writing, or at least trying to publish my writing. The world doesn't need more books, and it especially doesn't need more books by white guys. I say this seriously. I've considered the question a lot. In the end, I am selfish and arrogant — I selfishly work at writing, a task that I find fulfilling, rather than doing something more useful to the world, and I put that writing out there for other people to spend time reading because I think it is worthwhile. For the same reason that I keep paying taxes to my war-making government and keep using my computer that exists because of terrible labor practices (and possibly slavery) and keep eating dead animals raised entirely for the purpose of providing meat to people like me and keep driving a car that puts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and and and and — I keep writing and trying to get my work published. As do many other people like me, many of them far more successfully.
But Dee did not advocate white guys like us shutting up, even temporarily. (I'd support that: A year without white male writers. Don't publish us, don't read us. A worthwhile experiment. I bet we wouldn't be missed as much as we might like to think we would be.) Dee advocated the soft option, a change of genre: from fiction to nonfiction. And that makes good sense. If you want to alert people to the evils of the world, essays and journalism are simply better vehicles. Fiction thrives on dialectic, on ambiguity, on the complex representation of psychology, on imaginative structures. (Yes, I like Bakhtin.) It doesn't really exhort well. Fiction is better for contemplation than mobilization.
Dee's penultimate paragraph brings in other media and he invokes my beloved Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fear Eats the Soul, Dee asserts, provides "no audience surrogate" and "Fassbinder’s camera is democratic: It records the affair, as it must, from without. Our view of one lover is not filtered through the dominant consciousness of the other." This is true, and certainly we can imagine a more mainstream sort of movie in which Effi is a stand-in for a white viewer who knows nothing about Ali's world and thus gets to learn about it alongside her, with lots of lessons in tolerance and cultural understanding, etc. But we mustn't think of the film as a documentary (even with the knowledge that no documentary can be objective, that objectivity is itself an illusion created by conventions of filmmaking and rhetoric) -- it has a strong point of view outside of the characters, the point of view that allows Dee to use, for instance, the word merciless to describe Effi's friends and family.
Comparing Erpenbeck's novel to Fassbinder's film is an intriguing choice, brilliant in some ways. But it also undermines Dee's point. There are "social movies" just as there are "social novels". They're often very popular, frequently win Best Picture Oscars, and since cinema is a mass medium, they're occasionally even effective at arousing masses of people to action. (The Birth of a Nation, a classic social movie, the first feature film to be shown in the White House, led to riots and increased membership in the Klan.) Fassbinder, though, did not really make "social movies". He made movies deeply concerned with social issues, certainly, but he did so via Brechtian techniques of estrangement and through an often deep and sometimes bitter irony. He messes up any message we may think he's trying to send. People who in other movies would be portrayed as saints become in his monsters. (Watch Fox and His Friends or The Third Generation for particularly stark examples of this.) If he points to social problems, as he often does (being interested in the systems of the world), it's not to propose any sort of solution and not really to arouse us to action. The feelings and thoughts his films provoke in us are not ones that can be summed up in Hallmark cards or fortune cookies or political pamphlets. They can barely be summed up outside the movies themselves at all. And that's why the films are art.
What has for centuries been the novel’s unique source of strength — its ability to represent diverse experiences, as if from the inside out — isn’t a weakness now, exactly, but maybe it’s no longer that useful for opening up the reader’s heart to real events, because the magical faith we were accustomed to placing in the writer is gone.What is this "magical faith"? Who is this "we"? When did "we" have that faith? Does the strength of the novel as a genre require the life of the author?
The first part of Dee's sentence there seems to me quite accurate for most types of novels (not all), and certainly for most of the sorts of novels I find most compelling. But the second part of that sentence — all the words after the second dash — seems to me profoundly, completely, utterly, fully wrong. It feels like a nostalgia for the days when Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer were on TV or something. Certainly, writers have lost a kind of credibility, or perhaps notoriety, that a certain type of writer had in certain places during certain eras, but that's far from any sort of universal truth, and it's not even really true for most of the history of the novel, even if you very narrowly perceive that history as a short one beginning with Cervantes or Richardson and going to today (or maybe yesterday). A real exploration of this phenomenon would need to look at celebrity culture, at the figure of the public intellectual, at the differences between the place of the writer in American culture and history as opposed to elsewhere, etc. etc.
