Mary Gaitskill on the Challenges—and Risks—of Writing Political Fiction
“Politics is how we fight it out on the ground.”
The following essay was originally published in Mary Gaitskill’s Substack, Out of It, and an excerpt from it appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
Since I’ve been alive (or a teenager anyway) I’ve been aware of forever arguments about whether or not fiction should be political, written to address injustice or at least to support social morality. Right now this could seem like an especially frivolous question: wherever you are on the ideological spectrum, social issues are sitting atop us like demon beasts, that is, if “social issues” is even a strong enough phrase for the literally burning evidence of planetary destruction, daily gun violence, grinding economic fear, violent racism, unpredictable pandemic illness and pointless war being waged by an unhinged superpower, all on rumbling sub-crawl under our daily lives.
Even in less harrowing times, social institutions and the political machinations surrounding them are huge facts of life that we are all subject to, regardless of where we live on the spectrum of class and privilege; the stories of small, soft humans—all humans—caught up in the wheels of such institutions are dramatically compelling even when they are badly written. Multiply that times ten when what is happening makes you want to cry out, not as some little person carefully writing and looking out the window, but as a member of a group, because groups are more politically powerful.
But writing well about politics is hugely challenging because… unlike music or film, writing is not done in groups; it is hard to effectively transform the language or power of groups into the power of an individual working alone with their wrists and fingers on a keyboard. Fiction speaks in a specific language of individual consciousness that senses and interprets the world with a moral ambiguity in which issues and impulses large and small fluctuate and conflict nonstop, running from ugly to beautiful, blending the two categories in mysterious, asocial ways that reflect the depths of human nature in darkish, dream-like flashes. In my first post I described the process as related to the rational mind but in a way that dreams are related to thought—poetically and irrationally. It is through poetic and irrational means that the unseen world of your story gets radically illuminated.
Political communication is almost the opposite of this. To put it as simply as I can, politics is how we fight it out on the ground and to fight that way, to get what we want and need and believe is right, we have to agree with one another on what we are talking about and that necessitates shutting out a great deal that has to do with “mysterious, asocial” anything. Political writing requires clear definition, consistent, recognizable language and a “take-away” that will get people moving down the street as opposed to sitting on the curb wondering “what did he mean by that?” It requires consensus in thought and language.We live in a world of surpassing strangeness and power, a world that for all we understand about it, we still don’t understand.
Twitter is the most obvious example of consensual thinking in extremity; a mode in which people who are unable to see or hear each other’s voices and faces type at the world in flattened shorthand that brooks no complexity and which can create a perhaps illusory sense of group cohesion on a massive scale. Great for political drum-beating; a bad habit for almost anything else.
Twitter did not invent this mode of thinking or expressing; humans have always loved the excitement and comfort of crowd-think. Decades before Twitter existed, readers of fiction had long become accustomed to seeing the physical life of stories represented by visually-based mediums like movies and television which are great at showing what consensual reality looks like. Students in writing classes, whether undergrad or grad, typically write as if there were a director and camera crew filling in the scenery for them, along with actors who are providing voice and facial expressions for the characters—or rather they appear to assume that readers will fill in these things automatically and generally, because as demonstrated by film and TV, everyone knows what a “typical” living room or a city street or a pretty girl’s face looks like.
I can only think that this natural human tendency (to assume that what I am seeing in my mind’s eye is what everyone is seeing) has been magnified by lifetimes of watching stories unfold on TV and movie screens where (even taking subtle multifarious artistic choices into account) people behave and scenery looks as we expect in very basic ways—on a city street you have pedestrians, traffic, the sky-line; it all looks pretty much exactly as one expects it to.
And so we have come to expect our fictional worlds to be… expected in that way; if we were watching a movie set in a major metropolis we would be confused and bothered if we briefly glimpsed a giant lizard waddling up the street without anyone noticing, especially if the lizard was never seen or referred to again, it would make no sense. But on the first pages of his 1853 novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens has exactly that, a casual reference to a Megalosaurus waddling up the road as a metaphor for timelessness and the reader doesn’t blink because she doesn’t expect Dickens’ London to be a sensible (or relatable) place.
In 1949, Vladimir Nabokov wrote a playful essay titled The Art of Literature and Commonsense in which he dismissed consensual thinking in the form of common sense, which he somewhat strangely declared to be “fundamentally immoral.” In this essay he exults in the unexpected and rare beauty of art as a kind of spiritual nurture for the “irrational belief in the goodness of man” and “the lovely and loveable world which quietly persists” even in the midst of the most brutal circumstances. He speaks passionately of “divine and irrational standards” by which he meant the “supremacy of the detail over the whole, of the little thing which a man observes and greets with a friendly nod of the spirit while the crowd around him is being driven by some common impulse to some common goal.
“I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest form of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic that we know the world to be good.”
Why good? I’m not sure, but I think he meant that the capacity to notice such things is a transcendent good because it takes us out of our pragmatic concerns, even the matter of our well-being and survival, and so allows us, for a sideways, flashing moment, to experience the greater world, that is to say:
The earth below us. The sky above us. The ocean; did you know that brainless, eyeless 10-foot worms with multi-faceted mouth-parts called Bobbit worms live at the bottom of the ocean? That they are weirdly beautiful?As big as political institutions and forces are, they are insignificant in this far bigger and stranger world that has nothing to do with us and our concerns about equality and power or anything else.
