The reason literary critics are obsessed with wokeness and cancel culture

Hello friends. I’ve been feeling a little stifled lately. Everything is so backed-up and slow. I’ve been writing proposals, books, essays, but it all sits on someone’s desk for god-knows-how-long. People have other concerns, which is fine, but as a result I’ve decided to make better use of the one platform I control fully, which is this blog!

I wrote an essay recently, which I’m trying to place, on whether East Asian novels really do eschew conflict and plot (I don’t think so), and its made me reflect on how much I love reading. Which is a pretty uncontroversial thing to say, I know. In fact, the subject has gotten so saccharine and so filled with lies that I don’t think anyone who truly loves reading would dare to admit it, because, ironically, the statement has come to signal the opposite, which is that you’re a conventional thinker who speaks and writes in cliches.

On a panel once with the host of an insipid local radio show, we were asked something about literature and about whether books had a future in the world given the existence of phones, games, TV, etc. And I said, I don’t think reading is morally superior to watching television or playing video games. Which was really not a popular statement with my interlocutor, who I could tell was going to dismiss me as a YA writer. I think people make a lot of exaggerated claims about books. They claim that it improves empathy, which has not been satisfactorily demonstrated, even scientifically, since few of the studies use other forms of narrative (e.g. video games or television) as a control.

What’s always fascinated me about the defenders of literature, both in its weak form (people who defend books versus other media) and in its strong form (people who defend literary fiction versus commercial fiction or literature versus contemporary books) is how unnecessary it all is. The value of all these things is self-evident. What needs defending are things that seem bad. Television seems like it stupefies and wastes time and dumbs us down. It may not, but that’s an argument that has to be addressed.

People often say, “Well, novels used to be derided as stupefying entertainment for the masses. And before that people derided certain kinds of poetry as stupefying entertainment for the masses.” To which I say, a lot of novels and poetry are stupefying when read in large quantities. To read a huge number of novels that are all trying to accomplish the same thing and evoke the same emotions with the same tools is going to stupefy you.

Like, recently I’ve gotten very interested in commercial fiction from previous eras. I read a lot of Walter Scott, I read M.E. Braddon, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve been looking into the history of the novel, particularly in French, where the novel seemed to spend a lot of time developing between the publication of Don Quixote in the early 1600s and when the novel really burst onto the English scene in the 1740s. For a while, the fad in France was for immensely long court novels, often written by aristocrats, with historical settings. They weren’t entirely romances, but they also weren’t domestic novels as we know them. Some of these books, like Scudery’s The Grand Cyrus (set in Ancient Persia, I believe) ran to twenty volumes. (English also had some immense publications, like a similarly long picaresque called The English Rogue that was published in the 1680s). Those novels, if that was all you read, were probably pretty stupefying.

To me, what matters isn’t what you read, it’s whether you have curiosity. I think the written word is always going to exist, because it’s a very good way of feeding one’s curiosity. It’s not the only thing that can do it, and there are many incurious ways of using the written word, but to me the odd thing about all these defenses of literature are the way they underestimate one simple thing: curiosity.

Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to know the best of what people have thought or said? Don’t you want to know what ideas have animated the world? And, moreover, don’t you get tired of intermediation? You lose so much when people explain things to you. For instance, lately people have been talking a lot about CRT, and on both sides say complete nonsense. Republicans say it makes white people hate themselves, and Democrats say it’s just a quaint, minor, harmless legal theory that has had no influence on the way leftists today talk about race. So I bought a book called Critical Race Theory, edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, and I read about it myself. You don’t have to listen to spin; you can go to the source itself.

The problem is that a lot of defenses of literature occur within an expert culture. So you have professors telling people that reading a book is important, but they also want to retain for themselves the right of interpreting it. Except you can’t have it both ways. Something is only important to read if you’re allowed to assimilate and reinterpret it. Otherwise why bother? That’s why there’s no point digging into medical research on your own: people with an ordinary amount of knowledge can’t understand it.

None of the humanities, with the exception perhaps of analytic philosophy, are quite so specialized. You can read the books yourself. You can draw your own conclusions. You might disagree with what a lot of the experts have to say about it, but in a lot of cases, the experts don’t know a lot. For instance, even Hegel himself said nobody in the world understood his philosophy, so how can any professor? The fact of the matter is, his philosophy doesn’t make internal sense, and if an expert says it does, they’re not being truthful.

