A few months ago, I began writing an essay to examine the role of literature in our current political and social climate. I wanted to figure out if literature has changed, or should change, to meet the evolving demands of our turbulent society. I was almost immediately overwhelmed by the realization that I am utterly unqualified to write such an essay, and that a one-sided, unchallenged presentation of my own limited opinions would not do justice to the question. So I began speaking with other writers and artists to hear some different perspectives. Where did they think we were in this literary moment and where should we be going? What resulted were some of the most interesting and rewarding conversations about literature that I’ve ever had, and most of the ideas I came across were much more useful than my own. I believe those ideas should be allowed to speak for themselves, so I consolidated more than a dozen conversations into three abstract perspectives and then I placed those perspectives in dialogue with each other. Instead of an essay, I’ve ended up with what I consider to be a faithful report of a conversation that has not exactly happened. Because these perspectives aren’t really characters in the traditional sense, I have assigned them numbers instead of names. I also imagine each of them holding a drink and standing in a quiet corner during the waning hours of a cocktail party, for no other reason than, in my experience, this is typically where such conversations take place.
(3 takes a sip of his drink and shrugs.)
3: I don’t have an opinion on the subject.
1: That can’t be true. At least try to answer. What should literature do?
3: Maybe I have an opinion but I don’t want to ruin the party.
2: Well, I happen to hold some very strong opinions about literature and I’m perfectly prepared to ruin the party. It’s winding down anyway.
3: Before you launch into a lecture I’d like to hear why 1 is suddenly so concerned about this. It’s not exactly a new question, and you’ve been writing for years. I’m not sure what kind of answer you could possibly be hoping to hear from us.
1: I’ve been having some trouble lately, starting on a new piece. It’s not writer’s block exactly – more of an existential dilemma about what kind of work I want to produce. What should I be putting out into the world, you know? Until recently, I’ve approached writing as an act of discovery. When I sit down to write I don’t know where I’ll end up. I don’t know what the thing is until it’s finished. So I just start writing and then I learn things about my characters little by little – what they want, what stands in their way, what they’re willing to do to get it, how they succeed or fail. And when it’s going well I learn some things about myself – who I am, what I want and how I view the world I live in. But I’m beginning to wonder if that approach is irresponsible.
2: Irresponsible? I don’t see it. Endeavoring to reveal truth and engage with it is the essence of a writer’s responsibility. The way to do that, at least in a narrative, is by exploring the personal realities of your characters, putting them in conflict and letting a story play out. As long as you’re not imposing some sort of superficial ideology upon them, I don’t see how you could possibly view that as irresponsible.
3: I’m not convinced revealing some sort of mysterious truth is all that useful. Plato considered art to be an imitation of an imitation that was only valuable if it brought you closer to his obscure, absolute ideal of truth. But your version of absolute truth is probably very different than mine, and anyway I doubt you’ve ever written anything without imposing a superficial ideology upon your characters.
2: Who said anything about truth being mysterious? I’m talking about something commonplace. Literature has the capacity to approximate our lived experience and help us make sense of the relationships and conflicts that comprise our everyday lives. I’m talking about the truth that’s right in front of your face.
3: I don’t think it’s in front of mine.
