2011 – 2012: Revolution, Literature & Politics

January 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

2011 was in many respects a year of crisis, resistance and -after many barren years- revolution. It was the year of the Arab Spring, where political and economic factors combined to push the Arab masses into a revolutionary fervor that ended dictatorships that had lasted decades, in a matter of weeks.

It was a year in which the resistance in Europe to the ongoing economic crisis and its consequences for the mass of the poor and workers continued to battle away against the failures of capitalism and the exhausted ideologies of liberal democracy. Multiple general strikes in Greece, a mass strike in England, immense demonstrations in Spain. The illusion of an era of stability and prosperity is well and truly over, but that’s not all, now a fightback based upon the mass of working class people is making itself felt.

Even in the heart of the beast, in the United States, resistance to the economic and political order has smashed its way onto the streets with the Occupy Wallstreet movement.

It has been an inspiring year for anyone with a left-wing bone in their body and a terrible one for those who run this cruel, corrupt system.

However (and this may seem like a bit of a side question- and it is in the grand scheme of things) what effect has this year of social crisis, resistance and ongoing economic devastation made on the topic of this blog- i.e literature?

It’s an important question to consider because many of us who are on the left and are interested in literature argue that there is an important connection between society and culture, the world we live in and it’s contradictions and the literature that is produced by the people who live in it. Now obviously this isn’t some liner, one to one relation, it’s complex and mediated but that doesn’t get around the fact that there is an important and vital connection and that by understanding the world we live in and in particular the system we live under (Capitalism in case you didn’t know) we can come to a better understanding of literature because literature is, in a complex and mediated way, a reflection of the society which produces it.

Now this post isn’t going to hold many of the answers to this questions unfortunately, although there are I think some general things that can be said about the development of literature at the moment and it’s trajectory.

First of all the dead weight of the past still hangs over a lot of literature and for that matter discussion of it. Postmodernism,  individualism and bland social realism about fuck wit middle class nobodies dominates not only the shelves but also the awards.

Take Fanzen’s novel ‘Freedom’ released at the end of 2010 to widespread acclaim, Helen Scott, from the University of Vermont, captured the novel well in her review for socialistworker.org:

Freedom does capture something of the ennui, guilt, angst and paranoia of middle-class America in the 2000s, but it doesn’t move outside, or reach beyond, the limits of the insular world it dislikes.

Novel of the world, or of the century, it is not.”

One of the top sellers at the moment is Stephen King’s dull, meandering time fiction novel 11/22/63 (as of early January it’s the number 1 on the nytimes hardback bestsellers list) followed shortly by yet another Grisham novel.

When literary awards are not being given to selected exotic darlings of the Global South that the white middle class has decided to adore for the moment, it is given to the Frazens, Howard Jacobsons and Julian Barnes of the world.

There are however a whole series of bright sparks. Stieg Larsson’s novels that take on sexism, fascism and big business are still hot (undoubtedly helped at the moment by the impending US movie release) which is a good sign and All That I Am by Anna Funder is supposed to be an interesting novel set in revolutionary Germany between the wars. Writer of ‘The White Tiger’ Aravind Adiga, a kind of Indian Dicken’s, has released his second novel Last Man in the Tower and continues to deal with issues of industrialization, poverty and working life in India.

However these are bright sparks in an overwhelming night sky of varying shades of darkness.

Now this doesn’t mean things won’t change, an important thing to come back to is what I said before about the connection between society and literature being mediated. The full effects of the economic and social crisis and the emerging radicalization among young working people in particular can take some time to flow through into literature for a variety of reasons. There are for instance banal reasons like the fact that it takes time to write and then publish a novel so there is often a lag between writing and the society around it, in particular with the nature of literature being quite different to say newspaper or internet journalism. There are also other reasons like the social position of most writers, the nature of the publishing industry, the time it takes for political radicalization to consolidate into a general ongoing popular mood that it recognizable to the so-called gatekeepers of literature.

So perhaps we should cut a little bit of slack, well maybe a little but not too much. It is still undoubtedly the case that the massive contradictions in our society between rich and poor, different nation states, real democracy and our sham parliaments, war and peace, unemployment and bankers pay checks are now so utterly in the open that they should shake the walls of literature.

That’s exactly what writers should do: shake the walls of literature by turning a critical eye to the world we live in. Now, I don’t mean every writer should sit down now a start writing their own version of Capital but for fuck sake writers need to take the world as it stands as their starting point not some bullshit delusion that they have created for themselves.

And this is a world now, as much as ever, of economic depression and mass strikes, of revolution and government sponsored racism, of increased imperialist rivalries and an unbound Juggernaut called capitalism. It’s also a world full of decent people who want to and are starting to, do something about it.

Ted Genoways writing in Mother Jones sums it up for me (almost completely)

” young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.”

This isn’t going to come about magically or mechanically, writers will need to, on some level take up the challenge that this rupture in world politics presents for literature. Wither they will or not isn’t predetermined as Genoways pointed out about the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on fictional literature in the US.

”In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars.”

It’s time for those writers with a progressive bone in their body and a head out of the sand to step up to the plate. None of the problems of 2011 have been solved, the rupture in society caused by the world economic crisis has only continued to deepen and interact with connected grievances, especially around democracy, so 2012 looks like its set to keep on giving writers opportunities to deal with this ‘wrecked and lovely world’.

‘Wrecked’ by the rich and their system, kept ‘lovely’ by the struggle of the wretched and dispossessed.

On Friday: I take a look at what this all means for my own blog.


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