If By ‘Gulag’, You Mean Irrelevance
Here’s an Open Letter To The American People signed by “writers [who] are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power.” What do they wish to convey to their countrymen? That:
we, the undersigned, as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.
Golly. That should do him in.
It’s amusing to contemplate the chasm between the power these writers think they have in our popular culture, and the power they actually have. You can write anything you want in American culture, and nobody much cares. We don’t have a Havel or a Solzhenitsyn — writers whose words mattered — because there’s nothing at stake in the lives of our writers. They are taking no risks in signing a petition denouncing Donald Trump — and hey, I think we should be glad that we live in a society in which a writer can denounce a presidential candidate without drawing retribution to himself.
But come on. Really, writers? A manifesto contra Trump? I’m reminded of these lines of Walker Percy, about the political role of the American writer, whose opinions on such matters move nobody, because only other writers take writers seriously as wise men and women on public matters:
He is like the wretched man in Dostovesky’s Notes From Underground, who swore to get even with his enemy by walking directly toward him on the sidewalk and forcing him to yield and who at the last second yields himself, without the other even noticing.
The kind of people who would care about an “Open Letter To The American People” instructing them to shun Trump are the kind of people who would never in a million years vote for the guy. But what do I know? I will print out copies of this Open Letter, signed by people 99 percent of America has never heard of, and leaflet local trailer parks.
One has a hard time recalling a novel that has forcefully addressed the iniquities of the post 9/11 era: the lies, the crimes, the torture, the financial collapse, not to mention Americans’ complicity in all those glories, including the fact that Bush had approval ratings reaching the nineties on the eve of the Iraq invasion. If some future historian attempts to determine what occupied the American writers’ minds since the beginning of the millennium by reading all the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners between 2002 and 2016, s/he would find few traces of Bush, or Iraq, or Abu Ghraib, or Cheney, or the financial collapse, or indeed any politics. Apart from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has some things to say about American exceptionalism, the closest to political engagement a recent Pulitzer winner comes is by way of North Korea, the setting for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, addressing the outrageous misdeeds of a reassuringly non-American regime.
There is a good case—literary or not—to be made for ideological continuity between the Bushite and the Trumpite America, but exposing that evolution would require a lot of writing, which might interfere with all the open letters re: present calamity that clamor to be written.
Hemon has their number: denunciation is easy; writing is hard. The thing that’s funny about this Open Letter is not that the writers denounce Trump. Lots of people feel that way about Trump. It’s that they do so as writers, with a sense of solemnity and dignity that is quite comic, considering that there will be no consequences for them taking this stand (no FBI agent at the door, no loss of jobs or status), and because for better or for worse, almost no Americans take seriously what novelists have to say on politics seriously. These scribes might as well have signed a document calling for the restoration of the Hapsburgs. Still, it’s delicious, in kind of a mean way, to imagine the gravity with which the drafters of the Open Letter went about their work, and with which its signatories pledged their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor to affix their names to it.