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(Identity) Politics & Prose

By Jared Marcel Pollen.

The question of identity politics in literature is one that has been written about increasingly over recent years, but has seldom been discussed honestly and with an eye to many of its ironies. Writing about this brand of politics can be a perilous task, requiring an anxious level of delicacy and tact. Thus, many choose to ignore, or else silently brood about the subject, which now colors much of our thinking as readers, writers and critics, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We can hardly help it: we belong to an age not of politics, but of politicization––not a country, but a set of “cultures” constantly in conflict with one another. Such that something as basically ethical as being vegetarian has been deemed Liberal. The twenty-four hour news cycle means that every second of life that is being lived is also being reported, debated, narrated. Indeed, between social justice movements like, “Black Lives Matter” and struggles of the LGBTQ, a GOP that obsessively tries to regulate women’s reproductive rights, a crotch-grabbing President who has threatened to deport millions of Mexican immigrants and place all Muslims on a national register, it is hard to be as apolitical as one would like. Our consciousness is inundated with reminders of injustice against any group, and one can’t help but feel forced to takes sides, or join in the fight.

George Orwell, in writing about the politics of his age––one of concentration camps, war and totalitarianism––observed that it was impossible to banish these thoughts from one’s mind, let alone one’s writing: “When you’re on a sinking ship, your thoughts will be about sinking ships.” A sinking ship is not a bad metaphor for contemporary culture, or at least, the view from the present, which is that things are always getting worse. Indeed, the word “culture” itself, wherever it is applied (pop culture, gun culture, rape culture, culture war, etc.) seems intrinsically bound to decadence and decline. And in a climate of such hyperawareness, the infusion of identity politics into the products of that culture feels like more and more of an inevitability.

Let’s put one thing up front: using one’s genitals or epidermis as a way to gain political legitimacy is corrupt; to think with them is intellectually shallow; to adhere one’s aesthetic to them when making art is absurd. I’m not concerned here with a case for or against any one political movement that also has literary and theoretical roots, like Feminism, but rather how this awareness enters into literature, where it appears and how it shapes the writer’s sense of duty––meaning that how we choose to think about aesthetic value in art can become dependent on our non-literary allegiances.

Most of the criticism against identity politics in the literary world has focused on the illiberal climate of hypersensitivity that is synonymous with political correctness, safe spaces, etc. For example, Lionel Shriver’s opening remarks at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival regarding “cultural appropriation” addressed how a climate of intimidation and the need for carefulness when adopting other voices is toxic for anything requiring imagination. From the opposing side, the approach has been to treat the phenomenon as a case of white writers reacting to the specter of new voices. A good example of this is Juno Diaz’s piece “M.F.A. vs. POC” (published in The New Yorker in 2014), which suggests the complicated imperatives of an identity politic, but skirts an obligation to explain it by pointing out where it is lacking and casting blame on writing programs for being “too white.” In short, Diaz claims the backing of a Latino student movement sustained him throughout his time at Cornell, during which his classmates were incapable of recognizing his work on non-white terms: “That solidarity more or less saved my life. Made everything in workshop bearable because I suddenly had a group of people on campus who pulled for me, a group of people who saw me.”

There is validity to this, of course. Many writing programs, like congress, the Church and other elite clubs, are self-selecting and sometimes lack in representation the diversity one expects and encounters in the rest of society. The problem though, is just how this solidarity makes the act of writing bearable, or worthwhile. All writers desire to be understood, but do we really write for the reinforcement and support of our respective groups? A more noble definition of writing would be to risk being understood and liked by none if it meant stating a simple truth. At the very least, we have to acknowledge that a key motivation of many writers now lies beyond strictly literary ambitions. This applies especially to writers who feel compelled to write within, or according to the “issues” of their demographic. During my own time in a writing program, I knew a number of women, who, though they likely would have rejected a title like “woman writer” (for obvious reasons), felt the need to work in service of a kind of “women’s writing.” Whether you agree with this or not, we must admit that we can also no longer be naïve about whose story we’re reading, where that story comes from, and for whom it is intended. Even writers who previously could afford to be parochial about the scope of human experience because they and their readers belonged to a dominant class now face the distinction of being “white writers,” and have to adapt to the awareness that comes with it.

To save oneself the discomfort of having to think about these things, one might reach for a Universal of Art––one that transcends the identity of the writer. However, it seems the idea of Pure Art in a Victorian sense has been impossible for a long time now, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to commit oneself so singularly to literature as Flaubert or James did. The politicization of literature was inevitable, as Orwell knew in his time, just as the visible political identity of the writer is now. As Diaz rightly points out, to evoke the supposed “Universal of Art” is to evoke something that is historically “White.” We can no longer be disingenuous about this fact, which not only effects exegesis, but our whole notion of aesthetics. After all, the Greek aisthesthai means “to perceive”––and I don’t believe, despite our best intentions, that humanity will ever reach willful colorblindness. Thus, to maintain that writers should strive towards an aesthetic somehow unbound to race/sex/gender, etc. seems to be asking for the impossible, aside from being willfully dishonest towards the conversation.

