In the latest issue of The Georgia Review, novelist Ann Pancake recounts her move from writing apolitical fiction to political novels:
I was an apolitical fiction writer, and I stayed faithful to that segregation for a couple of reasons. For one, I’ d accepted the conventional American literary wisdom that explicit politics can ruin literary art, especially fiction, a wisdom I saw confirmed again and again in many of the 1930s social realist novels I read for my dissertation research on class in American literature. But a second reason was more decisive: I simply didn’t believe fiction could put a scratch in contemporary social and political problems. What good, I asked myself, was imaginative artistic work in the face of “real world” crises as urgent and overwhelming as the ones we’ve faced in the last several decades? What was the use of even trying?
Things changed, however, when she visited her home state of West Virginia and experienced first-hand the dangers and destruction of coal mining and how it was affecting local residents. Instead of writing an essay in response, however, as was her wont, Pancake felt compelled to respond in fiction—hence her 2007 Strange As This Weather Has Been.
I have not read the novel, but Pancake goes on to list the values of fiction as a political tool for change. It’s an antidote to “psychic numbing,” she writes, that helps us feel for other people. Fiction and poetry, she writes, “immerse the reader in the personal stories of individual people. In our Information Age, when we can get thousands of facts and sound bites about any subject—and in this way build a bed of nails—literature is one of the few arenas where an individual can actually ‘live the life’ of a person who is a subject of injustice.”
Literature also lasts longer—it “radiates,” she writes, “far beyond a specific time, place, and issue because art embodies truths that are not literal, that are not time- and place-bound.” And, of course, literature is “transformational”—not only via its content but via its form, too.
Yes, well, I agree in part with all of this, but why does she feel compelled to use the dichotomy of apolitical versus political fiction? Why not simply write of the truth of fiction? One danger of focusing on a novel’s political purposes is that it can blind the writer to seeing truths that do not square with the political message. The desire for an effective and efficient political argument can push the writer to create characters and plots that lack nuance, which, of course, decreases the “transformational” value (however small already) of literature.
Pancake is aware of some of these problems, but she does not seem to take them too seriously:
I believe literature’s most pressing political task of all in these times is envisioning alternative future realities. My biggest disappointment with my own political novel is not the missteps where I strayed into polemic or awkwardly integrated information. My biggest disappointment is that my novel does not provide vision beyond the contemporary situation in central Appalachia. I have learned that it’s much easier to represent a political situation in literature than it is to propose alternatives—to dream forward—without lapsing into Pollyannaism or cynicism. But I’ve come to believe that the greatest challenge for many twenty-first-century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward which is not based in idealism or fantasy, which does not offer dystopia or utopia, but still turns current paradigms on their heads. I now feel charged to make stories that invent more than represent, that dream more than reflect. This is not to say that I have more than glimmers of what such fiction will be, but I carry a burning urgency that it must be done.
Envisioning an alternative future? Dream forward? Glimmers? Burning urgency? And why isn’t her biggest disappointment the novel’s straying “into polemic” or “awkwardly integrated information”? Style is content, and it is style, among other things, that separates a novel from a stump speech.