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Politics and the Novel


Why do I listen to NPR? Lately, it seems as though it’s been overrun by heathens, although maybe I’m just mistaken as to its past. In any case, last week, an interviewee, an author, claimed that “literature is boring,” and the interviewer didn’t challenge her, didn’t so much as say a word. As much as I might want to credit this author with a biting, trenchant analysis of those awful new books often shelved as “literature,” she was placing the category of literature in opposition to her own, commercial fiction: Her shitty books about angels or vampires or dinosaurs or dinosaur angel vampires or whatever are, at least, not boring, like, I don’t know, Shakespeare? Jane Eyre? Jane Bowles? Reader, I wish I were joking. Anyway, while torturing myself in the car on an earlier occasion, I heard a different author who also ought to have remained silent—we’ll call him Author X and put the bag over his head for him—complain that publication at his Big Five house was taking so long that the “political” novel he’d written about [fill in the blank with current event] now won’t make sense because things are different all of a sudden, and, in the country where it all takes place, things will probably be even differenter when the book finally sees print. Gosh! Can you imagine? How will he ever earn back his advance? Our hero then went on to say that he had rewritten the book to better accord with how things are now in Country Y, and that version, the updated one, will be the one hitting the shelves this fall. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure of this last bit—as soon as he mentioned revising his book in light of the events transpiring in the country he’d written about, my mind leapt far away from what he was saying, as one does when a gun goes off under one’s window. Let’s call it self-preservation.)

This author’s to-me-moronic concerns made me think about politics and novels, so, depending on your view of what you are now reading, the conversation wasn’t a total loss. I don’t intend to cover ground I’ve already covered—that one would mistake the “subject” of a novel for its value to the reader is a mistake most people make, and I’ve already written here about aboutness. And my poli-sci is as shaky as my aesthetic biases are sure (as I’m certain the rest of this post will demonstrate). But if the subject of a novel has nothing to do with what that novel is, then what might a truly political novel look like?

J RTo point out the perfectly obvious, as a contrast to Author X’s novel, it might not take politics as its subject (except that that seems almost impossible, but that’s another topic of discussion). “Everything matters in art except the subject,” said Oscar Wilde. Where Joshua Landy might cite the Gospel of Mark or bring in some Plato—both of whom were writing in some way not always about but often at governance—I would advance William Gaddis’s JR as a good example of a political novel. If it is the case that we can best appreciate a fiction as a course of study, then what JR retrains us to do is most definitely useful to the political mind. If I write “But where shall wisdom be found?” I am quoting Job, and Job and I (but not Mr. Gaddis) are writing “about” the same thing, but neither of us is making political art. Gaddis, with JR, is, did.

But wait! Perhaps I ought to qualify my earlier comments before proceeding: I am sure that Author X’s novel is “political,” just not in an especially considered or critical way. I would wager that his novel does nothing to get its readers to think about the political situation it tries to describe in the way that I understand the verb “to think.” It is instead a kind of propaganda, on the subject of which I want to finally come to the point of this post and ask: do the aesthetic values most often touted in reviews, critical works, editorial meetings, writing workshops, etc. (there is no monolith, but there are currents, there is received wisdom; you can ask Flaubert if you don’t believe me) necessarily lend support to the political structures then in power? I have begun to think the answer is yes.

In order to explain that answer, I feel I need to mention something that has come to seem crucial to my understanding of art, something that may be obvious to some of you and may be less so to others: that “art” may not lie in the object usually graced with that name, but that art may instead be something actually ungraspable, an experience brought into being by an art object (or not). We see a painting on canvas and this painted canvas exists and we call it art. But let’s imagine a watercolor landscape or a velvet painting of a clown on the wall of a motel room. Asking ourselves, when we look at these painted surfaces, if what we are confronted with is art isn’t an assertion of aesthetic values, or doesn’t have to be. In fact, something else must have occurred for us to even formulate this question, to register the painting as (intended as) art but not the bed it hangs above as (intended as) art, the room it hangs in as (intended as) art. The wall behind it will have been painted, too, and the bed below it will take a particular shape, but we wouldn’t normally ask ourselves if the wall is art or if the bed is sculpture, or if it is necessary to the painting’s status as art that the wall or the bed be present. We ought then to recognize that the experience of the thing is part of what makes art art; I mean that, when we leave this theoretical motel room, we take the art with us, but the painting, the wall, and the bed remain where they are. So, OK. So far, so good.


If experience is at least part of what art is, then we may ask ourselves what portion of an artwork is actually transferable from artist to audience, and from audience to audience. In siting “art” in the artifact, we may be succumbing to a prejudice born out of need, but we might also be succumbing to a prejudice born out of politics. By defining or redefining “art” as the object—the painting, the sculpture, the book—we are also asserting that art is a commodity, a thing that can be bought, can above all be owned. Such a situation would nicely serve the purposes of, say, a capitalistic society, wouldn’t it? If I were an art historian, I might be able to tell you when exactly in the history of enclosure art began to be regarded as a commodity (or when in the history of art-as-commodity, enclosure came into being), but I am not an art historian and I’m not being paid to write this blog post in this capitalist society I’m living in, so, as Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Ah, well, ah, there you go.”


