In May of this year, more than 450 American novelists, poets and literary critics signed an “Open Letter to the American People” opposing Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. The letter, initially posted on the literary website Lit Hub, takes the form of a list:
Because we believe that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate;
Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another;
Because the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies;
Because neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States …
Following a few more bullet points, the letter concludes by stating that Trump “appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society,” and that his candidacy therefore demands an “immediate and forceful response” from each one of us. The letter is meant, presumably, to constitute such a response.
About a week after the letter was posted, the novelist Aleksandar Hemon published a response, also on Lit Hub, explaining why he had declined to sign, despite his opposition to Trump. He began by addressing the letter’s contradictory approach to the democratic process. The letter’s authors imply that Trump is trying to become president based on his “wealth” and “celebrity”; in fact, Hemon pointed out, if one believes in the legitimacy of our democratic system, then the only way Trump or anyone else can become president is to win the most votes. The letter’s authors are surely right that “the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies,” but, as Hemon put it, “Trump is presently abiding by the rules of democratic election … Horrifying as that may seem, that’s how the system works—the election is the job interview.”
Hemon has a point. Voters—that is, actual Americans—do seem to be quite horrifying to many of the letter’s signatories, despite their intimation that they are defending the will of the people against a demagogic interloper: on the @WritersOnTrump Twitter handle, Dave Eggers is quoted as saying he is embarrassed that Trump has “garnered any votes at all,” while Jane Smiley insists that no “sane people” could possibly be supporting him.
Hemon, though, had a second, and larger, charge to level at the letter’s signatories, one that struck less at the content of the letter than at what it was being advanced in place of. Citing a decade’s worth of Pulitzer nominees, Hemon alleged that it was hard to recall a novel that addressed the facts of American life, and of American “decline,” in the past fifteen years. If our poets and novelists really believe that our political situation calls for a forceful response, Hemon asked, shouldn’t they be writing poems and novels about it, as opposed to open letters?
Hemon is right that the American novel appears to be undergoing a phase of retrenchment. With Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth edging into their senescence, the field will soon be clear of the writers we have long counted on for big, ambitious explorations of American history and society.
Perhaps in reaction to the previous generation’s often panoramic ambitions, the novelists poised to take their place—they are named Dave, and Jennifer, and (most often) Jonathan—are more commonly concerned with the individual’s estrangement from American history and society, and sometimes with his estrangement from himself. Even when one of these novelists does try, as Hemon advises, to “forcefully address the iniquities of the post-9 /11 era: the lies, the crimes, the torture, the financial collapse,” the result can be uninspiring, as in the case of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), which attempted to chronicle the lies and crimes of the Bush years and yet ended up merely registering, at an earsplitting decibel, the insular complaints of its liberal readership. A more characteristic example of this generation’s approach to politics can be found in the much-acclaimed 10:04 (2014), by the Brooklyn-based poet and novelist Ben Lerner, which includes a protracted sequence where the narrator (also a Brooklyn-based poet and novelist) cooks dinner for an Occupy Wall Street protester, all the while worrying about whether he should feel bad that, rather than going with the protester to Zuccotti Park that night, he’s going to see a play.
The detached sensibility of these novels discourages engagement with the larger forces that shape our democracy; more importantly, they appear largely insensible to the voices currently driving our most energetic political conversations. American fiction has been “haunted” since its inception, as Toni Morrison has put it, by its exclusion of African-Americans, and the scarcity of compelling black characters in contemporary literary fiction is even more conspicuous given the recent emphasis on the importance of black lives in our politics. But we can also speak today of a second haunting exclusion, of which the open letter provides a textbook example, namely that of those often referred to as the “aggrieved” white working class.
If these are the people actually voting for Trump, as nearly every op-ed published since January has insisted, then it is conspicuous that they appear in the open letter only by implication—as, presumably, the “base and violent” social elements to whom the would-be dictator stands accused of appealing. The authors are not wrong that much that is base and violent has appeared in this year’s presidential campaigns; what is strange is just their implication that such elements have ever been alien or marginal to our politics. The same idea seems to be behind their assertion that, notwithstanding some brief interludes of intolerance, American history should be thought of as a “grand experiment in bringing people together, not pitting them against one another.”
Maybe the America the letter’s signatories live in is essentially, as opposed to aspirationally, a tolerant, pluralist place, full of enlightened citizens who settle their differences via “principled disagreement.” That would certainly account for the letter’s failure to recognize Trump’s success as an accomplishment of our democracy, as opposed to a subversion of it. And it might also offer an explanation, beyond disinterest or distraction, for why a compelling political novel about the post-9 /11 era has not materialized. For this novel would have to expose not, in the first place, any “lies,” “crimes” or “iniquities,” but rather the increasingly prevalent illusion that it is possible to wall ourselves off from the America that disappoints, frightens or disgusts us.
In his essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Ralph Ellison singled out Mark Twain and William Faulkner as the white authors who had managed most successfully to address the moral problem posed by African-Americans in their fiction. What made Faulkner and Twain deep where others had been superficial was their refusal, Ellison said, to focus their contempt “outward, upon some scapegoat”; rather they identified with both the bigots and the blacks in their fiction, just as “Huck Finn identified with the scoundrels who stole Jim, and with Jim himself.”
