The Left Is Ruining Writing
A lot of people have been praising George Packer’s speech upon receiving an award named for Christopher Hitchens. The Hitchens Prize “reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.” Packer’s speech really was good. The Atlantic has published it.
As we get further away from his much-too-early death, I find myself missing Christopher more and more. Not so much his company, but his presence as a writer. Some spirit went out of the world of letters with him. And because that’s the world in which I’ve made my life, the only one in which I can imagine a life, I take the loss of this spirit personally. Why is a career like that of Christopher Hitchens not only unlikely but almost unimaginable? Put another way: Why is the current atmosphere inhospitable to it? What are the enemies of writing today?
His answers? One is the problem of “belonging”:
I mean that writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The group might be a political faction, an ethnicity or a sexuality, a literary clique. The answer makes reading a lot simpler. It tells us what to expect from the writer’s work, and even what to think of it. Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.
Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.
A friend of mine once heard from a New York publisher that his manuscript was unacceptable because it went against a “consensus” on the subject of race. The idea that publishers exist exactly to shatter a consensus, to provoke new thoughts, to make readers uncomfortable and even unhappy—this idea seemed to have gone dormant at the many houses where my friend’s manuscript was running into trouble. Fortunately, one editor remembered why he had gotten into publishing and summoned the courage to sign the book, which found its way to many readers. But the prevailing winds are blowing cold in the opposite direction. Incidents like this, minor but chilling, happen regularly in institutions whose core purpose is to say things well and truly. If an editorial assistant points out that a line in a draft article will probably detonate an explosion on social media, what is her supervisor going to do—risk the blowup, or kill the sentence? Probably the latter. The notion of keeping the sentence because of the risk, to defy the risk, to push the boundaries of free expression just a few millimeters further out—that notion now seems quaint. So the mob has the final edit.
Read the whole thing. There’s lots more there, and it’s really important.
What Packer fails to do, though, is call out the villains responsible for doing this: the cultural Left.
It is true that writers have to deal with trolls from all over the political spectrum. It’s not pleasant. But right-wing trolls have virtually no chance of destroying a writer’s career, because the kind of people who run media institutions are not susceptible to shaming by the right-wing mob. And good for them! But that is manifestly not the case from mobbing coming from the other side.
There’s a truly disgusting story playing out right now around a new novel, American Dirt, which has just been released to a rapturous reception, including pre-publication blurbs from the likes of Stephen King, and others. It’s the sympathetic story of a Mexican woman and her child who go through a series of harrowing trials as they try to make their way north to America. Except now, one week after its release, which included a million-dollar fanfare by Oprah’s Book Club, novelist Jeanine Cummins’s book has become a scapegoat for Whiteness and all its evils. This tweet from this morning gives you a sense of the madness here:
Actress endorses a book she hasn’t read because another celebrity gave it a stamp of approval, then withdraws endorsement and denounces book she still hasn’t read while praising the mob for correcting her wrongthink. Just another day in America 2020. https://t.co/NOOPfosXqf
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) January 28, 2020
This Buzzfeed piece brings you up to speed. Basically, Cummins is a white person who wrote about brown people, and if that’s not bad enough, hers is a mediocre book that gets some cultural details wrong. Therefore, she deserves to be cancelled. Seriously, Cummins has overnight been turned into a scapegoat by the Woke mob. According to Buzzfeed:
David Bowles, a Chicano writer and professor, called American Dirt “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama” in a withering review. He also took issue with the use of Spanish words in the dialogue, writing, “Actual examples of Spanish are wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate and then smoothed slightly by a line editor.”
Others focused on Cummins’ overall writing. New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal questioned the author’s decision to describe skin tones as “berry brown” and “tan as childhood,” and then in one scene, as a woman cries into the shoulder of her sister, the “soft brown curve” of skin, as if to remind the reader that these characters are — in case they’ve forgotten — brown.
Sehgal also pointed to the forced similes and analogies: “[W]hen Lydia finds she is unable to pray, ‘she believes it’s a divine kindness. Like a government furlough, God has deferred her nonessential agencies.'”
I’ve not read the novel, and am unlikely to, but good grief, bad writing is just bad writing — it’s not a political sin, or at least it shouldn’t be.
