Dispatches | February 12, 2004

[By Nathan Oates]

Recently I’ve been spending as much time (okay, more) checking updates on the democratic primaries as I have writing fiction. I believe something needs to be done in the political sphere of American life, and since writing fiction is how I spend most of my time my fiction should be doing something about my political beliefs.

I wonder a lot about what this means. Of course we know that all language is inherently political, that all stories bear on the political realities of our society, but perhaps my fiction should bear more directly on the situation. Certainly I’m drawn, in reading submissions, to stories that attempt to grapple with the complex issues of American and world politics, issues of race and gender and national identity and the suppression of the individual voice. So if I believe, as I do, that if this upcoming election has a certain result America will be in a good deal of trouble, why aren’t I doing more about it? Why aren’t I putting my writing to overt political ends? I agree with Donald Barthelme, in his essay “Not-Knowing” that art is fundamentally meliorative and that “the aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world.” Should I, then, be writing anti-death penalty, or pro-choice, or pro-gun control, or pro-Universal Health Care, or anti-Military short stories? How do writers go about meliorating? The notion is so ethical and so broad that it is easy, especially in this primary season of polls and speeches, to feel overwhelmed and of no consequence.

In an essay, “The Writer’s Duty,” the Welsh writer Richard Hughes claims that writers in general keep out of politics because they are not politicians and know no more about politics than soldiers. Fiction, Hughes reminds us, is not about answers. Politics involves policies and answers (or statements intended to look like answers), but fiction is about “the framing of new riddles, posing new questions,” which of course makes sense, when one considers that literary art is made out of metaphor, as Robert Frost puts it, “saying one thing and meaning another.” Perhaps this is art’s most explicit connection to politics.

In a political time, when fear constrains our culture and when homophobia is promoted for political ends, when cultural and regional divisions are taken advantage of by each candidate, one feels compelled to get involved. And we’re right to. All of us are civically responsible. We should be outraged and active. But from our writers we should not want more rhetoric, more bombast. We should want more beauty, more complexity, more ambiguity, more irony, more questions. Either way, these days, I end up with the sense Virginia Woolf describes in her essay, “Modern Fiction”: “that there is no answer, that if honestly examined life presents question after question which must be left to sound on and on after the story is over in hopeless interrogation that fills us with a deep, and finally it may be with a resentful despair.” That’s certainly how I’ll feel in November, if the political turn of events I fear occurs.