Magazine article Foreign Policy

Farewell to Arms: Has American Fiction Lost Its Political Edge?

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Farewell to Arms: Has American Fiction Lost Its Political Edge?

Article excerpt


In an era of ideological polarization and violent extremism, American readers are showing a hearty appetite for nonfiction books that deal with urgent social and political issues--works such as Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me or Jill Leovy's Ghettoside, a report on the murder epidemic in South Los Angeles. Yet some literary critics are lamenting that Western novelists are sitting out the wars. Instead of confronting the world as it is, they are retreating into imaginary realms of their own.

Last May, for example, British-born writer Aminatta Forna delivered a speech in Boston in which she asserted that writers from Turkey, Bosnia, China, and Russia addressed the politics and current events in their countries "because it mattered." It was impossible to live in these places, she argued, and not realize that the destiny of individuals was shaped by history. By contrast, she said, "a Western readership tends to be far more interested in the interior worlds of writing and reading. Writing is perceived as a private battle with the individual consciousness." American novelists, in her view, set the aesthetic in opposition to the political, afraid to let the big, messy world invade their walled gardens.

It's true that most American novelists are not writing works like those of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, or Ernest Hemingway--authors who confronted poverty, corruption, or battlefield carnage with realistic depictions of events that they witnessed. But this doesn't mean that American writers have abandoned political fiction--what critic Lionel Trilling once described as the "bloody crossroads where politics and literature meet"--or that they are indifferent to the world at large and their place in it. Rather, they approach these subjects with a humility born of the knowledge that literary fiction, in the United States today, is the concern of a small, generally like-minded readership. A literature that recognizes itself as disenfranchised, powerless to shape public debate, will approach politics in more idiosyncratic ways.

The fact is that, ever since planes crashed into the World Trade Center, American novels have been unable to avoid politics, and novelists have provided crucial insights into the political temper of the moment. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, one of the most acclaimed and best-selling literary novels in the past IS years, is explicitly about the Iraq War, which he portrays as morally corrupt, and the environmental movement, which he sees as a noble if likely doomed effort. Franzen, however, is an exception. For the most part, when American novelists address political subjects today, they do so not through realism, but through flamboyant, genre-bending fiction.

This approach flourished in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, when what had once seemed to be unshakeable pillars of American existence--physical security, economic prosperity, world primacy--began to teeter. A future historian who wanted evidence of how these events affected the American psyche would have plenty of novels to choose from. In Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, for instance, a near-future America is embroiled in a losing war in Venezuela and is so crippled by debt that China has taken over the economy. …

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