According to Buzzfeed, Cummins brought this on herself, a little bit, because she once wrote a standard lefty piece about how White People Need To Listen To Nonwhite People, and then five years later, which this book coming out, decided to identify as “Latinx,” because her grandmother was Puerto Rican. Fair enough: it looks like she’s trying to pass for the sake of publicity. Call her out on that, but cancel her?
Here’s what David Bowles, who identifies as Latino (sorry, not going to use that ugly x-word), wrote about it in a NYT op-ed in which he calls the book “confirmation that the publishing industry is broken”:
The telenovela plot is a pastiche of stereotypes and melodramatic tropes of the sort one might expect from an author who did not grow up within Mexican culture, from a massacre at a quinceañera to the inexplicable choice of a relatively wealthy woman to leap onto La Bestia, a gang-controlled train — rather than just take a plane to Canada.
Despite the multiple cultural inaccuracies and Spanish dialogue of Google Translate quality sprinkled throughout, the manuscript was acquired by Flatiron Books for seven figures in a nine-way bidding war. Hailed as a modern-day “The Grapes of Wrath” by the writer Don Winslow, it was heavily promoted for a year, poised to be the book on the immigrant crisis.
But “American Dirt” has now been largely rejected by the very Mexicans and Mexican Americans it was meant to foreground, the “faceless brown mass” Ms. Cummins — who has a Puerto Rican grandmother and identifies as white — sought to humanize.
That “brown mass” includes the people in my Mexican-American community here in South Texas.
The white saviorism is tough for me to swallow, and not just because I’m a Chicano writer critical of “American Dirt.”
No, of course not. What goes unsaid is that Jeanine Cummins got a seven-figure book deal and the imprimatur of Oprah (guaranteeing mega-sales) for writing the book that David Bowles and other resentful writers wish they had written.
That, I feel sure, is at the core of this controversy: resentment. If the publishing industry is “broken” because it throws big money at mediocre books, and those books get a lot of pop culture hype, then the publishing industry has always been broken, and so have the movies. This happens all the time. It is a total cliche that bad blockbuster movies and bad bestselling novels pay the bills so that smaller, better books with a more limited readership can exist. Life is unfair. What can we do?
Every conservative writer of nonfiction sees the bestseller list for our division, and sees Hannity, Limbaugh, and others like them topping the charts, with nothing even close, and thinks, “Why them, and not me?” But then, being conservative, one understands that this is just how life is, and that it is not the fault of these megapopular writers that the masses want to buy what they’re selling, and pay much less attention to the kinds of books that people like us write. In other words, conservative writers understand that hierarchy is built into human nature, and that in a democratic system, where people are free to spend their money on what they want to read, there’s nothing to be done about this, except perhaps to be grateful that people like Limbaugh expanded the audience for conservative titles, and made publishers wake up and realize there was a market for them.
If these umbrage-taking Latinos had any savvy, they would realized that the success of the Cummins book will expand the market for Latino narratives, which is going to help their own careers. Did Elvis Presley “appropriate” black music, and take it into the American mainstream? Of course he did! But he didn’t steal anything — his homage to what he learned from black blues musicians brought their art to a wider world. I discovered classic American bluesmen in college in the 1980s by first listening to Rolling Stones albums from the late Sixties and early Seventies. People who say the Stones, as Englishmen, are guilty of a crime against black culture for making blues-based rock can show themselves out before I put a foot in their backside.
But people are people, and it’s hard to be high-minded when people you believe are less deserving succeed, and you don’t. I lost a friend who was consumed by resentment over the fact that I wrote a book that popularized some of his ideas, and, I can only figure made money on those ideas that his small, niche books didn’t make. It was an extraordinarily ugly falling-out, with vicious and groundless accusations coming from that former friend. That taught me something about the human heart, and if I ever write fiction, I’ll probably appropriate — ha! — the lesson I learned from his disgraceful behavior. He tried to dress it up in the garb of moral righteousness, but it was transparently a case of resentment.
