The Problem of Neoliberal Realism in Contemporary Fiction

Madeline ffitch on the Politics of "Conflict" in the Stories We Tell

Recently, my mother pointed out to me that “fight” is a word I often use in titles. “Your novel is Stay and Fight,” she said. “Then there’s that story of yours, ‘The Private Fight.’ And your essay, ‘When we Fight, We Have our Children with Us.’”

“What are you getting at, Mom?” I asked.

“Why are you so focused on fighting?” she asked. “Maybe it’s something you should think about.”

So I’m thinking about it.

I’m thinking about how many times over the years I’ve heard that worn truism of the fiction workshop, that conflict is essential to craft. It’s handed down by workshop leaders, passed around during critiques. Where’s the conflict? I’m not sure I understood the conflict. This conflict is really working. That conflict kind of got dropped. Conflict drives the plot, we hear. It creates drama. It motivates characters. One writing blog tells me that in real life we avoid conflict, but in fiction that’s boring. The blog tells me to “invent” obstacles for characters in order to keep people reading. Conflict is useful, I read, because it helps to illustrate values. Yet even as all of this pretends to champion conflict, it betrays a lack of faith in it. It casts conflict as something to be controlled and managed, a tool of manipulation, useful only as far as it suggests an outcome. Far from treating conflict as a fundamental aspect of craft, it reduces it to a gimmick.

Grace Paley writes, “We need right now to imagine the real. That is where our leaders are falling down … we have to really think about it and imagine it and call it to mind, not just refer to it all the time. What happens is that when you keep referring to things, you lose them entirely.” To imagine the real is not to “invent” conflict in order to entice readers, but to dare ourselves not to look away from the conflict we know is there. I want stories where conflict is imagined as more than an illustration of values, more than a quick way into plot; rather, where it is something with its own integrity. I want to be humbled by conflict, to let it be as mysterious and open as it is in our lives. We have reached a point where conflict is most often conscripted into duty as a fiction writer’s neat trick. Conflict is referred to but not imagined. Storytellers must push further. We must push past dominant ideas about conflict, in life and in art. We must keep imagining the real.

Progressives are looking for evidence that the American project is not what they detest, but what they admire.

When my novel, Stay and Fight, was still a manuscript, I heard from an editor who had particular praise for the scenes in which one of the primary characters works on a pipeline crew. The scenes on the pipeline are marked by conflicts stemming from homesickness, racism, homophobia, sexism, settler colonialism, and economic desperation. The editor told me that I’d done a good job of showing the characters bridging their differences in order to realize how much they actually have in common, that this is a message people really need to hear right now.

This was expressly not what I was going for.

To me, the pipeline scenes explore unresolved and unresolvable conflicts. These conflicts do not preclude alliances, solidarity, affinities, friendships, or common ground. But these are not settled points. Like everything else in conflict, they are shifting and unstable, here and then gone, resisting guaranteed meanings or outcomes. There is no resting place.

On the one hand, my exchange with the editor was a necessary and humbling reminder that inevitably, my authorial control ends and the reader takes over, giving me information about my writing that may be unwelcome or uncomfortable. But I think it also demonstrates how powerful and overwhelming beliefs about conflict are. Even when they were presented with a different vision of how conflict could operate, the editor saw what they wanted to see, or what they expected to see. They saw resolution. They saw management. They read alignment into scenes that—I hope—begged for a less reductive reading. Conventional notions of conflict are strong and magnetic, subsuming many storytellers and even more readers. They’re almost impossible to escape.

“Where the artist is still trusted, he will not be looked to for assurance,” Flannery O’Connor writes in 1957, rebutting a LIFE magazine editorial which charged that American novelists should write books that possess “the redeeming quality of spiritual purpose.” Writing nearly a decade earlier, in 1949, James Baldwin lambasts Uncle Tom’s Cabin, charging not only that Stowe wrote a bad book, but that she set the trend for a type of fiction that was being reproduced, with only slight variation, a century after her death (he famously counts Native Son as one such book). Baldwin argues that such fiction reinforces the power structures it pretends to confront. It offers easily rendered conflicts that mask real human concerns. It’s easy to dismiss the LIFE editorial’s moralistic notion of fiction as a thing of the past, to place Baldwin’s delicious derision and O’Connor’s wry takedown neatly into the category of a now settled debate. Yet when Baldwin writes that such stories “emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American Dream,” his words are as relevant to fiction today as they were when he wrote them.

