In 1932, almost 30 years before he entered the Mayo Clinic for “hypertension” and “a very old case of hepatitis,” Ernest Hemingway wrote a polemic to Paul Romaine, a bookseller and publisher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The letter concerns Romaine’s assertion that Hemingway should play politics in his fiction. The response is as hilarious as it is belligerent.
“I do not follow the fashions in politics, letters, religion,” Hemingway rages. He goes on to assert, “There is no left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing.”
“I’m no goddamned patriot,” he says, “nor will I swing to left or right.”
Besides being blustery and even homophobic—at one point he warns Romaine that “they want you to swallow communism as though it were an elder Boys Y.M.C.A. conference”—Hemingway’s letter highlights a well-established paradox. Fiction and democracy must each remain for the people and by the people. However, especially today, fiction and politics are completely antithetical terms.
First, definitions. Great novels have been written about politics or with explicit public agendas. Some examples include A Tale of Two Cities, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, All the King’s Men, and The Jungle. The disenfranchised make good material for fiction, of course, but that’s not the whole story; defined in a certain way, fiction is, as Jane Smiley suggests, “always political,” because it must concern a person’s relationship to a larger group of people.
So, on the one hand, there’s a long tradition of activist fiction.
The problem lies with political discourse, which encourages opposing sides to paint one another as caricatures. Anything that mocks complexity or flattens personalities cannot have an end goal of empathy. Worse than empathy-destroying propaganda, though, is false empathy, the I-feel-your-pain bullshit politicians engage in to win votes. Although it’s tempting to suggest this is a new problem, history points to the opposite conclusion.
John Gardner—who wrote plenty of polemics too—sums up the problem well when writing about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: An ignorant writer “never understands the dignity and worth of the people [he] has cast as enemies.”
Witness John Steinbeck’s failure in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ It should have been one of America’s great books. But while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil.
Disclaimer: Now, personally, I don’t think of Steinbeck’s dustbowl novel as harshly as Gardner does (perhaps one of fiction’s harshest judges). It’s easy to dismiss both Hemingway and Gardner as fascists, too, because they were both cut from a similar kind of inflexible cloth—and both were, ironically, conservative personalities, although “uncompromising” might be a better word for them. Certainly I reject most (if not all) of their social ideas and I find their personal lives reprehensible.
And yet every time I declare some “political truth” as I see it, or I see writers arguing and spewing on Twitter, I can’t help but wonder if they’re right. Writing is always political, and writing must always champion ideas, but discourse can take three forms: (1) political; (2) scholarly; and (3) literary. Writers need humility, empathy, and mindfulness.
The lowest form of discourse, political, relies on simplification and distortion; the highest, literary, should tell the truth about the world-as-it-is, no matter who gets hurt.
There’s room in the world for every kind of writer. There’s no wrong way to write a book. Still, if you want your fiction to be insightful, you can do worse than trying to elevate your prose to the literary level of discourse.
Or, to put it another way, we should aspire to raise the level of discourse for our political debates to that of literature, rather than lowering our literature to the temperature of politics.