THE UNDIVIDING LINE BETWEEN LITERARY AND POLITICAL
by Okla Elliott
It has been said that poetry feeds no one, and no doubt, I have felt occasionally that reading or writing literature is merely an indulgence, one many people cannot afford. But that’s a rather limited view of how literature, the presses that publish it, and its practitioners function in the world.
In many ways, literature offers an opportunity to be political completely outside the electoral arena, something the people of this country (which has a two-party duopoly currently in place) sorely need.
Who can read a novel like The Quiet American (Graham Greene) and not rethink the Vietnam Conflict in human terms? Who can read Fox Girl (Nora Okja Keller) and not be heartbroken over how US military bases in South Korea negatively impacted the lives of the people who inhabited the camptowns around them? And, here again, in human/emotional terms, not mere numbers which lose meaning in their abstraction. Gore Vidal’s historical novels help readers to review American history from a different perspective. War memoirs personalize tragedies via the concrete and hellish details, as opposed a government’s abstractions of patriotism, freedom, or liberation which try (quite effectively) to dehumanize what is going on and thereby make it more stomachable.
That is perhaps literature’s greatest strength. It removes the easy cleanness of abstraction and introduces the muck and blood of reality into political thought. I do not mean to suggest that more rigid statistical analysis doesn’t have a very important role in politics; of course it does, as nearly everyone agrees. But literature can bring life to those numbers in a way that can motivate people to act, which our emotions are more likely to do than our intellect in most cases.
Unfortunately, however, too often writers in the United States eschew the political as beneath the dignity of high art. Not only is this a view solely held by our nation (in Europe, Africa, South America, etc, politics and art/literature quite often go hand in hand), but it is also so obviously nonsensical, I don’t see how it gained such ideological traction. Am I to believe that the lives and deaths of my fellow man are beneath the purview of art? Or that war cannot or should not produce insightful novels and poems?
But literary work doesn’t have to be openly political to perform a political or ethical function. When a middle-aged man in upstate New York reads a novel about a young girl in an impoverished Kentucky town, his knowledge of humanity is broadened as are his powers of empathy. And empathy makes us less likely to support policies that harm others.
And it’s not just the work itself that is political. There is a political aspect to the publishing and purchasing of books.
Let’s look at small presses for a moment. The term “small press” is an elusive term, as it includes presses with an all-paid staff and tens of thousands of dollars in grant support, as well as presses run by an all-volunteer staff out of someone’s apartment. But what small presses definitely are not are the huge publishing houses owned by corporations like AT&T that largely crank out books with cute cats on the cover or books that otherwise play to our basest sensibilities. Take, as an example of an excellent small press, Ugly Duckling Presse, which specializes in experimental literature and literature in translation. Experimental literature might have no overt political message, but it seeks to shake things up or offer an alternative view on human experience and thought. And translation is highly political, even when the content of what is translated is not. Every translation is an entry into another culture, an invitation to understand how people live in other parts of the world. By better understanding other cultures, it strikes me that we are more likely to respect them and therefore less likely to want to bomb the shit out of them. And, aside from the occasional blockbuster hit, most translation comes out of university presses or small presses, as well as small literary journals.
To take a cue from this blog’s name, I’ll not be merely descriptive of what literature can and does do; I’ll be prescriptive about what editors, writers, and readers ought to do (or ought to do more of), bringing us to the classic progressive question—what is to be done? First, editors need to solicit more well-crafted political writing, more translations, and more travel literature (whether it be poetry or prose, fiction or non-). Second, more writers need to be producing such work (and here I don’t mean preachy, one-dimensional stuff, but rather complex, well-crafted, multiply indicting work). Third, lovers of literature and writers (or people who hope to be writers) need to support the small press industry with subscriptions to journals and by buying books. We also need to purchase well-written and politically sophisticated books from the major publishers to teach them in the only terms they understand (i.e., profits) to produce more books like the aforementioned Fox Girl (out from Penguin) and fewer books with cats dressed in cowboy hats or superman capes or whathaveyou.
In closing, I offer a very abbreviated list of books, journals, and presses that might be of interest. If you have any to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.
Rising Up and Rising Down (nonfiction), by William T Vollmann; After the Lost War (poetry), by Andrew Hudgins; Disgrace (fiction), by J.M. Coetzee; This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (fiction), by Tadeusz Borowski; Salazar Blinks (fiction), by David Slavitt; Cancer Ward (fiction), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Our Lives Are Rivers (poetry) by Mark Smith-Soto; A Gesture Life (fiction), by Chang-Rae Lee; Selected Poems (poetry), by Marina Tsvetaeva; Death and the Maiden (drama), by Ariel Dorfman; Christopher Unborn (fiction), by Carlos Fuentes; and, again, Fox Girl (fiction), by Nora Okja Keller.
Blue Mesa Review, Circumference, Contrary, Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Monthly Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, New York Quarterly, A Public Space, and The Sun.
Copper Canyon Press, Dzanc Books, Graywolf Press, Monthly Review Press, Press 53, Red Hen Press, Seven Stories Press, and Wave Books—as well as dozens of university presses (e.g., Ohio State, LSU, Northwestern, etc).