Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mixing Politics and Fiction

Last year there was a series of blogosphere broadsides exchanged between Emmett Stinson (author, editor, academic) and Overland magazine on the subject of 'political' fiction. In the one corner, Overland fiction editors past and present argued for the 'moral and aesthetic imperative' of political engagement (Jacinda Woodhead originating the controversial phrase), while in the other Stinson stood up for authorial freedom. What exactly an imperative is, whether absolute or conditional, is a moot point in the debate. Stinson argues that any imperative is proscriptive (it implicitly forbids non-political fiction) and absolute (all fiction must be political), whereas Jane Gleeson-White, Overland's current fiction editor, considers the word to imply a somewhat weaker injunction. The key exchanges can be read on Emmett's blog and on the Overland blog here and here.

The insistence on the political in fiction is something of a personal bĂȘte noire, so I am weighing into the debate, albeit a year too late. Let's not forget we read fiction for enjoyment, and that, as literary writers at least, we write from the passionate centre of our creativity, wherever that is found. To me, an 'aesthetic imperative' is an oxymoron, at least in so far as it refers to something imposed externally (such as a political ideology). The only aesthetic imperatives I know of are those that emerge from within the creative process itself - the inner imperative that tells me, for instance, that a certain metaphor must go, or that a particular sentence should be arranged in this particular manner. An aesthetic imperative imposed as a result of politics sounds like the death of art, like 'art' sponsored by the Soviet state. (I suspect, however, that the phrase 'aesthetic and moral imperative' was one that rolled nicely off the keyboard, and I am sure Woodhead was not advocating anything so totalitarian.) The point remains, nonetheless, that writers write from an inner imperative that may or may not be overtly political, and will always do so, regardless of what obligations certain literary editors feel them to be under.

As for the moral imperative, I do believe that we writers have responsibilities. Stinson rhetorically asks if shoemakers should also make political shoes. One need only look at Nike's well-known practices to answer that question in the affirmative. Indeed, if Nike is the example, the politics of shoemaking in the developing world is probably of much greater significance than the politics of fiction among certain well educated types here in Australia. After all, Stinson's point is well made that the equation: politically engaged fiction = social change has yet to be established. That said, if moral imperatives exist at all (and they do), they bind all of us, writer, tailor, candlestick maker. Just as there is moral weight to my purchasing decisions, there is political and moral significance to my choices as a writer. What do I put out into the world when I write? Even as apolitical a text as Harry Potter has its 'karma', its downstream effects on a generation of young readers, good or ill.

But does this mean all writers must be like mini-activists, agitating from their offices? I don't think so, and indeed what does "must" mean when it so patently will never occur? That we must frown upon or perhaps not publish the work of writers whose primary preoccupations are interpersonal or intrapersonal? I certainly hope not. We need literature to engage the whole spectrum of human experience, to enrich our vision of the world and make life more tolerable through the quality of its illumination, whether its subject is the plight of indigenous peoples, the complexities of marriage, or the private struggle for identity. After all, however politically aware and active we may be, we still spend much of our time preoccupied with the dramas of the private domain.

Stinson's argument against the politicization of fiction relies on a more academic point however. He questions whether fiction can be 'about' anything at all. Fiction is, for him, so complex that it is naive, indeed anti-intellectual, to see any connection between words and their referents (that would be realism, the mimetic theory of art). While I agree that any mimetic theory of representation in art is unsustainable, I am sympathetic to the Overland editors' impatience with this line of reasoning. It is not anti-intellectual to disagree with a philosophy of literary criticism, even if it is the academic fashion of the day. Stinson would transfer the entire weight of meaning over to the 'reading' side of the ledger, voiding the text of any capacity to hold significance in its own right. This is taking it too far. Ulysses may not be 'about' a man wondering around Dublin one day (Stinson's example, a straw man if ever there was one), but it's probably fair to say it's more 'about' that than it is 'about' cheese manufacture in the Baltic states. I think it is disingenuous of Stinson to claim that he doesn't know that 'politically engaged' fiction is or could be. Yeah, it exists, and yeah, Emmett knows it when he sees it, even if its boundaries are unclear, even if it needs a reader and a reading to re-hydrate it into meaningfulness.

Now that I've managed to disagree with everybody,  let me say how I also actually agree with everybody (and it is heart-warming to see Gleeson-White and Stinson did eventually bury their hatchets  - somewhere other than in each others' faces). The arguments put by the Overland editors are nuanced, and it is easy to poke holes in a caricature of their position, less so once their position is understood properly. Overland, of course, has a right to whatever editorial policy it chooses. To say 'we prefer politically engaged fiction' (however philosophically problematic to a post-structuralist) is a reasonable enough statement of editorial intent, and hardly surprising coming from Overland. Let's hope though that above and beyond their worthy desire for fiction that tackles the issues of our times, they still have time for a plain old good story.

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