MY CANCELLATION IS NIGH!
JUST KIDDING, I do not think I am being “cancelled,” or that I am suffering piteously, or that I am the victim of an injustice of any sort, but I do think it is odd to watch an involved “discourse” about a piece of my writing evolve on a social media platform I don’t use but clearly have no hopes of escaping. You may wonder, with excellent reason, why I left Twitter only to remain exquisitely attentive to my many haters. What a good question! The answer is that I’m human and I care about my writing and its reception, which makes me incapable of not caring what people think of my work, whether I especially like them (or their writing) or not. I will likely need to learn to outgrow this pathology to at least some extent before my books are published (and widely panned by my haters???)—but I haven’t outgrown it yet, and I’m not above responding to some of the objections to the essay, as I would if I were actually on Twitter.
There are some criticisms of the piece that I think are apt and interesting, but there some that do not seem to me to be responsive to the piece itself—or, if they are, then I have failed at expressing what I meant and will take this opportunity to clarify. The main thread I have in mind is this one:
….which continues (at length, I warn you!):
I don’t think Tortorici likes me very much, but I like her writing and respect her thinking. With that said, however, I am a bit confused by this critique. For one thing, I don’t think it’s fair to Oyler: in her excellent essay about goodness in fiction, she is quite clear that some of the books she mentions are interesting and good. For another thing, both Oyler and I have written elsewhere, in largely aesthetic terms, about the novelists we discuss. Oyler has written on Rooney, on Moshfegh, on Heti, and on Offill (several of whom she unambiguously likes); I’ve written on Rooney, on Lerner novels I like, and on The Topeka School. Admittedly, I don’t like Rooney’s fiction very much, though I do devote quite a number of words to its aesthetic qualities, but I literally say of The Topeka School, “Still, Mr. Lerner’s prose is too rich to stoop to sanctimony for long” (and I love his first two novels). It’s true that Oyler and I don’t rehash all of our other pieces in the essays Tortorici dislikes, and of course Tortorici is under no obligation to hunt down all of our other work, but nonetheless, life being what it is, a person can’t accomplish everything in one essay with a word limit. For my part, I chose to focus examples I’d discussed in detail elsewhere because I knew I would not have space to develop all of my arguments and offer a compelling reading of an entirely new work of fiction. I would bet that Oyler was probably thinking along the same lines.
Moreover, I would argue that both Oyler and I are asking after the aesthetics of the novels we discuss (even if no critic in any essay with a word limit is ever asking after every aesthetic issue a novel raises): in particular, we are arguing that their sanctimoniousness (though perhaps Oyler would use a different word) constitutes an aesthetic demerit, and we both make a case for this claim. You can disagree with our arguments, and you can disagree with our readings or assessments of the books in question, but I don’t think it makes much sense to say either of us is ignoring the aesthetic aspects of the books. As I put it in the piece, “Sanctimony literature is aesthetically wanting…because its language and moral outlook are juvenile.” And as I put it later in my piece, “a novel lacking a certain sort of moral complexity might therefore suffer artistically.” And as I put it one more time in the piece, “ethical failings, it turns out, are not irrelevant to the genre’s enormous aesthetic deficiencies.”
Now, speaking for myself only (though perhaps Oyler would agree?), I did not intend my essay to condemn all fiction concerned with morality or goodness, and I don’t think I’m particularly cynical about attempts to be good. On the contrary! I think it’s obligatory to work towards goodness. I thought my very earnest commitment to morality was fairly clear in the essay; after all, I wrote,“even in the realm of the novel, concern with morality is not misplaced. If sanctimony literature is soporific, it is not because it portrays people who strive to live ethically. Trying to be good is an important — if not the only important and not always the most important — part of being a person, and nothing that is human can be alien to literature.” (I often wonder if people are talking about the same pieces of writing as I am, and the feeling is more crazy-making when the piece of writing is mine. As Oyler would say, “I feel that I am being made crazy by the distortion.”)
All of this is to say, I did my best to argue not that it’s uncool to care about ethics, nor that ethics and aesthetics are rigidly insulated from one another, but that fiction is aesthetically good to the extent that it displays a certain sort of goodness. My problem with sanctimonious novels (whether or not the novels I call sanctimonious are in fact sanctimonious is another question) is that they are immoral: I think failing to display “moral realism”—condescending to/infantalizing your reader, failing to interrogate your assumptions, demonizing all of your enemies rather than making any effort to understand them, and subscribing to a generally Manichean worldview—is not ethical. I also don’t think it’s great politically, or aesthetically. My problem with sanctimony literature is therefore not, and has never been, that it is hypocritical, but rather that it is dogmatic and patronizing. You can of course disagree with me about what being an ethical person requires, but I think and hope it is at least clear that the piece is not dismissive of attempts to be good or attempts to parse goodness in fiction.
I like Sam Sacks’s work a great, great deal, but I found this frustrating:
…because I love to moralize! Yes, my piece is moralizing! It makes a moral argument! I am a moral philosopher! This I do not and would not deny.
I think something many likely object to is the thought that some aspects of goodness are separable from politics; that’s fair enough, because I do claim that we have obligations that aren’t political (though I don’t deny that we have political obligations, and I don’t deny that fiction is political). What I mean by this is that even if you are a socialist, even if you are committed to feminism and anti-racism, even if you voted for Bernie (yes, I did this, and no, I don’t think all Bernie supporters are “Bernie bros”), you might still be morally imperfect, if you are just an asshole. I think some people might class “being an asshole” as political; if you’re one of those people, then we agree that ethics is all political.
