Joan Frank ~ I Say It’s Spinach

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.