Commentary Magazine


Topic: politics and literature

Blue Lit, Red Lit

Amazon’s “Election Heat Map” has Governor Romney ahead of President Obama by 59 percent to 41 percent based on purchases of “red” books versus “blue” books. Pretty much without exception, the books on both lists are topical and perishable, if they do not yet belong in the trash (soon, though). Killing Lincoln, a popular retelling of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 by the TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, is the bestselling “red” title. (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, by an earlier journalistic hack, must be out of print.) Winner-Take-All Politics, a 350-page pile of muckraking on the “growing inequality of incomes,” is the top “blue” title.

Since the divide between blue liberals and red conservatives is as much cultural as political, this self-sorting into blue and red bestseller lists makes some sense. Anyone who reads very much contemporary literature, though, knows that any such self-division is impossible: there are not enough “red” books for a short reading list. Anything by Charles McCarry, of course, especially Shelley’s Heart. The historical novelist Thomas Mallon, who has written historical reconstructions of Watergate and the McCarthy era. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with its vituperation toward “the American berserk.” (As if to compensate for the acclaim he received from conservatives, Roth went public a few years later with his Bush-bashing.) [Update: Guido Brunetti nominates Mark Helprin on the basis of Refiner’s Fire, and Josiah Neeley reminds me that I should have mentioned Tom Wolfe. The latter is an especially stupid omission given that I will be reviewing Back to Blood, one of the best novels of 2012 and perhaps Wolfe’s best to date, in December’s COMMENTARY.] If you go back a couple of generations, you can expand the red list to include Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a novel that is not often recognized as a masterpiece of anti-Communist literature), Nabokov, Eudora Welty. But even with a few big names on the right side, the left has all the trend-lines and momentum. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to avoid Facebook, because I haven’t wanted their relentless politicking for Obama to lower my opinion of some contemporary novelists. If any contemporary writer has come out for Romney, I’ve missed it.

Whether the deep blue tinge of contemporary literature is the unanticipated consequence of a historical event (the leftist domination of humanities faculties in the universities), or whether writers are blue for the same reason English professors are blue (their self-regard depends upon it), is an open question. ’Twas not always so, however. Once upon a time literature was as likely to be red as blue:

    Blue Literature

  • Plato, Republic
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Defoe, Moll Flanders
  • Johnson, Rasselas
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Blake, Songs of Innocence
  • Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  • Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • Dickens, Great Expectations
  • Eliot, Middlemarch
  • Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  • Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  • Wells, The Time Machine
  • Proust, In Search of Lost Time
  • Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
    Red Literature

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Fielding, Tom Jones
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Austen, Emma
  • Brontë, Jane Eyre
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Conrad, Nostromo
  • Kafka, The Trial
  • Joyce, Ulysses
  • Cather, My Ántonia
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Blue literature is a literature of ideals with a strong nose for justice, a healthy suspicion of inherited position or class, and a fundamentally “Whiggish” confidence in human advancement. The themes of red literature are limitation, decline, responsibility, a distaste for monomania (or any kind of mania, for that matter), a commitment to institutions, and a strong feeling for place and the past. The party lines aren’t particularly neat and tidy, however, because all literature is liberal in the classic sense — literature is the affirmation of human freedom and the dignity of the individual. And perhaps the division shows little more than that “blue” and “red” are a matter of temperament and disposition more than anything else. The skeptics are found on the right; the forward-looking personalities on the left. Oh, and religious types become increasingly red as the present heaves near.

____________________

Update, II: The choice above that has caused the most consternation is Huckleberry Finn in the red list. It’s true that Mark Twain went over to the blue side, at least in his extraliterary opinions, later in life. Here is a pretty good article that sorts through the biographical evidence. Huckleberry Finn, though — classified on the basis of its content, not its author — is unambiguously a red-state book. It is a sustained attack on politically correct thinking. Huck knows what the right thing is. The right thing is to turn Jim over to his “rightful owner.” When he finds that he is unable to do so, despite a conscience that will give him no rest, Huck feels guilty. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, “and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show. . . .” But then he stops and thinks. Suppose he had “done right and give Jim up.” Would he feel any better?

No, says I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use of learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

There is another way of putting Huck’s moral decision: he decides to act on behalf of whoever is closest to hand, the person he is nearest to. He stands by Jim because closeness trumps correctness (and because he promised to). This is the ethic of loyalty, the spirit that holds together friendships and families and the other kinds of voluntary association that red-staters like to call “mediating institutions,” a bulwark of freedom. This preference for the informality of attachment over the formality of virtue runs throughout the novel. The villains are those who defend abstract principle or public morality — the Grangerfords, Colonel Sherburn, even Tom Sawyer — and the hero is a black slave who, out of personal loyalty, stays with the boy who has been shot in an adventurous and entirely gratuitous escape, never a “better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it.”

