The Politics of Narrative

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The first lie: money. The second: property (and borders). The third: government. The fourth: story.

Rome, Fourth century AD. Sprawling, ungovernable. Information—roads, religion—unstoppable. Government was no longer enough to manage the governed. Rome’s solution: religion. Constantine’s Christianity insisted that Jesus returned from the dead in body, not just in spirit. The distinction is important; the apostles who saw Jesus in the flesh (not in a vision or a dream) legitimize the church hierarchy, which in turn legitimizes government, property, and money.

Constantine’s second adaptation of Christianity: confession. The “sin, suffering, redemption” story, as told through the story of Jesus, and as exercised in confession, is a mechanism of control; when people suffer, they’re taught to presume they deserved their suffering (sin) and to believe that through atonement (the intervention of external authority) their problems will go away.

To this day, sin, suffering, redemption is the primary Western story. In movies, in television, in cross-cultural memoirs (which must accept the Western story to be culturally significant) and in fiction. Harvey Pekar, in his recent collection, Huntington, West Virginia on the Fly puts a percentage to equation: 99% of what we encounter is establishment narrative.

In West Virginia and the body of his work, Pekar understands that a story can be told of any of us, without forced structures or prerequisites—because every man, every woman’s life, is an allegory of our times, and in the broader sense, existence itself. Pekar is representative of a wave of comics artists who saw potential for graphic novels and comic books that exceeded the reductive narratives of mainstream comic books. Comic books, contrary to assumption, did not come naturally to their present market. The present market—superheroes, crime, kid stuff—was mandated by the federal government. Pekar rightly discerned the future: the abrading of the fixed comic book narrative. The Comics Code Authority, which came about in 1954 to regulate an art that had been convicted of “poisoning America’s youth,” was gradually compromised by the stateside underground Comix movement of the 60s and 70s, and international forces, 80s forward, of artists from Europe and Asia who weren’t beholden to U.S. regulators.

“The comic-book medium,” begins the preamble to the Comics Code, which was voluntarily adopted by publishers, “having come of age on the American cultural scene, must measure up to its responsibilities… To make a positive contribution to contemporary life, the industry must seek new areas for developing sound, wholesome entertainment… Members of the industry must see to it that gains made in this medium are not lost and that violations of standards of good taste, which might tend toward corruption of the comic book as an instructive and wholesome form of entertainment, will be eliminated.”

The Code determined suitable advertising, banned the glamorization of the word “crime,” and banned the words “horror” and “terror” from a comic title.  Also banned: profanity, nudity, extreme bloodshed, gore and torture, and overly emphasized sexual organs.

In addition, the code delineated narrative:

GENERAL STANDARDS

(1) Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.

(2) No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.

(3) Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

(4) If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.

(5) Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.

(6) In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

MARRIAGE AND SEX

(1) Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable.

(2) Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.

(3) Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered. A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for morbid distortion.

(4) The treatment of live-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.

(5) Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.

(6) Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.

(7) Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.

In July of 2010, forty years after the premier issue of Robert Crumb’s “Zap Comix No.1,” Harvey Pekar passed away. The comics world, yearning for creative heroes, for champions of artistic freedom, mourned the loss—unaware that the year to come would bring an historical triumph. January, 2011, DC and Archie Comics, the last two publishers conforming to CCA guidelines, announced their withdrawal from the regulatory process; they would no longer submit their materials for review; they would no longer carry the CCA seal of approval. The code was defunct.

A half century, but the reactionaries had lost: comics didn’t have to be pulp; the stories could come from life, as opposed to edict.  The distinction—from life or from edict—happens to be the customary distinction of the literary v. the non-literary work. The logic:

—In literary works, the structure is derived from the content.

—In non-literary works, the content is derived from the structure. (A Harlequin novel has prescriptions as to action: on page 62, this has to happen.)

Though arguably rooted in the arts and religions of antiquity, the twentieth century drew the distinction with modernism, which advanced a structure-follows-content argument. While literary novels of “traditional” or “proven” or “received” structures continued to have a place in American letters, the momentum shifted: lengthy, sprawling novels tended toward the mass market, while sharpened, structure-conscious novels tended toward literature. The 100,000 word novel was more likely to be “fiction,” and the 75,000 novel was more likely to be “literature,” an inversion of nineteenth-century standards.

