Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The end of history (or maybe just historical novels) - UPDATED

I don't agree with everything Walter Benn Michaels writes* in this Bookforum essay about the effect of the economic crash on literature, but I'm definitely with him on this:

In 1987, the year Beloved appeared, the top tenth of the American population made about 38 percent of the nation’s income. (The bottom fifth made about 3.8 percent.) That top figure was substantially up from the relatively egalitarian numbers that prevailed from the end of World War II until the late 1970s, but that rise was nothing compared with the jump that has taken place since: In 2006, according to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top tenth earned about half of all the money made in America, more even than in 1928, till then the highest figure of the century. The bottom quintile got 3.4 percent.

For a great many Americans, in other words, the boom has been the problem, not the crash. But the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was. And in the past few years, as the actual Holocaust has begun to show the first signs of brand fatigue, enterprising writers like Roth (in The Plot Against America) and Chabon (in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) have boldly moved beyond bad things that happened in the past to bad things that didn’t happen in the past: a Nazi takeover of the United States and the exile of a whole society of Eastern European Jews to Alaska.
You can hear the creak of the hobbyhorse and the sharpening of the axe throughout the essay, and linking literature so directly to the economic realities can easily lead to a stiff-backed form of literary marxism, one that makes its point by cherry-picking this or that award winner or bestseller and letting it stand in for the entire realm of contemporary literature.

But all the same, those links do exist – not that you'd know it from the way fiction gets written about in most book sections, where a breezily post-historical drawing room tone of pure aesthetic appreciation (something that has never existed) tends to reign.

Later, he dubs the memoir a "Thatcherite genre," which is a little sweeping, but hard to dispute.

Not that you can't dispute it, and that's the point. There is nothing to dispute in bland appreciation of books, because there is nothing there in the first place.

* for example, this:
You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing ('a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren') than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.
No you don't, and to say you do is just lazy Russell Smithism. Brand names can reinforce a point about character or setting, but to say they alone nail down both is the equivalent of those high school English tables of symbols where the colour blue always means "God" or something. In the not-very-distant future – indeed, if not already – people will read those descriptions and wonder whether the character is supposed to be seen as haute or gauche.

UPDATE: Thought I'd pull out this earlier rant about historical fiction from way, way back in 2006, when we were younger, more alive, more open to possibilities, more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with bellies more full of piss and vinegar, etc.


schultpe said...

A thoughtful critique of the article. Those who like historical fiction might want to check out my new novel, The Fuhrer Virus. It is a WWII spy/conspiracy/thriller for adolescent/adult readers and can be found at www.eloquentbooks.com/TheFuhrerVirus.html, www.barnesandnoble.com, and www.amazon.ca.


Paul Schultz

Margaret D. said...

I'm with Michaels, too, in his analysis of the economy. Where I'm not with him is in the sweeping generalizations he makes about historical fiction. For example, he says, "... when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism ... we’re effectively being told that our problem is lingering racism—not burgeoning capitalism."

So if we have a serious problem in one particular area, responsible novelists should never write about any other problem? Or is he contending that society can only suffer from one problem at a time? And that historical novels by definition cannot address a current problem?

On the contrary, I find that historical novels can be exceptionally good at addressing current problems. They can deftly analyze the roots of a problem (as Morrison so skillfully addresses the roots of racism - her skill as a novelist may well be one of the many factors that have helped us make progres in healing this problem), as well as remind us with the exceptional vividness of fiction a problem has developed and played out in the past. David Liss's historical thrillers, including his latest, The Whiskey Rebels, are among those that address the roots of capitalism and the way unregulated capitalism has often in the past led to economic collapse. I'm sure readers of historical fiction could scan the 5000+ historical novel listings at www.HistoricalNovels.info and come up with many more examples of historical fiction that is highly relevant to our current problems, economic and otherwise.

The great benefit of looking back at history is that we can get a sense of how a problem developed and how it was ultimately resolved. Contemporary novels are best at showing people resolving problems at the individual level; when it comes to large social problems, they can only dramatize the way people in the midst of the problem attempt to grapple with it - a valuable endeavor that helps us gain compassion for people whose problems may be more severe than our own - but they simply can't be as effective as a historical novel at showing the broader perspective of how a society as a whole became mired in a problem or how the problem was resolved.