Have been feeling a little disenchanted lately with the literary world lately. Every book and every movie and every television show seems to get judged according to the same analysis of power relations. If a book has an orthodox (for the reviewer) view of all the possible power relations (i.e. it acknowledges every form of oppression inherent in its storyline) only then does the reviewer bother with assessing its aesthetic worth. Obviously this is only my subjective view of the current state of affairs, and I won't seek to prove for you that it's true. If you don't believe me, or if you think this sort of critique is only a minority or an exception, then you'll only find this blog post useful as a view inside the mind of a very politically misguided person.
I don't disbelieve in oppression, and I don't think it should be ignored. If there's something 'problematic' (the most common term for when a work seems to be ignoring an oppressive power relationship) in a work then I think it should be pointed out. But while I don't object to the political aims of oppression-based critique, I find myself somewhat in the position of a liberal from the 1930s who dearly wants to love social realism and hate the fascism-tinged Modernism, but who just can't do it. Because although oppression-based critique might be good in political terms, I think it's harmful to the aesthetic worth of narrative forms of art.
In my opinion, narrative art exists because mere ideas are insufficient to quantify the experience of being alive. An idea is a limited thing, it's a set of relationships that have been fully expressed, while a good story is inexhaustible. It contains a set of relationships that can always be mined for new meaning.
I was recently talking to someone about The Iliad, and I think what makes the Iliad truly great is that you can read and reread the work and still not be sure what to think about the concept of heroic virtue. People in the story live by the adage of death before dishonor, but they also suffer for it. Achilles could've lived a long and happy life as King of the Myrmidons, but instead he goes to war, knowing he will die young. Although in later years its often been cast as a story about the folly of war, The Iliad is a tale that will challenge both militarists and peaceniks, fascists and socialists. The tale simply cannot be made to say what you want it to say.
And if I was to subject the Iliad to an oppression-based critique, there'd be so much to say. Achilles is a rapist, for one thing. You know Bryseis didn't fully consent to being taken by him. And that might be fine if he was portrayed as wholly evil, but he's clearly the hero of the piece, and even though he has epic flaws, most notably his petulance, he's obviously also a role model. And what am I to think about this war? How can there be anything right or heroic about a war fought for such a trivial reason?
These critiques are mostly contained within the Iliad itself--though I'll admit the book doesn't spend much time thinking about the fate of Briseis (those sorts of musings would be left to Euripides, who truly did have a modern take on war and is astounding in every possible way)--but it's easy to imagine an Iliad that leaned further into those critiques. It's easy to imagine an Iliad in which Achilles was wholly a monster, perhaps one with admirable physical virtues, but otherwise clearly portrayed as evil, while Hector was portrayed as clearly his moral superior.
That's where I fear an over-reliance on oppression-based critique will lead us. This sort of critique doesn't have any concern for nuance. If a work doesn't perfectly adhere to the political orthodoxy of this moment, then it's worthless. But then what's the point? Why bother to even open a book if I know it'll tell me that racism is bad and that queer people just need to accept themselves and elderly people are just as capable of being heroes as young people? There is no room here for thematic nuance. Because in narrative art there is room for a complexity that we don't have when writing an essay. When you and me are talking, we can only say "Racism is bad", but in narrative art, there is room to write about the mayor of a small town who sees his community's very strength as coming from its exclusiveness. There's room to talk about a confused teen who maybe has sex with men but doesn't know whether he's gay or not. There's room to talk about an older person who's lost her mobility and can't go out running on the beach every day like people do in commercials. This isn't philosophy. It's not ethics. It's just a story.
There is a reason that so many of the stories we love have "problematic" elements, and it's because those elements are part of what makes it good. Yes it's terrible that villains are so often queer-coded, but why do fans love those villains so much? Isn't it partly because so many of us associate queerness with rebellion and individuality? And yes it's bad to use a foreign country as a mere backdrop for a white character's personal growth, but we all travel don't we? Isn't there something very real about those travelogue stories? Don't they capture exactly the way we do use foreign countries? Maybe the thing that makes you feel uncomfortable with, for instance, Lost In Translation, isn't a problem with the work. Maybe it's a feature.
I don't think this is universally true. There are problematic elements in fiction that I think they'd be better off without. The Chronicles of Narnia would probably be better if Susan didn't get banished for using lipstick or if the evil God wasn't a thinly-veiled Allah. Many problematic elements have no aesthetic worth. My concern is not for those. My concern is for the readers and viewers who already think they know all the answers before they even open the book, and who, because of that, are missing out on the entire purpose of reading books in the first place.
For myself, I find very little in the oppression-based discourse that's interesting. Again, not because I think it's wrong or bad or harmful. In many ways I think this sort of discourse probably helps to cure exactly those wrongs that it's devoted to recognizing. But to me that kind of discourse simply has very little to do with creating the satisfying and intelligent stories that are my ultimate goal as a writer.
. . . but, that’s the heading we’re on and I don’t see it changing anytime soon . . .
I appreciate this. It’s something I’ve felt for a while, but I’d only seen articulated by critics with known conservative politics (in the sense that they want to conservative / maintain current power imbalances) so I was starting to wonder if I was just off base to say I’m politically liberal but don’t… exactly find nuance to be the cause of more problems than it resolves. That is, I don’t think amoral fiction stands as a barrier to moral political actions.
I’ve been working on an essay about the use of a villain narrator (both in the sense that they do evil things and that the character is opposed to the protagonist) and when I think it works well. And I worry that people just say it never is a good choice because you risk cultivating sympathy / empathy for a person who does evil against a protagonist at the expense of empathy for the protagonist. But, I think sometimes this choice is worth it. Like you said regarding ‘Lost in Translation,’ the unsettling feeling is a feature, not a bug.
Interesting! I think stories w/ villain narrators tend to make heavy use of irony, and you do end up having significant distance from the protagonist of the story, but so what? Sometimes protagonists need that distance.
I think people who critique problematic elements in fiction are doing their part to shift the needle, and they think what they’re doing is important. And maybe for the people who choose to consume such critiques, it is important. And I’ve certainly read books (THE JUNGLE comes to mind most prominently) where the author seemed to have the ability to write a nuanced and worthwhile novel, but chose to sacrifice their aesthetic judgement for what seemed, to them, worthwhile political aims. This is something I totally respect.
For myself, I don’t know. I feel very uncertain about the individual’s ability to change society. I don’t know how to make people think or feel differently. Liberals love to devour our own and to blame other liberals for being insufficiently progressive, but as far as I can tell, the real issue in society is that large numbers of people hold very different views from me on race, on poverty, on punishment, on immigration, and on gender, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to reach those people. Certainly I’ll never be able to do it with my books.
What I do know how to do, though, is to perceive nuance in books, and, as such, I find it a lot more worthwhile to look for that–to follow my own aesthetic judgement–than to critique books in a way that’s 100% politically orthodox. So yeah, ultimately, when it comes to solving or creating problems through fiction, I just don’t know =[
So, here’s a thought . . . we write what moves us, motivates us, and feeds out thoughts.
Some readers might then adapt our writing to their cause . . . or not. It seems presumptuous thinking the job of the writer is to affect the course of human history or even shape the thinking of a few.
I don’t know that all influential works of fictions were created with the express intent of making a large impact on humanity. That task is left to the readers who might adopt a particular work as a flag to rally around.
The writer’s task is more modest . . . makes some sense of what little sphere of influence they personally experience and possibly affect minor but important changes in the mind of a few. Whether things snowball or not is not up to the writer just as avalanches are not the result of any particular snowflake.