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Politics and Literature

I’ve been busy teaching summer school at HBU [1] and trying to get into shape for a bike ride across Iowa [2] that I’m doing with my daughter next week, so I am a bit late in responding to Adam Bellow’s essay in The National Review [3] in which he laments the lack of conservative fiction and calls on well-heeled donors to support the coming conservative “countercultural” revolution. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, here’s the key passage:

For years conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced — hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.

We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.

This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.

Bellow makes some good observations. Generally speaking, conservatives have ignored the arts and popular culture over the past fifty years or so. Those in positions of power in America’s publishing houses, museums, arts centers, university MFA programs, and so forth, are overwhelming liberal. Politics is “downstream” from culture. And I’m mostly for conservatives with cash funding prizes, small presses, and so forth, so that “the cream can rise to the top,” as Bellow puts it.

It’s the overemphasis on the political value of supporting popular culture and the arts that sticks in my craw.

The general gist of Bellow’s piece, despite his remark that he is against “cause fiction,” is that conservatives should fund these things because liberals have a monopoly on culture and because popular culture and the arts are more effective at changing people’s values than straight argument.

Calling on conservatives to write fiction in order to regain power by shaping the moral imagination, as Bellow seems to claim, would, in my view, repeat the errors of the later avant-garde and progressives who came to view art as a weapon in class struggle. This attitude toward art always leads to art becoming a mere tool, a mere means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Bellow tries to distinguish between the “the original counterculture” and a counterculture that “was hijacked and turned into a vehicle for progressive politics,” but I don’t buy this.


The problem with Bellow’s approach, as Rod remarked two weeks ago [4], is that it would most likely lead to ideologically “pure” but bad work:

[…] art and culture should not be approached from an instrumental point of view. This is why, for example, so much contemporary Christian filmmaking is so bad: it’s designed to culminate in an altar call. It’s about sending a message, not telling a story. I’m personally aware of a conservative donor and investor who poured millions into an independent film because he thought it was wholesome, and would improve the character of its viewers. I watched the movie in a private screening, and it was terrible. A total waste of money.

Adam Kirsch makes a similar point over at Tablet [5] and argues that Bellow’s narrow definition of conservatism causes him to miss a number of conservative novels that don’t fit his “brew of populism, racial grievance, wounded male pride, and generalized nostalgia”:

 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. David Foster Wallace, the leading novelist of his generation, was a champion of earnestness, reverence, self-discipline, and work—never more so than in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, whose heroes are hard-working accountants. Dave Eggers made his name with a memoir about raising his younger brother after his parents died, a hip but deeply earnest hymn to family values. Zadie Smith excels at the conservatism of comedy, which resolves differences in laughter and exposes human follies with an indulgent understanding.

In Jewish American literature, too, the conservative temperament has always been central, as Jewish writers struggle to remain attached to the past even as they negotiate their place in the future. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant more or less explicitly identifies Jewishness with the values of honesty, hard work, and family loyalty, and dramatizes a willful young man’s submission to those values. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, one of the most celebrated and decorated books of the last 20 years, is also one of the most explicitly conservative; it is a long shudder of horror at the radicalism of the 1960s, and it is filled with hymns to the small businessman that any Republican could love. And of course Adam Bellow’s father, Saul, wrote one of the first and most powerful anti-Sixties novels in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, inveighing against the sexual and racial liberations of that decade, which he contrasted with the old-world moral earnestness of the Jewish Artur Sammler.

For Kirsch, Bellow fails to see that literature is “broader, deeper, and truer than political convictions…that politics must be corrected by literature, and not vice versa. If most writers are liberal, perhaps it’s because they instinctively understand this principle.”