With the beginning of the twenty-first century, the sprawling literary novel has regained pre-eminence. The realist recoil is cyclical—Bellows springs to mind as indicative of a generation that tended toward socially engaged novels of nebulous structure. In the larger political context, the “realist” novel indicates conservative values. The novel that puts content second to structure parallels a nation (a globe) that espouses an ideology of the systemic over the sovereign. To maintain that content comes before structure is a precept for revolution: a particular idea, person or solution comes before the nation, the corporation, the praxis.

Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust), a prolific pulp western writer of the 1920s and 30s, maintained that there were two types of stories: coming home, or leaving home. The assertion neatly correlates to the classical definition of comedy and tragedy, as well as a content-first v. structure-first division of the arts. The coming home story (usually comedic or “feel good”): the cowboy accepts and/or is accepted by society. The leaving home story (usually tragic or “dark”): the cowboy rejects and/or is rejected by society. Structure-first stories, i.e. coming home, tend to be about assimilation, while content-first stories, i.e. leaving home, tend toward dissent.

The difficulty of reading a text that puts forth a dissenting structure is that it is self-aware. The sentence-to-sentence qualifications, the adjustments to expected language and idiom, place readers in unfamiliar territories. In counterpoint, the assimilative text is necessarily unconscious of its own intentions. The conformist can’t “try.” (The grade school realization: you can’t try to be normal, in the trying, you’re abnormal.) The conformist story, i.e., the “coming home,” must assume that the state of conformity is the norm. The hero gains acceptance, which is “better.” To acknowledge that a conformist state must be gained, or acquired, is to acknowledge that the conformist state is as difficult to attain as some other alternative state. In the context of literature, the acknowledgement would be tantamount to acknowledging that the structures commonly perceived as “easy” or “naturalistic” are only so because readers have been guided, or indoctrinated, to them.

The conformist narrative presumes the state of conformity is baseline, tabula rasa. For example, a look at a novel that espouses passivity: people’s wounds and illnesses begin to glow, the evolution of the world. The message is de facto: sin, suffering, redemption. Through suffering, we will be redeemed. Not necessarily so, but that is the promise of an establishment seeking passivity from a suffering population. Kevin Brockmeier, the author of the novel, The Illumination, would no doubt defend the work—say it was about something else.  He would be right; novels are about more than one thing.  But the promise, “wait for something to change it will be beautiful,” is the fundamental message. Total conformity, as emptiness and freedom itself, is such a work’s unspoken ideal.

In defense of the “realist” novel, the draw is partly an answer to the modern cacophony—a long novel can provide us with silence we’ve lost—and partly a mechanism of publishers. The “big six” (Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster) are corporate lifestyle brands, forced to contend with a lifestyle market (newspapers, magazines, directed by advertising), and, broadly generalizing, their fiction satisfies a hunger to self-legitimize. The magazine lifestyle is the aspiration, the lesson, the reward of personal growth and change.

Ezequiel Adamovsky’s recent primer, Anti-Capitalism reminds readers that government doesn’t regulate to an intent of progress, but rather to the intent of maintaining the ruling classes as they are. Change only comes about when government is forced to intercede, to protect the establishment from itself, from its own myopia and greed. Assimilationist art, in much the same way, can’t be so mind-blowing that it upsets the order of the Western canon, but neither can it be so terrible that it threatens the life of its delivery system, i.e., the publisher, the magazine that covers it, etc. The assimilationist work, as much as it pushes the boundaries of a genre, of a culture, must validate the collective education of its readers, and give warrant to the modes of its own marketing—the “buy this” of the weekend magazine, for example. The work is, bottom line, antagonistic to originality and/or significant dissent.

A standing argument of radicals, progressives, revolutionaries, is that compliance is in itself a political act. If your government is engaged in a violent act, you are complicit in that act; you have committed an act of violence. The argument stands in the arts: all art is political—if you think your art isn’t political, you’re more than likely producing establishment propaganda.

McKenzie Wark, in his recent The Beach Beneath the Street, traces, as per his subtitle, “The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of Situationist International.” The Situationist International artist collective sought to establish an art outside of capitalist valuation. In Art Gangs: Protest & Counterculture in New York City, Alan W. Moore documents radical artists and artists collectives of New York City, 60s to 80s. The common thread of the two books, and expanse of movements they cover: creativity is freedom; commerce is bondage.

