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Literature as Politics By: Steve Vivian
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Imagine being a college student interested in arts and letters. You enroll in a literature course…and are told, over and over, that the study of literature boils down to the study of race/class/gender. To make this point, your university funds multicultural studies, post-colonialist studies and--big surprise--Marxist studies. In short order, you discover that the study of literature has shriveled into a form of affirmative action, in which the dreary canon of “dead white males” is pushed aside to embrace “diversity”. As John Ellis notes in Literature Lost: “The intellectual catastrophe that has overtaken the humanities is not just a by-product of affirmative action. It is affirmative action transformed into a curricular and intellectual climate.”

And matters only grow worse. Many graduates of prestige humanities programs find their way into publishing. No surprise, then, that very little “diversity” exists in that rarified nexus in which literature meets politics. Today’s prestige authors, who enjoy both critical acclaim and commercial success, are typified by authors such as Chinua Achebe, Barbara Kingsolver, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, and so on. These authors do not sell at John Grisham levels, but they enjoy far more cultural gravitas. Contrast the prestige of these authors with prestige authors on the right, or on the libertarian side…that is, if you can name any beyond Tom Wolfe. Unfortunately, the rise of conservative and libertarian political nonfiction--Coulter, Olsen, O’Reilly--has no counterpart in fiction and the arts and letters generally.

The PC squeeze on arts and letters is amusingly illustrated by Wanda Koolmatrie’s My Own Sweet Time, published by Australia-based Magabala Press to enormous critical acclaim in 1995. Critic Dorothy Hewett wrote, “This is the lively, gutsy story of an urban Aboriginal girl making it in the tough city counterculture of the mid-'60s. This heartwarming comic odyssey cries out for a sequel. It could be the start of a new genre.” More gushing accolades followed.

But My Own Sweet Time’s alleged literary qualities were instantly forgotten when the author turned out to be Leon Carmen, a white man. Mr. Carmen he claimed that as a white male, he could not get published, so he wrote in the guise of an Aboriginal woman.

Mr. Carmen was, of course, the subject of considerable abuse and indignation. But his fundamental point remained unchallenged. Mr. Carmen understood that the literary establishment fawns over a certifiably PC author (who is rendered PC by race, class affiliation, and/or political position). Therefore, Mr. Carmen simply anointed himself as politically correct by pretending to be a female aborigine. Clearly, the literary establishment approved the race/class/gender of My Own Sweet Time’s supposed author; the book’s actual prose was immaterial. The conflation of an author’s identify with a book’s value is an error of the first order, but it is a politically correct error, so it lives on.

Some PC-certified authors have enormous talent--that point is not in dispute. The point is much larger: today’s exalted authors are certifiably politically correct, and therefore their works appear in bookstores around the world--and in undergraduate and graduate syllabi across the nation. Indeed, if you’d like to conduct an amusing experiment, just contact a university’s humanities departments and inquire about classes that balance the left-liberal spectrum with works by conservative or libertarian authors. The silence will deafen you.

The Left’s embrace of authors who “fight the power” hit a zenith in the 1960’s with authors such as Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Today’s younger generations of readers know Vidal and Mailer primarily for their political outbursts, not for their novels. That peculiar dynamic continues today with today’s younger PC-certified authors. A look at the political views of prestige authors--both the old guard and the newer generation--is very revealing:

Norman Mailer: after a period of near invisibility, America’s most celebrated living novelist has remerged as a critic post 9-11 US policy. Mailer claims that anxieties among white American males are the real motives behind military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nothing like a war, so goes Mailer’s thinking, to boost sagging white male egos. Mailer’s charge is especially comic, coming as it does from a man whose peculiar insecurities drove him to appear on the Dick Cavet show wearing boxing gloves and trunks--and to threaten the host, as well as another guest: Gore Vidal.

Gore Vidal: Vidal enjoys striking populist poses in order to condemn America’s supposed “ruling elite.” Yet Vidal has spent several decades expressing haughty contempt for the United States and its benighted bumpkins. Vidal has of late sounded as loony as ANSWER. For instance, Vidal suspects a conspiracy behind the 9-11 attacks, and (naturally) the White House is behind those conspiracies. You see, by not acting against the attacks, the White House can now suspend civil liberties and to control Middle Eastern oil and gas.