I do exist now, however, and I can ask: in favoring the about book and the discourse that surrounds it, aren’t we also burnishing the foundation upon which our politics is set? By locating our ideas of literature where we have, aren’t we reflecting capitalist values in our art? Making (editorial, aesthetic, critical) decisions based upon what a fiction is about is ignoring how that book is, which is another way of reducing that book to a commodity, a plastic good. Isn’t it? In asking our books to adopt a mostly innocuous style—to tell a story simply and directly—aren’t we also asking them to be less experiential and thus more disposable, easily read and readily (necessarily) replaceable? In giving attention to novels written “about” current events, aren’t we also enabling an ephemeral (and thus insatiable) notion of art? In advertising the books we advertise, in reviewing the books we review, in writing and reading the books we write and read, aren’t we propping up the (to me, deeply flawed) system that governs us?

I suppose I can’t answer that question satisfactorily. (Really, I feel unable to answer any questions satisfactorily, but that is a personal problem, nothing that need concern you.) But if I were to try to answer it, or maybe just help you to answer it for yourself, I might point to Mr. Plinkett’s review of Titanic, or anyway the aside that comes at about 00:55:45 and lasts until 00:58:30.

I can join Plinkett/Stoklasa in saying that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with accepting the prevailing aesthetic norms and working with them, either knowingly or unknowingly. But I cannot resist adding this caveat: there is nothing wrong . . . if you are happy with the way things are. If you, like me, are instead unhappy with the way things are, you might reconsider the way you read, the way you write. I have heard it said that the problem with political art is that it is mostly politics, not especially art, and I have a great deal of sympathy with that opinion, but it seems to me that perhaps there is no way of escaping the political dimension of the artwork, and perhaps there is then cause to at least consider its part in our discourse.

8 thoughts on “Politics and the Novel

  1. Two recent titles for you, Gabriel: The Short Fall, by Marek Waldorf; Verbatim: A Novel, by me. Both are political (as is Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale), both are experimental (or exploratory), both are open-ended, both take place in a time but are not time-bound. The reader is left to judge almost everything.

    Great post. Very interesting. But why not name the bagged author?

  2. Thanks, Jeff. I do absolutely need to read both of those books. My reasons for not naming the author in question are pedestrian: I heard his name during the interview but by then my mind had wandered (or, really, escaped), and, if I’m being honest, I have no journalistic impulse. It would be a simple enough thing to go through OPB’s program schedule (OPB being our local NPR affiliate), figure out whether I was listening to The World or Fresh Air or whatever, figure out who was on that program that day, and so on, but I don’t much care. I’m not likely to read the book and he won’t need the free publicity.

    Also, Jeff, I think I owe you an email.

  3. Gabriel: If NPR interviewers cannot issue a challenge to their subjects, then surely others can (or, to sustain a conversation, ask the author to clarify the thoughts). So why not name the authors in question? Incidentally, a number of recent Bat Segundo episodes have focused on the issue of political fiction, particularly unspoken American prohibitions on it. See my recent Dinaw Mengestu episode, as well as my forthcoming one with Yiyun Li, which should air today or tomorrow.

  4. A big yes to this post — it’s no more possible to escape political context than historical, and it’s not hard to read the politics inherent in a work of art if you try — our contemporary moment (for at least forty years) might prefer to style itself apolitical, but that’s no less a political stance than social realism.

    On commodification in art, it’s clear that “Happenings” and performance art, coming into prominence circa 1960 at the apex of American consumerism, resist that “object”-ness of commodification, but they’re total slaves to the “aboutness” doctrine (if your performance art can’t be summarized in a sentence, who would see it and how would they talk about it to people who didn’t?) Interesting to compare to its contemporary movement, Pop Art has a political agenda not easily digested or communicated — to me, art is the perfect vehicle for political communication, since it encompasses apparent juxtapositions that explication can’t square

  5. Interesting piece, thanks. Aboutness is a great term. One difficulty with arguing that art is art by virtue of the experience that it engenders is that then anything that engenders that kind of experience is art, right? So if I have a certain kind of experience looking at a pile of dirt on the ground, then it is art, right? And would we really want to drain the word (and the concept) of meaning in this way? I think we may want to hold on to the notion that art is something that is designed, arranged, and offered for a particular kind of activity or experience that arises from it, which stops short of saying that the fact of engendering an aesthetic experience of some kind makes something art.

    1. You’re welcome, Andrew, and thank you for your warning! You’ve brought up an important consideration—one that I have trouble addressing since I don’t especially want to be an arbiter of what is and what isn’t art. It just isn’t in me. But beyond that, I’m not certain why one would want to “stop short of saying that the fact of engendering an aesthetic experience of some kind makes something art.” Come on: let’s say it! It feels good.