We should be respectfully aware of the alienation felt by writers who fail to see their demographic represented in the literary world. Whether it be for want of journals, lack of readership, or the inability of publishers to see capital in other voices, these blockades are real. But against this, there is the tendency to approve of a certain kind of literature simply because it is on the side of a cause––to say: “this author’s identity has been underrepresented historically, therefore their work is important, and an accomplishment for reasons external to its achievement as art.” The same goes for writers, who shouldn’t write for group solidarity anymore than that solidarity should be a justification to continue writing. Literature is not totally without social utility, but its utility is secondary to its value as art. This is not to suggest we can’t be sincere in liking a book for political reasons. If a novel explodes hypocrisy, bolsters the oppressed, exposes the horrors of a regime, it is a good book, but good independent from its success on an aesthetic level. A novel like Middlemarch, for example, which is one of the great moral books of the nineteenth century, wouldn’t be worth our time if it weren’t first enjoyable to read. Any criticism that tries to claim otherwise is fraudulent. In the absence of real objective standards, it’s true that liking anything is ultimately an instinctive affinity that we feel is disingenuous and therefore try to rationalize with criticism; but liking something because it suits your interests or the interests of your group is not even rational.

To the question, “well then, whose stories get published? Who gets accepted into writing programs?” it is easy answer, “the best ones, obviously.” But the answer also almost certainly shouldn’t be: “one’s that offer a ‘different perspective.’” (This is a euphemism I see frequently, which, so far as I can tell, means: not written by straight white males.) But one would never think of disqualifying a poem or a story based on the fact that its writer is black, or gay, or transgender. Is it not unfair then to do the same in reverse, and assign a story value in the name of it? So it seemed during my last semester in graduate school, when a class entitled, “Not All White, Not All Male” appeared on the list of courses. This is a crude vulgarization of what Harold Bloom labeled the “school of resentment.” What began as a movement within academia to take the emphasis off formal analysis and interpret texts through a socio-political framework (Post-Colonial, Marxist, Queer Theory, et al.) has reduced itself to flagrant antipathy toward canonical works on no other grounds than the color of the author’s skin.

A good deal this trend, however, is still experienced colloquially. The reason for this may be that many of the comments one is bound to hear or say when discussing the subject would be blatantly ugly when written down; such as: “you’re a white man, so we don’t need any more poetry from your point of view.” (This is not a direct quote, of course, but an approximation of what was said to a friend of mine, and very well could stand in for whatever the true quote was.) For my part, I can recall a classroom reading of David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon,” and how a classmate described the narrator’s complex of fraudulence as the product of “white privilege.” I have heard similar claims made about Ben Lerner’s 10:04––(i.e. the bitching and moaning of a successful white man who has no other crisis left but the problem of authenticity and sincerity.) Beyond this, words like “Patriarchy” and “Privilege” were used frequently as cudgels against any story that appeared guilty of failing to see through a lens other than its own. Now, imagine how this would sound if applied to a writer of color?

And yet, the “White Perspective” (which is inherently diminished by its normativity and privilege) is a perfectly justifiable grouping for writers who consider themselves to be outside it. If we’re to follow this line of thinking, what then is required for exception? If you’re a white male, but also a homosexual, are you exempt from this category? Do we need to amend the definition of the normative class even further to “White Heterosexual Male Perspective?” What if you’re biracial and heterosexual; or a straight white female? This adding-up-what-you-have-to-find-our-where-you-fit begins to sound phenomenally petty when aired so candidly. And it is. Most people wouldn’t admit to thinking this arithmetically. But taken to its terminus, it must be the way many silently conceive of their place in relation to their respective groups.

Aside from homogenizing varied individual experiences and making a monolith of a number of ethic identities, like Jewish, Italian and Irish––all of whom were not too long ago disadvantaged groups in their own right and considered by many to be not traditionally “white”––the White Perspective reduces literary criticism to the lowliest and cynical form of arguing to the man. This attitude also breaks down at the slightest intervention of nuance. Would we, for example, consider a novel like The Adventures of Augie March, one of the greatest examinations of the immigrant experience in America, to be the product of the White Perspective, along with its author? Could one make accusations of privilege as unflinchingly about an Irish author grown up under the oppression of the British Crown; or someone as canonical as Nabokov, an émigré from both Bolshevik Russia and Hitler’s Germany? And now that these artists no longer constitute minorities in our eyes, should we consider this resentment towards their normalization to be a point of progress?

The cradle of this conflict is writing programs and with the young writers who pass through them and are partly conditioned by them. I want to avoid the temptation to allow the argument to be shaped by its most vulgar and inchoate proponents. Still, it represents a way of a way of thinking that has become common among young writers looking to mark their territory, and I strongly suspect anyone who has either taught or studied in a writing program has encountered something similar. I should also say that I’m acutely aware of the tendency when discussing challenges to the “dominant” culture to sound as if white people have become a newly persecuted demographic (the same reactionary phenomenon that has given rise to Donald Trump ) and want to remain clear of it. However, these biases, wherever they are to be found are toxic to creative writing. And the academy, if it is the source of this fission, is the perfect place to hash it out, and it should come as a welcome argument and not something to be quietly pacified when it arises.

