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True story. The scene is a Manhattan supper club, circa 1952. Eleanor Roosevelt approaches a table at which John and Elaine Steinbeck are dining. Elaine makes introductions, and then...

Eleanor Roosevelt: "When I go to the Soviets, they ask, 'Does that awful treatment of farmers still happen in the U.S.?’ I say, 'No, my husband and John Steinbeck took care of that.’"

John Steinbeck: "That is the best literary review I've ever received."

-- National Steinbeck Center video archive

I hope this Steinbeck anecdote will help persuade you to support an idea that can once again democratize serious literature, and heal our Bush-wounded collective soul. This idea will also help to build bigger blog communities--and a new study claims that it will even improve our social skills.

Win, win, win!

I wrote last week about how reading Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project resurrected my belief in the power of literature, after my four-year abandonment of reading and writing fiction, to fight Bush in more immediate ways.

Great literature creates a level of empathy for other people's lives, with all its emotional, intellectual and philosophical complexities, in a way that no polemic or journalism, memoir or blogging can do. Lazarus rocked my world because it magically weaves historical fact, autobiography, journalism, fictional narrative, and real and imagined characters into a work of art that draws haunting parallels between the anti-anarchist hysteria of 1908 Chicago, the violent nationalism and wars in the Balkans, and America's post-9/11 xenophobia and politics of fear. More amazingly, it helped me to feel the struggles, as I sit here in lilly-white Marin County, of not only the book's main characters, Lazarus Averbuch and Vladimir Brik, but of every Muslim, Mexican or dark-skinned immigrant--or citizen--in America today.

My initial thoughts on this matter prompted Chris Bowers and Firedoglake's Emptywheel to share their own stories about leaving literature behind for activism, with Chris positing that perhaps I'd touched on a zeitgeist of this decade for many progressives. I've since been ruminating on how to get artists and progressive activists engaged in a public dialogue, because while these two communities are very much part of the same continuum, over the past eight years there has been a kind of damaging divergence between art and life, for many progressive activists.

As activists, we must not lose sight of art, or its value to the work we do and the sustenance and inspiration it can provide. In talking with Hemon, I also realized that we needn't choose between the "activist path" or the "artist path" either. We can do both. This epiphany made me want to have these issues discussed in public forums, particularly on  progressive political blogs, because I believe bringing more art into our mix will have a profound effect on our individual and collective imaginations.

In much the same way that progressive blogs have opened up the national discourse and increased civic and political engagement, these same blogs can help to usher in a very necessary resurgence of serious literature in this country.


During the Gilded Age, in America and Europe, newspapers ran short stories and serialized novels. The greatest novelists of the time, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Mark Twain, William Thackeray and Joseph Conrad published their works of fiction in installments in daily newspapers. Because this format was more affordable, people outside of the upper class had access to books for the first time. The publishing phenomenon sparked a growth not only in the number of people desiring to read, but also in literacy rates. The masses were able to read fiction and to imagine better realities than those put forth and controlled by the era's robber-baron elites. This sounds quite similar to Hemon's analysis of our current situation:

The Bush administration's attitude has always been that they can construct the most outrageous realities and then sell them as self-evident, much like Project Runway. That is what Karl Rove's famous remark dismissing journalists as a "reality-based community" referred to. Rove was--and still is--a reality creator, not a reality-interpreter. They have also taken over our language--I cannot say the word "freedom" any longer without retching, and  "the war on terror" gives me hives. I cannot stand "freedom" and "the American people"--put me on the terror-watch list right now! The ascendence of "reality-based" aesthetic is not a form of resistance to the ideological and human atrocities orchestrated by the Bush regime. On the contrary, it is a symptom of the pressure against civic engagement which requires imagination and sovereignty of the mind. Citizens read books about other people. Subjects flip through channels and read about people like themselves because they cannot imagine a life different from this one. They cannot see that it does not have to be this way, that this is not the only available reality.

Which is all to say that if you want to organize a demonstration or establish a third political party or influence a legislation, reading a novel, let alone writing it, is not the way to go. But if you want to regain the sovereignty of your imagination and the right to resist the imposition of self-evident realities, if you want to restore the democracy of language, then you would be well advised to skip watching reality TV and read some novels. Say Jose Saramango's Blindness, which tells you a lot about the breakdown of a civic society, or Edward P. Jones's The Known World which tells you how the crime at the heart of a society corrupts everyone in it, or Junot Diaz's The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which tells you how one carries history inside one's body. And once you have read these books, you go and kick some lying, oppressive, reactionary ass.

