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On politics and the American novel in 2021
I doubt the debate over the political responsibilities & obligations of the American novel has ever been out of vogue, but it’s certainly on the collective literary brain of late. Last year, Viet Thanh Nguyen warned writers (especially white writers) of retreating into the apolitical in the post-Trump years. Since 2016, novelists have been responding to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, which made a similarly urgent call for new climate fiction while also examining the formal limitations of the novel in representing crises of global scale. In 2021, countless critics forayed once more into the fraught terrain of virtue in contemporary fiction, where the concepts of “moral” and “political”—related yet meaningfully distinct—can start to blur. And no wonder our attention has fixated on these themes. The past five years have basically sucked, to put it mildly. The mounting sense of permanent crisis leads back to a perennial ask: What obligation does the novel have to respond to contemporary social and political upheaval—and what approach should it take?
I have no real answers here, unfortunately, not only because a lot of very smart and eloquent people (see above) have already said a great deal on the subject, but also because if I did I’d probably just stop writing novels and get into politics, where it sounds like I might be useful. In fact, I’m not here to write about politics at all (ha), but about negotiating pretension—an accusation leveled against some contemporary novels that, whether or not they happen to be openly political, do seem to be identifiably “literary” or (worse?) stylistically adventurous, a quality more often subsumed under the umbrella of “challenging prose.”
Because aesthetic attitudes have political consequences, it’s observations like these that make discussions about the oughts and ought-nots of the American novel feel so high-stakes.
I think this question of pretension is an interesting one to consider not necessarily because it helps to determine who’s right and wrong re: the above debates, but because its oblique relationship to political attitudes serves as a cultural diagnostic for a particular American unease around literary consumption. When you come across one author criticizing another for employing so-called 50-dollar words in the NYT, say—and not necessarily because expansive vocabulary was ill-suited to the character, themes, or general milieu of the novel under review—then aesthetic merit begins to converge on ‘accessibility.’
If the book under consideration were a political document, destined to be distributed as widely and quickly as possible in order to galvanize real-world action, we might question whether esoteric vocab is desirable. But novels aren’t primarily political documents. Right? At the same time, even the most avowedly “apolitical” novel never really manages to sidestep politics. (See Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, where he stakes his famously apolitical aestheticism on…the protection of liberalism & freedom.)
But the anxiety over potentially “pretentious” or useless works (or over the inherently pretentious and/or useless nature of making any art at all) seems related to more substantial American anxieties about social mobility, and to our impatience to make the nation a little bit less of a shitshow—noble concerns that are political in nature, but which the click-mongering speed of online platforms and a fetishization of inclusiveness too often flatten into a self-sorting aesthetic aimed at mass appeal.
(At least within the range of our respective echo chambers.)
And this is maybe where protecting the slow politics of the novel—in all its pretentious formal and stylistic variety—comes in.
The Little Man at Chehaw Station
I’m not usually one for listing favorites, because mine are always changing and there is always more to read, but Ralph Ellison’s “The Little Man At Chehaw Station” has long been a reference point for me regarding how the American artist manages her relationship with an unruly, exacting American audience–her “collaborator and judge.”
First published in American Scholar in 1977, it remains relevant in a literary moment where most of that collaboration (and judgment) takes place online, often in forums like Twitter.
The essay opens with Ellison returning from a botched trumpet performance at the Tuskegee Institute. He seeks reassurance from his mentor and instructor, the classical pianist Hazel Harrison, who suggests that his dressing-down was well deserved. He retreated into skill and craft, she explains, abandoning a certain “structuring of emotion.” And skill and craft alone are never enough to win over Americans (Harrison has recently returned from Germany, btw, fleeing Hitler). In America, “you must always play your best,” she says, “even if it’s only in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there’ll always be a little man behind the stove….whom you don’t expect, and he’ll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship required for whatever you set out to perform!”
This idea of the “little man” is extended into a metaphor for “the diffusion of democratic sensibility” in American culture. He embodies the dynamic tension between social mobility and rigidity that defines the American experience and, in turn, the relative receptivity of the American audience to certain works of art; he inserts himself into the conversation by demanding new modes of literary expression that capture the full chaos and hypocrisy of the American scene. And he calls artists out for failing to meet this standard.
It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to see how the little man’s effect might be amplified by shifting the better part of American culture, literary and otherwise, online.
In today’s discourse, and in part in response to online culture, writers and reviewers probably rightly prioritize accessibility on the one hand, political urgency and relevance on the other. The combination, however, can yield a trend of reading (and writing) that recognizes as “political” only those works that make their political concerns especially overt—even blunt. It’s an approach that siphons off only the most immediate arguments from novels that have plenty else to say besides. And as a dominant mode of reading, writing, or reviewing (is this immediately accessible, urgent, political?), it risks dismissing formal experiment and other equally valid ways of writing with political or social relevance. It un/intentionally discounts even those new “strategies of communication” that Ellison discusses in “Chehaw Station,” on which, more below.
The overall effect of this approach to contemporary fiction is to narrow the range of possibilities for the American novel while still inviting the little man’s justifiable ire: If one thing was made clear by the the literary scuffles of 2021, it is that neither reviewers nor readers are totally satisfied with the state of American fiction and criticism.
One reason might be that it’s the little man’s intuition for authentic American forms (Ellison was a jazz fan), not only content, that makes him such an “ornery” connoisseur. Novelists may not be giving this sophistication the appropriate consideration.
