From a certain angle, Donald Trump’s presidency may not have moved the United States in entirely the wrong direction. One of the few areas to benefit from his stewardship, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen suggested in a New York Times op-ed last December, was American literature. Prior to 2016, he argued, Barack Obama’s “warmth” had lulled the literary world into a deep quiescence that amounted to imperial complicity. “It took Mr. Trump,” he wrote, “to awaken it to politics.”
As epoch-defining generalizations go, this is about as accurate as the solemn proclamations about the end of irony after September 11. The George W. Bush years, after all, gave us a crop of novels attempting, however awkwardly, to wring meaning from the catastrophe in lower Manhattan, to say nothing of the numerous Obama-era fictions marked by years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are ambitious and profound writers such as Phil Klay, whose debut story collection, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award, apolitical? Nguyen casts him as a “veteran writer” distant from most Americans, who “are insulated from the deployment of the war machine and prefer not to think about their implication in it.” What about pressing existential questions such as climate change, environmental degradation, and the unsustainability of industrial agriculture? These subjects have been taken up by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, and Jenny Offill, but he shrugs off such concerns too, as “targets . . . acceptable to white liberal interests.” What about riveting, humorous depictions of evolving sexual manners and power dynamics such as Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? He is silent on this score. In one way or another, none of this work qualifies as genuinely political writing, because what Nguyen is really talking about is racial and ethnic identity.
Narratives of oppression, he insists, are missing from today’s “poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping apparatus that is mostly white and privileged.” Though some literature by immigrants and minorities also remains too accommodating for his taste in its failure to “rip off” the “mask” of American inequity, “explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.” Therefore, if the cruelty and ineptitude of the Trump Administration is to have a silver lining, all writers will have to take up overt activism.
This isn’t just a matter of questionable history, but of bad aesthetics. Nguyen would have every author become a strident advocate on and off the page. In recent years, “many writers, like me, texted voters, donated to activist causes, got into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration,” he declares with perplexing satisfaction, as if texting and posting were the moral equivalent of marching through billy clubs and snarling dogs in Selma. Of his similarly engagé peers, he cautions, “Their political fervor impressed me. But if these writers retreat to their pre-Trump selves, then the lessons of this era will have not been learned at all.”
We can conjure the resolute face of Albert Camus, who, penniless and sick, risked his life as editor of Combat during the French Resistance. We can remember that James Baldwin marched on Washington and that Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos manned ambulances on the front lines of the First World War. And we might raise an eyebrow in sickened awe when we recall that Yukio Mishima, after handing in the final installment of his masterwork, The Sea of Fertility, went so far as to seize a military building in Tokyo and implore an audience of servicemen to overthrow the government. When the soldiers declined, he committed ritual suicide with a sword.
But what is a writer’s political obligation within the work? Nguyen longs for a “literary insurgency,” of a kind we supposedly haven’t seen since Vietnam, against the “war machine” and the “settler colonialism” that was behind the American dream. He quotes from a recent poem titled “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying,” by a young Palestinian-American writer named Noor Hindi. “Colonizers write about flowers,” Hindi writes. “I want to be like those poets who care about the moon. / Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.” “This is my kind of poem,” Nguyen declares.
Such a model risks reducing writing literature to pamphleteering. A question he neglects to ask is: Why bother to write a poem at all, since there are more direct ways to wax dogmatic? Perhaps it is because poetry is especially suitable for this kind of subject matter, and lyric poetry in particular, propelled by the resonant line or phrase, lends itself to explicit politics more readily than the novel or short story. Yet Nguyen’s constant lumping together of “fiction and poetry” ignores the varied purposes that different literary forms can serve. Even if one accepts the idea that literature should be politically committed, Nguyen leaves us with a dismal binary—a stark choice between the hellfire of Native Son and the saltine Waspdom of The Wapshot Chronicle. Politics, far from being, in Hannah Arendt’s conception, the source of human freedom—which includes the freedom to be silent, obscure, ambivalent, or defiant—becomes nothing more than identity, which in turn is nothing more than power relations. Inevitably, it all boils down to white supremacy. Here it would behoove us to take Nguyen’s lead and seek out some voices of color to make sense of the burdens that racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, and other minorities face in attempting to give meaning and form to chaos through art. For these debates didn’t begin yesterday.
In his 1963 essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Irving Howe flipped Baldwin’s declaration that “one writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience” into a damning query reminiscent of the standard Nguyen proposes:
What, then, was the experience of a man with a black skin, what could it be in this country? How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?
