A strange phenomenon’s seeping into literary fiction.
It’s tricky to describe, tricky to understand; ultra-tricky to thwart or deflect. But it’s no less disturbing for all that—a kind of elephant-in-the-room of contemporary fiction.
Because we now live on a planet in serious jeopardy, whose populations (especially marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised) struggle to survive, to be seen and met—modern consciousness has become a great, surging shatter-belt of change.
In so many ways, that change is valiant.
Human rights—particularly rights of women, people of color, children, marginalized or fluid genders or sexualities, plants and animals, air and water—are on the one hand under attack, but on the other also being more rigorously noticed, championed, and defended than ever before. People are speaking truth to power lately—almost around the clock. And that’s good.
But in the making of literary art here in America, I’m seeing a trend—putting this simply—to editorialize in the course of storytelling.
I began to notice it a few years ago, reviewing literary fiction. Novels and stories began to show up which contained, shall we say, an agenda.
They arrived bearing a Message, with a capital M.
These agendas varied. All tended to be passionate, ecological, humanitarian. They’ve been logical, moral, well-intended.
But they’ve not been art.
I don’t want to vilify individuals. But I can cite a few who are established enough that they won’t suffer for being named here.
One I recall off the top of my head is British author Helen Simpson, well-respected in America and the UK, whose story collection I reviewed some years ago. In one of those stories, a character refused to fly on airplanes because plane flight is ruining the biosphere. The character’s refusal to fly disrupted a relationship she was having with a man who lived at some distance. Lengthy explanations floated forward, detailing this character’s reasoning. And whenever that happened, the story and characters almost disappeared, becoming instead a delivery system for what were obviously Simpson’s own powerful concerns.
As a reader and reviewer, I felt alarmed. Something serious was at stake. Something vital was being derailed.
Let me pause again to underscore:
No agenda described here is unworthy, or not desperately important. Of course these causes are important. They’re real. They’re beyond reproach—some even life-or-death urgent.
Nonetheless: They are not the story. Bluntly? They’re axes an author wishes to grind. And in my view the insertion or infusion or pasting-on of an agenda, the blatant grinding of axes, highjacks and sabotages art—often ham-handedly, however righteously—and in the end forfeits a product that has potential to accomplish something much larger than any sermonizing could, or would.
Upshot: a writer shoots her art in the foot, with her own good intentions.
Awful effects of editorializing are multiple.
One is to make a work’s Voice, capital V, melt away—just literally evanesce—and be replaced by the author’s personal or editorial voice, what we might call the Infomercial Voice: like the voiceover for civics class films we had to watch in school. If a character opens her mouth and what comes out is a pile of exposition in the tone and mode of an educative pitch, she stabs the prose in the back. Gone are a work’s dimensional, idiosyncratic wholeness, its unique essence. Lost is Grace Paley’s famous open destiny of that character’s life.
That breed of character is often called—uncharitably but accurately—a “mouthpiece.” When the authorial truck backs up and dumps a pile of infomercial exposition in a reader’s lap, that reader quickly grasps that an author’s agenda weighs more, in the telling, than anything else—character or story. Balance and tone are derailed.
So are plausibility, believability, persuasiveness.
Say we’re watching an actor in a powerful, moving play who stops to pull from his pocket a jar of marmalade. He turns directly to the audience and—breaking character—commences to rhapsodize in his private-life voice about how much he adores that sweet-sour orange-peel jam.
Except it’s not marmalade we’re talking here. It’s Causes with a Capital C. Super-moral, super-valiant causes, but causes all the same. Saving forests and water, protecting air, saving any number of oppressed or suffering or underserved groups, the nation, civilization, the planet.
Please, please know I am hyper-aware that these causes are excruciatingly timely, necessary—irreproachable. Valid. Earnest.
But valid and earnest cannot be art’s sole measure or criteria.
I know I open myself up for attack.
First, I’m a well-educated white woman—with access to enough food, shelter, and mortal safety to be able to consider such questions.
Second, no one of sound mind doubts that these causes need champions and support.
Third (my attackers may argue), how can we as a species bother to love art if we and the planet are not first alive and well? How can the so-called purity and freedom and significance of art matter if we’re in flames, or drowning?
On the face of it, these objections are logical. But I must insist that art that is art—at least in terms of literary fiction—wants nothing to do with lobbying or lobbyists.
Art, by definition, gets things said in forms dictated by its own vision, what we might call a framed totality—an organism embodying realities that may involve Causes in some capacity, but never propagandizing for them. Causes may permeate form—but they must feel inseparable from a story’s very tissue.