For it is this venerable, “ornery” connoisseurship with which the American artist has to contend, Ellison suggests. On this side of the Atlantic (because Europe is the implied comp throughout the essay), good taste isn’t inscribed by elite tradition and social standing, but rather more flexibly attained. He cites as evidence the free flow of cultural information, the constant revision of American social hierarchy, and the little man’s own indignant demand that the author acknowledge the truth of uncodified American experience in its full complexity, including its paradoxical emphasis on both fluidity and exclusion. This is distinct from a call for representation; using the example of The Great Gatsby, Ellison insists that the little man need not necessarily see himself in the novel, but requires instead that the novel demonstrate an awareness that Gatsby’s social climbing and the little man’s position are inextricably and causally linked; the story must embody the sense that the West Egg elite are dependent on all the echelons not directly (or fairly) represented in the novel which, after all, is a finite form, unable to pay equal attention to everyone at once.
And in the search to find new modes of communication expansive enough to capture this complex network of American life—especially those unacknowledged and “uncodified” links—the little man “challenges the artist to reach out for new heights of expressiveness.”
To come full circle: he nudges the American author toward participation in the diffusion of a democratic sensibility.
Transferring this to today’s debates, we might say that digital and/or social media are a kind of fast culture, a mode of rapid diffusion especially adept at disseminating content and ideas. The novel and the little man, by contrast, are exponents of slow culture: they facilitate the diffusion of cultural forms, of entirely new rhetorics for expressing ourselves that can in time form the basis for new and radical ideas. A healthy—even a revolutionary—American politics probably requires both.
Contemporary readings of Ellison may find him overly optimistic about the power of the little man to lubricate the gears of social mobility, or to clear terrain for cultural pluralism. (Or at least I’m sympathetic to this reading.) But insofar as the little man is still relevant today, then if Ellison’s botched trumpet performance is a lesson in the perils of ignoring him altogether, then we might also consider the dangers of misinterpreting the little man’s demands—for example, by assuming him to be the kind of person turned off by high-falutin vocabulary, or who takes his literature like he takes his tweets: straight, uncompromising, tribalist. Updated for 2021, Ellison’s little man frames a more contemporary nuance: Are we calling for accessibility and inclusivity, or for the novel to participate in the diffusion of a democratic sensibility?
You can make a case for both—and certainly both feel important—but the way the author chooses to frame these motivations to herself undoubtedly affects the work. What I like about the latter approach is that it shifts our energy from blaming respective parties for the state of American literature—novelists are craven and/or immoral! critics are shallow! readers have poor taste!—to a kind of dynamic negotiation.
Either way, I’d like to think there remains an important - and rather enormous - distinction between being accessible and being democratic; the latter mode of writing is by definition complex, including a variety of codes, rhetorics, patterns, and styles (e.g. Shakespeare) such that there are multiple points of entry into the work, each of which allows for an appreciation of how these styles might interact as a whole. It feels sort of silly to regurgitate this fairly basic point. But I guess in 1977 Ellison was also citing the “characteristically American shortness of memory.”
In the final hours of 2021, in any case, it’s occurred to me that to conflate artistic accomplishment with accessibility is just another form of condescension (ie, elitism), and the little man will call you out for that, too: as an addendum to Hazel Harrison’s conjecture, neither craft nor accessibility is enough. It comes down to the newness and expansiveness of expression; to how many things the American novel is able to do at once.
With a novel coming out in 2022, I’m also reminded that anyone arrogant enough to publish a book is also obliged to walk into a veritable (and digital) Chehaw knowing that the little man from behind the stove has a right to stick his finger in your chest and tell you that you and your work are a waste of time; to know when he has a point; and to be able to forget, for even the briefest moments during the drafting process, that he is there at all, because to write a novel you have to be able to conjure – intermittently and somewhat undemocratically – the sense of being so totally alone that you even forget to judge yourself.
Things that made me happy and/or more functional in 2021
Sharp left turn to a year-end list of uneven, and even questionable, taste:
„Das ist alles von der Kunstfreiheit gedeckt“ as a grammar lesson in Konjunktiv I (i.e., never trust me for music recommendations; also here by popular demand/formal constraint, because, speaking of democratic sensibility, a good friend upvoted Danger Dan - formerly (?) of the Antelope Gang - into a Substack post)
Eremit in Paris or Hermit in Paris. I am reading this in German because it’s structured as a collection of Italo Calvino’s diaries from New York, non-NYC America, and Paris, and when learning a foreign language it’s easier to read lots of small, short entries than an entire book. That is to say I’m not sure how charming this is in English, but plodding along auf Deutsch I admit I am drawn in by the quality of the NYC publishing gossip, and by the assessment of American TV-dinner torpor and social mobility and racism in late 1960s America, though it’s also possible that I’ve conflated my appreciation for Calvino’s powers of observation with the pleasure of being able to understand anything at all.
French emergency care. (Two stitches in my eyebrow! 50 Euro!)
Anything and everything by Percival Everett, Eileen Chang, Graham Greene, and/or Claire-Louise Bennett.
Nabokov’s Strong Opinions: much funnier (and more political) than advertised!
Fran Ross’s Oreo: as hilarious as advertised, if not more so!
This recipe for chocolate fondant, sent by a friend:
Salève, the mountain the monster in Frankenstein climbs at the end of his journey, which Mary Shelley wrote in Geneva, and across from which I now live. (Since the usual reason for literary types winding up in Switzerland has historically been tubercular and/or tax evasionary in nature, I’ll mention that we moved because my partner works for an international org. based here.)
And…and…last but not least, finishing a book: THE VISITORS is out June 07, and you can preorder here. (Or reply directly to this email to request an ARC.)
See you in 2022.
 Notable / representative outtake: https://www.gawker.com/media/the-intellectuals-are-having-a-situation