Sometime after the 1895 publication of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane marched out into the middle of a Civil War battlefield, something he had never stepped foot upon prior to writing his Civil War masterpiece. He surveyed the terrain, tried to hear the ghosts, and walked back in the direction he came, saying to himself, “got it.” In other words, for whatever reason Crane wanted to confirm post hoc that he had captured the imaginative essence, and persuaded himself that he had.
Would we lambast Stephen Crane right now if he were alive, for having written about an experience that he had not actually lived? Not if we hewed to the standards applied to how literature has always functioned: A great artist steps beyond his or her own parochial experience to build worlds transcending direct experience with the help of extent literature produced by many others. Imagination was a communal affair, one that enabled individual writers to first create and then to enter into the lives of their own fictional characters. Imagination is what readers wanted, for it summoned whole worlds in which the universal and the particular did their glorious dance of open-endedness, setting up journeys whose own destinations they knew only through discovery.
But if Stephen Crane were alive today, he would be in real trouble, for that formula for imagination is what the publishing world is trying its damnedest to kill off right now. The thinking behind that push—or rather not thinking but a miasma of leftoid sentiment—is that writers should only use their own subjective experience as a basis for their work. But what this especially means is that whites can only write about whites, men about men, and the classes who are deemed, in the current vogues, as the oppressor classes, need to shut the hell up about anyone else. Including, those people their imaginations might invent, who do not share their shading or genitalia.
One of the more recent kerfuffle along these lines was last fall’s controversy over the young adult (YA, as it’s known) novel, American Heart, by Laura Moriarty. The book is about a 15-year-old white girl who is in favor of Muslim detainment camps until she meets a Muslim child who helps reshape her viewpoint. If you have heard about the controversy, you would know that Kirkus reviews originally gave the book a starred review, because it is apparently quite a good book. But then suddenly the review site stripped its star.
Why? There was “a problem”: Moriarty is white and not a Muslim, as is her protagonist; but the Muslim child in the book is by definition beyond Moriarty’s ken because Moriarty is not a Muslim. So she is not allowed to put words into that Muslim child’s mouth, said the kind of people whose self-worth often runs a parallel course with the number of online comments they post. It seems that modern readers are as apt to have pitchforks in their hands as dust mites on them from rubbing up against pages.
Once the staged outrage reached a certain pitch, Kirkus editor-in-chief Claiborne Smith announced that an “observant Muslim of color” was being consulted, even though the Muslim girl in the book is not described as being of “color,” and most Middle Eastern Muslims are not “of color” at all. Did Smith simply assume that Muslims, like people of “color,” are necessarily victimized people? Kirkus also consulted an expert in “white savior” narratives, in which a white character “rescues” a character of color—a trope which attempts to signal racial enlightenment even as it confirms the subordinate status of the marginalized.
The verdict of the inquest? Bad writer! You went too far, Moriarty! Cultural appropriator! Star denied! In other words, Moriarty’s effort was artistically invalid from the get go, because of her skin color.
I’m now experiencing a similar form of inanity in my own publishing travails. For instance: I’m an expert on Billie Holiday. I write on her music often, I discuss it on the radio, I’ve studied it for 20 years. I’m a longtime contributor on jazz for many major publications. The 33 1/3 series—begun in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, and of which there are now 127 volumes, each on a single album—told me that I could write a book on a late-period Holiday album, only to renege a few days later by saying that they had to back out, because I was white and a male. And amazingly dense as it sounds (and though that editor has since resigned, but not because of this), the email containing this unhappy message asked me not to tell anyone about it.
It happens increasingly with fiction, too. I recently published a short story in Harper’s Magazine, “Find the Edges.” Days later, a well-known literary journal told me that they couldn’t take a different story of mine because my story features a female narrator. Not that she wasn’t believable, I was told. Rather, it was because I was male, and so could not possibly be considered credible writing a female—unless I happened to be transgendered. I’m not. Which means, I was SOL. Not because I didn’t create something that wrote circles beyond the claptrap you, reader, are told that you should care about, which very few of you do, which is why you spend your entertainment dollars elsewhere, and not on the material that publishing insists will enrich your experience, lying to you all the time, as the industry constituents lie to themselves. But because a self-professed enlightened person, who spends their life telling the world how progressive they are, took issue with my biological sex and judged me on that, not my work.
I thought we weren’t supposed to do that?