Back to the Cummins book. If it’s a lousy book, she deserves the shots she’s taking. If people are angry at her for getting a big advance for a lousy book, well, instead of griping about her, find out who her agent is and see if the agent will take you on as a client, because they’re doing good work for Jeanine Cummins. In any case, publishers don’t hand out big advances on merit alone. They’re making an investment in how well they thing the book will do in the marketplace. They usually get this wrong. As hard as it is to believe, something like 95 percent of all books do not make back their advance for the authors. It’s true. The economics of publishing are crazy. People assume all the time that I must be rich because I have several published books. Man, it’s not even close. I’m grateful for the success I’ve had, but aside from those rarefied few in the authorial stratosphere, nobody gets rich writing books.
Anyway, look: if you’re going to complain that the system exalts mediocrity and fails to reward merit, well, welcome to the real world. I look forward to your cri de coeur over the fact that the mediocre actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became one of the biggest leading man movie stars of all time, while Wallace Shawn, a much more talented actor, did bit parts in the movies.
Again: life is unfair. Art and literature is especially unfair. People like what they like. One of the most important moments for me as a book writer just starting out was when I sat across from a well-known and extremely successful New York publisher, in her office, and told her that I wanted to write a book about the Catholic sex abuse scandal, which was then all over the news (it was 2002). I made a case for why I, as a practicing Catholic (as I was then), had a particular insight on how the scandal related to other areas of Catholic life, how I had good sources, and so forth. The proposal looked great on paper.
She blew me away with this statement: “People are not going to pay $26.99 to read a book about priests f–king little boys.”
Instantly I knew she was right. My idea, I still believe, would have made a great book. But it was a book with no commercial prospects. Hey, people should have wanted to buy and read such a book, to learn about something terrible that happened, and that a lot of people — good people and bad people — allowed to happen. But I could not argue with the commercial instincts of that publisher. People were willing to pay to read those stories as part of their subscriptions to their newspapers, and a fantastic film, Spotlight, was made about that topic. But notice that Spotlight wasn’t really about priests screwing children; it was about the systems that allowed Boston Catholics and Boston institutions to avert their collective eyes from something happening more or less in plain sight. My point here is that even in 2015, when Spotlight was released, thirteen years after the events it dramatizes happened, we still couldn’t look directly on the horror. I’ve seen Spotlight a couple of times, and revere that movie. But if it were about the scandal directly, I couldn’t take it.
I bring that to the discussion of American Dirt only to say that publishers are driven by an economic bottom line that often mystifies and offends writers. Sometimes publishers get things quite wrong, and overhype certain books, or fail to identify or promote good, even great, ones (the fate of A Confederacy of Dunces is a classic example). To assume that it is always a case of malice or some other form of vice — including racism — is repulsive.
But that’s where these resentful writers are with Jeanine Cummins. It seems that they will not be happy until she is made to suffer. Going forward, how many writers will take the risk of writing about people not like themselves, especially if those characters are part of a recognized Victim™ group? Novelists do this all the time — write about people not like themselves — and sometimes they do it badly. (Ask Catholics how close Dan Brown’s megaselling Da Vinci Code books came to depicting the actual Roman Catholic Church, or reproducing the actual history of the Middle Ages?) Now they would be foolish to dare to do it, because they might get cancelled. Publishers will be much less likely to take a chance on those writers, because if the writers fail to pass muster with the racially-conscious ideological screeners, it could mean death for the book, and their investment.
Even Stephen King, after admirably standing up for the value of artistic merit over demographic representation, chickened out, and confessed his sins against wokeness in a Washington Post op-ed.J.K. Rowling has bigger balls than he does. King blurbed American Dirt too. Will he walk that back in the face of the mob? What about Latina writer Sandra Cisneros, who lavished praise on the book? Here’s a detail-packed NYT story on the controversy. Behold the cowardice:
In the midst of the fallout, some writers who offered blurbs for the book have reconsidered. The Mexican-American poet and novelist Erika L. Sánchez, who had praised it as written with “grace, compassion, and precision,” said in an interview this past week that she wouldn’t have thrown her weight behind the novel had she known it would upset so many in the literary world.
Wow. I wouldn’t have said that I liked the book had I known that all the cool kids would hate the book. What a disgusting, disgusting stance to take. So, look George Packer: this is not the cultural or political Right making it harder to be a writer. This is the Left, weaponizing identity politics and using it to destroy art and artists. You didn’t say it the other night. I hope you will going forward.
