Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Gutless culture

Aditya Chakrabortty, spurred by a weekend he's just spent at a festival to celebrate the life of the Bengali artist and thinker Rabinfranath Tagore, writes an impassioned complaint about the lack of political dimension in the fiction being produced in the West today. Partly, he says, it's because 'economics and politics have been cordoned off from the rest of society: as stuff best left to the experts and careerists', an argument put forward by Zoe Williams not so long ago. More importantly he sees it as a matter of the logistics of the contemporary writing life:
'...literature too has been professionalised, so that authors now go from their creative-writing MAs to their novels to their relentless promotional work. Contemporary literary writers, it sometimes seems to me, are so tightly wedged behind their Apples that they have no time for politics.'
Personally, I'd say the problem is more radically the fact that economics is at the centre of our so-called cultural thinking, and the way this impacts on the kinds of novels that find publication and that writers are encouraged to write or discouraged from writing. And in a similar way to Chakrabortty I returned yesterday from an experience - in my case a visit to the horrendous former Stasi prison in Berlin - which left me pondering these issues, and in particular chilled by the thought that while our government wants to seize the kind of power to snoop on its citizens that was used by the Stasi, our publishing companies turn down novels for not being commercial enough - which all too often means 'too political'.


John Wiswell said...

I'm in favor of experts weighing in on political issues, and have no desire to read fiction by dilettantes or people only passingly educated on an issue. But even then, it seems every other novel I pick up has a political dimension. It's just a matter of whether the novel is explicit (like Glass's Ultimatum) or nuanced (Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). I question just how explicitly political we need our art to be when that art takes months or years to produce. Already we have magazines, blogs, Youtube and TV shows that recycle politics into entertainment on a monthly, weekly and nightly basis. Isn't it better for art to take the more measured approach rather than succumbing to topics that shorten its shelf life? If Arthur Miller had just written about McCarthy, The Crucible wouldn't have stood the test of time.

Girl Booker said...

Western culture seems to place importance on the individual over the community/family. I wonder if this has something to do with what you're saying? (People more likely to want to read and write about personal grief/drama/confusion etc)

Elizabeth Baines said...

John, I entirely agree. It depends of course what you means by political You certainly can't get more political than The Crucible. And what I sense is a squeezing of that kind of political sensibility rather than an embargo on 'political' topics. As Chackrabortty says, most books that do try to tackle those big political topics overtly end up falling short as novels/works of art, and I'd say plenty of thrillers for which such subjects are the bread and butter are quite bleached of any truly political urgency or sensibility.

GB: that's an interesting point. the legacy of Romantic individualism... However, as I say, there's no reason that novels dealing with personal relationships should not be political - apart from the fact that the literary industry seems to shy away from those that are.