Political Fictions, i.e. I am reading The Grapes of Wrath and it is really, really good.

It seems like whenever I read a good book – well, not a good book, a world-altering book – I have so many things to say about it that I throw up my hands, give up, and just say that it was a good book. So this time I am going to try something different and write down those things as they come to mind.

The Nature of Good Books

We forget our strongest emotions. That’s a good thing, otherwise we’d feel strongly just once in our lives and then nothing would ever match up. All the pains in our life would be nothing compared to when we broke our legs. All the loves would be nothing compared to the first love. And all the books would be nothing compared to when I first cracked open The Foundation at age twelve.

But we also forget that there is such a thing as strong emotion, and that’s a little sad. Every time I read a good book, I nod contentedly and think, “Hmm, that was something. I guess I can say good things about this book.” And I forget that there is something more.

And then I read a book and say, “Oh my god, this is what it feels like. My eyes are going dry. My temples are buzzing. My thoughts are racing. My god, how could I ever have settled for that something, when I have this thing.”

Political Fiction

I’m not sure how people can say that fiction shouldn’t be political. How can you avoid it? Politics is what governs the sorts of things people are able to do. Whenever you write a story where people are doing something, you are asserting that there is a political framework which makes those actions comprehensible.

If you write a story about rootless expatriates drinking wine by the carafe-load on Paris boulevards, you’re writing about institutions that allow the transfer of wealth across national borders. You’re writing about political realities at home that allow expatriates to live like that. You’re writing about economic realities in their host nations that make their presence both desirable and resented. What story is not political?

Every romantic comedy is political. Romantic comedies frequently assert that the gaps in economic and social station between two people do not preclude love. They frequently assert that the gaps in lifestyle between two people do not preclude love. If you’re telling people that a millionaire can fall in love with a maid, how is that not political? If you’re telling someone that a divorced single mother can fall in love with her boss, how is that not political?

My life is profoundly influenced by politics, both at the policy-level and at the broader level of institutions and morals. If my parents were ten years older, America’s immigration laws would have kept them in India. If America’s society hadn’t altered and begun treating a certain level of wealth in a certain way regardless of race, then I would still be living in some kind of ethnic enclave (like a Jewish American in the 1920s).

Creating The World

In the realm of human relations, there is no reality. We look back on history and think that things like “The Dust Bowl” and “Okies” are indisputable facts. But they don’t exist until someone codifies them. For instance, for the last twenty years there’s been a migration into the South. That’s a demographic reality. But what kinds of people are entering? Why? What do they look like? What do they do? How do their lives change?

I don’t think there is an answer to that. Or, rather, there are many answers. There are hundreds of answers. Each one would be true for a subset of people. But in twenty years, when this migration is over, if we remember it at all, we will only remember a few of those answers. We will have a myth of what happened. And that myth will influence our beliefs about what kinds of things are possible. That myth will have a political function.

Now, if you believe that “realistic” (I’ve heard it called “mimetic”) fiction only reflects reality, then it is understandable if you believe fiction should not be political. But I believe that realistic fiction replaces reality. Or, not even that, it creates reality. Not in some kind of magical way. It’s just that when we think about what is real (at least in terms of human relationships), then we are usually not thinking about something we’ve seen or experienced, we’re usually thinking about a story.

For instance, you’ve probably seen way more living rooms on TV than you’ve seen in real life. In real life (at least if you’re around my age), you’ve seen probably fifty? Maybe a hundred? Most likely less than that. Thanks to sit-coms, pornography, and (especially) police procedurals, you’ve probably seen more than a thousand on TV.

Your view of what a living room looks like is largely generated by television.

Now, this will really only matter to you if you think that there is some systemic difference between a television living room and a real-life living room. It’s legitimate to think that there’s probably not. After all, the décor of television living rooms largely comes from what real life living rooms look like, and the décor of real-life living rooms is largely generated from what television living rooms look like. Between all the feedback, it’d be reasonable to assume that they look pretty similar.

But that ignores that there are many millions of times more real-life living rooms than there are ones on TV. There are definitely some strange and outlandish living rooms that you will never see on television, that you can’t see on television, because television is unable to reproduce the diversity of life – not because it’s evil, but because it is limited. Probably any given living room contains a few of these outlandish features which will never make it to television, and, from there, into our minds.

But in a hundred years, when people try to imagine what an American living room looks like, they’ll be picturing what is currently shown on TV (or actually, they’ll be picturing whatever their version of Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire for the early 21st century depicts as a living room).

The diversity of our life will have solidified for them into a few concrete images, just as the diversity of the sixties, or the twenties, has solidified for us.

Fiction – whether it’s textual or audiovisual – is what creates those images.

Do I think that’s wrong? No. Without television, we’d probably think that every living room looked like the living rooms of ourselves and people in our socioeconomic class. I am glad that television is able to convey some of the diversity that we are pretty much unable to acquire for ourselves.