1: Let me explain what I mean by irresponsible. I’ve been writing all my life. Maybe I could have done something else, but as it stands, writing is now the only thing that I’m any good at. I’ve always tried to live up to an idea of literature that seems pretty close to what 2 is saying. Over the past couple of years though, I’ve grown increasingly anxious about the role I’ve been playing. Have I been writing well? Have I used my talents, such as they are, to achieve something worthwhile? The truth that I’ve tried to get in touch with, if you prefer to call it that, or the perspective that I have to offer, is very limited, and as 3 mentioned, I’m not sure if it’s even useful. I feel overwhelmed by my obligations to the “real world,” or the world outside of literature, and I fear that nothing I’ve ever written engages with that world in a meaningful way. I’ve written stories about family, heartache, loss, self-discovery, hope – each story felt so important to me, like a world unto itself – and now I’m forced to wonder whether they were just so many frivolous, luxurious ruminations within a constructed reality, shielded in their own obtuseness. The real world is torn. The faith we once placed in our institutions has eroded. Unsubstantiated claims are proposed and received like gospel. Our very relationship with truth has shifted, perhaps irrevocably, so that it is only perceived through the kinds of personal realities that 2 would hold so dear. A president can lie, and that lie is called an alternative fact. We can view the difference between right and wrong as a mere difference of opinion, or we might say “there is good on both sides.” My science is my faith and your faith is a fact. You may present objective evidence and I may feel entitled to dismiss it with impunity, because perhaps you are biased and your perspective has tainted your research, if you even did any. I see our ideologies becoming increasingly entrenched, so that we are reluctant even to engage in civil conversation. The tangible crises of our generation – climate change, xenophobia, gender inequality, religious discrimination, unarmed black men getting gunned down by the police, growing economic disparity, voting rights or lack thereof, and the abuse of public narrative to actually rewrite observable reality, just to name a few – are not appropriate topics for the dinner table. Because we deeply disagree and we are tired of fighting. As a writer, I have to ask myself if I am somehow complicit in any of this, by failing to engage with any truth beyond my own. Let me put it this way – if I weren’t a writer, if instead my talents had led me to dedicate my time to building houses, for instance, and one day I realized that the ground beneath my houses was shaking, that all the houses I built were falling down, wouldn’t I have to wonder if I were building houses the wrong way? Or in the wrong place? Should I even build houses at all?
2: First, to extend your metaphor, of course you must still build houses, because people will still need places to live. Even if you can’t perceive the impact of your writing on this “real world” you’ve described, that doesn’t mean there’s no impact. Second, I think you are placing far too much responsibility on the role of the author. You have only one voice in a very large conversation. You can contribute to the conversation but you can’t dictate its path. By nature, you will only ever be able to express your own perspective, and though it is limited and flawed, that is the only responsibility you have, because the conversation would suffer by your silence.
1: Assuming that you’re right, that I should go on writing, which is already a lot to assume, I’m still left with the problem of what to write about. I ask again: What should literature do?
2: I think I see the problem. You seem to view literature as some kind of tool, that it must do something. You expect me to answer that literature should inspire its readers, perhaps to perform some ambiguous action that you can’t even name. Or maybe you want literature to provoke thought, to make people question a deeply held belief or relate to the experience of others. For you, literature is a means to some desirable outcome, which might range from a thoughtful debate to a political revolution; it’s unclear what you’re hoping to achieve. I think your so-called existential problem arises from a misstated question, and that confusion has made you anxious. Should it address some social injustice, should it inspire, should it teach us something, etc. Literature might do any or all of those things, or maybe none. Don’t ask what literature should do. Ask what literature should be, and the rest will follow. Ask what good literature is.
3: Well? We’re all listening.
2: It’s a glimpse of a truth. Again, I’m not talking about some unattainable Platonic ideal. I’m talking about the barely-hidden, overlooked, deliberately ignored, unarticulated truths that underlie the narratives of our own lives. It’s not didactic. It doesn’t hold up an idea and say, “This is the truth, please learn it.” Literature is experienced. It is a representation of reality that a reader interacts with, bringing their own personal histories and beliefs to bear in an organic interpretation of the story, leading them to make unique conclusions of their own. I can read Melville’s Bartleby and relate my own existential anxieties about life in the modern era. You might read the same story and discover a political manifesto of noncooperation. You read Vonnegut because he makes you think. I read him because he makes me laugh. The point is we both see something in it that we recognize, something real and applicable to our lives, our hopes and memories, even if what we find is completely different. This is what I mean by truth. This is why I agree that writing is an act of discovery, and that reading is too. As to the impact this act has on the world beyond literature, the effects are too many to even contemplate, but I think the most significant byproduct of literature is empathy. When we read, we step into the mind of someone else and condition ourselves to see the world from another perspective. By perceiving the truth of someone else’s existence, I can allow it to become part of my own. In fact, this effect has been demonstrated in scientific studies where subjects were asked to read a selection of books and afterwards they proved to be more accurate in identifying the emotions of others in a test group. Literature provides a context in which empathy can bridge time and space and great chasms of lived experience. Middle-schoolers can read To Kill a Mockingbird and empathize with a black man in the South in the 1930s. I can read Crime and Punishment and actually empathize with a murderer in 19th century Russia. Whenever I read that book, though I’ve never killed anyone, I always call my own morality into question. Empathy expands our capacity for understanding, and with greater understanding we can develop an inclination toward acts of compassion. So, if you want to see people striving for positive changes in society, you can’t simply tell them what to think; you must first begin with empathy. Empathy is only possible through a recognition of someone else’s personal truth.