With curiosity, though, comes a commitment to speaking the truth, insofar as you understand it. I think being incorrect is fine, but I think it’s morally wrong to purposefully mislead other people. For instance, I was reading a profile of a very young artist who’s recently become successful, and it went to pains to portray her as coming from a middle-class background, then talked about how, despite her fame, she still lives in the “modest” 675-foot Upper West Side apartment where she’s lived since moving to New York five years earlier at age 22.

Now come on, who’s kidding whom? That’s a $3,000 a month apartment (at least), and her first job was as the assistant to another artist.

What the article was trying to say was, “This person isn’t a member of the New York intelligentsia. They are provincial gentry.” Like, we’ve all read French and Russian novels, we understand the young man from the provinces phenomenon–I’m a young man from the provinces myself! But don’t bullshit us.

I hate that. It makes my skin crawl. Like I obviously don’t support myself through writing, and I’d like to think I don’t go around pretending to be a middle-class outsider-type person.

When I talk about the value of literature and of curiosity and seeking / telling the truth, people are often like, “That’s a privilege that ordinary people can’t afford.” And that may be true–I have no idea what ordinary people can or can’t afford to do. I cannot say whether reading Plutarch is a better use of peoples’ time than watching Top Chef. I can certainly imagine that financial cares could disincentivize caring about literature, and I don’t think that a person should, like Karl Marx, let their kids sicken and die so they can write, or, like so many woman writers and artists, eschew having kids entirely in order to devote themselves to art. Those aren’t decisions I’ve made myself, obviously. I live a very comfortable life that has required relatively few compromises of that nature.

But the search for truth is a self-evident good. You don’t need to argue in favor of them. In fact, they’re so self-evident that when we come across works that decry wisdom, like Kohelet does in Ecclesiastes (“a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it”) it comes across as purposefully shocking and contrarian.

Seeking truth is good. Even if seeking truth was unerringly punishable by a bolt of lightning from heaven, it would remain good (albeit impossible). And while one can certainly make the case, in abstract, that you can seek truth without reading literature, I think we know that you cannot seek certain kinds of truth without accessing the wisdom of ages.

Seen in that sense, I just don’t think literature needs to be defended, in either the strong or the weak sense. I think that people who seek a certain sort of truth will inevitably be drawn to literature, and that (although this is less common) at least some people who study literature will be inspired with a love for truth.

In my case, the truth I sought was a very small one. I wanted to know how to write well. I always saw myself as a science fiction writer, but I didn’t want there to be anything about the writing of fiction that I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to be a writer who was bored by Tolstoy or Chekhov. So I read them. And curiosity drove me to read other things. And it’s been immensely rewarding, and after these many years of reading, I do think there are truths which I know.

For instance, I know that if you’re making a political argument in a book, then you must construct the argument as honestly as possible. You cannot pit the weakest form of your opponent’s argument against the strongest form of your own. That is why I liked Uncle Tom’s Cabin so much. It might not be aesthetically beautiful, but it was created with a singular purpose: to demonstrate the wrongs of slavery. And it moves through its arguments quite methodically, by showing how the system works under ‘good’ masters, mediocre ones, and cruel ones. It uses tools and details drawn directly from slave narratives, and it shapes them with an eye to what a typical racist, apologist white reader might say. The book has flaws, including what some might call racist caricatures, but it was written with a deeply serious purpose. The book wasn’t written to secure a book deal or to sell copies or to preach to the converted. It was written to persuade people that slavery is morally wrong and must end. I cannot say whether it was effective or not, but you can tell that the effort was made in good faith.

