What Are the Pitfalls for the Politically Engaged Writer?
Does someone want to silence us? Are we at war? Nothing is more exhilarating for a writer than to feel that simply putting pen to paper is an act of courage and a bid for freedom. Remember this novel?
“The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by 25 years in a forced-labor camp. Winston . . . dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act. In small clumsy letters he wrote: April 4th 1984.”
And nothing is more galvanizing for readers than to feel that they are collaborators in this bookish heroism, that reading itself is a revolutionary act. I remember in my early teens unwrapping a Christmas present from my evangelical parents to find a copy of “God’s Smuggler,” by Brother Andrew, an account of a Dutch Christian’s adventures smuggling Bibles into the Soviet bloc. It was 1967. The idea my parents no doubt wanted to get across was that our own daily Bible reading was a brave act of subversion in a heathen world. And I must say I enjoyed “God’s Smuggler” rather more than the Bible. I enjoyed Brother Andrew’s miraculous escapes from brutal soldiers, and at 13 I believed in the power of prayer that blinded the eyes of his persecutors. Very soon, though, to read Sade’s “Justine,” I took the precaution of hiding the book under the bedclothes. My mother was not so easily bamboozled as those Soviet soldiers. And though she never actually confiscated anything, she would burst into tears whenever I was found to be “siding with the Devil.” In the years to come Lawrence, Beckett, Genet and Sartre were all best kept out of sight.
Meantime, through the late 1960s and ’70s we read Solzhenitsyn and other Soviet bloc dissidents with a sense of awe. For them writing really was a brave and dangerous thing. We imagined that in reading their books we were playing our part in a great ideological struggle. I remember my father in his unbuttoned, after-lunch ease with a copy of “Cancer Ward” on his lap. We rejoiced when our hero was given the Nobel. It seemed right that the prizes should go to those who took risks for their freedom and their beliefs, those who spoke out: Nadine Gordimer, Gabriel García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz. Perhaps we even felt a certain naïve envy of artists from countries unhappier than our own. The struggle was so clear for them, the path to glory so obvious.
Why mention this now?
In the months I have been writing these essays for The Times (of which this is the last), I have been drawn, almost against my will, to notice the intensifying politicization of the literary world and, hand in hand with that, a predilection for melodrama, for prose that stimulates extreme emotions — in good causes of course. The cause justifies the melodrama. The melodrama serves the cause. This past year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize, “The Vegetarian,” by the Korean writer Han Kang, was emblematic. A young woman is abused and victimized when she chooses to stop eating meat. Food is forced down her throat. She is raped. A patriarchal, carnivorous society cannot accept her modern sensibility. It is very hard for readers to get their allegiances wrong in this kind of narrative; hard not to feel that in buying the novel and reading and talking about it, one is doing one’s bit for freedom and emancipation worldwide.
The year’s political upheavals contributed to this growing sense of embattlement. At a conference called European Literature Days in Wachau, Austria, in early November, participants were explicitly invited to rally against the centrifugal forces threatening to break up Europe. Anyone who felt that Brexit was not such a bad thing in the end would have been wise to keep such heresy to himself. There was definitely a new excitement in the air. People were anxious, but not perhaps unhappy. Writers were suddenly more relevant. Over lunch, a Swiss writer, Jonas Lüscher, described a spat with his fellow Swiss novelist Peter Stamm. Stamm — whose wry, spare fiction I can’t recommend highly enough — had given a speech insisting on the necessary separateness of art from politics; to introduce the topical and overtly political into fiction, he thought, was a form of impoverishment, or even worse, of opportunism and self-promotion. Lüscher had replied by insisting on the dignity and indeed importance of the artist’s political engagement. On the last evening of the conference he read from his first novel, “Barbarian Spring,” an account of the grotesquely extravagant wedding party of two London traders in a luxury tourist resort in Tunisia at precisely that moment in 2008 when world finance began to fall apart. It was satire in flamboyant style, and it was a rousing success with the public. We all felt pleasantly superior to those crass and irresponsible bankers. British to boot.
Then Donald Trump was elected president and PEN America began to send me frequent requests to donate to their campaign to defend freedom of speech in America. Trump’s election, their premise went, marks the beginning of a new war. On home territory. Very soon Americans might be presented with the kind of struggles our Soviet bloc heroes faced. Then they too would have their path to glory. One request, oddly enough, was signed by J.K. Rowling and arrived on my screen as if sent personally to me by the great lady herself. How flattering. Exhorting me to donate, Rowling (who lives in Edinburgh) wrote, “We will not go quietly and we are Louder Together!”
It is the enthusiasm, the militancy, that is disturbing, not the goal. Those sharing my unease might want to take a look at David Attwell’s discussion of J.M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel “Life and Times of Michael K,” in “J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing.” Coetzee had imagined a poor man caught up in conflict and racial hatred, whose only ambition is to settle down and work a garden. But was his hero “ever going to take to the hills and start shooting,” Coetzee worried in his notes as he wrote the book. It seemed the obvious direction for the story to take; it was what readers would want; it was desirable and logical. But Michael is inexplicably reluctant. To the extent to which he is the author’s alter ego — in an earlier draft Michael had been a poet, not a gardener — he simply could not go there. He did not want to be “louder together.”
Reviewing Coetzee’s novel, Nadine Gordimer recognized it was “a marvelous work that leaves nothing unsaid . . . about what human beings do to fellow human beings in South Africa,” but then claimed that in showing “a revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions” and denying recognition to the black struggle, it distorted “the integral relation between private and social destiny . . . more than is allowed for by the subjectivity that is in every writer.” Replying, indirectly, in a talk given in 1987, Coetzee complained that novelists were “a tribe threatened with colonization” by those who would have them “address what are called problems and issues.” Curiously, these are the very terms in which Stamm replied to Lüscher’s criticism: We are all being herded toward the big controversies, he complained. It’s a loss of imagination, not a gain.
In the months ahead this debate will heat up. Both as readers and as writers, each of us will react in a way congenial to our temperament. It is impossible to imagine Coetzee writing like Gordimer, Lüscher like Stamm, or vice versa of course. My own position is this: Let us by all means defend our freedom of speech when and if it is threatened; but let us never confuse this engagement with our inspiration as writers or our inclination as readers. Above all, let us not get off on it.