In Bend Sinister, Nabokov’s 1947 novel about political tyranny, the philosopher Adam Krug is asked to sign an oath of loyalty to the régime. “Legal documents excepted, and not all of them at that,” he says, “I never have signed, nor ever shall sign, anything not written by myself.”
This simple confession of faith in individual expression ought to be on the desk of every working writer. A lot of contemporary American writers, however, believe in something a lot more important. As of this morning, nearly a thousand of them have eagerly signed the latest oath:
We, the undersigned writers and all who will join us, support Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement around the world.
(Here is a slightly older list of signatories if the main site is down.) The list of writers reads like a social register of the current literary elite. A list of the major American writers who refused to sign the oath would be much smaller — not only because there aren’t too many major American writers now working, but also because no one seems to consider a Nabokov-like statement of refusal worth making. (At least I can’t find any on the web.)
Only a few writers on the list take the trouble to explain their signatures. Perhaps the most embarrassing is Francine Prose. She “burst into tears,” she explains, when she saw the camp at Occupy Wall Street. It wasn’t the anti-Semitism on display there that caused her to break down. No, she was “moved” by the “variety of people” who were talking to one another with “openness and sympathy.” You know, “grannies talking to goths,” and the like. Makes me want to cry too.
Prose was “struck” by the “clarity” of the movement: “clarity of purpose, clarity of intention, clarity of method, clarity of understanding of the most basic social and economic realities.” She must not have talked to the same people New York magazine talked to. Apparently, though, the “purpose” and “intention” of the protests are so clear that she needn’t bother with clarifying them any further. It’s enough, for her, to say that “we” are “being lied to and robbed on a daily basis.” Ah, the convenience of the passive voice, which excuses the writer from having to say who is lying and what is being robbed.
I may have to resign my office as president of the Francine Prose Fan Club. The truth about the “Occupy Movement” is that, far from representing the “99 percent” of Americans (as it claims), it is a fringe movement of radical leftist ideologues who are “dangerously out of touch with the broad mass of the American people.” Those words belong to Douglas Schoen, who reported in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal on the results of polling among the protestors at Occupy Wall Street. What unifies the “Occupy Movement,” Schoen’s polling revealed, is “opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas.”
No one who reads very much contemporary literature will be surprised to learn that many prominent writers share those same ideals. The current literary elite is also a faction of radical leftist ideologues who are out of touch with the American people. As Laura Miller wrote in Salon when the five obscure and politicized finalists for this year’s National Book Award in fiction were announced:
[T]he National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach.
Then Miller went ahead and signed the oath in support of the “Occupy Movement.” It’s bad enough, I suppose, that contemporary writers are bent upon estranging the broad mass of the American reading public. What is worse is their betrayal of their profession. As Dennis Prager observes in a brilliant essay at National Review Online, the political left (which now includes the bulk of American writers) is unified, from its violent and extremist fringe to its democratic center, by a single ideal:
Being on the left means that you divide the world between rich and poor much more than you divide it between good and evil. For the leftist, the existence of rich and poor — inequality — is what constitutes evil. More than tyranny, inequality disturbs the Left, including the non-Communist Left.
The profession of the writer, by contrast, depends upon freedom, and especially upon a fanatical absolutist commitment to freedom of expression. As Nabokov said in a 1964 interview with Playboy,
[S]ince my youth — I was nineteen when I left Russia — my political creed has remained as bleak and changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me.
Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art: there is the only political creed which can unite all writers into a political party. Many prominent American writers have lost interest in freedom, however, and have become obsessed with a world that is divided between rich and poor. Small wonder, then, that more and more readers are losing interest in them.
The murderous political tyrant in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister upholds the doctrine of Ekwilism. (Say it aloud.) When Adam Krug begs, “Leave me alone,” the Ekwilists reply, “Alone is the vilest word in the lnaguage. Nobody is alone. When a cell in an organism says ‘leave me alone,’ the result is cancer.” They insist that Krug, an exceptional man, swear allegiance to a political régime founded upon hostility to the exceptional. They demand he submit to a political system dedicated to “a remolding of human individuals in conformity with a well-balanced pattern.”
Almost a thousand of the best contemporary writers have now joined the Ekwilist party, eagerly supporting the goals of radical leftist tyranny. It’s good, at least, to have them listed in one place.