With newspapers cutting book sections and reviews-and entire news operations shrinking by the day-progressive political blogs could help to integrate literature back into American life. We know the value of pulling people out of their consumer-driven television comas, and getting them reading, informed and connected. Bringing literature back into people's everyday lives, via blogs, will provide sustenance for the progressive soul and lead to more hope, engagement and action. Hemon is hopeful about this possibility as well:

Somehow, somewhere along the way thinking while reading became undesirable, a lot of readers started reading for comfort, not for doubt...To me, this is at some level definitely connected with the decrease in civic agency--people are afraid to think for themselves and then voice those thoughts in a public space. There is a loss of intellectual self-confidence all across the board, for capitalism prefers a non-thinking consumer to a thinking citizen. The restoration of public space in blogosphere, I think, alleviates that problem. I hope it can also provide space for a resurgence of serious literature.


There are many ways this could work. Certainly, political blogs that have book salons could be discussing more novels (I've seen a few discussed here and there, but I'm talking about a sustained effort). Political blogs could partner with literary blogs to have online forums to discuss the books and to dream up possible collaborations inspired by these novels. Progressive blogs could also serialize novels and run short stories. Literary blogs are doing some of this, but we need more cross-pollination between these disparate corners of the blogosphere.  Perhaps literary blogs could be invited to join political blog communities, much like Jane Hamsher has brilliantly done at Firedoglake, with her stable of political blogs, to increase audience and amplify voices. Guest fiction editors from literary blogs, and literary critics from magazines, could introduce more literature on politics blogs, and guest political editors could introduce lit-blog readers to more political reporting and activism. Mixing it up will most certainly lead to new readers for both political and lit-blogs, and could help to democratize literature in American life once again.

If you have a political blog, and would like to start featuring fiction, contact me via LiteraryOutpost. I can start you off with The Lazarus Project and can offer excerpts and art to run on your blog. I can also put you in touch with some literary blogs if you'd like to start a dialogue or partnership of your own. I would also like to see an anthology of short stories, which appear first on political and literary blogs, published in book form.

Literature can help to cure societal ills--as Eleanor Roosevelt told John Steinbeck. Let's open up the public space for serious literature again. It will help to build bigger blog communities, but more importantly, it will further awaken the country's imagination to new and better--and possible!--realities.

Won't that be refreshing after eight years of Bush? And, really. Who among us doesn't need a little help with our social skills?

cross-posted at Guernica

Originally posted to BroadAnimee on Wed Aug 06, 2008 at 09:45 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Dinner is ready! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Stuart Heady

    Well, in this time zone.... So I'll have to finish reading in a few minutes. I enjoy the work of Steinbeck...

    Tip Jar?

  •  Consider that... (0+ / 0-)

    Lynn Hunt and others have found that empathy was greatly enhanced by the rise of the novel in the 18th century. That made concepts such as "human rights" possible. Jennifer, this is an important project. Count me in.

  •  The Moon is Down (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lotlizard, Nulwee

    "The Moon is Down", written by John Steinbeck is an example of a great author using literature as a form of activism.

    Best wishes... I think you are on to something!

  •  Been working on this problem for some time (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nulwee, offgrid
    I was working back and forth between local journalism and political activism and organizing for some time when I began to see that there was some sort of bifurcation between the world view in the arts and the world view of those whose concerns were more primarily political.  

    Some years ago I began to try to promote the work of a photographer that I came to know because of this political/journalistic paradigm.

    Alan Pogue is a very rare type of artist.  His vision was forged in the crucible of Vietnam, where he went from being disaffected from the Chaplain Corps to serving as a frontline battlefield medic.  He treated a lot of local Vietnamese villagers and saw the war through those eyes and began to question on many levels.

    For forty years he has been searching for a way to make this quest available to others through photography.  His work delves into a basic issue of human nature, which is why we maintain prejudices that cause so much suffering.  

    His work has become a great artistic body of work.  So, you would think this wouldn't be too hard to get engagement for in the art world.

    I have found that the world of fine art is afraid of politically direct and frank artistic expression, ostensibly because people who buy art want abstraction that offers intellectual escape, or wall decor for offices.  Art that gets into issues that cause us to question policies that we support or the lack of compassion on an international level tends to cause people with dollars to go elsewhere, so galleries are pretty insupportive.

    The Bush zeitgeist, I would say, is a vast denial, a "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" sort of avoidance that allows people to feel like the party atmosphere of previous decades is still in full swing.  

    I have been looking into what it is that actually creates cultural directions and where the points are that can be reached to perhaps create a new zeitgeist.  

    I think that the bigt institutions and the big media still hold the keys to deciding what it or is not art.  The problem there seems to be that, like the MSM, the money behind the scenes is working from an agenda that goes against the real work of art, which is to think about our reality and how we could be better humans.  