In contrast, lots of novels and TV shows that’re written nowadays with a political purpose are deeply dishonest. For instance, that movie everyone loved, Don’t Look Up: it accurately conveyed how senseless climate denial is to people who believe in climate change, but it didn’t even pretend that anyone on the other side was acting in good faith or was anything other than an idiot. As such, it lacked persuasive power. Slavery is a much graver moral evil than denying climate change, but because of that, the writers of the time thought they had a moral duty to engage in effective agit-prop. You can see this in the slave narratives too: in Twelve Years A Slave and in The Life of Harriet Jacobs you can see the impulse, both artistic and moral, to draw subtle distinctions of character between the slave-masters, all in service of the broader point, which is: there is no moral way of upholding this institution. The works have moral power precisely because they are so humane. The same is true of a novel I recently read by Ulrich Boskwitz, Passenger, which was written in 1938, by a Jewish refugee from Germany, about the contemporary situation in Germany for Jewish people. It’s about a white-passing Jewish person who learns the SS want to pick him up, so he goes on the lam, taking circuits on the train all around Germany. And he continually meets other people who understand that life is difficult for him, but, well, for them it’s just not a pressing issue. It’s exactly the way you or I might feel about a woman trying to get an abortion in Texas. Our heart goes out to them, but that’s their problem. They have our sympathy or even our vote, but nothing else.

I’ve been reading, as well, a number of books about literature in the Soviet Union. As you know, there were essentially five eras in Soviet literature: the brief post-Revolutionary period (roughly corresponding to War Communism and then the NEP), where writers had freedom and engaged in stylistic experimentation; Stalinism, when writers were terrified and many were executed or sentenced to the gulag; the Khruschev Thaw, where a few writers were allowed to publish work that was critical of the Stalin era; and then the several decade-long Khrushchev-Brezhnev-Andropov era, when all literature once again had to glorify the party and state; and, finally, glasnost, which is an interesting era with its own dynamics. And what’s most interesting is that most writers were happy with state control of literature. Few people supported Stalin’s terror (at least once it was safely in the past). But during the Thaw and, especially, during glasnost, many writers fought to preserve the monopoly of state control over literature.

Their reasoning was, “Under capitalism, you can write whatever you want, but nobody will read it, and you’ll starve, and your work will have no social utility. Under communism, you have to glorify the party and the state, but you’re guaranteed high social status and high earnings, and, most of all, you know that your work matters.” Writers basically understood the kind of thing that would get published, so they wrote that thing. There was less need than you’d think for formal censorship procedures, because the choice wasn’t between publishing good work and publishing bad work, the choice was between publishing correct work or not publishing at all. So the whole system self-selected for people who would say the right thing, because the others simply weren’t allowed to become writers in the first place.

The result was an immense quantity of literature about how great the Soviet state was. Really, the only problem was…nobody read it. The Writer’s Union would publish five million copy print runs (with a royalty on printing to the writer for each copy) of the books of its leaders, and they would be distributed all over the country and…nobody read them.

Oddly enough, people didn’t even want dissident literature. They just wanted to be entertained. Apparently the black market demand for Agatha Christie books was intensely high. At some point even some successful Soviet writers of jingoistic thrillers (their equivalent of a Tom Clancy) were like, what is with this Writer’s Union BS: can’t you publish more authors people want to read?

Anyway, Soviet authors were quite content to justify their system as being superior to the capitalist system, which, in their view, also produced tons of books that reified the capitalist system. After all, under capitalism a book can only exist if it is profitable, and the mere fact of it existing is enough to show that capitalism ‘works.’ So in the act of buying a book, even an anti-capitalist one, you are supporting capitalism.

And I was thinking, “How are they wrong?” Both systems produce an immense number of books whose main purpose is to propagandize and stupefy the masses. In America, we have a drearily endless number of books that are in some sense ‘about’ racism, but which don’t convince anyone or in any way improve our understanding of the phenomenon. And they’re written because reading them in some way makes people feel good, and people read them, not to search for wisdom, but in search of that feeling.

But at least under capitalism you can read other things. You can read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the slave narratives. You can even read Soviet literature if you want! (I’ve ordered a few books by non-dissident writers and am trying to read them). But I think, yeah, for whatever reason–mostly economic, probably–not many people in America will ever have the ability to do what I’ve done, and to pursue their curiosity in the way I’ve done. I can’t say that our system encourages this kind of reading, but at least it isn’t banned.

