The conservative book editor Adam Bellow wrote a National Review essay calling for a conservative fiction revival (I wrote something about the Bellow piece here), and has a Buzzfeed essay plugging a list of the sort of thing he’s talking about. In the NR piece, Bellow explicitly says he’s not interested in “message” fiction:
To begin with, we are not talking about what is sometimes called “cause fiction,” or, more bluntly, literary propaganda. That is simply a right-wing version of socialist realism — the demand that the arts advance a particular social and political agenda. Such works are indeed being written on the right, but that is not what most conservatives are doing.
As the founder of Liberty Island, a website that publishes fiction by conservative authors, I have read a great deal of this material and can attest that yes, their stories and novels do have political themes. But these themes are not presented for the most part in a way that is preachy or subordinates the story to the “message.” Instead the authors craft dramatic situations and pick heroes and villains that serve more subtly to advance their point of view.
Over at the Jewish magazine Tablet, Adam Kirsch doesn’t understand what Bellow is up to. He’s not buying the “no message” line. Excerpt:
Still, if you look at the list of conservative books that Bellow recommends in his Buzzfeed article, it becomes clear that a major right-wing literary movement is not in the cards anytime soon. And the reason why can be deduced from his own essay—not so much its substance as its tone and emotional atmosphere. What drives Bellow, and seems to drive many of the authors he recommends—for instance, Kurt Schlichter, the author of Conservative Insurgency: The Struggle to Take America Back, 2009-2041—is the same deep-seated resentment that fuels the Tea Party movement. This brew of populism, racial grievance, wounded male pride, and generalized nostalgia excels at generating anger, which when harnessed to politics can do impressive and frightening things. The anger pulses in every line of Bellow’s essay, which begins with an anecdote of his own humiliation at the hands of a feminist speaker at a writer’s workshop (“I didn’t see why I should be called out in front of the group and angrily chastised as though I were merely an embodiment of the white male heterosexual power structure.”)
And it is this very anger that explains why a conservative literary revival, along the lines Bellow desires, is not going to happen. For anger is a not a conservative emotion. Genuine conservatism is something much broader and deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved. Defined in this way, conservatism is in fact a major strain in contemporary American literature.
Kirsch lists some well-known books and authors that can be described as “conservative” in this sense. More:
With all these books to read and admire, why does Adam Bellow continue to believe that conservative writers are a persecuted minority? The reason may have something to do with the description of the kind of work he seeks at his Liberty Island website: “At Liberty Island, good still triumphs over evil, hope still overcomes despair, and America is still a noble experiment and a beacon to the rest of the world.” The problem is not that these are conservative ideas, but that they are simpleminded ideological dogmas, and so by their very nature hostile to literature, which lives or dies by its sense of reality. If you are not allowed to say that life in America can be bad, that Americans can be guilty as well as innocent, that good sometimes (most of the time?) loses out to evil—in short, that life in America is like human life in any other time or place—then you cannot be a literary writer, because you have censored your impressions of reality in advance.
I bring all this up because had I not gotten sick and lost my voice, I would have been giving a talk on Friday to a group of young conservative journalists. My topic was the importance of storytelling. Much of what I would have said would have been about 30 percent Bellow-from-NR, 70 percent Kirsch. Very briefly, here’s my argument.
I’ll start by pointing out that most of what I have to say about the importance of story, and why contemporary conservatives should re-learn it, I said in a TAC piece last year, Story Lines, Not Party Lines. There’s no point in repeating it here, but please take a look at it if you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from. On the Bellow-Kirsch points, though, and how they play out in journalism, newsroom conservatives know all too well how strongly biased their workplaces are against their worldview. This is not, I hasten to say, because newsrooms are dens of liberal conspiracy. Over drinks here at my place recently, Noah Millman and I talked about how certain workplaces have their own ethos. He worked on Wall Street, which had its own sort of libertarian, bare-knuckles conservative ethos, created by the kind of people who are attracted to that kind of work. The ethos of American journalism is liberal in the same way. It’s nothing personal against conservatives; it’s just a fact of life.
What often makes it hard to live with is how unwilling or unable so many editors, producers, and writers in newsrooms are to recognize their own biases, and to imagine that there are other ways to see a particular story, and viewpoints that they might not have considered — and how their own epistemic closure hurts the quality of journalism. This is the Bellow part of my critique.