When we try to wrest clear meaning out of the abyss of brutality, we are refusing to imagine the real.

In a fiction workshop, a graduate student asks why we have to read “depressing” stories. “Why do we read stories that are so bleak,” she asks, “when what people really need to hear are stories of hope?” But where and how do people find hope? If we can’t take the bad news, do we deserve the good news? If we can’t take the bad news, will there even be good news? The student was tired of the grind of “literary” fiction, yet it seems to me that such fiction often uses its most difficult material as a formula for familiar meaning-making. Marked by formal unity, the quest for authenticity, and the belief that the self is a “bottomless pool” full of cogent meaning and redemption, Zadie Smith calls this style of writing “lyrical realism.” Skeptical, Smith wonders, “Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?” If bleakness is our concern, what could be more bleak than the sunlit prison of hope without honesty?

*

When a mentor of mine first read Stay and Fight, he told me, “I hope you won’t mind me saying that the story strikes me as very American.” Early readers of the book have returned again and again to the word “America.” I know that these words are meant with good will. I feel happy surprise, pleasure and gratitude that anyone at all wants to read my book and, more than that, expresses attachment to it. Yet I can’t help but see that in this political moment, in what many people see as a desperate battle for this country’s identity, progressives are looking for evidence that the American project is not what they detest, but what they admire. If they see something that reflects their aspirations for this country—inclusivity, tolerance, maybe even perseverance—they say it’s American. If they see something they don’t like—hatred, bigotry, violence, oppression—they say it’s not American.

This is where Smith’s “lyrical realism” gives way to something I’ve been calling “neoliberal realism.” Storytelling that relies on guaranteed meaning fits neatly into a national project that seeks to bring into alignment any story that diverges from a unified whole. Neoliberal realism only tolerates conflict if it’s immediately useful, if it has clear meaning, if we can see why it’s there and how it will be resolved. Even the legacy of slavery can be made to align with a unified national narrative, once it is filled with meaning and viewed through the lens of redemptive struggle.

Saidiya Hartman says, “ultimately the metanarrative thrust is always towards an integration into the national project … that project is something I consider obscene: the attempt to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for celebration.” When we try to wrest clear meaning out of the abyss of brutality, we are refusing to imagine the real. The rush toward hope is ripe for cooptation. This is one way that a politics of domination finds neat support in the very craft of most lyrically realist novels. The political problem is a narrative problem. It is a lack of imagination. It is a problem of storytelling.

I’m caught in an American mess. This is my home. What I love and what I hate comes from this place. My responsibilities are here.

I don’t intend my work to come to the aid of the national narrative. That is not my project. But the orbit is strong, the magnetism overwhelming. My work is brought into alignment, is used for assurance and for comfort. Baldwin writes of an encounter with a reader in search of such assurances: “‘As long as such books are being published,’ an American liberal once said to me, ‘everything will be alright.’”

Maybe identifying an anti-statist writer as “American” is a way to bring the incommensurability of my position home to me, an act of poetic justice. After all, I’m writing in nothing if not an American context. I’m caught in an American mess. This is my home. What I love and what I hate comes from this place. My responsibilities are here. But place and nation-state, home and country, these words are not synonyms. I hope my readers will allow me to repeat what you might find in any xeroxed pamphlet distributed at a street demonstration, most likely scrawled in all capital letters: America was founded on colonization, genocide, and slavery. There is no way to bring these facts into reassuring alignment, or to make of them a redemptive narrative. I have to remember that, if I am serious about imagining the real.

What is the cost when we diminish conflict, when we aim to manage big stories instead of letting those stories roam free? During the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the private security firm TigerSwan—in the pay of the pipeline and using military-style tactics—collaborated with law enforcement to derail water protectors. One internal TigerSwan document reminds personnel that the “exploitation of ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts … is critical in our effort to delegitimize the anti-DAPL movement.”

What TigerSwan says is true. There are “ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts.” One friend who was a long-term organizer at Standing Rock told me, “people are trying to keep camp tensions out of the media, so that infighting won’t weaken the perception of what’s going on here. But I think we should be frank about it. People need to know that there’s no way to have a movement this large without internal tensions and strategic disagreements. And that doesn’t mean that we’re weak.”