The cost of the fine arts, to an exact degree, is the price the arts communities demand to suppress dissent, to make work just subversive enough to maintain exclusivity. Often, one hears disparaging remarks about contemporary arts: “I could do that;” “an elephant could do better.”  The attitude is precisely the stuff of justifying exclusivity; if the work is understood by everyone, it can’t be worth much. Exclusivity is the test of “comprehension.” Do you understand the work, or are you beneath it? This class regulation is different than the factors that govern the publishing world. However remote, books still have the potential to make money; reaching a large audience, i.e., everyone understands, is the most favorable circumstance. Depending on the audience, there is more or less of an appeal to pretension—that this book appeals to an exclusive buyer. The trick of the last thirty years has been to market up—ascribe a mass-audience title with the pretension of the midlist, and a midlist title with the pretension of a literary title. The result has been the erosion of commonly held distinctions, and the exclusion of literary titles from major publishers. Some of the bigger publishers will still occasionally publish a literary title in order to reinforce the overall literariness, or perceived literariness, of their lists. That terrific titles slip through the corporate gateways is undeniable—finding those books is another matter.

Movements like Situationist International, or Moore’s NYC “Art Gangs,” or the Underground Comix movement, were reliant on popular access to alternative sources of information, which they had, in the form of alternative press. Last year saw a crop of books chronicling the schizoid travails of today’s newspapers and the social triumphs of newspapers of yore. (My approximate list: David Bajo’s Panopticon from Unbridled Books, John Macmillion’s Smoking Typewriters from Oxford, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists from The Dial Press, David Kindred’s Morning Miracle from Doubleday, Sarah Ellison’s War at the Wall Street Journal from HMH.) In our own era, the information diffusion of the internet leaves us with more than enough in the way of alternative outlets of information, but no solidarity as to what information and what perspective on the information is most exigent. Alternative thinkers often agree—the overlap of the far right, the far left, the libertarians, the anarchists, can be arresting—but the issue of what is most important is a miasma of endless debate. Perhaps the maturation of the internet, the maturation of alternative modes of thought in our own era, will solve the problem; perhaps our optimism should come not from a consensus acceptance of the new, but from the consensus rejection of the old.

The alternative-thinking website, Reality Sandwich, points to the statistical data: people seem unwilling to pay subscriber rates on the internet. Even at The New York Times, the success/failure of the pay wall is open for debate. The twentieth century transition from subscription magazines to subscription magazines laden with advertising was a gradual process, an acquiescence  of decades.  Content impinged upon by a preponderance of advertising, and compromised by the consumerism of the advertisers, plus subscription rates, may well be too high a price for not-enough that’s not-good-enough.

In the present-day United States, art exists within authorized cultural parameters—there is very little in the way of the “degenerate art” that the Nazis, for example, saw fit to stamp out. The testing of cultural parameters, contraction and expansion, is ongoing, but anything wildly obstreperous is relegated to obscurity, or at best, to an object of marginal or local curiosity. In comparison to the United States of the 60s, we are pitifully apathetic and square, though perhaps we should be relieved that degeneracy is no longer a presumption of radicalism, given what drugs did to the decade of peace and love. As London riots, as Wall Street is occupied, news outlets chorus conservative refrains: the actions aren’t political in nature—the ranks are filled by thugs and criminals, or uninformed flakoids who can’t muster a demand. In the 70s, the U.S. media resorted to such surmises of counterculture, effectively diffusing the radical agenda. Today, however, whether or not people believe that the London rioters are thugs and criminals, that the Wall Street rioters are without impetus, there’s no indication that thugs or flakoids are the foundation of alternative thinking. There are way too many of us, and we’re not just cultural dropouts.

Unlike the alternative future of the 60s and 70s, which seemed to be taking shape on the outskirts of society, today’s alternative future arises from wholesale disgust. The “counterculture” may be entirely ignored, but even the establishment is grumbling with dissatisfaction. Writers who are deeply complicit, deeply invested in the espoused Western Story, can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more interesting than regurgitating economically approved platitudes. In the curious performance of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, Foer literally cuts, die cuts, into his “favorite book.” The act of canon worship was unsurprising, but the aggression with which Foer tore into his subject left the media tepid and unreceptive to their epiphanic darling. The London-based publisher, Visual Editions, is a small press with the seemingly unimpeachable small-press stake in the future; we can do books better, we can bring about a better world for readers and writers and creative culture at large.