The next issue, then, is whether my point is supposed to be that leftism is stupid, or whether I think it’s stupid or uncool to have been concerned about Trump, or whether I scoff at people who read Gramsci, respect women, and recycle. Well, I would hope not, because I identify as a leftist (more on this below), I respect women (I am one, after all), and I recycle (sometimes—probably could do better). I don’t especially like Gramsci, but I have read the dude several times. I commend people who fought against the scary injustices Trump visited on so many; I tried, in my own small and doubtless ineffectual ways (joining the DSA, phonebanking, donating bits of what money I had, and so on), to fight against these injustices too; I’ve argued in this very newsletter that that I side with those who regard Trump as a proto-fascist precisely because I think it is important to take him and his evils seriously. I do not assume that people who went to great and sometimes even heroic lengths to defeat Trump and protect the vulnerable did so for performative reasons (where does my essay say this?!), and, to the best of my knowledge, I did not join the DSA and attempt to phonebank, however ineptly, for performative reasons. “Sanctimony Literature” is not an essay about real leftists and their motivations, nor is it an essay about leftism in general. It’s an essay about leftism as it manifests in a particular set of books that I don’t think do a very good job of representing leftism—books that I criticize for being too simplistic. Tortorici is right: what I am writing about is a “vulgarization” of leftism. As I wrote in the essay, my target is fiction that takes its cues from “the crudest, most online leftists.” Maybe I’m wrong in accusing Lerner or Rooney of doing this, but I think and hope it’s clear the piece is not an indictment of leftism itself.
It’s obviously possible to write an essay that isn’t a critique of leftism even if you aren’t a leftist. But I am a leftist, I think, so perhaps it would be helpful for me to clarify my politics—in part because I want to set the record straight, in part because I’ve also seen my essay celebrated as a rebuke to “wokeness,” which it is very much not. I don’t really know what “wokeness” is; many views that are lumped under the “woke” umbrella clash in some iterations, e.g., liberal “pussy hat” feminism is likely incompatible with Marxism. Given that I have no idea what “wokeness” is, I have no idea if I’m woke or anti-. I believe a jumble of things, some fashionable, some unfashionable. Here are some of them: I believe that capitalism in its present iteration is unjust; I believe that American labor law is unforgivably unfavorable to unions; I believe that unions are the future and should be supported!; I believe that people who have done bad things should not be punished, socially or materially, forever; I believe that even bad people deserve housing security and medical treatment; I believe that America is not great and has never been great, and that racism has been baked into its institutions in various ways since its founding; I believe that it is possible to talk about art without talking about politics, sometimes, which isn’t the same as believing that art is “not political;” I believe that certain aspects of human nature have been constant throughout time; I believe that it is good to treat one’s ideological opponents with respect; etc. I consider myself a socialist, though my reasons are Rawlsian and not Marxian. Maybe this makes me right-wing (????), but I would imagine that the Marxists and I can work together for the moment, since we both think that universal healthcare and the PRO act are goods in the immediate future.
All of this to say: my critiques of sanctimony literature aren’t critiques of leftism, OR of novels written by those with leftist politics, OR of leftist novels, OR of novels featuring good (or trying-to-be-good) people, OR of novels that aim to instantiate or inspire goodness, and my argument is definitely NOT that only books with mean protagonists are good. My critique is only of what I take to be a simplistic and therefore itself morally misguided presentation of moral goodness.
I read your essay over the weekend and I don’t think you have anything to worry about. But I do find your response to these tweets a bit puzzling. Why even explain or over-explain yourself? Why not let the piece speak for itself which it does so forcefully. This post-response piece only adds a degree of nervousness to the piece, which it didn’t have by itself. People can toss a few tweets, but let them produce that kind of writing. A great piece of writing will always invite criticism and misunderstanding.
What you wrote in “Liberties” is a beautiful and deeply insightful piece of criticism. You wrote about “moralizing fiction” in America—and that has been a problem for a while (Nabokov spoke about it in the 60s), but recently this type of literature has taken the form of political activism disguised as contemporary or post-post modernism or whatever. I spent two years at Columbia doing an MFA and I was shocked by the campaign (both implicit in criticism and sometimes explicit) about the demand for a more “updated” or “correct” or “inclusive” representation of people in stories. Maybe I grew up in Eastern Europe and my aesthetics is “non-American” but for me great literature is an ideal to strive for, not a socio-economic or political project. This earnestness in fiction that your critics speak of is misplaced. We, fiction writers, (my own fiction is unpublishable these days in the US because it’s “gross” and “irredeemable” and “depressing”) have irony—the most potent, but underutilized technique in the US contemporary fiction— to make use of. Earnestness involves a high degree of deliberate and conscious moralizations of phenomena. When not done with a deft hand in fiction, it often comes (and is) cheap political activism. I’ve read a great deal of this at Columbia. That’s why essays exist where people can take their dead serious activism. Fiction is not political pamphleteering.
Thank you for writing the essay and please continue to provide this essential service on behalf of art and literature. Please pardon my language, but fuck Twitter.
Tortorici misunderstood your essay, Oyler's too, and she looks pretty silly, frankly.