3: What if it’s a lie?
1: What do you mean? Are you talking about escapism?
3: Not exactly. I could probably find the same empathic effect in a drugstore novel about a Martian colony as 2 might find in Dostoevsky, though I think he would only be willing to call one of them “good” literature. I’m asking what happens when the personal truth I discover is actually a lie. A moment ago we mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird. A white person today might read that book and empathize with Tom Robinson, but what does that really signify? Do they have any better understanding of what it’s like to be black? Will it change the way they vote or treat other people? Maybe you’ll just imagine yourself as another Atticus Finch, who always does the right thing, and then you’ll get to pat yourself on the back and say, “Yes, I’m a good, empathetic white person.” And then you will do – what exactly? I think it’s just as likely that these supposed truths I find in literature will lead me away from empathy as lead me towards it. One of the most basic themes in literature, from the very beginning, is good versus evil. It is easy and pleasurable to empathize with a hero. It is comforting to witness moral righteousness triumph over moral corruption, because we generally want to be good, to be the hero of our own lives, overcoming adversity against hard odds and malevolent forces. That’s why our favorite heroes are complicated – they have both good and evil impulses within them. We want to see them make the right choices and we want to see them win. When we empathize with the hero, we feel that we have participated in his or her goodness in some small way and placed our own moral failings in check. But of course we haven’t actually, and this is not an accurate representation of reality. The truth that I find here doesn’t train me to develop empathy but self-righteousness. I am good. Something or someone else must be bad. I am right. Something else is wrong. My truth. Your truth. If I view the world this way, I never have to experience the discomfort of being wrong, I only have to beat you – because if I win, then I was right. I could point to countless other narrative structures – hard work and determination overcoming insurmountable circumstances, or immoral decisions that are eventually punished by some greater force – to illustrate how easily literature can distort the truth. I suppose you could call that a form of escapism but it seems more appropriate to admit it’s merely a reflection and reinforcement of the delusions we already carry in reality. In that context, it’s not hard to imagine the other impacts that literature has on this torn “real world” as 1 described it. Perhaps I will discover something new, either good or terrible, or maybe I will close the book and simply say, “I was right.” How much responsibility are you willing to place on the book? Again, what if the “truth” literature leads me to is a lie? Does that mean it is not good literature? How much of literature are we prepared to dismiss to support that claim?
2: So basically you’re suggesting that literature doesn’t have to be truthful to be good.
3: I’m suggesting that your attempts to confine the purview of literature are meaningless.
2: Tell us then, how do you distinguish a good book from a bad book?
3: If I’ve understood you both correctly, it seems like 1 believes literature, if it’s good, has some sort of obligation to engage with society, whereas 2 believes literature has an obligation to engage with the truth. I believe literature has an obligation to engage with me. I want to be captivated. I want it to take me somewhere. A book is good if it moves me, and later I might spend years parsing its meaning or maybe I will just find it entertaining for an hour and forget it. Either way, I have found a book that is good and would recommend to others. The point is, literature can contain any lofty or banal concerns conceivable by the human imagination. It might inspire me to do something, or reveal some deeper truth, or just make me laugh, or cry, or feel nostalgic, or hopeful, or anything at all, but if it doesn’t grab me—I’m probably not going to read more than a few pages. This is the primary responsibility of literature: not to the truth, which really means to itself, or to society, which might be even more presumptuous, but first and foremost it is responsible for grabbing the reader’s imagination. How a work of literature is able to achieve this will vary from story to story, author to author, reader to reader. It might be plot that draws you in, or character, or maybe an original style of writing. It could be just about anything, but you know it when it’s missing. Don’t get me wrong—if it also engages with truth or society, I think that’s wonderful. I love to think that a book can change me or the world I live in, but I don’t require it. I encounter plenty of “truth” about our society in my day job.