The answer to this is not to respond to close-minded, biased left-wing journalism with the same limited, distorted approach from the right. Not having read any of the books Bellow recommends or the short fiction he publishes at Liberty Island, I am in no position to judge whether or not Kirsch’s criticism is valid. But Kirsch is right about two big things.
1. Kirsch, on how the Tea Party anger Bellow exemplifies and seeks to harness is not going to make for good fiction: For anger is a not a conservative emotion. Genuine conservatism is something much broader and deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved.
I agree with this. How does it apply to journalism? Well, anger is often an appropriate source for generating good journalism — you see an injustice, you want to expose it — but it is not the sort of thing that sustains good journalism, or at least not the kind of good journalism that can be a conservative journalist’s contribution to his craft, and to his readership.
When I worked in newsrooms, it often irked me that the villains in the stories my colleagues wrote were often the same people, and the victims were always the same. Take immigration. When I was at the Dallas Morning News, we often told stories — and told them well — about things immigrants, including illegal immigrants, suffered in north Texas. Those were legitimate stories. But in my time there, it was much harder to find stories about what north Texans suffered because of the illegal immigrants. Generally speaking, those people didn’t attract our paper’s sympathy; in fact, they were often the kinds of people we thought were the problem.
I wasn’t a reporter, but rather an opinion writer, but I did manage in my capacity as a sometime-editor to tell one of those people’s stories. There was a guy, I can’t remember his name, who owned a house in an old part of the inner-ring Dallas suburb of Irving. Slowly, the family neighborhood turned because of some absentee landlords who rented their houses to Hispanic immigrant male workers who lived in the houses in large numbers, and behaved badly. Though the immigrant men (and their landlords) were violating city codes by the way they lived and carried on, the city government’s code inspectors were distinctly unhelpful to the residents. Eventually, the neighborhood deteriorated more and more, with loud cars, late-night outdoor drinking, and so forth. When the homeowner came home from work one day to find his street blocked off by a SWAT team having some sort of showdown at one of the immigrant houses, he decided that’s it, I’m getting my family out of here. And so he did.
This is how neighborhoods die. It’s an important story to tell. It’s not the only story of immigration, but it’s still important. And it’s the kind of story to which a conservative journalist would be particularly sensitive, because he wouldn’t have gone at the story with the preconceived notion that the homeowners in that neighborhood, most (but not all!) of whom were Anglos, were immigrant-haters.
I also thought about how the illegal immigration tide must look to working-class Texans — white, black, Asian, and Hispanic — who had to use public schools and public hospitals overwhelmed by foreigners here illegally. What must it be like to be a citizen in your own country, and have to wait hours and hours in the public hospital to be seen by a doctor, waiting behind people who aren’t in this country legally, but who have priority over you, and who are getting free medical care? What must it be like to have your kids in a classroom in which the teacher has to slow down instruction because all the new kids in class barely speak English — and they’re here illegally? How does that affect your thinking? Again, that’s not the only story about immigration, but it’s a story. I wish in retrospect I had done work on it while I was in Dallas.
These are stories that could be motivated by anger at the injustices suffered by people whose voices aren’t often heard in liberal newsrooms. But more broadly — and this speaks to Kirsch’s point — a mature conservative journalist could look at these stories in a way that keeps a steady eye on the long-term changes illegal immigration is bringing to his region. Stepping away from the kind of anger that can make for a good daily story, that conservative could explore how the compassion some Americans have for immigrants and the immigrant narrative in American history could be leading us to make choices that will change our country in ways we don’t fully anticipate, and certainly wouldn’t desire.
I remember being startled in a Texas classroom when I heard a little Hispanic boy, the son of immigrants, stand and give a history report on the great hero of history, Santa Anna. Of course in the popular mythology of Texas, Santa Anna is an archvillain. But not to this little boy. He wasn’t being provocative on purpose. He was just giving his report, based on what he was taught at home, and what his culture taught him about Santa Anna. This is the future of Texas, I thought then. You can call it bad, you can call it good, but absent some sort of massive intervention to halt immigration, it is inevitable. This is how cultures change, for better or worse. What does it mean to have a Texas in which Santa Anna is seen by most Texans as a hero, or at least not a villain? Do the white kids growing up in suburban North Dallas even know who Santa Anna is, or care? Why or why not? What will this mean, in time? You see where I’m going with this.
