Thursday, February 03, 2005

Literature and ideology

All right, my turn. (See also here, here, here, here and here.)

The last work of American Jewish fiction I've read was, I think, The Chosen, so I know nothing about the current cast of characters. Jonathan Rosen, Tova Mirvis, Nathan Englander, et al are just names to me. I have no opinion on their characters or plots. But I know a disingenuous argument when I read it.

I'm not interested in outing the "outsider insiders." What matters is not so much the background of the authors as the portrayal of the subjects.

Accused by Wendy Shalit of portraying Orthodox Jews unsympathetically, Mirvis essentially pleads fiction:

[Shalit] attacks books for depicting characters who deviate from communal norms.... People like Shalit attack a story by saying, "But not everyone is like this." Of course not. But the fiction writer is saying, "Let's imagine one person who is."

The variety and particularity of human experience, this is the stuff of fiction. Novels ask what it feels like to be a particular person; they seek to burrow into a life, an inner consciousness. Fiction isn't about what people should do or should feel. It doesn't set out to confirm what we already believe. Reading isn't an exercise in seeing ourselves as we wish to be seen; novels are not dolled-up photographs in which no one blinks and we always look our best.

... Shalit espouses an approach to literature in which the message matters most of all. The crucial question is whether the portrayal is positive or negative. Shalit can allow for some small moments of human pettiness, as long as they never challenge any pre-held truth....

Literature in service of some other value is not literature, or at least not good literature. When we require our novels to promote, idealize and proselytize, we strip them of their capacity to explore, express, examine and, most importantly, imagine other lives besides those we actually live....

In short: 1) It's fiction; it doesn't have to be real; 2) It's about the specific fictional characters, not an entire society; 3) Good literature is not about ideology.

This is absurd. Any "good" work of literature says something about the world beyond the particular characters and plot. A novel is large enough to portray the complexities of characters and the societies they live in.

If one Orthodox character in a novel is unsympathetic, while others are warm and genuine, that's literature (and life). But if all the Orthodox characters in a book, let alone in an author's collection of works, are negatively portrayed, that's axe-grinding. That says, "I'm the brave author, exposing a world of pseudoreligious phonies." When the author purports to come from that world, the message is all the more poignant.

Mirvis's claim that good literature is not about a message is especially hard to support. Are The Time Machine, The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath - to name just a handful - not about messages? Countless authors, including many of the greats, have based their works around ideological messages. They are acclaimed for their social critiques. Whether or not they are good literature depends on how well they use language, how insightful are their observations of character, how believable are the worlds they create.

Literature in which Orthodox Jewish society is uniformly portrayed as hypocritical and superficial is no less ideological than literature in which it is portrayed as beautiful and flawless.

Shalit is right that the general public easily "gets" the message that Orthodox Jews are not all they're cracked up to be. And unlike Mirvis, the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish public has no personal experience against which to balance these fictional impressions. The "fiction" defense only flies if the reader can reasonably be expected to recognize the novelized world as more fiction than fact.

I propose a simple test: If the author were not Jewish, would we be condemning the portrayal of Jews, or Orthodox Jews, as antisemitic? That should separate the literateurs from the axegrinders.


G Green said...

As the saying goes, we are our own worst enemies.

DovBear said...

Actually Green Jeans, the saying goes "We have met the enemy and he is us" but you're a brit, and presumably know nothing about Pogo -or the War of 1812.

Here's the deal. After Oliver Hazard Perry kicked your British butts at the Battle of Lake Erie, he sent a note reading, in part, "We have met the enemy and he is ours."

Like 200 years later, Pogo, a comic strip charactar popularized the variation, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

DovBear said...

Finally, and most importantly the writers under discussion here are (1) not especially mean to the Jews and (2) even if they were it could be forgiven IF it was done in service to their art.

More on my blog.

Zman Biur said...

"We are our own worst enemies" is a perfectly legitimate saying. You don't have to bash the Brits over it.

They say enough weird things legitimately deserving of bashing.

Soccer Dad said...

I don't read a lot of fiction. (Well I do, but it's not advertised as such.)
But you're absolutely right. I don't understand how anyone can say that one cannot discern the author's intent from what he wrote. I can assure you, beyond a shadow of the doubt that Arthur Conan Doyle hated Mormons. I suspect it may have been a widespread attitude of his time, it's impossible to draw any other conclusion after reading "A Study in Scarlet."

DovBear said...

The Time Machine, The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath aren't good literature.

Well, TGOW is, but not because of the political message. The message is incidental to the prose, and to the story.

Zman Biur said...

Oh, well, if you say so. Of course!

Then we can add Brave New World, Animal Farm, 1984 (actually most Orwell), Solzhenitsyn, Catch-22, lots of Dickens (A Christmas Carol isn't about a message?), and many more, including the classics of French and Russian literature. Political and social messages are common to much of great literature. Not all of it by a long shot, but enough.

(In serious theater it's even more common; it's hard to find a contemporary production without social and political messages. And let's not get started on movies....)

The message is incidental to the prose, and to the story.By no means. TGOW is a straightforward anti-capitalist, pro-socialist tract.

I'll say it again - Whether or not a work is ideological or has a message is irrelevant to its quality as literature:

Whether or not they are good literature depends on how well they use language, how insightful are their observations of character, how believable are the worlds they create.