How Kirsch divined that Bellow’s conservatism is motivated by “wounded male pride,” apparently based on Bellow’s opening anecdote alone, is beyond me, but Kirsch is right that conservatism is much more than patriotism or a defense of individual freedom, even if he also overestimates how many “conservative” works of fiction are published today (only two of the novelists he cites are actively writing; Wallace, Malamud, and Bellow are dead, of course), and even if has a rather rose-colored view of the commitment of liberal writers to art above politics. (No doubt a number of liberal writers are committed to literature first and politics second, but not all. In fact, a number who view/have viewed literature as a form of political activism are regularly published, given prizes, and generally taken seriously (though, let me add, not by Kirsch to my knowledge.) Susan Sontag’s tangled fiction [6] won her a National Book Award, and June Jordan’s hate-filled prose-poetry [7] did not prevent her from keeping a distinguished lectureship at Berkeley and earning a PEN award. There are also the occasional politically informed stories of Joyce Carol Oates and formal experiments of Charles Bernstein, among many others.)

I’d like to see more conservatives write good fiction and poetry, not in order to win the culture war, but in order to have better fiction and poetry. There are number of conservative positions that are true and that are often ignored in fiction and poetry today. In Rod’s article last year on conservatives and storytelling [8], I noted one of these: The belief that evil is rooted in individuals and not in the structures of society (the church, schools, property ownership). But let me suggest a few others, culled from various thinkers (Burke, Eliot, Kirk):

-A high view of craft—that is, a combination of clarity and complexity of style that shows a knowledge and appreciation of past masters without merely repeating their successes.

-A belief in the inescapability of hierarchy (in the work of art and in society) and the importance of religion and family in informing our roles in society (as opposed to mere “power relations”).

-A belief that we are more than matter and that there is some higher, immaterial force at work in the universe.

Conservatives, of course, don’t have a monopoly on these beliefs, and not all conservatives would ascribe to them, but these are things that most conservatives over the years have supported in one way or another.

What conservatives with cash need to do is support writers, critics, literary magazines and organizations that share these values, whatever their individual political affiliation (though if they also happen to be conservative, great), as a way of reinvigorating literature, not conservatism, and whatever follows from that, follows.

After all, conservatives are supposed to be committed to certain things because they are true or good, and not simply because they are useful.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Politics and Literature"

#1 Comment By philadelphialawyer On July 16, 2014 @ 12:11 am

Oh boy.

One thing that conservatives once almost universally believed in is that something that grew up, organically, over time, and that represented a tradition and followed an established pattern, was superior to and could not be imitated or replaced by something that was consciously ginned up on the spot, in a top down, ukase way. Hence the conservative disgust with “social engineering.” Similarly, conservatives have always (until now, anyway) decried, pretty much correctly, in my view, the overly overt mixing of art with ideology. More than a little ideology, and art goes out the window.

Well, the alternative press, the “little” magazines, the DIY self publishing route, the writers’ programs, retreats, colonies and so forth, the university presses, etc, etc, did not spring up one day as the consequence of some sort of “liberal” project. Rather, they are the end product of decades of felt need being met by various, autonomous institutions and individuals and groups, all acting more or less spontaneously. If the end result resembles some sort of “liberal” apparatus, that still does not mean that such was “the plan.”

Nor is it likely that anything of equal value can be conjured into existence on the “conservative” side out of thin air simply by directing funding towards what amounts to a Powell Project for the written word. Politics and ideology are pretty natural bedfellows, politics and art, again, as conservatives have long recognized, are not.

Parenthetically, one also wonders why folks think that all the little presses, the DIY publications, the little magazines, etc, etc do not already produce works that subscribe to the views that evil is to be found at least partly within humans, and not merely as a consequence of social structure, that craft is important, that hierarchy is not always a dirty word, and that spirituality or religiosity are important. I have read many stories in obscure, “little” magazines that endorse these viewpoints. And, it seems to me, it is rare to find a story anywhere in alternative publishing that is some sort of simplistic, Stalinist left agitprop work.