I think of a heart-stabbing scene in War and Peace in which the innocent young Petya Rostov—a boy who has romanticized a soldier’s life and longs to be a military hero—has been allowed to stand with the mounted ranks on the sidelines of battle in the Napoleonic Wars, in the care of a trusted family friend. On enthralled impulse, Petya rides into battle against orders—and is almost instantly killed. The moment is delivered almost matter-of factly, which renders it the more shattering. I think, too, of Anne Michaels’ indelible first novel Fugitive Pieces, in which a starving Greek geologist saves a war orphan during the reign of fascism, by smuggling the terrified starveling in his coat to his home on a Greek island. I think of Mohsin Hamid’s astonishing Exit West—a tour de force placing a reader inside a nameless, possibly middle-eastern city torn from within and without by warring factions, juxtaposing modern realities with heinous, near-medieval-style slayings. Did Tolstoy or Michaels or Hamid pause mid-prose to announce, “Hey, listen up, people. War is very bad for living things!” (In fact Tolstoy did editorialize for religious convictions in a coda to War and Peace, and elsewhere. But when he did that, it failed horribly. And in War and Peace’s main body, fortunately for the human race, story triumphs.)
Some may argue that, given the nature of modern problems, it can’t any longer be possible to separate Cause and Story.
To which I say: Art gets done what it needs to get done—but Cause must be jettisoned as Cause, per se.
Story, in other words, must drive everything but also infuse it. A story gathers and chews up and assimilates whatever it needs—issuing itself in a form, each time, that insists upon its unique content. What’s consistent is that art privileges the wholeness of the story or vision, which is to say, truthful complexity. Cause tends by its definition to simplify, to present a seamless, blemish-free façade, like—well, like propaganda. Cause will airbrush complexity right out of the picture, given half a chance. Cause resists built-in contradictions, shadows, cross-currents, exceptions, ironies, paradoxes, and similar mitigating elements.
Thus, art takes the longer view but also uses human magnification. Writers like Jhumpa Lahiri or Akhil Sharma (in his superb A Life of Adventure and Delight) give us the experience of the children of first-generation emigrés—replete with difficulty, pain, egos, vindictiveness, aggression, loneliness, fear, striving—embodying what critic James Wood calls “lifeness itself.”
Denis Johnson gives us addicts and inmates; Toni Morrison, life and death in black America. Dorothy Allison gives us a child at the mercy of abusive family. Rebecca West, in The Fountain Overflows, gives us a father who is brilliant and doting and yet terribly, even fatally, flawed. Jesmyn Ward gives us a struggling black family torn further asunder by a hurricane. Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room gives a masterful tour of life in (and outside) a women’s prison. And in Matthew Thomas’ deeply absorbing novel We Are Not Ourselves, the amicable, very human father of a family succumbs slowly to Alzheimer’s. But never, ever do we feel, in the course of the above stories, that we are reading a laundry list of statistics, of soap-box-ing or band-wagoning. These stories simply carry us away with authentic complexity and (therefore) authority, entering us to live. No preaching’s involved.
Assigned to review Ali Smith’s novel Winter, I felt robbed. Because after commencing as an ensemble of interesting, believable people, its characters became mouthpieces for ecology, nuclear plants, immigrants, working class wages, horror of Trumpian politics, and so forth. Story faded—became wobbly and dangling as a baby tooth about to fall out. In the review I had to suggest that the book was mainly a “billboard” for Smith’s (completely righteous) concerns.
(A piquant afterward is that Winter was soon thereafter shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing—a prize most often given for nonfiction works.)
Political writing’s a distinguished field, claiming a long line of notable practitioners. But literary fiction has a different goal, a different burden, and above all, crucially different means for capturing our imaginations and accomplishing its work. And the (ironic) magic of literary writing is that it may be able to convey ideals far more powerfully than any billboarding. Why? Because story, with its imperfection and eccentricity, assimilates inside us almost physically as well as psychically: slowly informing body and mind; continuing to dwell in us in ways that tracts—however eloquent—seldom can.
This infomercial tendency is not always crisply defined. Material can smear from Story-into-Advocacy and back again. You can look at a page and almost see a Paid Political Announcement disclaimer pulsing like subtitles below the translucent prose. Some works veer membrane-close to becoming advertisements, or docu-dramas. Story may regain control and lose it again, a kind of seesaw effect. Occasionally, Story finally “wins.” I’m thinking now of Roxana Robinson’s powerful novel Cost, which described a good family’s near-destruction in its efforts to pay for the rehab of its youngest son, who’s become a heroin addict. In the course of this novel we learn a great deal about heroin addiction—but to the tremendous credit of Robinson’s writing skills, Story won out.
Again: my argument is never with any Cause. It’s with the accelerating problem of Cause pre-empting the integrity, weight, and fluid primacy of art, or Story. And I remind you once more that this inversion is not always a bright, clean, obvious one.
It’s easy to get into arguments about shades of gray: about who succeeded at making art without letting Cause tip or occlude that art—and who did not, and to what degree either way. Consider Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which unfurled against the backdrop of the Prague Spring of 1968 through the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Story trumped everything in that work to me, or at least it did at the time that I read it.
Very much—maybe everything—depends upon who is reading, and even when. Who is the Arbiter, or Observer? Who is defining? Who is curating?
Latina and gay; black and experimental; Vietnamese and trans: Any combination of background and vision, any hierarchy of ideals, you may argue, will want what it wants.