Rifts often exist for good reason, and they’re definitely not going away anytime soon. That TigerSwan would identify such rifts as ripe for exploitation shows what happens when the stories we tell about ourselves aren’t big enough to include real conflicts, when the fantasy of unity and resolution leaves us vulnerable to violence and domination. Where do we have power against forces like TigerSwan? If we hide our divisions under a guise of unity, they become vulnerable to exploitation. If we claim them, our stories not only might resist such exploitation, but become bigger, uncontainable, more real.

*

Emailing me in response to a draft of this essay, poet and playwright Bianca Lynne Spriggs writes, “‘happily ever after’ narratives where all ends well and the suffering of marginalized peoples is transmuted into some sort of cultural badge of honor … is a result of the historic modality of patriarchal consciousness (either/or, this/that, right/wrong).” Here, she links the quest for narrative alignment and redemptive meaning to one of the most familiar ways to envision conflict on the page and in life—as a back and forth between two opposing forces. In her book Conflict is Not Abuse, novelist, activist, and scholar Sarah Schulman also critiques binary thinking. She writes that the overwhelming reliance on a victim/perpetrator dichotomy for conflicted people leads to patriarchal control of conflict, specifically in the hands of the police, which she names “the embodiment of patriarchy, racism, and the enforcement of the US class system.”

What is the cost when we diminish conflict, when we aim to manage big stories instead of letting those stories roam free?

Reading submissions for a literary journal, I sift through hundreds of incredibly competent stories. No one could accuse these stories of binary thinking. They are neither happy nor sad. They are not broad. They are not sentimental. Each ends on a perfectly honed note of ambiguity. A teenaged mother makes the bittersweet decision to leave her child so that she can feel free. A husband cheats on a wife repeatedly but feels nothing for the other people he sleeps with. Some people can’t have a baby and one of them is secretly glad. A beloved high school friend can’t stay sober and ruins a dinner party. When I get to the story where a three-year-old is dying of cancer as their older sibling watches and their father drinks, I feel sudden sympathy towards that student who didn’t want to read “depressing” stories. If I have to read grim material, I want a beating heart at the center. The conflict in these stories feels somehow obedient, the characters pressed into dreary service. The writers are doing their best to make sure their stories have conflict. Why is it so hollow?

Schulman clarifies that the discussion of mutuality in conflict should not be confused with “victim blaming,” in which moving away from victim/perpetrator dichotomies really becomes an apology for the perpetrator, a throwing up of hands. Similarly, the antidote to binary “either/or” stories is not distance or evasion. The unsettled and nuanced nature of conflict, the impossibility of alignment, does not leave characters paralyzed, static, fashionably detached, or non-culpable. The stories I want are not easily sorted into happy or sad, bleak or hopeful, yet neither are they disconnected and numb. The stories I want don’t make a fetish of nuance. Conflict is emotion misfiring. Conflict is urgent unanswerable questions. Conflict is attachment, misunderstanding, mistake, reluctant connection. Conflict is the particularity of people in community. Conflict is the terror and joy of responsibility. Conflict is knowing other people—not observing them—and it is letting them know you.

*

The novelist Patrick O’Keeffe handed me back a story I was working on and told me that it needed more “trouble.” I was put out. To my mind, the story was full of trouble. Though fiction, my source material explored flawed foundational myths about race in my large white family, Catholicism, the trials of life partnership, end-of-life care, Vietnam-era student activism and the busing system in Seattle. Wasn’t that enough trouble? But O’Keeffe said no. You love the characters a bit too much, he said. You’re trying to spare them.

It was not the first time I’d heard such feedback. I have difficulty imagining conflict without also managing it. I worry that large conflicts will take over my story, will turn them anecdotal. I worry that conflict will obscure the people I know and the things I know about them, that if I show them as they are I’ll be signaling to the reader that my characters are not worth wondering about. I do love my characters. I love them too much to sell them out to conventional notions of conflict.

When I lose track of my own sensibilities about conflict, when I write in reaction to the familiar ways that conflict is imagined instead of pushing my imagination further, I hesitate at the moment of trouble. I avoid what I know to be true: that one of my characters didn’t just drink too much sometimes, but routinely pissed themselves and passed out on the floor while their partner covered for them. That another character didn’t just tell someone to leave but picked them up bodily and threw them out the door. That another character, white, came from a multiracial family and was also racist, responsible for keeping a child from their Black father. I didn’t want to write that one man broke another man’s arm, because I was worried it obscured another truth about him, that he loved the person he injured, that this person was his brother, that no two people could be closer.