Also implicit in the NR piece is the false notion that somehow “liberals” are doing the “gatekeeping” when it comes to mainstream publishing. But, as with Hollywood, Big Publishing is controlled by profit seeking corporations. And, as with Hollywood, the top publishers employ non ideological “gate keepers” who expertise is directed exclusively at predicting what will sell in a mass market. Big Publishing cares pretty much about one thing only: best sellers. And whoever can produce them, from whatever ideological viewpoint, but, more often, from no such clear POV, are the writers who get published. Nobody at a major publishing firm cares if the “liberals” who run the Iowa workshops or Conjunctions magazine approve of your writing or not!

The NR piece also seems to take it for granted that the alternative press, in all its forms, is really no more than minor league or NCAA “feeder” system for the Big League of mainstream publishing. Again, that is really not the way it works. But, more importantly, and again, for a so called conservative, this is highly telling, the world of alternative publishing actually exists to promote writing that DOES embody craft, that does seek to explore questions of spirituality, that does ask hard questions and refuses to accept easy answers (including about such topics as the nature of evil and so on), and that does so under the premise that great writing and great art are not the exclusive or even the predominant domain of the “mainstream” of publishing. Conservatives once understood that there was such a thing as art or writing that had value, even though there was little or no popular audience for it at all. Now, I suppose, that notion is to be dismissed as “liberal elitism.” All that matters is the marketplace, and conservatives must pour money into the various small streams that allegedly “feed” into the marketplace, so that their kind of art, “conservative” art, will reach the masses.

We hear a lot about “loss” on this website. Well, one thing I think we have lost is a better class of conservative thinkers and thought!

#2 Comment By stef On July 16, 2014 @ 11:17 am

The 19th and early 20th centuries were full of polemic, propagandist (I dare say) works that happened to find their way into the canon, and are pretty entertaining reads besides. Of course, they happened to be more on the liberal and progressive sides in their day (Louisa May Alcott; Harriet Beecher Stowe; Elizabeth Stuart Phelps; Upton Sinclair; Theodore Dreiser; John Dos Passos, etc.)

#3 Comment By Matt On July 16, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

It’s interesting that many committed liberals claim to be influenced by, and claim to really cherish, the works of very conservative or even reactionary writers. Al Gore loves Stendahl, Hillary loves Dostoevsky, IF Stone loved Plato, Kennedy loved Aeschylus. Sure, maybe they are superficial readers, but I don’t think the dynamic is limited to superficial readers.

#4 Comment By RedWell On July 17, 2014 @ 11:19 am

I largely agree with philadelphialawyer, but I’ll add a couple more cents.

First, anyone who thinks in terms of left/right values is not going to be a serious artist. If your message is predetermined, that is propaganda. For example, we can appreciate advertising copy and illustration, but rarely does it rise to a level that most people would call “art.”

Second, modern American conservatives have bad taste. I say this as someone who is sympathetic and not some ideological bomb thrower. Conservatives with money, the ones highlighted in this piece, live in unimaginative homes, build unimaginative communities, read unchallenging media and predictably support dully familiar artistic endeavors.

I’m sure many will denounce this kind of comment as patronizing or insist that liberals do the same thing. Perhaps both are true, but I personally have drifted from ardent conservatism in part because I don’t fit in, and I’m not even particularly artistic. I simply value the challenge and stimulation of good artistic expression, and it does not–perhaps cannot–exist among middle and upper class conservatives.

#5 Comment By Marie On July 17, 2014 @ 11:31 am

Please, conservatives, don’t get involved in MFA programs. Please.

Good essay, thanks.

#6 Comment By palinurus On July 17, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

Matt – your point is well taken, but I’m struck by your comment that Plato, et al. are “conservative or even reactionary writers.”

Certainly, you don’t mean to say they are conservative or reactionary in the sense of American or even modern conservativism? One thing that Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Plato, and Aeschylus have in common is that they either despised, or would have despised, modern liberal, capitalistic societies and, especially, the middling, middle class epitome of such societies, the bourgeois. So profound is their quarrel with us that I don’t think the conservative/liberal split would make a dime’s worth of difference to them. For that reason, it’s equally surprising and interesting to see conservatives of various stripes, particularly religious ones, make the same sorts of claims about the same kinds of authors.