So where does that leave us? Should writers be told to separate their artistic and political lives? Of course not. It’s already been shown that this is impossible. And to pretend otherwise is to run the risk of hypocrisy, or foolishness. I also happen to believe that a literary life is conducive to a political life, which does not exclude expressing solidarity when it’s called for. Every writer, who is first a citizen, has a responsibility to pound the pavement––demonstrate, canvas, attend meetings, write to your congressmen, whatever it may mean. What is needed, however, is a finer distinction between one’s ambitions as political being and one’s ambitions as an artist. This means a necessary separation between group identity and literary identity. As social animals, the need for community is necessary, and good, but it poses a threat to literary integrity as long as literature remains the product of individuals. This goes for how we as critics and readers receive literature as well. The questions: “Is this productive. Is this useful. Is this good for [these people]?” when assessing the merits of a book should be discarded when they are bound to the standing of a particular group within a society. Shakespeare’s plays are neither good nor bad for students of color, just as there are no good or bad novels for women, homosexuals, or any other historically disenfranchised people. There are only good or bad books if they succeed or fail to delight.

To suggest that a writer split their consciousness between their political and literary life in such a heavily politicized time may be asking too much, but it’s a question with which we need to be pressured if we’re to avoid its pitfalls. It may also appear to be asking for something counter-intuitive: writing is, after all, one of the few professions in which one is not only expected to express their political opinion, but is often commissioned to do so, in a way that isn’t required of a programmer, accountant, customer service representative or virtually any other job. Even politicians are limited in the number of opinions they’re allowed to have, lest they conflict with the party line, or offend the voters responsible for reelecting them. The writer, so far as I can tell, remains the only figure who retains total freedom of expression. Writers don’t have to be strategic, “on message,” or uphold the mission statement of a larger entity. They have nothing to lose. This is a freedom we should never take for granted. So why quibble about what to write? The question of course is not what to write, but how to write: how to calibrate our consciousness in an indelibly politicized life––to think about for whom we’re writing and why.

It remains that the political responsibilities of the writer have changed. In a post-ideological era, one no longer feels the need to tow the party line, to write for the utopia one wishes to bring into existence. This was easy enough to separate in the past. One could be a good Communist and write a good novel that showed no trace of it. Today, the service is less to an ideology than to a sense of whom one is. This is the legacy of “the personal is political”: the gradual dissolution of the distinction between the public and private mind. The party has become the party of the Self. This makes it considerably more difficult for writers to distinguish their social conscience from their literary efforts, and to be aware of how they may be adhering to a group mentality when they believe they are expressing dissent. But mature, intellectually honest writing ought to open up and highlight contradictions between one and one’s party, and any writing that doesn’t should be viewed as suspect.

What authority does this critic have, you may ask, to moralize about the political identities of writers? Since we’re in a classifying mood, I should confess that I happen to be a white male. I’m also heterosexual––if that isn’t sufficiently average enough. What, therefore, do I know about it? It seems like a fair enough question, but it evokes the very posture we need to avoid: one that elevates ad hominem thinking to the point of solipsism, in conjunction with making victimology the only ticket for admission to the conversation. I’d like to propose that we as writers are better than this––that literary identity is not subservient to political identity; that our criticism is formable before we have an author’s photo, or their biography; that the so-called “normative” values of literature: imagination, aesthetics, reason, empathy and individualism are not barriers to plurality, but its chief virtues, and are not sweepable into the bins of “Patriarchy,” “Privilege,” or “White Perspective.”

Again, this is not to propose that writers should banish the charge of politics from their work, or their sense of identity. Hardly. James Baldwin couldn’t remove homosexuality from his writing anymore than he could remove it from his life. For the sake of avoiding confusion let’s be unambiguous: the intention here is not to suggest that one’s perceived race, gender, sex, etc. should not be a component of their creativity, or else willfully ignored, but merely to point out a trend that has lead to fair amount bigotry and parti pris in the literary world––one which threatens to place the hands of writers into willful shackles and restrict their aesthetic sensibilities.

With the election of Donald Trump, the rise of populist nationalism in the west and the failure to shatter the “glass ceiling” of the first female president, the allure, and in some cases, demand for identity politics doesn’t appear to be going away. The conflation of this with literary interests is only bound to become more common as a result. As one of the foremost beneficiaries of Liberalism, writers are responsible in part for keeping its spirit alive, and we should be vigilant in opposing trends that threaten to betray its moral precepts, even if it means risking the title of reactionary. Everyone must fight for their place at the table, yes. One thing remains clear though, whatever we choose to do to manage this relationship, we will have to do so not as a movement, but as lone agents.


Jared Marcel Pollen‘s work has appeared in The Millions and Open Letters Monthly. He currently lives in Windsor, Ontario.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 4th, 2017.