For the Great Writers of the 20th Century, Art Could Not Be Separated from Politics. Today, There Is a Disturbing Silence on the Dark Matters That Should Command Our Attention

By Pilger, John | New Statesman (1996), November 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

For the Great Writers of the 20th Century, Art Could Not Be Separated from Politics. Today, There Is a Disturbing Silence on the Dark Matters That Should Command Our Attention


Pilger, John, New Statesman (1996)


In 1935, the first Congress of American Writers was held at the Carnegie Hall in New York, followed by another two years later. By one account, 3,500 crammed into the auditorium and a thousand more were turned away. They were electric events, with writers discussing how they could confront ominous events in Abyssinia, China and Spain. Telegrams from Thomas Mann, C Day Lewis, Upton Sinclair and Albert Einstein were read out, reflecting the fear that great power was now rampant and that it had become impossible to discuss art and literature without politics.

"A writer," Martha Gellhorn told the second congress, "must be a man of action now ... A man who has given a year of his life to steel strikes, or to the unemployed, or to the problems of racial prejudice, has not lost or wasted time. He is a man who has known where he belonged. If you should survive such action, what you have to say about it afterwards is the truth, is necessary and real, and it will last."

Her words echo across the silence today. That the menace of great and violent power in our own times is apparently accepted by celebrated writers, and by many of those who guard the gates of literary criticism, is uncontroversial. Not for them the impossibility of writing and promoting literature bereft of politics. Not for them the responsibility to speak out--a responsibility felt by even the unpolitical Ernest Hemingway. Today, realism is declared obsolete; an ironic hauteur is affected; false symbolism is all. As for the readers, their political imagination is to be pacified, not primed; after all, what do they care? Martin Amis expressed this well in Visiting, Mrs Nabokov. "The dominance of the self is not a flaw, it is an evolutionary characteristic; it is just how things are."

So it is "evolution". We have evolved to the apolitical self; to the introspection and squabbles of individuals divorced from any notion that their self-obsession is less important and less interesting than an engagement with how things really are for the rest of us. Some years ago, the then budding literary critic D J Taylor wrote a rare piece called "When the pen sleeps". He expanded this into a book, A Vain Conceit, in which he wondered why the English novel so often degenerated into "drawing room twitter" and why the urgent issues of the day were shunned by writers, unlike their counterparts in, say, Latin America who felt an obligation to take up the political essence in all our lives and which shapes our lives. Where, he asked, were the George Orwells, the Upton Sinclairs, the John Stein becks? (Taylor recently seemed to be repudiating this; let's hope he has recovered his nerve.)

The main literature prize shortlists bear out his original thesis. Yet according to Claire Armistead, literary editor of the Guardian, "writers are challenging any sort of parochialism". But what else do they challenge? She describes "real generic inventiveness" in the three non-fiction nominations of the Guardian Book Award. One is about a neurologist who plays with words in a "totally eccentric" way; another is about mountains; another is about the former East Germany which, she says, "makes you understand a little better what a funny old world we live in".

But where are the contemporary works that go to the heart of this funny old world, as the books of Steinbeck and Joseph Heller did? Where is the equivalent of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, Jonathan Coe's What a Carve-Up! and Timothy Mo's The Redundancy of Courage? There are, of course, honourable exceptions. …

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