Applied to today’s writers, the point is not that living in Park Slope or listening to NPR makes it impossible to write a consequential novel about America; nor do our writers, in order to be politically significant, need necessarily to abandon their preference for the personal. (Ellison fixes not on Faulkner’s epic Absalom, Absalom! but on the much more intimate story “The Bear.”) It might however be worthwhile for the signatories of the open letter to consider whether the distance they perceive between the “sane people” they know and the rest of the country could be met with something other than hand-wringing.
As Frank Guan notes in this issue’s symposium, African-American writers have rarely had the luxury of isolating themselves, either geographically or culturally, from the rest of American society. This helps to explain how Claudia Rankine’s 2014 prose-poem Citizen, though narrated primarily from the point of view of an African-American academic, is able to serve as a commentary on the inescapably interactive construction of American identity. Endeavoring to record the citizen of color’s “quotidian struggles against dehumanization,” the poem begins with a series of examples from everyday life, related largely without commentary (“He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there”; “Unseen by the two men … you hear one say to the other that being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation”), only gradually giving way to a series of reflections on the anger, disappointment and exhaustion caused by enduring “that time and that time and that time that the outside blistered the inside of you.”
Rankine’s decision to render these episodes in the second person has many uses, but its most conspicuous effect is to grammatically implicate the reader to such an extent—“blistered the inside of you”—that she begins to see the necessary connection between mapping her own civic coordinates and locating the experience of the black or brown American citizen. Self-recognition thus becomes the precursor for acknowledgement, the necessity for literature springing from the fact that both are demanded, not on the level of rights and responsibilities, but rather on the level of sensibility or feeling. “Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers”: this is the image Rankine’s narrator uses, toward the end of Citizen, to express what she has learned about both the intimacy and the interdependency of the “endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity.”
A similar attention to the reciprocal dynamics of American social life can be seen in the short stories of George Saunders, who, not incidentally, has also authored one of the more generous pieces of long-form nonfiction on the “Trump voter.” Long before the summer of Trump, Saunders had been chronicling the lives of men who work at CompuParts and CivilWarLand, men who live with their mothers and spend their meager disposable income on self-help scams, men who dream of having lived “when men were allowed to be men.” The narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the best story from Saunders’s fiction collection, The Tenth of December (2013), takes pains to describe himself to his new diary as “middle,” as opposed to poor—though he admits he is way behind on his credit payments and cannot afford to throw his daughter a proper birthday party. This is until he wins “TEN GRAND!!” in the weekly scratch-off lottery and he and his wife decide (instead of paying down their credit-card debt) to buy four “Semplica Girls” for their exurban front yard. A typical—and typically horrifying—Saunders invention, the Semplica Girls (or SGs) had earlier been introduced, rather casually, as female human beings strung across the front yard—“all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze”—of a rich family down the street. As it gradually emerges, the SGs are poor, foreign women who have been imported by corporate middlemen, then rented out by American families and displayed, lacking even the economic utility of traditional slaves, as pure status symbols.
Saunders’s stories are always moral, but rarely moralistic; and the trick at the heart of this one is that the reader is encouraged to feel sympathy, not only for the SGs, but also for the kind of American whose self-esteem depends on his being able to unthinkingly exploit them. “You feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living,” reports the narrator after stringing up his SGs during what he describes as an “incredible” period in his life. And then: “Why happy? Nice to win, be winner, be known as winner.” Of course, the narrator—perhaps today he would be a member of Trump’s “silent majority that’s no longer so silent”—is not a winner, a fact he is reminded of when, after his daughter sets the SGs free in the middle of the night, he wakes up to find himself on the hook for more money than his house is worth. “Household in freefall,” he reports, grimly: “We are in most difficult period ever for family.”
As Ellison, Faulkner and Twain well knew, a line of pain, humiliation and the fear or fact of invisibility has historically connected the experience of downwardly mobile American whites and that of African-Americans and other racially marginalized groups. Among the advantages of reading Rankine’s and Saunders’s recent work in tandem is the reminder it offers of how that connection persists in the age of Black Lives Matter and “Make America Great Again.” It is relevant in this regard that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” ends, not on the above note of piteous self-regard, but with the narrator, having stumbled upon the notes for an art project his daughter is doing on their escaped SGs, being moved for the first time to engage in an attempt—always partial, and painful—at understanding: “Could have had nice long run w/ us,” he thinks of one of the women. “What in the world was she seeking?”
“The purpose of art,” Rankine writes in Citizen, quoting James Baldwin, “is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” It is easy enough, today, to choose one answer over another—one version of America over another—and easier still to suggest that everyone work to “achieve consensus through reasoned debate.” There could be any number of reasons why Rankine and Saunders declined to sign on to the petition against Trump, but it is clear from their fiction and poetry, at least, that they perceive the political value of the imaginative writer to lie elsewhere: namely, in helping to close the gap between the emotional crosscurrents that swell beneath the surface of our political life, and the reductive dichotomies we use to anchor our op-eds and open letters.
Image credit: Tony Webster, “Donald Trump Backyard Photo Sign at Night – West Des Moines, Iowa” (CC BY/Flickr)