And I hope all you leftists and liberals will do so. Nobody cares when a conservative complains about this rotten injustice. Only you have the power to stand up to these bullies.
But look, we had all better prepare to take stands. What these leftist literary crybullies are doing is preparing the way for soft totalitarianism. Here’s a passage from the draft of my forthcoming book on soft totalitarianism, from the chapter about identity politics:
At the core of every totalitarian system is resentment, said [Roger] Scruton.
“Totalitarian ideologies are adopted because they rationalize resentment, and also unite the resentful around a common cause. Totalitarian systems arise when the resentful, having seized power, proceed to abolish the institutions that have conferred power on others: institutions like law, property, and religion which create hierarchies, authorities, and privileges, and which enable individuals to assert sovereignty over their own lives.”
To the resentful these institutions are the cause of inequality and therefore of their own humiliations and failures. In fact, they are the channels through which resentment is drained away. Once institutions of law, property and religion are destroyed – and their destruction is the normal result of totalitarian government – resentment takes up its place immovably, as the ruling principle of the state.”
The totalitarian ideology – whether communist or Nazi – identifies members of a certain class as the enemies of justice, and stokes hatred among the masses for members of that group. Jews, bourgeois people, Catholics, racial minorities – all have been stigmatized and targeted by totalitarians and would-be totalitarians as collectively guilty of crimes against the people. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell created a totalitarian state in which the masses were kept in a constant state of rage and terror over imaginary enemies kept at bay only by the vigilance of authorities.
“Nothing is more comforting to the resentful than the thought that those who possess what they envy possess it unjustly,” Scruton said. “In the worldview of the resentful, success is not a proof of virtue, but on the contrary, a call to retribution. That explains why totalitarian ideologies invariably divide human beings into innocent and guilty groups.”
Resentment is a characteristic found in every society, and within every person’s heart. Resentment rarely comes from nowhere. The grievous suffering of the peasant masses in pre-revolutionary Russia at the hands of imperial elites was not an invention of Lenin. Nor, in our own time and place, is the fact of racism a fiction. Every polity has some who are more powerful than others; this is an ineradicable fact of human nature. Liberal democracy, as a secular working-out of Christianity, established a political framework that attempts to solve conflicts justly, with a respect for both individual dignity and fundamental human equality.
The danger is that the passion of resentment overwhelms all reason, filling one with an overwhelming conviction that justice can and must be achieved — by any means necessary. This is when the totalitarian temptation manifests itself. For those who believe that achieving justice is nothing more than distributing power –Lenin, with his “who, whom” – among social groups, not individuals, then the state’s mission is to take power from the malefactors, and reassign it to the virtuous.
To the communists (and to the Nazis), the qualities and character of individuals were insignificant. The only thing that mattered was their identity as a member of a group. Once this is established, there is no point in reasoning with the wicked in defense of the good. The wicked are presumed guilty not because of what they believe, say, or do; they are guilty because of who they are.
They say Jeanine Cummins is guilty because of the book she wrote. Bull. She’s guilty in their eyes because of who she is. Cummins may or may not have written a good novel, but she doesn’t deserve this. It is wrong. It is evil. And sooner or later, wherever you are, and whatever your profession, it’s probably going to come for you.
UPDATE: Ah, I wrote and published this post before seeing that TAC’s Bob Merry had also written about the topic. Please read it; it’s better than what I have written here. Excerpt from Merry:
What this controversy tells us is that this whole business about cultural appropriation has gotten totally out of control. As the Times puts it, the controversy “falls into the roiling argument over…how the stories of marginalized people should be told and who should be given the platforms to tell them.”
Let’s parse that sentence a bit. How did we get into a “roiling argument” over “how the stories of marginalized people should be told.” Isn’t that what reviewers do? But reviewers weigh in after a book has been published. What the Times writers, Jennifer Schuessler and Alexandra Alter, seem to be saying is that there is a legitimate debate over who gets to decide how a story is told before any book is published or perhaps even written. How is that even a debate? Who gets to decide? How will their decisions be enforced? How is that even workable?
There’s a tinge of totalitarianism here—an effort through the force of public pressure (which is considerable these days) to infringe upon the artistic impulse.
It’s even worse (the situation) than I thought — and I appreciate how Merry calls out the NYT’s role as cultural gatekeeper here.