Amazon’s “Election Heat Map” has Governor Romney ahead of President Obama by 59 percent to 41 percent based on purchases of “red” books versus “blue” books. Pretty much without exception, the books on both lists are topical and perishable, if they do not yet belong in the trash (soon, though). Killing Lincoln, a popular retelling of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 by the TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, is the bestselling “red” title. (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, by an earlier journalistic hack, must be out of print.) Winner-Take-All Politics, a 350-page pile of muckraking on the “growing inequality of incomes,” is the top “blue” title.

Since the divide between blue liberals and red conservatives is as much cultural as political, this self-sorting into blue and red bestseller lists makes some sense. Anyone who reads very much contemporary literature, though, knows that any such self-division is impossible: there are not enough “red” books for a short reading list. Anything by Charles McCarry, of course, especially Shelley’s Heart. The historical novelist Thomas Mallon, who has written historical reconstructions of Watergate and the McCarthy era. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with its vituperation toward “the American berserk.” (As if to compensate for the acclaim he received from conservatives, Roth went public a few years later with his Bush-bashing.) [Update: Guido Brunetti nominates Mark Helprin on the basis of Refiner’s Fire, and Josiah Neeley reminds me that I should have mentioned Tom Wolfe. The latter is an especially stupid omission given that I will be reviewing Back to Blood, one of the best novels of 2012 and perhaps Wolfe’s best to date, in December’s COMMENTARY.] If you go back a couple of generations, you can expand the red list to include Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a novel that is not often recognized as a masterpiece of anti-Communist literature), Nabokov, Eudora Welty. But even with a few big names on the right side, the left has all the trend-lines and momentum. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to avoid Facebook, because I haven’t wanted their relentless politicking for Obama to lower my opinion of some contemporary novelists. If any contemporary writer has come out for Romney, I’ve missed it.

Whether the deep blue tinge of contemporary literature is the unanticipated consequence of a historical event (the leftist domination of humanities faculties in the universities), or whether writers are blue for the same reason English professors are blue (their self-regard depends upon it), is an open question. ’Twas not always so, however. Once upon a time literature was as likely to be red as blue:

    Blue Literature

  • Plato, Republic
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Defoe, Moll Flanders
  • Johnson, Rasselas
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Blake, Songs of Innocence
  • Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  • Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • Dickens, Great Expectations
  • Eliot, Middlemarch
  • Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  • Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  • Wells, The Time Machine
  • Proust, In Search of Lost Time
  • Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
    Red Literature

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Fielding, Tom Jones
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Austen, Emma
  • Brontë, Jane Eyre
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Conrad, Nostromo
  • Kafka, The Trial
  • Joyce, Ulysses
  • Cather, My Ántonia
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Blue literature is a literature of ideals with a strong nose for justice, a healthy suspicion of inherited position or class, and a fundamentally “Whiggish” confidence in human advancement. The themes of red literature are limitation, decline, responsibility, a distaste for monomania (or any kind of mania, for that matter), a commitment to institutions, and a strong feeling for place and the past. The party lines aren’t particularly neat and tidy, however, because all literature is liberal in the classic sense — literature is the affirmation of human freedom and the dignity of the individual. And perhaps the division shows little more than that “blue” and “red” are a matter of temperament and disposition more than anything else. The skeptics are found on the right; the forward-looking personalities on the left. Oh, and religious types become increasingly red as the present heaves near.

____________________

Update, II: The choice above that has caused the most consternation is Huckleberry Finn in the red list. It’s true that Mark Twain went over to the blue side, at least in his extraliterary opinions, later in life. Here is a pretty good article that sorts through the biographical evidence. Huckleberry Finn, though — classified on the basis of its content, not its author — is unambiguously a red-state book. It is a sustained attack on politically correct thinking. Huck knows what the right thing is. The right thing is to turn Jim over to his “rightful owner.” When he finds that he is unable to do so, despite a conscience that will give him no rest, Huck feels guilty. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, “and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show. . . .” But then he stops and thinks. Suppose he had “done right and give Jim up.” Would he feel any better?

No, says I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use of learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

There is another way of putting Huck’s moral decision: he decides to act on behalf of whoever is closest to hand, the person he is nearest to. He stands by Jim because closeness trumps correctness (and because he promised to). This is the ethic of loyalty, the spirit that holds together friendships and families and the other kinds of voluntary association that red-staters like to call “mediating institutions,” a bulwark of freedom. This preference for the informality of attachment over the formality of virtue runs throughout the novel. The villains are those who defend abstract principle or public morality — the Grangerfords, Colonel Sherburn, even Tom Sawyer — and the hero is a black slave who, out of personal loyalty, stays with the boy who has been shot in an adventurous and entirely gratuitous escape, never a “better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it.”

Read Less

The Political Value of Novelists

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

Read Less




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