For living rooms, you can substitute anything: family relationships, jobs, sunsets, romantic entanglements, corpses, etc…

The Costs of Absence

Clearly, this is where I’d talk about how television and novels systemically leave things out. I’d talk about how we are not given stories about poor people, or about nonwhite people. But, first, I am not sure that’s true. All those stories exist, we just don’t read them. Second, I am not sure it’s bad. I feel like it’s bad not to read stories about poor people, but I cannot say that it imposes any particular cost on us. The human mind is too strange and too circuitous. We cannot even say what is good or bad, how can we say that reading a story about migrant workers will make you a better person than reading a story about a college professor who sleeps with his student?

It seems like many of the most elite, whitest, most detached people in America are passionately concerned about the plight of people in Egypt who they know basically nothing about. Maybe if they knew more about Egypt, then they would care less. That is not an unknown phenomenon. Once upon a time, I wrote a little bit about how I thought that reading The Handmaid’s Tale might make me a worse person.

That’s why the political aspect of writing is so murky. When we write, we traffic in symbols whose effect we cannot understand. I think that’s why we try to reduce the business of writing to aesthetics. Because we can understand aesthetics, at least on a personal level. If something seems beautiful to us, then it worth writing about. A primary concern for aesthetics washes out the political aspects of writing (it does not make them disappear, it just makes them seem unimportant). We don’t need to think about why we’re showing this living room instead of another living room. All that matters is that this living room is beautiful. Our subconscious is doing all the hard work of judgment for us. Perhaps that subconscious incorporates something of political considerations, perhaps not. We abrogate ourselves of that duty.

And sometimes that seems like the right decision. But for me, it seems like the most powerful works are those which did attempt to consciously manipulate those political symbols, and create a fiction that is not just beautiful, but also useful.

8 thoughts on “Political Fictions, i.e. I am reading The Grapes of Wrath and it is really, really good.

  1. Daniel Steinbock

    By cosmic coincidence or pink laser beam, your choice, I too am reading the Grapes of Wrath. I actually pulled an excerpt from it to teach students in my ethnography seminar about how people create and are created by culture (chapter 17, “every night a world created…”). Maybe you’re alluding to that same chapter with “Creating The World.”

    If I were teaching a different sort of class, I’d excerpt chapter 5, on the monster. “It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Oh man, I absolutely loved Chapter 5. It rings very true to my own work experience =). The interstitial chapters are some of my favorite parts of the book.

      I have not gotten to Chapter 17, though. I will look out for it. Who are you teaching this class to? Undergrads?

      1. Daniel Steinbock

        It’s a seminar of Masters students in product design, mostly, with a CS and Earth Systems MS mixed in. Incidentally, we read some Gladwell recently — a New Yorker piece called Drinking Games about how the state of being drunk is more a function of cultural context than chemistry. You might dig it.

        Emeryville, eh?

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          Yep, I think I read that one. It’s largely about the tribe in Bolivia or someplace that drinks grain alcohol straight through the weekend but never beats their wives or goes murdering. I found it pretty interesting. I was wondering how we could test out its hypotheses using college students (and grain alcohol).

  2. Ben Godby

    “When we write, we traffic in symbols whose effect we cannot understand.”

    Ain’t it true. I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a post by N. K. Jemisin about feminization in epic fantasy and the “male gaze,” and how, despite the fact that I studied a bunch of feminist theory and philosophy in university and liked it more than just about every other philosophy I studied, the stories I write and want to read are male-gazing. The symbols and desires are so deep in me that, try as I might to reconstruct my mythic perception, I am unable to in a meaningful way. I can conceive of narratives that break through the mythic male pantheon, but I cannot join my soul with them in a truly ecstatic union.

    It kind of sucks, because, since I already possess all the theory, I don’t really know how to change my… soul? Heart?

    Anyway, I’m reading “Deliverance” right now and it’s awesome. The way it is written makes me feel like there are hands in it. That’s how Hemingway also made me feel. I have very little experience reading The Great Books Of English Literature, but something I like is that feeling of corporeality, of sinking into something viscerally.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, I think that is kind of exactly what I am talking about. And that’s also exactly where the resort of aesthetics comes in, because it’s difficult to disagree with. If something appeals to you or does not appeal to you, then it does, and there is no real arguing?

      There’s also the possibility of political solutions to aesthetic problems, wherein an increase in the number of women / minorities / etc who are writing and reading absolves one of the need to deal with these problems. For instance, all the stories that NK Jemisin cites as not male-gazey are written by women.

      But if you reach a point where the resort to aesthetics is no longer satisfying, when you say that I do not think it would be right to write another story that does this, then you will have to do something else, even if the resulting story is not as good or even if you don’t like writing it as much.

      1. R. H. Kanakia

        Not that I am saying that you necessarily could, or should, reach such a point. Just that it may happen.

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