Is there a place for novels and novelists when Nazis march the streets of a tarnishing America, and gather in the squares of Europe, while clans face off in the Caucasus and Middle East and India, and tribesmen swing machetes at their neighbors in Mother Africa? Is our only choice in these dire times to be a Wiesel or a Nero when we write?
These are rhetorical questions. of course, and you know that I say yes to the first question, no to the second. Even the humble coming-of-age story, the mystery, the romance, have a meaning that undermines oppression by its nature. The novel, like all good art well-done, is inherently democratic–in other words, there is value in the very structure of the novel: because, whether I am writer or reader, the characters are not me, and I am not the characters…though they live in me and take up permanent residence in my soul.
The writer’s job–any artist’s job–is to absorb and collate sense impressions and the harmonies of psychosocial relationships, refine them, and present them in story form in a way that is replete with sensual calories, that is amusing to the mind and heart (to keep them reading), and that may serve to wrench the perceptor out of the prison of the self. Good writing does this to the reader and writer alike, as do music, painting, and all the various artistic modalities we have constructed over the weary millennia of our time on this earth.
In short, the novel’s job is to break through the filters of sensual habit that conform the life outside to the comfortable mental structures which socialization has erected between our selves and the only world we can live in. Once you’ve seen life through someone else’s eyes, you can no longer be satisfied with living within the boundaries of the Approved Version that has been delivered to you by parents, preachers, teachers, and The Man–and that’s what reading a novel does; the story puts you in intimate relation with sometimes dozens of complex, albeit imaginary, strangers–people who cannot be you, but who become part of you.
My 2.9 current novels feature a personage called Lenny Strasser who shares a very few biographical details with me–mostly minor points of lineage. But he is not me: he does things I would not do, and, equally important, he does not do things that I would do. His loves are nothing like my own loves (with the exception of one character in the first tale, The Dust Will Answer), and the people around him are not, for the most part, the people who have shaped my life. He is an only child; I have three siblings. His parents are quiet, inexpressive, and kind; mine were intense, eccentric, and occasionally bullies. Lenny is not my surrogate, nor is anything I write these days a roman å clef.
In fact, I found, in the course of that first book, that the characters who were entirely made up (that is, synthesized out of the inventory of experience cluttering my memory) were far more successful than the ones that were near-portraits of actual people. In that tale, for example, Sheela Cottone, whom I originally just sketched in to provide a bit of color in an otherwise (literally) dark chapter, ended up taking over the story, and becoming a pivotal character in the next two books.
I did not ignore this lesson. The second book, Family Ties, harbors no portraits from life–and the characters are stronger and truer for it, perhaps because more organized, more concentrated, than people tend to be who live within the fences of selfhood in our workaday world.
In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Levin, the author’s stand-in, seems like a nice guy, but is an unengaging and often frustrating character, and sometimes a preachy bore. Write not about yourself but about the world around you, and realize that it doesn’t revolve around you. In this world of identity fixation, we all too often lose sight of…well, everyone who is not just like us. The novel, when it is any good, breaks us out of the hall of mirrors that is the clan, the tribe, the creed, the self. That is one reason mere stories, which the best novels are, after all, are so often banned by regimes obsessed with cultural purity.
I’ve never really written about myself–at least not since I grew up as a writer. I used to, in my twenties–but I have made sure to destroy those dreary screeds. Even my poetry is built like very short and musical stories. It is not “self expression.” It is a record of moments in the world. While it is inevitable that everything you scribe derives from your own lived experience, fiction is not biography. Fiction is biography transfigured beyond recognition. And because it is truer than life, everyone can recognize the person they could be in reading it.
The original Nazis banned books, paintings, music, everything–because they understood the innocently subversive nature of good art. So did Stalin and Mao, on the other side of the fence. Keep on writing–and even more important, keep on reading. Art matters more than ever when bullies roam again.
If you are interested in my formal views on modern fascism, please see my article in Asia Times, written in 2004, and reprinted dozens of times all over the world since then.
14 August 2017