election anxiety countdown

91 Days: Fiction

I’ve spent much of the past few years working on fiction: a novel and short stories. Would I be better off spending these hundred days staying in that mode? Would a serialized novel of life in a dystopian 18th year of Trump’s regime be more effective than whatever this series turns out to be? In a recent profile of novelist and contrarian Lionel Shriver I stumbled upon last night by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker, Shriver compared writing fiction to her opinion essays: 

“Fiction is much more subtle,” she replied. “It’s more evasive, it’s more circuitous, it should be a little harder to discern what the message is—not that it shouldn’t have a message, but that message is usually complex and sometimes contradictory.” Asked which was more likely to change people’s minds, she answered immediately, “Fiction.”

I agree. For one, works of fiction — especially if we include screenplays — have a much wider audience, and are more likely to reach people who disagree with you. I read Shriver’s dystopian novel The Mandibles in 2016, knowing nothing about her politics (I was on the futurism kick that led to Future Cartographic). The book describes the economic collapse of the U.S. because of debt and devaluation of the dollar. I recall feeling uncomfortable with some implications of the scenario and questioning some characters’ takes on their newfound difficulties. But the challenge was provocative, not unpleasant. Levy’s profile made me curious to go back to Shriver’s fiction, but her overview of Shriver’s takes on politics and culture (pro-Brexit, she is a Democrat who is outraged that race and gender issues get so much attention) were less interesting. Perhaps relying on a second-hand account is unfair. I do at enjoy an original and creative contrarian. What’s the point of reading a writer who restates things one already believes, or a writer who parrots predictable opposition? Reading ought to be a search for additions, complications, or poetry that expands the known. Bookmark Shriver for later. 

Before media fragmented in to the ten thousand niche channels we have today, fiction on network T.V. played a huge role in building understanding across difference: Black life in a housing project (Good Times); life with a hippie child or a racist father (All in the Family); life as a single woman in an old school, male-dominated workplace (The Mary Tyler Moore Show); life with gay friends; life as an LGBTQ person in love (Ellen, Will and Grace, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Some of these shows might not have aged well, but putting their contemporary viewers in a position of empathy for people who didn’t represent the dominant point of view was groundbreaking. They also gave many people their first evidence that their lives were being seen, that other people like themselves existed and their lives mattered. But does media on such a scale — with millions of viewers and advertising dollars at stake — lead culture change or follow only when a critical mass, an untapped audience, is already there to be tipped over the edge? 

T.V. comedies may be the most accessible form of fiction, but I haven’t watched one in years, so I’m unlikely to start writing one now. Coming up with eight jokes per page as a response to a Trump’s campaign to cement his authoritarianism in place seems like a mismatch of tactics. He satirizes himself and seems not to care.

Upton Sinclair famously attempted to use fiction to rally Americans to the cause of labor rights. The Jungle, which portrays brutal conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, instead resulted in a drop in sales of meat followed by significant regulations to create food safety standards. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he famously said. I know Sinclair mainly through Chris Bachelder’s satirical 2006 novel U.S.! in which Sinclair is assassinated and resurrected repeatedly as the leader of generation after generation of struggling progressive movements. Fictionalized Sinclair looming larger than fact.

Most of the fiction I read is neither comedy nor satire. Many are close to the lived experience of the author. Often with protagonists who share their name and lifestyle with the author. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, for example, which in-part addresses the issue of immigrant children and families separated at the border — material she covered in a previous nonfiction work. But this heart-rending issue is just one element of a story that centers on a scholarly couple’s relationship falling apart as they travel from New York to the southwest to pursue separate research projects. The books they travel, the fragments of their research become minor characters in their journey. 

Luiselli’s is the more likely path I’ll take to November 3. Some nonfiction. Some fiction. A journey in time rather than across geography. As I write these day by day, serendipitous passages from the rotating pile of readings next to me will continue to tag along and redirect us as well. 

election anxiety countdown

92 Days: Second Best

I am grateful for the opportunities I had to witness national politics up close, to play some tiny role in supporting Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012. It felt that much worse to see Trump elected in 2016 knowing that I’d spent that season on an esoteric art project instead of participating in things I’d learned were effective at turning out voters. However, art requires free time. Separation from powerful institutions seems necessary, too. 

Not that there are no creative people in politics. There are many: brilliant speechwriters, designers of memorable posters and websites, clever strategists and communicators who are able to turn any moment to a campaign’s advantage. But these forms of creativity have a limit. They are much needed, but the creativity is constrained. The message and aesthetics must be palatable to the majority of your audience; a creative inspiration that risks offending the middle of the road is off limits. And in a risk-averse field, the line is usually drawn somewhere far safer than the 50th percentile. Politics is the art of the possible, as the saying goes. Originally attributed to Otto von Bismarck in 1867, the full quote is, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” 

So, how do we expand what is possible? How do we make the attainable, the next best better than what is possible otherwise? Outside of politics. In the culture at large, in the realm of thinkers, artists and writers. 

But how does this happen? And if I’ve chosen a 100-part essay from quarantine as my contribution to unseating Donald Trump, should I change my approach to writing to make it more effective? What constraints on my creativity am I willing to accept to have a greater impact? 

Earlier, I drew a parallel between the constraints of advocacy emails and the constraints of certain poetic forms. Every form of communication has its constraints, and the opportunity to respect or reject these constraints when convenient. I’ve chosen (so far) not to write this series in rhyming couplets. I’ve chosen to use conventional punctuation and spelling (mostly). I’ve chosen so far to use only sentences that are true, but I’ve also used included memories that I can’t verify. I’ve chosen to use some actual names and some vague identifiers such as “my friend” and “the organization.” Some of these stories have appeared in drafts I’ve written that might today be called memoir, autofiction, or a novel; the line between those three up for debate. But why adhere to any of these? Donald Trump has used fiction, misspelling and unconventional punctuation throughout his term. And many artists I admire exaggerate and fictionalize to great effect. 

This week’s posts will explore some of these constraints, as the form of this series comes together.