Barbara Kingsolver: Ms. Kingsolver best represents the younger generation of PC moralists. In an especially hilarious outburst, she likens the US to a family’s greedy “Fat Brother” who refuses to share: “In the autumn of 2001 we faced the crisis of taking a very hard knock from the outside, and in its aftermath, as our nation grieved, every time I saw that wastefulness rear its head I felt even more ashamed.” This quote perfectly captures the PC blend of self-righteousness and stupidity.  The US is wasteful beyond reason--a “Fat Brother” who therefore earns the enmity of the global family. Ms. Kingsolver assumes that global wealth is rigidly finite, and therefore, the more the Fat Brother takes, the less is left for others. It does not occur to her, apparently, that wealth is not finite (as ten seconds of thought would reveal) and that financial capital is intimately tied to cultural capital. Therefore, nations that respect the rule of law, that respect property rights, and that encourage freedom of thought produce far more wealth than nations that don’t. But rational thought means little to Kingsolver; moral exhibitionism is everything: seeing our “wastefulness” makes her feel “ashamed.” One wonders: is she ashamed to ponder the trees destroyed to produce her novels? 

Alice Walker: the celebrated author offers this extraordinary piece of realpolitick regarding Osama bin Laden: “What would happen to his cool armour if he could be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done? What would happen to him if he could be brought to understand the preciousness of the lives he has destroyed? I firmly believe the only punishment that works is love." Behind the sheer daftness of Walker’s notion that “love” is “punishment” is her desire to see bin Laden in an admirable light: he has “cool armour” (!?) and has done many “good, nonviolent things.” Perhaps Walker’s advice is a sadly missed opportunity: maybe Joseph Stalin would have halted the purges and mass starvations had we only praised his “cool armour.” And perhaps Pol Pot merely needed to be reminded of his numerous “good, nonviolent” acts.

One can easily add to this list of silliness. The important point is that such views are largely the only views on university campuses--and in prestige arts and letters generally. This insularity reminds one of the late film critic Pauline Kael, who apparently expressed disbelief at the reelection of Richard Nixon: “I don’t know how Nixon could have been elected; nobody I know voted for him.”

Still, despite the PC squeeze in arts and letters, we can find hopeful signs. Especially encouraging is the recent novel by Russian émigré Olga Gardner Galvin. Her The Alphabet Challenge, set several decades in America’s future, is a satire of all things PC: identity politics, professional do-gooders, oppressive Utopias. The protagonist, Howell Langston Toland, is an imaginative hustler who sees that one can indeed do well by doing good. He declares that people whose names begin later in the alphabet-- the Q’s, the R’s, the S’s, etc.--are victims of crushing oppression. As Toland declares:

"This is our change to make things right for ourselves. To keep our heads up and behave as if our names started with A!...We need to train our egos to stand on their own two feet, despite the alphabetical handicap. We’ve been fictions for too long! It’s time to overturn this profoundly unfair alphabetical order on which the world is based!!!”

Satirical pleasures abound: moral exhibitionism is everywhere in Gardner’s energetic narrative, with escalating crusades against incorrect behavior and attitudes. Even protecting one’s property against thieves is politically incorrect, and New York Governor Al Sharpton has declared traffic jams to be a racist conspiracy. Astutely, Gardner renders these comic absurdities in a deliberately stripped-down prose style; the dead-pan approach renders the narrative’s absurdities all the more hilarious.

Alphabet Challenge vividly renders a PC world gone mad, and in doing so, it does more than offer an alternative world view in fiction. It places the race/class/gender triumvirate in its crosshairs and pulls the trigger. Perhaps Gardner’s own background--growing up in the final years of the Soviet Union--keeps her alert to the dangerous irrationalities of GroupThink and the reduction of literature to propaganda. Certainly, her honed intelligence and satiric sensibility are long overdue. One hopes Gardner and other tough-minded authors are the leaders of a nascent battle against the PC chokehold upon literature. As David Horowitz has observed of higher education, “It should not be a fight for young students to get a complete education, to learn more than half the story.” For far too long, “half the story” has been the only story in the arts and letters.

Steve Vivian is the author of two novels. He holds a Ph.D. in English Studies with a concentration in cognitive linguistics.

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