THE UNDIVIDING LINE BETWEEN LITERARY AND POLITICAL

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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.

Books

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.

Journals

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.

Presses

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).

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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13 Responses to THE UNDIVIDING LINE BETWEEN LITERARY AND POLITICAL

  1. andy frazee says:

    Great entry. Might want to take a look at a special issue of Poetics Today (from 2004) on ethics and literature, which relates nicely to the thoughts here. Also: Cannot Exist (a journal) features experimental, often overtly political poetry. Cheers.

    • oklaelliott says:

      Thanks, Andy. I’ll be sure to check them out.

      I think it’s interesting that experimental literature and progressive or radical politics have so often gone hand in hand. Probably due to a general iconoclasm, I’d imagine.

      • Andy Frazee says:

        Okla–sorry for the stupid-long lapse in response, but thinking on this same subject: something I find interesting in the realm of the experimental-political is the tension between the experimental impulse and the need to be somewhat accessible to people who aren’t specially trained to interpret experimental literature. Have you read either Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, or Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely? Two books by poets normally considered experimental, and two books I find eminently accessible. Anyway: cheers again, a month later. AF

  2. Marlon says:

    I think it’s interesting that you note literature’s move away from the political, but it seems a good deal of art has done this in America. Specifically, the musical community does not crank out protest songs at the same rate it did in the 1960s.

    Popular American Literary Fiction, in my opinion, is very political. It seems only to not want to take a specific political stance. When scholars are beginning to identify “Post 9/11” as a genre classification I think you’d be hard pressed to say these books aren’t in some way inserting themselves into the political realm. Where you are right is that they may not be doing anything progressive. Does Benjamin Kunkel’s 2005 novel Indecision do anything for the democratic socialist cause? Do books like Falling Man, What is the What?, and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country insight any kind of important changes in readers?

    Perhaps another issue is not that writers are not trying to insight progressive change, but that readers are much more difficult to rally in 2009?

    • oklaelliott says:

      To be honest, I think What is the What accomplishes what I am calling for here. It engages with political issues openly, dealing with tensions between African Americans and Africans, which is touchy and not something prescribed as either progressive or conservative — it’s just trying to depict the dirty details of how the world is.

      By merely bringing these issues to the public eye, writers like Eggers, Vollmann, Wallace, Atwood, etc are doing an important political service.

  3. adam. says:

    “I don’t see how it gained such ideological traction.” Maybe artists/writers in this country have shied away from politics as a result of the stress caused by information saturation. The Huffington Post, 24 hour news, hell even Comedy Central all claim politics as within their purview and bombard us with mostly bad journalism until even the most engaged among us feel intellectually taxed beyond measure. Little wonder that when people consume/make art politics is lacking.

  4. Bernard says:

    I think what you say about humanizing the conflict is right, and that sort of art is effective. The problem might be with multiply indicting. When “pure” fascism was around, anyone could make effective, honest political art: just draw a swastika. Now fascism isn’t a result of centrality but diffusion. I’ve seen a lot of easy art w GWB as a vampire, bad writing simplifying the issue, etc. and really never seen/heard about him being drunk, impressionable, scared. There’s also the issue of demonization as easy art, and art being prestige. Laziness is a factor here. Sorry robe scattershot, phone-typin.

    • oklaelliott says:

      I think you’re spot on. It’s very easy to do bad, one-dimensional political art. But I see no evidence that bad art or writing is confined to the politically inclined work. There are horrible essays about the time some guy dumped some girl, or breathtakingly bad poems about a grandma’s quilt being remembered after her death.

      I think political writing needs to live up to the same standards as any other writing — complexity of vision and honesty of approach.

  5. Jamey Hecht says:

    Let the vanity of my self-promotion be utterly eclipsed by the spirit of my book, which is a thoroughly political and tragic one, full of utopian social hope, as I post this note about it in response to your call for a political literature. Your final paragraph (that begins “To take a cue”) contains 3 urgent suggestions, 1 each for writers, editors, and readers. I believe I have enacted the first; your second would enable the third. Thank you.

    Limousine, Midnight Blue

    The book’s website features 8 sample poems, each with its own video trailer beside the plain text.

    “Ovid himself might have taken notice of this volume. It’s one thing to turn a woman into a tree, another more advanced thing to transform fifty frames of the Zapruder film into as many sonnets. Limousine, Midnight Blue is a radical display of poetry’s ability to freeze time, to catch fugitive —and here, disputed— moments in the amber of form.”
    —BILLY COLLINS

    “Hecht has focused on this defining moment of truth in our culture as a two-way mirror, which he can look both through—to Brown and Root, General Dynamics and the Vietnam War—and also reflexively back to Nietzsche, St. Cecilia in the Golden Legend, and the death of the young Patroclus in Homer. This insightful and learned book could become a landmark, like the event it describes.”
    —PETER DALE SCOTT

  6. Christina LaRose says:

    For brevity’s sake, I’ll add just a few to the list:

    Books – Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound and The Unsettling of America

    Press – AK Press

    Journal: CALYX

    • oklaelliott says:

      I love Wendell Berry. From his list of books, I’d add his essay collection, What Are People For?, and his Collected Poems.

  7. David Gibbs says:

    I think this country is still in state of trauma from the assassinations and political and personal attacks made since the 1960’s. Many of those that tried/wanted/were guiding the progressive aims in America were killed or destroyed/damaged and left in social oblivion. This loss allowed others to gain a strong voice which worked hand-in-hand to build the conservative revival. Fear had turned many people away from most levels of political involvement; some didn’t bother to vote. What is needed is the development of a positive sense of humanity in order to stir the courage to actively look for and work for change. Kudos for beginning a discussion on how literature can contribute to that impact.

  8. My question is why has most American literary fiction ignored the lives of working-class people? There doesn’t seem to be many blue-collar people in the work of most of the literary lions of the last few years.

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