Last week, I came across this article in the New York Observer, which effectively raises the question ‘do novelists have a duty to write more about contemporary social issues?’
Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of American literature and theory at the University of Illinois, was quoted as saying on a public panel that fiction should be more like US TV show The Wire, which for five seasons accurately portrayed various aspects of life in modern-day Baltimore, from the drug trade to the school system to the print media and so on. In an essay previously published on bookforum.com, Michaels argued that memoirs, historical fictions (for example books on slavery or the Holocaust) and novels about individual identity were effectively redundant. These, he claimed, would never succeed in producing great art as we need it now:
‘trying to overcome, say, the lingering effects of slavery doesn’t involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism (and, in case we start to forget, A Mercy reminds us again), we’re effectively being told that our problem is lingering racism—not burgeoning capitalism. And when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we’re being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we’re not there yet.’
Is Michaels claiming that we must stop writing and reading anything but the most market-focused contemporary fiction? It would seem so. ‘And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture,’ he adds, ‘Ethnic identity is just the family writ large’.
Frankly, I find this view completely ludicrous. Good fiction is good fiction (subjective yes, but limited no). Anything can be written about so long as it is written well. Yes contemporary social issues are important, but so too is memory, race, gender and isolation. Just because history, personal reflection and ethnicity do not ‘speak’ to Michaels does not mean that they do not speak to others.
I have just finished Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking – this is memoir and has rather little to say on issues of class, so according to Michaels cannot constitute great art. Yet this cannot be further from the truth. Didion’s sharp intellect and her frank yet far from weepy reflections on grief and love made this one of the best books I have ever read. Her beautiful use of repetition – More than one more day. As you used to say to me. You’re safe, I’m here – was powerful and poetic study on guilt, regret and loss, something that I’m sure still speaks to many readers today.
The next category Michaels implicitly attacks is novels about individual characters, which do not pay sufficient attention to the social milieu around them. I’m not 100% sure what type of book he means here but if it’s anything like the Life of Pi then again I think he’s proved wrong. In Yann Martel’s book there is no apparent ‘contemporary issue’ drive to the narrative, but Pi’s surreal journal coupled with the shocking and terrible revelation at the conclusion stayed with me for weeks. Just because a novel is not explicitly political does not mean it is without resonance.
So then to historical fiction. Michaels criticises Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I have not read this, but by many accounts it is a terrible and haunting story. What’s more, racism is a lingering problem not just for America but Australia also, which is all the more reason why we need such stories from the past to help us confront what lies before us now. There is also no reason why a novel that deals with small, human relationships in another era cannot have strong relevance today. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is set in the early 60s and has at its centre a human nucleus: two virgins, newly wed, isolated in the bedroom of their honeymoon suite. While times are certainly different and we have new concerns, these issues of gender and sexuality have not disappeared.
29 Apr 09 at 22:20
Is his argument against the “historicist” strain in contemporary fiction reminiscent of the one posed by David Marr a few years ago against Australian historical novels?
Not sure I agree with his aesthetic judgments either but I read him as not just saying fiction should be about social issues — part of his complaint would seem to be about fiction that he finds too preoccupied with various social issues around race, ethnic identity and so on. He seems to suggest that these somehow obfuscate the one central glaring issue of economic inequality, which should be obvious in a period of economic crisis but has remained somehow invisible.
The problem is his either/or, which probably comes from his attempt to be provocative. Maybe a writer like Christos Tsiolkas represents a rebuttal to this either/or? I don’t want to reduce literature to some other realm either — as you say, good fiction is good fiction — but I’m also sympathetic to the idea of literature as part of the modern subject’s continuing attempt to negotiate and shape, and in turn be shaped by, the divisions and contradictions that form our contemporary world. If he is saying there is something fundamentally being missed in our current literary renderings of this then I’m interested in this.
30 Apr 09 at 9:36
Yes, it seems to be the same argument Marr was making. I certainly agree that Tsiolkas is an important figure in this debate. I agree with you that literature should attempt to engage with the contemporary world – but I think that people who make these pronouncements often miss the ways in which this is actually happening. I think Beloved and Chesil Beach are both eg.s of writers engaging with contemporary issues by identifying the points in history which impacted on particular issues (race, gender) and allowing us to feel the ways in which these moments still reverberate. (This wasn’t my post by the way – it was Jessica’s)
30 Apr 09 at 14:58
Yes I definitely think Tsiolkas is a good example of how fiction can be contemporary and address issues of economic inequality AS WELL AS race, gender etc. My main problem with Michaels is, as you say, his desire to be provocative by making a blanket statement, and his dismissal of novels about history, ethnicity etc. You can raise a point about needing more stories about class and politics without being so narrow-minded as to close off other important avenues.