I stand by my original premise: Whatever the vision, it must be embedded at molecular level, within and by and for the story form.
Otherwise, essentially, it’s campaigning.
And it strikes me that these discussions, if never easily resolved, are more important to a democratic society than ever. Because the loss to us when art gets crushed by any agenda—spells a closing-off of one of the most vital human freedoms we know.
The hardest part? Discerning and assessing.
One measure of assessing the storyness of a story is gut instinct: internal radar. If, in your reading ear, Op-Ed seems to have wrested the microphone from Story, it probably has. Proceed with caution. You could be wading into the smelly swamp of Sales Pitch. Because relative to art, that’s often what editorializing tends to be.
And I want to offer one more analogy now: a pretty straightforward one.
Art’s a contract in which the reader agrees to look at the proffered dream. If all goes well, we’ll sign that contract eagerly, immediately, because we trust the voice of the dream. We’ll take the dream inside our bodies (hearts, souls), let it time-release there—and be changed and nourished by it, subtly or dramatically, for the rest of our days.
That dream promises a truth—bound to no lobbyist or Cause but rather to the artist’s vision of the universe at its marrow—the macro and micro of human life on earth, what the late author Robert Stone called how it is and again, what James Wood called lifeness itself. Katherine Anne Porter once described one of her stories as a moral and emotional collision with a human situation. Each of those descriptions seems a fine thumbnail précis of the substance, freight, and momentum of literary work.
Art also agrees, in that contract, to teach us its own terms—how to read and understand it. Jesmyn Ward, Mohsin Hamid, the Russians, de Maupassant, Proust, Jenny Offill, Justin Torres, Garth Greenwell, on and on. Most artists (in most media) tell us pretty much straight off, Here is the way I’m going to convey things to you, sometimes by indirection, in this particular language.
In fact this element—the how of its being; the how of its vision—provides one of art’s most consistently powerful pleasures.
Even if we hardly remember particulars of books we’ve read that once meant everything to us, we still carry some part of them within us—if only a feeling they gave. Even in gossamer memory they continue to shape and drive us, at some level to inform how we act and think and feel. In this way, art survives (and prevails), apart from topicality.
I believe that this is what art can do, and what it wants to do.
An infomercial breaks the terms of the above contract, to sell a particular slant. Message with a capital M is not what a reader seeks when she turns to literary art. (Remember the old adage, which served as a warning to writing students, about sending a telegram?) In fact I believe that an attentive reader can “smell” an incipient Message or Agenda in prose; this makes the material before her eyes lose authenticity. It makes her wary. She longs for Story to resume. If proselytizing takes over, the reader (recognizing this) may simply quit, or reduce caring—which also means, rescind belief. And belief’s the ballgame in literary art. If the product before our eyes morphs into a commercial, we’re likely to treat it that way. The sense of being asked to swallow medicine, has overtaken us. Such medicine may be very, very good for us. That can’t change the fact that it’s medicine.
Thus, readers who pay close attention may feel like that vexed toddler in his high chair in the fabulous old New Yorker cartoon.
Its caption was written, I believe, by the late, ultra-humane, brilliant E. B. White. The little kid looks angrily from his bowl (of some dark scribbly mess) back to his parents. His face is screwed up with vexation. He is onto their subterfuge. And he has no intention of buying it for a second:
“I say it’s spinach,” he says. “And I say to hell with it!”
A reader is likewise saying to a blinkered work, “You stopped being a story and you became an ad. No matter your good intentions, you’ve lost my trust.”
We readers sometimes sense it coming before even opening a book: the publisher, or its blurbers, trumpet the work’s significance in reverent tones.
O alas: Beware reverence.
Now, let’s talk about antidotes.
First, we need to employ vigilance and honesty in reading. Call it the Emperor’s New Clothes function. We need to call out infomercialism where we find it. Slipping into boosterism contaminates art’s integrity. A warning: this kind of calling-out won’t make you lots of friends. To say calmly and clearly that a work’s Cause may be righteous but that it hijacked the work, is not easy when that Cause is popular. And almost all of them are.
Second: As artists, we need to use the same vigilance and honesty in making our own work. By this I mean staying faithful to the storymaking impulse, its complex integrity; ensuring our work remains Story-Centric. Story must drive and irradiate; must remain the god that all other elements serve.
In theory, we do this already. We undertook the writing life to do it.
Trust the micro, in short, to open out into the macro. Complexity supersedes Cause, every time.
Art needs to be free. And so do we.
Joan Frank is the author of ten books of literary fiction and nonfiction. Her recent novella collection, Where You’re All Going, won Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction (judged by Aimee Bender); her new collection of travel essays, Try to Get Lost, won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize (judged by Phillip Lopate). A new novel, The Outlook for Earthlings, will be published in October 2020, by Regal House Publishing. Her last novel, All the News I Need, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. She is a MacDowell, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Vermont Studio Center Fellow, and recipient of many honors. She also reviews literary fiction and nonfiction for the Washington Post.