In 30 under 30, Starcherone Books offered 2011 its promise of the future. The “Anthology of Innovative Fiction” compiled thirty authors under thirty years of age. An unoriginal conceit, if always a cause for warmth and dew-eyed optimism. With its frenetic pace, and glimmers of brilliance, 30 Under 30 delivers on the covenant of youth. But the under-30 generation’s betrayal to creative freedom is already underway: the big six are taking on the authors who are most likely to adjust to mainstream margins. And unfortunately, the authors who exhibit the fortitude, or bad fortune, to stay with the small presses will encounter the same restrictions that they would have faced if they had crossed over to dark side. With age, small presses tend to mimic the big presses, producing books identical to those of their larger, more powerful counterparts—the differences are more than often token distinctions, some aspect of design, for example. As a small press establishes itself, its author pool is increasingly inhabited by mainstream authors, like Foer, who want additional freedoms. And, entering the book economy proper, a small press is beholden to whatever big press has taken on its distribution.

This isn’t the first time in history the arts have functioned as a counter government, a protector of the owner class and its values—exceptions are infrequent, and harbingers of revolutions. For a century, let’s say 1850 to 1950, a dominant form of narrative entertainment was the temperance work: the story with a lesson, which remains a mainstay to this day. Modes of propaganda often become more transparent with time—it takes very little in the way of mental output to perceive the agitprop of 1930s gangster films, or, for example, “Reefer Madness.” But neither are the agendas of our own era particularly cloaked. The ghost-written autobiographies of personal triumph; the help-yourself-to-riches-and-be-enlightened pseudo religion/psychology; the xenophobic thrillers; the clamorous adulation for the canon, the corny, and the profitably branded. Of course, it’s everywhere. Movies, media, music, advertising, game culture, award culture: all replete with naked want, and Horatio Alger clichés.

Popular entertainment is a helpless, writhing, mega-maggot of selfish desire. Academia, outmoded and provincial, peddles geniuses and nihilists, ignores contemporary writers of far more immediacy, relevancy, talent and accomplishment. Education, a leading national industry, saddles promising poor and middle class youth with onerous debt, thereby fashioning an executive and managerial class beholden to the children of the wealthy. Culture-at-large presumes that writing is torture, art is suffering, and artists are monstrous, or retarded, or drug-addled (the A&E biography)—all in the service of denigrating creative living and creative thinking, which is the single alternative to a life of stultifying obedience.

Artists have always been the pets of the rich—from village seer to royal sponsorships. When availed the resources of a culture, artists create in extraordinary ways; think Shakespeare, a man with the backing of the Queen. Infinitely enabled, artists are more remembered than saints and monarchs. But the power of the artist has been reduced to the life of an individual; no longer do schools of artists, the school of Caravaggio for example, prevail through generations. Corporations live for centuries, but the artist lives one short life. It is temporally impossible for creative thinkers to compete with bureaucratic thinkers, represented by corporations and governments, which don’t die. Furthermore, distilled by the twentieth and twenty-first century cult of the artist as hero, an artist’s works are reduced to a few works explained by a sin-suffering-redemption biography. Any political context for the work is disdained. The work is “timeless,” is “universal,” or, in other words, casts contemporary dissent as subordinate to storytelling (content follows structure).

Three reactions to the inequities of our present creative circumstance: 1) strive to change government and corporations, 2) found alternative corporate models, 3) reject the authority of government and corporations. Of the options, the first is the only socially approved response; the second option is tolerated as legal if foolish (more often than not, it is foolish; corporations without corporate missions are likely to flounder). Option C, “drop out,” is heavily criticized. When people point to the “failed” revolution of the 60s, and the dropout culture of the 70s, invariably a comment creeps in about how the counterculture stopped trying to change culture, and started trying to make its own culture, which was a dead end. In fact, the important transformations we see today—freecycle, barter, timeshare, even Craigslist, all that stuff that allows us to not drop out—can be traced to an evolution that began with starting anew.

In writing, in publishing, the questions translate: do I “sell out,” do I change the system, or do I take refuge in “alternative” publishing? Most young writers don’t have a clear understanding of the choice. Their book, they say, is radical and mass market.  “This will sell!” they tell you. And they may be right, their revolutionary tome might sell, if it were put in front of people—but not only must a book have the potential to sell, it must do so within the corporate mindset (to which the employees are subject) while promoting the lifestyle branding of the media outlets that promote books (the lifestyle branding attracts the audience that attracts the advertisers that makes O Magazine, for example, profitable). Or, our young author will insist that their small publisher is “really in love” with the book, which is going to “blow up,” not understanding that a micro press does not have the ear of the one fiction buyer—yes, there is just one person—for Barnes and Noble.