1: A good book definitely has to be stimulating. Plenty of books have tried my patience at times but turned out to be among the best reading experiences of my life. Moby Dick, for example. It’s not a fast read, but it’s indisputably one of the most important books in American literature.
3: I’ve never finished it.
2: I read it every year.
1: Anyway, that still doesn’t solve the problem of what I should write about.
3: I’m saying you can write about an ashtray, so long as you do it well.
2: Yes, you should write about an ashtray. An ashtray that’s in love with a cigarette.
1: What’s so interesting about that?
3: The cigarette only loves other cigarettes.
(3 and 2 clink glasses to acknowledge their cleverness.)
1: Yes, you’ve both made your views clear. But I still don’t think we’ve addressed the original problem. Let’s pretend I can write in a manner which readers find engaging—bear with me, now—and let’s assume I can even engage with the truth, or at least my limited perception of it. I’m still left with the problem of deciding what to write about. Every time I sit down to write, I am making a choice. If what I write has the potential to effect others, then deciding what I should say is a moral decision.
2: That’s where you lose me. Why does it become a moral decision?
1: Let’s say I write a story full of wit and stylistic flourishes, with a captivating plot to satisfy 3, and believable characters with real desires, illuminating some small sliver of truth to satisfy 2, but I leave my characters without any hope, or I use deliberately pornographic scenes of sexual violence, or I inadvertently portray a racial stereotype. Wouldn’t I have a moral responsibility here?
2: I would claim that in each instance you were actually straying from the truth. But if your writing is informed by your own experiences, you should be able to keep it consistent with your own morals.
1: Let’s say that my personal experience is that of a middle-aged, financially secure, straight white man in America. Should I write about the day-to-day anxieties of such an existence, or have we pretty much got that covered already? Or what if I attempted to write about the plight of an immigrant, whose experience I can only vaguely imagine? And how exactly – maybe some research? An interview? At what point am I qualified to express a truth that doesn’t belong to me?
3: I think we see what you’re getting at; and you’re right, that can get a bit sticky. However, in the first place, I don’t think there’s any limit to the number of stories we can hear from any perspective. Secondly, although it would require incredible sensitivity and accuracy, I do think it’s possible for an author to write outside of their own experience and still be truthful. In fact, it’s probably necessary, in order to write any story with more than one character.
1: I would argue that we can have too many stories from a single perspective, especially when they come at the expense of other perspectives we don’t get to hear from at all—which is not to say that all perspectives should be granted equal value. Let me try something you may find a little less sticky. Let’s say I’ve written the most beautiful and compassionate novel of the year, illustrating the humanity that resonates in a character’s personal truth, creating an effect that will help you empathize with and understand – the tenets of white supremacy. Is what I’ve done moral?
2: No, I don’t think so.
1: And 3, would you want to read that?
3: No. And I have to admit I wouldn’t want other people to read it either.
1: So you concede that there is such a thing as right and wrong in literature.
3: Yes. Reluctantly.
1: If such a moral distinction exists, if a book can be good not only because it is well written or bad because it is poorly written, but because it can actually do good or do bad, then I think, as a writer, I have an obligation to determine the difference and bring that consideration to my work whenever I write. That’s why I use words like “should” when I talk about literature, because if I create work that is entirely concerned with self-expression or entirely concerned with satisfying the demands of the reader, while ignoring the political and cultural context within which the work is created, I fear it will fail in its responsibility. To put it simply: if I perceive an injustice in society, and I have the skills and resources to address that injustice through writing, aren’t I culpable if I choose not to?
2: And that would make you—what? Some kind of moral compass? I think that’s more than any author can live up to. More than any author should.