But the reality is, this is the great age of ideological bigotry because certain forms of bigotry are countenanced as part of the morality that is being force-fed to all of us, where any dissension is not disagreement, but abuse, hate speech, harassment. Saying obvious truths most of us sane people know is akin to chemical warfare in the eyes of the self-loathing, depressed, terrified person who founders when having to deal with reality, rather than a life lived as wish-fulfillment intended to overcome deficiencies in morals and intelligence that would take actual hard work to overcome. Shut up and swallow could well be the bumper stick for 2018 for the rest of us. Take it. Unless, of course, you are in certain demographics, parroting tropes made up of words whose meaning you did not know seventeen months ago. In which case, rush for power. You are protected and can as you please.
Until, of course, the day of reckoning comes. Which it will. It always does.
As for my Harper’s story: Not it or anything remotely like it ever happened to me or anyone I know. It’s about a man who loses his wife who has two boys. One of the boys has been molested at school and as part of the burden of shame he feels strapped upon him, he is seeking other children to beat him up. I was never molested. I never had a wife who died. But I know that every syllable of that story rings true. And as they say, any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, was purely coincidental. It was, to repeat, fiction, born of my imagination, and my ability to extend myself into the lives of people who deserve our empathy, for it is from the fashioning of these realistic characters that we, in turn, see ourselves, in the very solidity, the very realness, of what they are.
The worst advice anyone could ever give a writer is to write what you know, with what you know being what you have experienced firsthand. What is happening is that a lot of simple, pretentious, unwell people in the publishing community are doing their damnedest to make sure that a lot of writers with limited talent to start with never grow that ability, and that they focus exclusively on a kind of fictive autobiography. Write only about people who look like you. Went to your school. Grew up with a trust fund in Greenwich, Connecticut. It is zombie lit—dead, but somehow still shambling along.
The book industry is becoming increasingly invested in making sure that books are PC-friendly. Its key decision-makers are hell bent on avoiding the uncomfortable side of the kind of people who live their lives trying to find things to be offended by, so as to become, if not a true victim, then at least a vicarious one. The market is filling with woke evangelists of the new “let’s all enable each other” gospel, the sort who speak of “my truth” to affirm that the subjective is the paramount kind of experience in a world without moral foundation, facts, or even truth. Truth overrules all. We answer to truth. We seek to deify our whims, our needs, what we want rather than what is, like children who don’t understand that sometimes you must depart the sandbox before you wish to. Truth is king, and we have to find and adapt to it.
The assumption here is that this is all very progressive. But how is the progressive idea of a whole humanity advanced by balkanizing people into identitarian silos based on superficial physical characteristics? Isn’t this, in essence, akin to the “scientific racism” that reached its apogee in the racialist theories of the past two centuries? Books were burned then, and books are being burned again, in the sense of being rejected before they are written.
And if you write something that is better than everything else, that could actually mean something to lives, that holds up a mirror rather than busts out the publishing version of the performance trophy? They are going to hate you. You’re going to be like me. You’re going to to have published 2500 works in your life, and in a week where you’re in the LA Times, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and talking on the radio, they are going to hate you more than they did the week before, and they’ll hate you more the week after, when you’ve somehow kept going, adding to what you’ve done.
You’re going to get banned, for life, like I did by the boss at a tiny publisher in Minnesota, called Coffee House, whose covers look like something you would have crafted on Printshop circa 1984 after powering through a Smurfs marathon. You dared to get a story in Harper’s, Colin, and it’s in a book you offered us six months ago? Well, rather than be happy to talk to you, because you’ve done well, and we pay no advance, so thanks for being willing to sit down and talk, we are going to show you that you went too far with your mold-breaking and your success, and you are banned forever. You can’t send us anything.
That’s just one example I could share with you, from the past few weeks. I’ve spent my life reading a lot of books, having a lot of varied experiences, and tragic experiences with death, loss, corruption, and I’ve encountered every opera, film, you name it, just about, and I’ve never encountered anything remotely as backwards as publishing in the here and now.
But, eventually: this system is going to fall. Because no one wants any of this garbage. This may be where imagination comes to die. But it is also where imagination, which is brilliant, which means so much to keeping us human, making us human, can raze this system to the ground, and where imagination will resurrect the written word.
