Political Rants do Not Destroy Art

Dan Green and Steve Almond debate whether explicit discussion of politics in literary works is necessary or distracting. (Btw, here’s my puerile thoughts on the matter: ).

I’m not familiar with Almond’s works, but the main problem with his political rants is that they seem forced or out-of-place in a book about candy. However, if you made it clear from the start that the book’s main focus is the author’s own opinions (presented in a stream-of-consciousness way), you could easily pull it off. The problem is not that Almond injected politics into his work, but that this kind of rant didn’t seem to belong with other parts of the book (although if the only rant were the one Almond cited, I really have to wonder what the big fuss is about).

Right-wing readers and left-wing authors mistakenly think that the author’s values need to coincide with the reader for the work to produce pleasure. In fiction this issue is easy to handle: let a character represent or articulate a particular point of view, and present situations for him or her to voice it or to face things that challenge these assumptions. Suppose for example, Almond’s rants were placed in Rabbit Angstrom’s mouth. The reader would start asking: why is Rabbit expressing this opinion in this chapter in the novel? Why does Skylab matter to Rabbit? Criticism then boils down not to political values but plausibility of characters and plot. In other fiction works, political views can merely be a backdrop to the actual story. In the works of Proust, Updike, and Dostoevsky, political events are noted and discussed, but only to place the character in a specific social and political context. Proust’s discussion of the Dreyfus affair at one level reveals Proust’s own horror at the persecution of Dreyfus; on the other hand, it also shows how characters living sheltered lives can prattle on helplessly about topical issues to death (the same can be said how certain people obsess over O.J, Michael Jackson and Monica Lewinsky or the scandal de jour). These political expressions are less important in these novels than the fact that people are having opinions at all and that they are attuned to what’s going on around them. (To contrast with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I seem to recall a very long-winded discussion of land-reform where the aim seemed more exhortative than revelatory). It’s when we get into the realm of allegory that a work is susceptible to charges of being political (which happens a lot in contemporary Chinese works). A good writer will be able to create allegories with multiple interpretations, if only to be able to make it possible to disavow such interpretations to an authority (Rushdie, etc).

Recently I’ve been marvelling over two journalists who manage to say interesting political things without stoking the ire of people from the other side of the political spectrum: Molly Ivins and Mike Royko. Royko used indirect dialogues with people (both real and imaginary) to call attention to many political points. Sometimes his imaginary dialogue seems forced, but if we tried to defang his essays by removing the curmudgeon politics, the essays wouldn’t be as interesting. Ivins takes a different tactic: instead of scolding those on the right-wing, she merely laughs at them, but it is a good-hearted kind of laughter (and the genteel manner in which Ivins delivers her critiques make it difficult for political opponents to stay mad at her for very long). Neither journalist aims at high art, yet both have staying power; with Royko, in particular, his dialogues with imaginary people provides a good snapshot of attitudes prevailing at the time. Long after Reagan and Mayor Daley have left us and Ollie North’s heroism has faded away, we will still be reading Royko’s prose, not for his political insights, but for his vigilant, skeptical voice and his ability to find absurdities in people’s politics, and to see how the common man tries to grapple with topical problems.