3: Well, I still have a problem with the way we’re using the word “should.” As soon as you start asking what literature should be, you limit the possibilities of what it can be. That’s especially dangerous if your concerns are political. After the Bolshevik revolution, the Russians were asking themselves very similar questions, about what their literature should do and what a Soviet should be. With the rise of Stalin, that vast and poetic country consolidated all their creative energy into a system of propaganda, and anyone who didn’t want to write Socialist Realism had to publish somewhere else under threat of death.
1: We’re not in Soviet Russia, not yet anyway. I’m not trying to dictate the limitations of literature. I’m merely asking if writers have a moral obligation to participate in civic discussion.
2: You certainly can if you want to, but I think that if civics are your primary motivation you will not be an effective writer. A narrative driven by ideas will never resonate with readers as powerfully as a story driven by characters and personal truth.
1: What about 1984? You don’t think that book was politically motivated? I could name others.
2: Yes, of course, but I would contend that it was so successful—that any such book is successful—not because of the ideas it presents, but because readers are able to relate to those ideas by sharing in the experiences of empathetic and carefully crafted characters. It’s the truth that we are able to recognize in their relationships and the hardships they face that allow us to really occupy Orwell’s dystopian universe.
1: Maybe. But when I think back on that book, I can’t even remember the name of the love interest. I remember Big Brother. I remember 2+2=5.
3: I’m just not sure it’s a good idea to use literature as a moral instrument.
2: Julia. Her name was Julia.
1: Are you kidding? Literature has always been used as a moral instrument! Our oldest stories are morality tales. You were the one who brought up good versus evil.
3: To illustrate its failings.
1: But also its literary legacy. Of course the world can’t be simplified to absolutes. That doesn’t mean no moral distinctions exist. Don’t make the mistake of replacing a false dichotomy with a false equivalence. There are actions, even attitudes, which society has agreed are either wrong or right, and we have communicated those lessons through stories that predate our ability to write them down.
3: Some of those stories led us into crusades.
2: Did the stories lead us into the Crusades? Or were both the stories and Crusades an inevitable expression of something inherent in our nature?
3: Yes, and here it is: I believe myself to be right, even if it costs you your life.
1: That’s exactly my point. We have always disagreed in our beliefs, often dangerously, and literature is equally capable of creating division as creating understanding—but it has always played a role. What is its role now? I believe I’m right. You believe you’re right. As society becomes more crowded and more fragmented, as our ideological loyalties shrink and crystallize, what moral messages do you think we will take from literature when it is modeled on the expression of personal truth?
2: Empathy. I stand by it. We will recognize something in each other.
1: And if I recognize nothing? It’s not just right and wrong we’re fighting over anymore. We can disagree over what we’re willing to call a fact. I think this. I believe that. This is my experience. Me, me, me. I, I, I. All I see is I. If literature has any hope of fulfilling its moral obligations we need to stop being so self-obsessed.
2: But if you remove the I from literature, what have you got left?
3: An empty room.
2: It’s impossible to remove the individual perspective from literature.
1: If we can’t remove it, can we at least add to it? Can we question it or can it question itself? Is it possible to hold contradicting perspectives simultaneously?
3: First you need to stop telling people what they should do and start asking them what they think.
1: Is literature capable of asking a question? Is it sturdy enough to admit it doesn’t have an answer, or that its answer could be wrong?
2: Yes. I think so. I think it does.
3: I think it can.
1: But how? What should I write?
2: I’m not sure we can help you with that.
3: No. You should write something, though.
2: Yes. You have to write something.
(1 finishes what’s left of 2’s drink and suggests that they have another round.
The matter will have to remain unsettled for the moment.)
As I mentioned in the introduction, I can’t take credit for all of the ideas presented above. I would like to thank the writers and artists who offered their opinions, guidance, and time: Leslie Jones, James Meiser, Lauren Schenkman, Sophie Herzing, Margie Acampora, Jung Tae Hwang, Jared Sain, Anthony Miller, Kelly Stuyvesant, Tyler Thier, and Ian Ryen.