There are exceptions—usually, everyone is naming the same one at a given moment—but there’s often a backstory to the exception (often a sickening backstory), and regardless, an individual example doesn’t mean much. I once had a friend sit in on the writing workshop I lead at The New School, a respected editor and acclaimed author, and he fielded the of-the-moment exception with typical professorial exhaustion, and the reply, “You’d have a better chance of winning the lottery.”

In America, the fantasy of professional creativity is freedom. The U.S. reality of professional creativity is one of subservience and unrelenting regulation. Injustice and delay: from the dregs to the stratosphere. For those who do achieve some level of autonomy, the cost is total compromise; in their work, they are to promote assimilation and social passivity. The old saw, “write what you know,” encourages authors to focus on their own biographies, their own struggles, however mundane, which are almost certain to center on their own struggles to assimilate. The more unusual or difficult the assimilation—from the circus to the office, let’s say, or from the periphery of western culture to Hollywood—the bigger the rewards, in finance and recognition. (Edwidge Danticat addresses the issues directly and indirectly in her 2010 investigation from Princeton University Press, Create Dangerously.) An imaginative process, emphasizing creation over memory, the individual over history, is to be discouraged. Alternatives to accepted norms pose a threat; as history demonstrates, with sustenance, with justification, alternative thinkers will soon enough come up with an answer to “what else?”

For those who came to writing seeking a course alternate to the American assumption, the conservative bent of American literature, a literature of aggressive complacency, is cause for profound upset.

In 1951, Theodore Adorno asserted that, “every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” The claim is powerful, not just in its insight, but in its exclusion of creative works made in the service of normative values. Propaganda, pop culture, are excluded by Adorno’s criteria. Despite the proclamations of the approved textbooks, and the approved four-tomato reviews from the approved pundits, art is disobedience, much as democracy is civil disobedience. The Boston Tea Party, the abolitionists and the underground railroad, the Civil Rights movement, the Viet Nam protests: a nation at its best, humanity at its finest. And yet, the earlier the civil action, the earlier the opposition, the more courage it took to stand up, the more likely we are to have forgotten our heroes and their deeds. Independent thought, originality, has to be its own reward, because normative history offers revolutionaries the reward of oblivion or villainy.

It is often difficult to find truth in the presumption that history is a march forward. Recent decades, in the United States and the world, may well make an argument to the contrary. The war against Rome is seemingly unwinnable, and yet, sometimes when I glance around a room—at a reading, at an opening—I am amazed to see that we are all still here, two millennium later, soldiers in the same army, our orders long lost, but our direction still true. We, the Celts, the Christians unblessed by Constantine, the Barbarian hoards, the theologians of the Protestant Reformation, are here, embodied. As the United States in 1970s witnessed assassination after assassination, the deaths of student protestors, the murders (by police) of political activists, a grim warning crept into the vernacular of the counterculture: “They will kill you.” Now, nobody doubts it. If you’re not looking down the gun barrel at a bullet, you’re looking down the gun barrel at debt. But if the lesson of today’s culture is to hold on to what you have—to clutch your rapacity—the alternative lesson is to quit cringing. “Shed,” in the words of Philip Berrigan, “your coats of fear.”

The history of letters, the canon, isn’t immediate enough, isn’t alive enough, isn’t good enough to make war with oligarchy, art’s natural enemy. To raise Orwell’s 1984, to shake its pages in the face of oppression, is a futile act. What we face is far worse than Big Brother, and each year a hundred new books take up futuristic scenarios infinitely more compelling, varied, and literary than Orwell’s dusty relic. To yield to literature as is, publishing as is, is to grant the arts a secondary role in life. The arts are our humanity, creative fulfillment is the answer to our personal woes, our materialistic woes, even our environmental woes. The creative life is the alternative to this feudal bureaucracy. And the literary work, the work deemed hard to read, the work that puts creation before expectation—the work that inspires people to be writers—is more than just an aesthetic or an inconvenience. It is the revolution, the revolution in thinking, which is the only kind of revolution. The only kind we can win.


John Reed is the author of the novels, A Still Small Voice, The Whole, the SPD bestseller, Snowball's Chance, All the World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, and Tales of Woe. He has been published in Paper Magazine, New York Press, the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, Bomb Magazine, Playboy, Art in America, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other venues and is current member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. More from this author →