f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: U.S.! - The Question of Writing Propaganda

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

U.S.! - The Question of Writing Propaganda

A quick break in our series on density to talk about writing from a defined religious/political viewpoint.

Chris Bachelder recently released a cock-eyed satire on the state of dissent in the country called U.S.! It's a weighted title standing in for the United States, us, and it's titular hero--Upton Sinclair. In the novel (which obviously steals from Waking Lazarus) Upton Sinclair is an oft-resurrected muckraker whom the "left" continues to turn to as their symbol of pig-headed, stubborn, unyielding virtue, and who the "right" continues to assassinate.

It's a sharp book that pulls quite a number of narrative tricks out of its sleeve, working in interviews, poetry, protest songs, phone call transcripts, and on and on as it creates this world where we so desperately need someone willing to stand up for what's "right." It's at once a pretty understated indictment of imasculation of the current "liberal" voice in America and a frustrated argument against America's unchecked capitalistic tendencies. Being a satire, many arrows are shot far and near, wide and narrow.

It's a piece of art trying to say something meaningful, politically, about the state of the world. At the same time, it's an examination of the difficult of saying anything meaningful, politically, about the state of the world through art. Upton Sinclair is not just assassinated bodily, but (since he continues to write) his books are constantly excoriated by reviewers for being little more than jeremiads--propaganda gussied up to look like art.

Given how often Christians are condemned for such back-door proselytizing, there are obvious connections to be made.

Bachelder uses a bit of a letter from Edith Wharton to Upton Sinclair after the publishing of his (real) book Oil! and I think this is a real portion of Wharton's thoughts. She writes:

It seems to me an excellent story until the moment, all too soon, when it becomes political pamphlet. I make this criticism without regard to the views which you teach, and which are detestable to me. Had you written in favor of those in which I believe, my judgment would have been exactly the same. I have never known a novel that was just good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author's political views.

That last sentence is an interesting one to me. Part of me agrees and part of me thinks it's absurd to think we divorce ourselves so entirely from our material when we create art. To claim one is an objective artist, merely reflecting the world rather than commenting upon it, seems ludicrous. And so, mostly, it's a matter of degrees that we're arguing about. We're all, I'd argue, trying to make a point...some just raise the point to be the point. While others subsume it for the sake of narrative.

I think Bachelder acknowledges this in his book. It's not a screed. It makes it's points in the course of the story. In fact, it ends up offering a doubly-interesting acknowledgement about the power of propaganda.

One thing Bachelder has going for him that we don't emply almost at all in CBA fiction is irony. Irony is a phenomenal way, I think, to make your point without making it. Take this exchange between the resurrected Sinclair and a disillusioned "worker" when Upton asks what the plan for the future is:

"Well, OK. First we wear out our welcome here in paradise. We pull all the big fish from the lake and eat them with lemon. Then, let's see, then we send out our resumes to the Man. We lie about the spreadsheet programs with which we are familiar."

He said, "Are you finished?"

I said, "We get in at the ground floor and we work our way up. At night we watch television and eat frozen pizzas. We grudgingly accept the distribution of wealth. We come to believe that wealth and wisdom are connected. Wealth and character. We shred documents. We throw quarters in cups and guitar cases. We don't provoke the police."

He began to object, but I interrupted him.

"We have no political conviction and thus no guilt. And thus no responsibility. We try not to imagine that the lives of others are fully as large as our own. We play video games with incredible graphics. We determine the number of deductions. Nobody--not one person--fires a weapon at us."

He said, "You know I don't think that is funny."

"There's no plan," I said. "Let me tell you a little story. In 1907 a young American writer, not yet thirty years old, published a novel that predicted the USA would be a fully Socialist country by the year 1913. With Hearst as our Socialist President. Good God. How about that for a plan? So, fish. Just fish, goddammit."

Sinclair said, "I misjudged Hearst."

In today's society there are more acceptable "modes" of critical commentary and satire is certainly one of them. Without satire or irony (which we really don't have in CBA) we're left with earnest straightforward storytelling and modern readers have a knee-jerk reaction to "messages" being communicated in this form. Andso in the end, just like poor sincere Upton, we're accused of writing propaganda.

Just an observation as I was reading.