The history of the novel, paradoxically, has been a history of the erosion of the presumed powers and abilities of novelists — from panoramic godlike omniscience to the radical subjectivity of modernism to the nouveau roman to autofiction, and now from the idea that the artistic imagination transcends forces like race and gender and culture to the idea that the imagination is actually, inescapably, a function of those forces.This, too, is a bit of a mess. Much could be said about it, but for fear of going off into lots of literary theoretical-historical tangents, I will say only this: the perception within the European novelistic tradition that the novelist could imagine anything and everything was a perception limited to white men because white men were not only the default but the supreme. Before the twentieth century, women who wrote novels that weren't about subjects thought to be "womanly" more often than not had to write under male pseudonyms to get published. White (heterosexual) (generally middle- or upper-class) male experience considered the universal, and certainly the most Important for representation in Literature, but additionally, the white male was assumed to have omniscience generally. It was not only the assumption for writers, but for politicians, military leaders, business owners, husbands, and fathers.
The forces that shape society, that create hegemonies and hierarchies, that distribute power — these forces have always been there. At different times and in different places, gender, race, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, and other human inflections exert more or less force on the shape of society and individuals' places within it. They have also of course affected not only literary production but literary dissemination and reception. This is what the social is, and if there is such a thing, good or bad, as a "social novel" then it must reckon with them.
A useful companion essay to Dee's might be Sam Tanenhaus's chronicle of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron's novel was remarkable in many ways, and Styron was almost up to the task of writing it. Almost. Tanenhaus notes the problem: He relied too much on white historians. He told the story with too much assumption of his own omniscience, too little awareness of what he simply could not know, even though he tried to be sensitive to that. He began writing the book when James Baldwin was staying at his house, and Baldwin encouraged him. In the end, as Tanenhaus writes, Baldwin saw both the success and failure, yet remained admiring of Styron's attempt:
No white writer of our age would take the risk William Styron did. We all know better now. But in knowing more, we venture less. “It’s a book I admire very much,” Baldwin later said. “He had to try to put himself in the skin of Nat Turner. . . . It was a white Southern writer’s attempt to deal with something that was tormenting him and frightening him. I respect him very much for that.”I don't know if it's true that no white writer today would risk what Styron did. Maybe. Certainly, no white writer should try to risk exactly what Styron did, because we ought to be able to learn from Styron's example. It's not an example that says, "Only write about white experience, you white people you!" but rather, "Be humble." Does that mean that, knowing more, we, as Tanenhaus says with some regret, venture less? I hope not. We need to venture better, not less.
Perhaps what we know is not to trust our yearning for omniscience. (We should know it!) In white men, that yearning is instilled by the forces of white supremacy and patriarchy that we are born into. But we can buck those forces. Before bucking them, however, we have to see them. Dee seems to have been blinded by his assumption that such omniscience was possible and desireable, and that it is intimately linked to the novel form's ability to convey meaning. He seems to think that we've lost something because now we can't avoid the fact that white men are, like everybody else, limited in their perceptions. But this knowledge is, to me, a gain, not a loss. There are plenty of assumptions that remain invisible to all of us (not just us white guys), plenty of things our culture and our era see as benign that will not be seen so by other cultures and other eras, but in shedding the assumption that we can speak for everybody just because we want to, perhaps we white guys can now think about what our novelistic ambitions are, both as writers and readers. I want writers to venture just as much as Styron did and just as much as James Baldwin did, but not to replicate the mistakes of writers past. We can build off of the parts of Styron's ambitions that are admirable while trying to overcome Styron's mistakes, because those mistakes are vividly apparent now. We can make our own mistakes.
We do need to write about what torments us, what frightens us. We need to seek out the "depth of anguish" Baldwin refers to when explaining why John Cheever speaks to him more deeply than John Updike, despite both being writers of suburban white America. The writers who dig deep are the writers of any geography, any era, any identity, any style, any subject matter who will create the most incisive, enduring work.
We need to imagine our way into other people's perceptions. Human beings of all sorts need that. There's no future for society without such an ability. Just as we need white male writers to be less dominant, we also need them to be more imaginative — or perhaps more thoughtfully imaginative, more willing to risk thinking outside of white hegemony while also being willing to think hard about how we represent it from the inside. There's no good formula for this, no simple list of prohibitions or prescriptions. Many writers will be inadequate to any formula for writing sensitively, while writers of certain genius may break all of the rules of such a formula and produce something illuminating and transcendent. But that's true for any sort of writing if you aim to create complex work, something that you know won't change the world but will, perhaps, be aesthetically and philosophically meaningful.