That’s what I believe, anyway, and I know a lot of people feel like I do, only no one wants to go against the Control Voice, as I think of it, of our broken, fear-mongering, “I’m going to get you” society right now. But I’m human, and I have imagination, and I will. And you do, too. So come with. Invite your friends. If you feel like maybe you don’t have a lot of friends these days, consider that as our imaginations are not nourished, neither is our ability to be vulnerable, to risk failure, to perhaps gain great reward, to gain that which we need more than anything else. Tell me a story. I’ll tell you a story. We’ll tell each other stories. That’s where connection always starts. With a story, made possible by courage to go beyond what we might normally deal in. That’s not only where a story starts. That’s where love starts. Friendship. Art. All at the same time. Because all of those things, really, belong to the same whole. In reality. Not in publishing.
The policers of imagination try to slot fiction writers into two categories, in terms of adult writing. You are either a genre writer or a literary writer. Genre writing is long on tropes. Your brain cools out, as do your emotions. It’s word-based comfort food. People might get splattered on sidewalks in a crime thriller, but you know going in that they’re going to get splatted on sidewalks. There is little risk, because there is little surprise.
Literary fiction, meanwhile, will be over-written and pretentious. Its narrative will involve a form of fictionalized autobiography about what is really a staid life, and the kind of people who are that person’s friends, who hobnob with him or her at conferences, will buy it. But only because they want their stuff bought as well, as part of the compact, and this is their makeshift community rather than a community of actual friends. That is the entire market. It won’t crossover into the world. It has no legs, rather like the knights who says “ni” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a stump on the ground, still spouting off that there’s nothing to see here, all is good.
The result? People will tell you that no one reads serious literary work any more or seriously funny literature, and they blame the public—those stupid people, fie on them, with their short attention spans.
But the stupid people with short attention spans are not to blame, because they don’t read books at all. It’s what the system of policed imagination is producing that’s to blame. The mothers of these literary fiction authors don’t even like this work. They say they do; mothers do that, and people in artificial guild-like communities do that. But stick them on a desert island and there is no earthly way they want a Blake Butler book for companionship. Sorry, no way.
Literary fiction is easily imitated, and easily taught. If it wasn’t easily taught, there would be no MFA system. Do you think Cervantes would have been a better writer if he got an MFA? Flaubert? Emily Dickinson? (She would be bounced so quickly out of any program for daring to innovate like that.)
No one can imitate Poe, or teach that style. No one can imitate A Christmas Carol; it is impossible to teach that level of invention. So when someone of legitimate talent dares to invent, there is the inevitable “not one of us” backlash from the imagination police, the members of which, in this case, aren’t focused on race and gender, but on insecurity and envy. That is, they can’t think up any of this stuff. The hate follows, the behind-backs trash talking, the blocking from anthologies, awards, publication, positive reviews. So what passes now for literary fiction, even beyond the obvious molds of genre writing, becomes super incestuous, with even the “starred review” books selling few copies because the truth is that almost all of it is tightly circumscribed, bereft of imagination. These are people for whom that Kirkus star means everything.
What we now often seek to do—and Kirkus is only one example—is to vet writing endeavors not based upon their potential impact on readers, but as part of a screening process that aims to anticipate who might be offended. In the literary fiction community, that is a peer-based process, with conformity at a premium. With the overlords—the bastions of the reviews—there is punishment waiting for anyone with the temerity to invent something beyond one’s own life. Let’s face it: Most of us are not whalers dashing off to sea for ripping adventure and deep psychological penetrations. A lot of days, the dull commotion at the Starbucks is as exciting as it gets.
Those who are offended by a white character daring to express her thoughts and feelings in observing a Muslim character are people who are always offended—and I’d argue unwell. Regrettably, such broken people, who cannot even grasp the simple concept that the universal and the particular in human cultures are complements, not opposites, are becoming increasingly important in publishing houses. Commercial publishing houses (and that includes that micro-ones, that make no money and pay no money, but want to pretend that they’re sufficiently intellectual that they are above it all, and the less you might enjoy something you read, the better it is for you!) are turning into cultural drug dealers, only their drugs are race and gender stimulants. Stop thinking; give us your money. We are giving them less and less of our money, though, because they are killing the artistic works that actually matter.
Real readers, people for whom literature becomes a life force, want imagination. We are at our most human when we invent and allow ourselves to be open to invention. We welcome the risks that come with pure creation grounded in empathy. We are waiting, back at the edge of that battlefield, for Stephen Crane’s return, and so many like him, so that we can agree when they say, “Got it.”
You can get it, too. Come with me.