Jonathan Dee’s reflections on the status of the social novel are a welcome critique of contemporary writing, but his argument is compromised by an elision in his survey of the form [“The Lives of Others,” Reviews, September]. He is right to trace the evolution of narratorial perspective from the “panoramic godlike omniscience” of the early novelists to the “radical subjectivity of modernism,” but this chronology by no means accounts for the entirety of literary production in the early twentieth century. In particular, Dee omits the many authors who, during the interwar years, pushed back against the strictures of the high modernist novel.
These writers — we would call them collective novelists — came to view the form’s traditional bias toward singular narrative subjectivity as no longer capable of representing lived experience in the world of the mass society. In response, they often dispensed with subjectivity altogether, attempting to dramatize not the vast depths of individual interiority but the equally significant spaces between human beings. Most of the collective novelists of this period — among them Henri Barbusse in France, Feodor Gladkov in the Soviet Union, and Hans Kirk in Denmark — were deeply committed to the social novel, hoping it would build solidarity between ordinary people and further the struggle for a better world.
Sadly for those of us who believe that the contemporary world is less in need of stronger individuals than it is of stronger societies, novelists almost entirely abandoned the collective form in the years following the Second World War, in response to the catastrophes of fascism, Stalinism, and Maoism.
Dee is hardly the only writer to omit the collective novelists from his history. Dee’s account of the novel’s development accords with the consensus view of contemporary literary historians — it just happens to be incomplete.
I found Seyward Darby’s story on the women of the “alt-right” greatly unsettling, but perhaps not for the expected reasons [“The Rise of the Valkyries,” Report, September]. Don’t misunderstand me: I was duly appalled and perplexed by Lana Lokteff and the other women who are hoping to legitimize white nationalism — a movement whose ethos is deeply misogynistic. But what I found unexpectedly disturbing was the article’s tone, which veers from journalistic neutrality toward a strange fascination with these women.
The troubling tone of the piece finds its visual counterpart in the accompanying illustrations. Blond Amazons in winged helmets and tight-fitting pink dresses brandishing megaphones and spears — the images look like Wonder Woman meets Triumph of the Will. The cover depicts the women of the alt-right as strong and sexy, inadvertently glorifying them rather than exposing the horrors behind the female side of fascism and white terror. Perhaps the visual references to Leni Riefenstahl are deliberate, but by portraying these women as heroic and attractive, Harper’s Magazine may be creating propaganda for the alt-right.
As Naomi Klein rightly points out in her essay [“W.W.E. the People,” Readings, September], Donald Trump’s background in reality TV and professional wrestling provides insight into his presidency. The primary reason that reality TV is popular is that it gives viewers a chance to judge people. It’s fun to decide that the Bachelor is a jerk, or that this man or that woman should be voted off the island. It’s okay to hate people we don’t know, as long as they’re on TV, right?
There’s a reason that Facebook has become our most popular news source. Here’s a video of someone from a group you don’t like doing something bad, and that proves that they’re all like that. Here’s a politician you don’t like being “destroyed” by someone you do. You get your news with a dose of reality TV–style judgment baked into every story, and you’re only going to see stories that fit your preferred worldview, no matter how out of sync with actual reality those stories are.
Packaged realities, fueled by the pleasure of judging others, started on TV, went viral on the internet, and are now running the White House. They are the reason that Trump was elected — the reason his supporters are impervious to rational criticism. Until we can begin, as a society, to let go of our judgments — to see their real destructiveness and to choose different pastimes — our situation isn’t going to improve.
Farm to Table
As a corn and soybean farmer in southern Wisconsin, I read Ted Genoways’s poignant story about life on a family farm with great interest [“Bringing in the Beans,” Folio, September]. A tiny fraction of the U.S. population operates and controls all of the farmland in this country. There are many family farmers across the Corn Belt who share Rick Hammond’s goals: to be successful in spite of capricious markets and weather, and then someday to pass what they’ve built down to their children.
Agriculture is an important part of the American economy, and family farmers count on the Department of Agriculture programs that promote and subsidize our crop insurance and crop production. America’s balance of payments with foreign trading partners is dependent on its continuing to export massive amounts of grain. The present administration needs to be sensitive to this, or our farm economy will likely crash the way it did in the early 1980s.