    I think a proper challenge for political bloggers would be to look at this aspect of how culture is created and directed, be more conscious of the importance of this as predicate to policies that repeat Iraq after Vietnam after El Salvador.

    How can we change basic policies that we all know are wrong if we fail to take into account what creates the underlying assumptions that the whole culture is working from?

    •  would love to be in touch with you (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      feel free to email me via that literaryoutpost link.

    •  art? (0+ / 0-)

      Although most other people commenting here are treating the words "art" & "literature" as synonymous, I am interested in why the visual arts, which can communicate without language, are not more prominent in political advocacy.

      It is true that the gallery art world here in the US is not much interested in political expression, but there is a robust sector of artists who do care and do get involved.

      It is the political people who are suspicious of us and rarely want to engage with our work or even reproduce images in blogs, whereas endless Youtube —and even mainstream TV!—links are embedded. What a shame!

  •  Politics versus Culture (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ignacio Magaloni, Nulwee
    The blogosphere is an interesting case in the overall context of culture at large and how it relates to public policy and politics, which derive from cultural assumptions we usually are not conscious of.

    Judging from the way these posts roll off the front page without much comment, Daily Kos bloggers don't seem very interested in the intersection of art and politics.

    But then, at the moment our culture is embroiled in a large scale battle.  All of the issues are sub rosa to the larger question of who we are as Americans in the 21st Century.

    Should the coming century be a hallmark of progressive hopes and dreams or should it be an attempt to bring back the 1950s?

    In my experience, progressive activists tend to be so pragmatic that they miss opportunities associated with the arts.  This may be because the political mind is very narrowed to those common denominators that can easily be appealed to through aphorisms that are already in the environment and commonly understood.

    I have a feel for this because I actually spent some time working in political consulting.

    Art tends to deal with deeper insights that aren't yet translated into ready language or image, and which, while central to human being, can't be turned into political campaign issues.

    But, as you point out, these can be more powerful.

    So we are stuck in an endless loop of reaction on a superficial level.  Oddly, conservatives over the past several decades have understood this better.  Probably this is because self interested money motives are simpler and easier to coordinate.

    Thanks for the diary.  Once again I am reminded that this is a conundrum that I have invested some years and energy into.

    I hope that the election will prove to be a tipping point or a paradigm shift that will begin to make it possible to address cultural concerns that have been off the agenda for quite a long time.

    I also hope that progressives won't just go to sleep, thinking that it is all over.  We need especially to motivate those who could fund deeper, more long lasting cultural efforts.

    Here is the photographer that I referred to above:

  •  The Road. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    What a book for the decade.  A world environmentally devastated beyond what was openly suggestable not too long ago... people who live their lives in avoidance of other human contact. Now we have a whole sub-sect of a generation growing up with minimal outside contact. In Japan they have words for sub-sects have sub-sects--those who are almost shut in with their parents at adult ages, those who are loners, those who make relationships only online, et cetera.

    There's a large body of recent mediocre to good lit out there. But many great writers are not well supported by a body of short-attention spanned people who only follow what's hot this month on oprah's book club or what have you. We need readers!

    Plus, he knows what crapped out means, which will help him explain his condition on the morning of November 5 - PBCliberal

    by Nulwee on Wed Aug 06, 2008 at 08:27:51 PM PDT

  •  One of my favorites (0+ / 0-)

    from BBC America is Tipping the Velvet.  Yes, it's a lesbian love story...but it takes place at the intersection of art (theatre, in the case) and politics.  Well worth watching, IMHO.

    Our economy is a house of cards. Don't breathe.

    by Youffraita on Wed Aug 06, 2008 at 09:38:41 PM PDT

  •  The Macondo Writers Workshop, (0+ / 0-)

    which began round Sandra Cisneros' kitchen table in the 90's, is now a wonderful set of workshops providing an environment that supports writers with a social conscience.

    I am inspired by your effort, jennix: Steinbeck would be happily posting a comment on your diary today.

    Once more Kossacks and others online experience the energy they can derive from literary explorations of our reality, they will begin promoting diaries like this one more often: this is a great step toward that day.


    For interested writers, here is a link to the Macondo Writers Workshop (featured in a Poets & Writers issue last year):

    Habeas Corpus:See Hamilton quoting Blackstone in The Federalist Papers, number 84.

    by Ignacio Magaloni on Wed Aug 06, 2008 at 09:56:33 PM PDT

  •  Political hack sees art as um a little complex (0+ / 0-)

    There's a difference in the artist-intellectual who can integrate politics and art and the rest of us hacks who envy you all.

    This year I forced myself to take some read time. So now I understand that Beowulf loses in the end  because he went off message.

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