I don’t dispute that there are some elements of their works that conservatives might like, but I think the opposite is true as well. Plato, for example, wrote the vast majority of his dialogues about a character who rejected his family for philosophy and was put to death by his city for teaching the youth to question the city’s gods. Throw in the Symposium, and a literal reading of the Republic — as advocating an ideal Republic where private property and the family are done away with, and philosopher-kings rule — and you could see why IF Stone wanted to learn Attic Greek.

You can also see why conservatives might want to as well. Great art can be useful, and interesting, precisely because it provides the most compelling and incisive critique of the fundamental principles of classical liberalism that are shared by conservatives and liberals alike. JS Mill’s prayer for liberals is equally applicable to conservatives: both should prey for vital, acute, and perceptive enemies; for it is just these sorts of enemies, as opposed to those who have succumbed to ideological sclerosis, who can, by exposing each other’s limitations and prejudices, invigorate and improve their adversaries and society generally.

I agree with the main post that what we don’t need is an art that cheerleads, or simply espouses conservative values, so much as we need good art — and by good art, I mean art that can to an extent free us from the limits of our time and place and so make us aware of our blind spots. This sort of artistic experience can foster an intellectual humility that is not just conservative but also humane and civil; whether readers of such works of art come down on the conservative or liberal side of the issues of the day, they will be, it is hoped, liberals and conservatives aware of the limits and limitations of their positions. This in turn may make them more amendable to persuasion and resistant to extremism and intolerance.

Most of all, good art fosters the experiences — of wonder, surprise, enlightenment, lofty admiration and aspiration — that are so important to the good life and the enjoyment of our freedom.

#7 Comment By philadelphialawyer On July 18, 2014 @ 12:17 am

If I might, I would also throw in that most writers who explore the issue at all tend to err on the side of “the belief that evil is rooted in individuals and not in the structures of society (the church, schools, property ownership),” if for no other reason that evil characters are fun to write! And, more seriously, writers enjoy creating characters that are larger than life, that are more “evil” (and more “good,” more whatever) than most people are in real life.

Writing about evil characters in particular gives authors the scope (or excuse!) to delve and explore and plumb the depths of psychology, childhood experiences, religion and spiritualty, abuse, sadism and masochism, “repressed” sexuality, and so on and so forth. which is the kind of thing that they, and fiction generally, are good at. Whereas writing about religious or educational institutions, and institutions in general, as well as social and economic structures, political processes and systems, and the like, is not at all what fiction writers like to do, and not what they are good at, and not what fiction is good at either.

Thus, even “liberal” writers tend to attribute more, rather than less, causative power to individual characters, as opposed to more systematic factors.

#8 Comment By Edward On July 21, 2014 @ 9:18 am

I would like to point something out about “the belief that evil is rooted in individuals and not in the structures of society (the church, schools, property ownership).”

There was a time when conservatism meant this, but that was before elevation of libertarianism into the role of “ultra-conservatism”. This is where the conservative movement has careened off the rails and into the woods of dogma and shibboleths. In this new age, individualism is the ultimate good, rather than part of the inherent conflict of human existence between the individual and society. Anything that calls upon individuals to make sacrifices and investments for future generations (with the exception of military service) is automatically labelled “socialist” or “communitarian” and dismissed summarily. Conservatives would mostly agree that evil is not found in the churches (though there is a growing libertarian atheist contingent), but schools are a favorite punching bag and there is a reckoning coming concerning Wall Street and the concentration of wealth upward.

I would welcome more literature of the type Mattix is describing, but I think most of the controversy would actually come from within other camps in the conservative movement, between the Bellow/Roth contingent on the one hand and the Ayn Rand faction on the other. Once conservatism figures out which one it is, I think we may see more individuals outside the movement sit up and listen.