This, I think, is where I think the conservative temperament, as distinct from the conservative ideology, can do the most good in journalistic storytelling. Unlike many liberals, temperamental conservatives tend to be pretty good at picking out the tragic nature of human endeavor, at seeing how human frailty and hubris leads to bad things. But when conservatives allow their vision to be clouded by anger — think post-9/11 — or by ideology (e.g., free-market fundamentalism), they lose a storytelling advantage. Which brings us to the second point on which Kirsch is right:
2. If you are not allowed to say that life in America can be bad, that Americans can be guilty as well as innocent, that good sometimes (most of the time?) loses out to evil—in short, that life in America is like human life in any other time or place—then you cannot be a literary writer, because you have censored your impressions of reality in advance.
This is absolutely true for journalism as well. It’s why so much contemporary journalism drives conservatives crazy; journalists censor their impressions of reality in advance. From the left or the right, if you are not allowed to say that the people you consider to be the good guys can be bad, guilty, or badly flawed, you are less of a journalist. A dear friend from Dallas and I were talking not long ago about a bitter argument he got into with a Dallas journalist a few years back about race relations in his (my friend’s) part of Dallas. My friend is white, and very liberal, and it drove him crazy that the liberal journalist with which he was arguing simply would not concede that what my friend (who has lived in that neighborhood for 30 years) was seeing every day was actually happening. Mind you, these are two white liberals arguing, but one was arguing from the point of view of actually living in the neighborhood, but the other was arguing from a point of view of ideological righteousness. For my friend’s journalistic interlocutor, my friend could not be telling the truth because that kind of thing could not be happening in the ideological world the journalist had constructed.
This is always an enemy of good journalism, no matter what the political convictions of the writer. I’ll never forget the Catholic journalism conference I attended in the spring of 2002, at which a priest who was at the time publisher of a conservative Catholic newspaper bragged on his publication for not descending to the gutter by publishing stories about the then-burgeoning sex abuse scandal. What that man was guilty of was not journalism, but propaganda. The Church Could Not Be Wrong. This is not a Catholic thing, or a conservative thing, but a human thing. Journalists, like all storytellers, must fight against this tendency within themselves, and within their professional milieu. Everybody has sacred cows; if you don’t think you do, believe me, others have noticed them, and can probably tell you exactly what they are. The biggest and most menacing sacred cow that lives in newsrooms is the conviction among reporters that they see the world as it really is; they often have no idea how carefully constructed their worldviews are to hide things that they do not want to see. This is the fruit of the lack of ideological diversity. Again, though, you do not combat this by substituting right-wing blinders for left-wing blinders. Within most organizations — political, religious, journalistic — people tell themselves that they prize loyalty to the truth, but what they really prize is loyalty to the institution and its favored dogmas.
What Kirsch says about good literature is also true of good journalism: it must be based in reality. You’ll find that staying faithful to reality makes for better stories, and can serve to illuminate your own principles. When I began The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, I had one particular ending in mind, and thought I’d figured the story out. As you know if you’ve read the book, all of that blew up in the next to last chapter, after I’d finished writing most of the narrative. I discovered a fact that challenged everything I thought I knew about the story. Here’s the thing: it didn’t falsify the initial story, but in fact deepened it by adding paradox and moral complication to it. I couldn’t leave the shocker out, because that would have been false, but once my anger settled down, I was able to see how the shocking thing, the bad thing, was in fact a manifestation of the good things I had been praising throughout the book. One didn’t make the other one untrue, but it did give dimension to that truth. I thought I was writing a simple story about conflict, resolution, transformation, and homecoming, all made possible by grace. That was part of the story, but as readers know, it wasn’t the whole story.
In the end, so many readers have told me that my confronting the messy contradictions of family life instead of pretending that they didn’t exist for the sake of a neat, clean, Hollywood happy-ending story, made Little Way so much better than it might have been otherwise, precisely because that’s how life is. Had I never learned what my sister really thought of me, and why she thought it, and had I never been forced to confront the dark side of her fidelity to Family and Home, I would have written a conventionally “conservative” tale valorizing small-town values. It wouldn’t have been a lie, but it wouldn’t have been the whole truth either, and readers would have been able to tell it. Sure, a certain number would have been happy to have their preconceptions met, and their views validated, but it would have been a lesser book.
If you want to win elections, go into politics. If you want to lead altar calls, go into the ministry. To be a professional writer, of fiction or journalism, is another calling altogether. I’d say it’s far more important for a young conservative writer to cultivate a conservative sensibility, in the way that Kirsch defines, and keep conservative ideology at arm’s length. That’s not to say that conservative ideology can’t be right about some things, or many things. It’s just that ideology is a partial truth masquerading as the whole truth.