In Ralph Ellison’s coruscating 1964 rebuttal to this well-meaning but condescending account, which unfavorably contrasted both Baldwin and Ellison himself with Richard Wright, he argued against denying, “in the interest of revolutionary posture,” that nonrevolutionary, non-political possibilities of “human richness” also exist, even in terrible circumstances and among seemingly oppressed demographics. To do so, he wrote, is “not only to deny us our humanity but to betray the critic’s commitment to social reality. Critics who do so should abandon literature for politics.” It is not only patronizing, Ellison contends, but flat-out incorrect to view the black experience as one of lack. Only someone blinded by materialism could look on the tradition that produced Duke Ellington and conclude that it belongs to poor men. Or as Baldwin put it even earlier, in a 1949 essay,
The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.
Were this simply an idiosyncratic campaign by one decorated writer, it would be less disturbing. But Nguyen’s argument is related to a wider push to reset American literature entirely, not just by restricting what is to be explored thematically and philosophically—which is to say, by conflating art with social science—but also by scrubbing the nation’s syllabi. Those in favor of such revision are correct to point out that the canon has always been contested and that texts are always falling in or out of favor. What is different today, however, and worth thinking through attentively, is that a relatively small but extremely vocal group of people amplified by social media is attempting to redefine what our culture esteems—or what it will admit to esteeming—at warp speed.
#DisruptTexts is an online education-reform movement that has generated widespread discussion and controversy as the nation grapples with its undeniable legacies of racism and exclusion. Founded by four educators, it borrows the tech world’s callow fetish for “disruption” to advocate the diversification of reading lists. In the manner of all social-media campaigns, it has attracted adherents whose zeal is matched only by their flippancy. Madison Payton, a teacher and doctoral student in education policy, appended the hashtag to a series of tweets:
You don’t have to read white literature to be “well rounded” or “play the game” or be “educated” or “competitive.” I tell my students, spark notes these texts for references BUT let’s read literature that is more relevant and inclusive to our community.
(Shakespeare, whom Payton dismissed as “not very good” in a Twitter exchange we had, would presumably not clear the relevance hurdle.) Lorena Germán, one of the project’s founders, herself burst to notoriety last November when she tweeted,
Did y’all know that many of the “classics” were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then & the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books. That is why we gotta switch it up. It ain’t just about ‘being old.’ #DisruptTexts
As the writer Berny Belvedere argued, such a proposition would allow each era to close itself off from the “works of prior ones,” leading to “generational literary myopia.”
But it does something far worse than that too, something ascendant in our national discourse. Another founder, Kimberly Parker, has said that the goal is to serve “underrepresented populations who were never considered when the canon was created in the first place.” The central beauty and puzzle of art is its ability to fascinate people whom its makers never considered. Embedded in Parker’s statement, however innocuous on its face, is the troubling assumption that Shakespeare and this generation of non-white students do not, in fact, participate in the same common humanity—that Hamlet is simply about a rich Danish dude, and The Merchant of Venice some moneylending Jew in Italy.
Ellison—the author of one of the greatest novels in American literature, Invisible Man, which is written from an exquisitely rendered black perspective—refuted exactly this line of thinking over a half-century ago, when he explained to Howe that even as a student during segregation, he was able “to make identifications as to values and human quality.” While an undergraduate at the Tuskegee Institute, in Macon County, Alabama, he immersed himself in books that “seldom or ever mentioned Negroes.” Such a reading program, far from leaving him feeling unseen, as it might be phrased in today’s lingo, had the opposite effect, releasing him “from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.” In fact, Ellison continues,
I understand a bit more about myself as Negro because literature has taught me something of my identity as Western man, as political being. . . . It requires real poverty of the imagination to think that this can come to a Negro only through the example of other Negroes, especially after the performance of the slaves in re-creating themselves, in good part, out of the images and myths of the Old Testament Jews.
To his credit, Howe conceded the argument. The human spirit, after all, is irrepressible and capable of creating and appreciating lasting works of ambivalent meaning and beauty in the midst of catastrophe—the canon is full of them, and the truths they speak do not respect our superficial boundaries. In my own reading life, I had never felt genuinely understood, glimpsed in the deepest recesses of my contradictory psyche, until I read Dostoevsky. It wasn’t simply that I had not yet encountered a black writer with whom I could identify so completely—that would come later—it was that there were no American writers of any ethnicity who could fill that role. Reading The Brothers Karamazov was an assault on the rote faith I’d embraced without thinking. Against his own wishes, even, Dostoevsky’s work sounded a call to liberty from my spoonfed Catholicism, articulating doubts that were certainly mine but for which I’d lacked a precise vocabulary.
The nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox Christian, who was nearly executed before Tsar Nicholas I commuted his sentence to hard labor in Siberia, never tweeted or texted voters, but his work always struck me as profoundly political in a way that is also, perhaps, incommunicable. What I know is that insofar as I or anyone has an identity that could be constraining, reading Dostoevsky freed me. And perhaps that is the gravest problem with Nguyen’s vision: it’s not that art cannot be political; it’s that artists cannot be coerced to be so. When a writer is tuned in to a given political moment or to a cultural frequency of her own choosing, no one can predict whom she might speak for, now or in generations to come.