*

My friend Mariam Z. Gafforio is a radical facilitator and musician living in the Bay Area. Gafforio, a community-taught scholar who has avoided institutional education, is writing a book on conflict engagement. She offers conflict skills trainings and provides conflict support for a wide variety of people and groups. I’ve long been fascinated by Gafforio’s approach to conflict, not least of all because it reminds me of the work of a novelist, fluid, expansive, phenomenological.

“A lot of mainstream conflict mediation takes the approach of, ‘We’re all different so we need to find solutions in order to live together with those differences,’” Gafforio explains over the phone. “I don’t see conflict about difference so much. To me, conflict is change entering a system. Change is a constant life force that is moving through all things at all times. When it integrates easily into our lives we don’t experience it as conflict. But when change enters our lives and there is friction, we can experience that as conflict. The flow of life—change—is necessary and it’s inevitable.”

Gafforio stresses the difference between her work and more conventional conflict resolution methods, which she describes as “managing and resolving so we can get back to our lives.” She says, “One of the key things that I do differently is that I go in without attachment to specific outcomes, and one reason is that I think the greatest chance for transformation happens when we cultivate spaciousness for possibilities.”

Her distrust of resolution is connected to a larger analysis of injustice. She explains that, even when people are identifying their conflicts as personal, “usually there are neighboring and overlapping systems that we don’t have full agency over. Capitalism and racism are still there at the end, so resolution doesn’t feel like an accurate description. I don’t like ‘resolution’ or even the word ‘restorative,’” she said. “They invoke a finished-ness that I don’t think is possible before there’s total systemic change.”

Gafforio’s style of conflict engagement is about identifying interactions between these larger systems of power and personal agency. As a novelist, this tension is fundamental to how I imagine character motivation and action. I don’t want to deny the impacts of structural power, but I want to imagine my characters deeply enough to not see them simply living in response to that power, caught in a two way back and forth. Schulman links her investigation of conflict to the novelist’s duty to “convey how each character experiences their own life.” Like Schulman, I want to keep my sensibilities open to what might matter to people and to how it matters.

Listening to Gafforio describe her work, I’m enlivened by the possibilities it offers for conflict as storytelling craft: conflict that readers and writers are patient with and are not rushing to manage, explain, or control. Conflict that that suggests movement and motion, though not necessarily in one direction. Intimate conflicts that interact with larger structures of power, so that resolution is emergent and fluid rather than fixed. As I want to do in my storytelling, Gafforio steers unswervingly into trouble. In her approach to conflict, I hear the echo of O’Connor saying that the artist is not there to deliver assurance.

*

In her introduction to Power Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change, artist, writer, and activist Aurora Levins Morales relates a story from the Old Testament that she grew up hearing at Passover seders:

What we are told to remember is that the sea opened because one ordinary man, Nachsun, decided that what was behind him was intolerable, and that the only way forward was through, so he began to walk, on a path he couldn’t see, toward a destination that was nearly impossible for enslaved people to imagine. It was not until the waters had reached his mouth that the sea parted and a way became clear.

Morales suggests this story as an aid for approaching conflict in personal and political struggle. Like other radical re imaginings of conflict, it also speaks to me of storytelling. Gafforio says that we live in a conflict-repressive culture, and that this repression manifests in two ways: avoidance, and coercion. I want to neither avoid narrative conflict nor to coerce it. I want to make honest work. It’s true what my mother says, I am focused on fighting. I’m focused on fighting because I want to imagine the real. I want conflict that is alert to structural power, but not defined by it, conflict that resists binaries yet still moves towards attachment and action, conflict with no guarantee, conflict that is creative, conflict that we storytellers wade into until the waters reach our mouths.

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Stay and Fight, by Madeline ffitch, is available now from FSG.

Madeline ffitch
Madeline ffitch
Madeline ffitch cofounded the punk theater company Missoula Oblongata and is part of the direct-action collective Appalachia Resist! Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Guernica, Granta, VICE, and Electric Literature, among other publications. She is the author of the story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn.





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