Through this post I’ve been circling around the issue of left-wing censoriousness and closed-mindedness. It’s a real phenomenon. Many people on the left think you’re a bigot if you disagree with them on relatively minor issues, including matters of terminology. People are constantly on the look-out for evidence that, despite your professed belief in equality, you’re really racist or transphobic or misogynist or whatever.

I think the behavior is mostly due to hopelessness. We know that our democracy is crumbling, and our civil liberties are eroding. The people responsible aren’t listening to us, and they will likely never listen to us. We who make art feel unable to stop the terrible and senseless persecutions we see around us. And the truth is, we likely are unable. We live in a country with three hundred and fifty million people, and no words we say, and certainly none we can write, have the power to stop the rest of those people from doing as they’d like to.

Some people say this is proof that misinformation and bad ideas are too powerful and must be censored. I’d say it’s the opposite: it’s proof that in the modern era, censorship is of limited use. After all, if the entire intelligentsia of a country–the people in charge of creating its ideas–has supported for several decades certain notions of freedom and equality, and if it has used all of its power to push those ideas, and those ideas still have not entirely won, then I don’t know if censorship is going to succeed either.

But I also don’t think it matters one way or another. It doesn’t matter, particularly, if Dave Chappelle is on Netflix or not. It doesn’t matter if Joe Rogan is on Spotify or not. It certainly doesn’t matter if a sci-fi author otherwise known for supporting racial equity uses a word that strikes some people as offensive. The truth is, I don’t know how to change the world. Maybe some people think that left-wing censoriousness and ‘deplatforming’ will have some impact: I think that idea is foolish.

But I also don’t know if left-wing censoriousness is particularly harmful. To be honest, it merely strikes me as a symptom of the times, rather than a cause of them.

The only way in which this censoriousness interests me is in its effect on art. Because although right-wing ideas are very influential in our country at large, they are not particularly influential in literature. This isn’t true at all times and for all places: in early 20th and 19th century Germany, right-wing ideas were influential both in the universities and in their written literature. But at this time and place, when it comes to writing books, the publishing and writing environment are far more influenced by left-wing ideas. And at the moment the prevailing idea seems to be a version of the Soviet partynost: you should not write anything that could be read as a criticism of left-wing ideas, because doing so weakens them and makes the right-wing stronger.

This party-mindedness has a large effect on me. I try to write the truth. I live in San Francisco, amongst people who range from liberal to left-wing. I am non-white; I am a trans woman. And the truth is that all people, in all places, have an ugly side. All people, in all places, face genuine moral conundrums. And oftentimes those ugly things and those conundra are directly related to their identity. Under the spirit of partynost, I should never write, for instance, about a trans girl who lies to her parents, saying she is certain she wants to be on hormones, and then, once she is on them, is like, phew, okay, this is great, that was a good decision. That is probably one of the worst offenses against the party I could ever write, because one of our central themes right now is that trans kids need to be on hormones (if they want them) #BelieveTransWomen.

And yet this conflicts with a truth that parents understand quite clearly, which is that kids are still kids. And sometimes they’re just not sure about things (hell, oftentimes adults aren’t sure about things).

It would be easy to close the loop here and say, look, we improve our argument when we deal realistically, as Harriet Beecher Stowe did, with the ideas of the opposition: if we can show that it’s good even for the unsure girl to have the option to be on hormones, then we’ve strengthened our argument. But that’s not how most people in the party feel. They feel we should simply deny the phenomenon of unsureness. And I don’t have any empirical proof here of whether they’re right or they’re wrong about that.

That idea–the notion that we should self-censor or hide ideas that might be injurious to our cause–has a major effect on literature today, and it’s simply absurd to pretend it doesn’t. Now, does this mean that left-wing censoriousness is ruining America? No. But if what you care about is literature and the effect and power of literature, then left-wing censoriousness is a lot more interesting to you right now than right-wing fascism is (even though you’re a lot more scared of the latter than the former).

And that is an example of an article that a journal today would probably hold onto for six months because they were squeamish about publishing it. What a totally innocuous article, right? Anyway, hopefully more to come!

4 thoughts on “The reason literary critics are obsessed with wokeness and cancel culture

  1. Jenny

    I am so glad I took the time to read this truthful essay instead of watching The Dropout. You are becoming one of my favorite writers. I’ll watch The Dropout tomorrow.

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