      Yoko Ono, the curators of the Serpentine Gallery and some small number of art critics would take issue with your example (a pile of dirt on the ground), and I’ll happily join in their number even though I don’t have much time for the work in question (http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/yoko-ono-light). Though it seems you mean to site “the fact of engendering” in an object (a pile of dirt NOT spilled by Ms. Ono but arranged by chance or by Nature or by a tractor), and thus remind me of the danger of removing the artist from the equation, I would, in answer, draw attention to the verb you’ve used (“engender,” via Eric Partridge, “to produce or to cause,” either definition implying a creator, an artist). I don’t care that the artist means and I especially don’t care what the artist means, but I would agree that—even if only so that the term maintains its integrity—art requires an artist. That the work of art has meaning for the artist is similarly of no interest to me here, since that meaning is itself a fiction, a fantasy, a work of art. It is necessarily unique to the artist, and incommunicable in its entirety (fortunately) to the audience.

      I don’t know. Do you think that invalidates the thing produced, if the artist doesn’t draw meaning from or invest meaning in a work? I mean, that’s what’s at issue, right? If we acknowledge the pile of dirt, created “accidentally” by the farmer, as a work of art, we’re saying that the fact that the farmer didn’t mean to make art when he piled up that dirt doesn’t matter. You say that drains the concept of art of its meaning. But we enter difficult terrain (how can I resist the pun?) if we travel in the opposite direction: That Tolstoy repudiated his novels, does that mean that those novels are then lessened somehow in their readers’ estimations? (History says otherwise.) If Jeff Koons says, “Ha! It was all a big joke! You totally fell for it,” does that then mean that the next time I visit SFMOMA “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” will produce absolutely no aesthetic experience in me? Or that it then immediately ceases to be art?

      In the post, I wanted to ask what ill effects a focus on the object (rather than the experience of that object) might produce, and where such a focus might have come from or what interests it might serve. I tend to think that in doggedly pointing at the object and insisting upon its status (or lack thereof), we become like, well, my dog: I point to her food and she looks at my finger. It’s a failure of understanding on both our parts. (When I say “our,” I mean my dog and I, of course.) Ultimately, I think it’s a bigger disservice to art (if it isn’t too unseemly to speak so grandly) to treat it as a puzzle, or a riddle, or a code: the artist hides meaning (or some specific intended experience) in a work of art, its audience seeks that meaning or experience out. It seems to me that that trivializes art to a degree that admitting accidental, naive, or natural art into one’s personal canon can’t even approach. But, really, what do I know?

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    That Tolstoy repudiated the novels (which I didn’t know) doesn’t seem to change the fact that in their being submitted for publication and then in the process of publication itself, a series of people, starting with Tolstoy himself, affirmed that the text in question was offered as a work of fiction, to be read as such. So whatever form the later repudiation took, I don’t think we can be faulted for taking the works in question as literature.

    As far as the Koons goes, you question whether an experience that would be had if the works is designated as art would no longer occur if it ceased to be so designated. I would say that’s not the case. Even if Koons says the work was a joke, if it continues to be presented by the Museum as a work of art to be encountered, then people will continue to do so and will likely have some kind of experience as a result of encountering it. It might fairly be called an aesthetic experience, but I think you can have an aesthetic experience of something that is not art: nature, a pile of dirt, the stars in the sky, whatever. But I believe that the fact that that experience occurs, aesthetic or not, is neither here nor there in terms of whether the work in question should correctly be designated as art.

    Koons and the like are limit cases, because the work seems to be brought into being expressly to challenge the stability of such concepts as art, which is fine. But I am reminded of a math professor of mine who once pronounced his indifference to foundational questions in mathematics to me: he would continue to do his differential geometry regardless of the lack of resolution in the foundations. We can come up with various ways of trying to settle the question of the status of Koons’ work as art relative to the various actions and statements he makes with regard to it, but the kind of challenge that Koons’ work and his statements about it represents is not, I believe, enough to suggest that we should throw up our hands and despair of being able to say, in most cases, what is intended to be taken as art and what is not.

    I don’t doubt that there are difficulties with locating the “artness” in the object or in the intentions expressed in the presentation of the object in particular contexts (museums, theaters, bookstores) etc., but I think, in the end, experience is more problematic. If a work of art that many people appreciate and admire leaves me utterly cold, makes nothing happen in me, does it cease to be art? Do I refuse to recognize its status as art? In some cases, I might want to do that, but I don’t think in all.

    While words like puzzle and code seem to have a somewhat trivializing connotation in the context of art, and I don’t think art is merely a puzzle to be solved or a code to be broken, it often has things in common with puzzles and codes. I don’t have a problem with the idea of meaning embedded by its creator, as long it that is understood that such meaning is embedded in a more complex way then meanings are embedded in codes or puzzles: the meaning in question is more of a challenge or a provocation (“How can all these things be so simultaneously?”) than a message of the more everyday variety.

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