Back on solid land, did you know that there is a species of fly that lives inside ants until it decapitates the ant from the inside and exits? Speaking of ants you surely know that fire ants live in complex tunnels beneath the earth except that, when there is flooding, they can link together with their biting jaws, making colonies of thousands that can float on the surface with the help of ant-created air bubbles.
Creatures that have nothing to do with us and our systems, but who are busily living their lives all around us and in us, on our eyelashes and in our stomachs for example. I don’t bring them up to say we should write about them. I do it to say that we live in a world of surpassing strangeness and power, a world that for all we understand about it, we still don’t understand. A world that deserves far more respect than we’ve shown it, a world of fundamental force at play in our bodies and psyches, and yes, our social structures.
As big as political institutions and forces are, they are insignificant in this far bigger and stranger world that has nothing to do with us and our concerns about equality and power or anything else.
I’m not arguing against political writing. Some of my favorite novels are political novels (not in the sense that they exist to convey a political message, but rather that they describe political situations). What I am saying is that stories about political systems or social struggle are most poignant and effective when they acknowledge that we are all up against such harsh mystery whether we are a powerful statesman or a poor child.
I am going to read a paragraph from a story by Nabokov called “Signs and Symbols” which was written in 1948. It is 6 pages long and it is one of the best stories in the world. It is about an impoverished, hapless immigrant couple who are old and who’s only child is in a mental hospital. We learn that they have fled Nazi Germany where some of their relatives have been killed. This is the elderly women sitting by herself at night, following the day that her son has, again, tried to kill himself.
The politics of the time, which were truly earth-shattering, are mentioned only glancingly; it is the son’s delusion of a secret system communicating to him in a symbolic language that is given pride of place in the story and in this old woman’s moment of reflection, sanity meets insanity, the political system of mass murder meets an unknowable system of “signs and symbols.” She is the most hapless of people pressed up against forces she doesn’t understand, forces that are both political and cosmic, and against which she can do nothing but endure.
And yet look at how she endures, at the vastness of her perception. In this moment of maximum pain her heart is big enough to hold “the incalculable amount of tenderness in the world” and its destruction, and even though her heart may be broken by what may happen next her dignity in this paragraph is unbreakable. Her ability to see beyond herself, to psychically receive the suffering of the entire world which she can do nothing to fix is what I believe Nabokov meant by irrational goodness.
So now here is a piece of fiction that is more directly political, that puts the political opinions of the author into the mouth of a character. Its from a story written in 1939 by Katherine Anne Porter called Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It’s set during WWI (a conflict that Porter, like many people, opposed) at the peak of the influenza epidemic, which killed more people than the war did. The main character, Miranda, is a critic for a local paper and she’s reviewing a play that she is seeing with her lover Adam. Adam is about to deploy for the front and Miranda is letting us know what she thinks of that:
Notice how she uses the power of the disgusting speaker’s rhetoric to pull you along; it’s his voice that gives the scene power—the power of the fanaticism that Porter so dislikes. The scene is saved from simplistic satire by the whispered asides of the two protagonists which cut against the one-directional ranting of the rhetoric and create subtle tension—and yet these asides are swept up with the dominant tone anyway at the end, the characters reduced like everyone else in a sea of pallid faces with open black mouths, a picture of mindless assent. There is no question what Porter wants you to feel: the way war destroys people’s hearts and minds, makes them ugly even when the cause they serve is just, because sometimes justice and truth empower bullies through righteousness, and cause people to, as Porter says, become “ready to leap if you say one word or make one gesture that they do not understand instantly.”
Finally, I want to read an excerpt from the novel Cloud Splitter, written in 1998 by Russell Banks. It is a fictional account of the abolitionist John Brown who many people believe inspired the Civil War with a failed attack on Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia; Brown sacrificed his life and the lives of his sons in the fight.
Russell Banks’ fictional depiction of Brown is extremely mixed and ambiguous; he is undoubtedly a hero, truly outraged by slavery and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to fight it—but also fanatic, half out of his mind and driven by his own personal sense of failure and humiliation, through which he identifies with the anguish of slavery. He wants to be what would now be called a “white savior” but you can’t deny his sincerity given how far he’s willing to go. It is this mixed quality that makes the book so powerful. The scene I will read is set in the territory of Kansas which was not yet a state, and which both anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces were fighting to claim; Brown and his sons are conducting a late-night attack on a family of pro-slavers.
The power of this is like the power of John Brown’s character as Banks has written him. Heroic, capable of riding into battle when he could not win—but ruthless, half-crazy, absolutely moral and absolutely demonic. The scene is gripping for many reasons but for me the most piercing line in it is “Oh Bonny!” The young man who cries out is a perpetrator of evil, willing to brutalize untold numbers of fellow humans—yet he has a tender connection with his animal. I’m not expressing sympathy for enslavers because they love their dogs; from the point of view of their crime, love of dogs is irrelevant.
But I AM expressing honor for art that illuminates this mystery of our human nature, where good and evil are constantly and unpredictably mixed. Because I think as artists it is of primary importance that we remember this paradox and maintain humility before it.
What all of these excerpts have in common: They understand and in the case of the last two, portray the brutal world of political struggle and war. But they never forget the larger context in which such struggle lives: the bit of sky, the strangeness of a face, the children humming to themselves in unswept corners, the innocent cry from an otherwise evil heart. The inutile beauty of that part of humanity and nature that does not care about power and dominion over others and which has nothing to do with commonsense.