Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A failure of imagination--

I may have more of a mixed crowd among my Twitter and facebook friends than most writers do; I'm not sure. But for a long time I have been bothered about the vehemence and hatred I see expressed by many of my e-friends about an amorphous "they." Usually this means liberal friends expressing anger or scorn toward conservatives or their beliefs, though occasionally I see the reverse. That tilt is natural because I have a lot of friends who are writers and artists, and we tend to fall somewhere on the liberal spectrum. My academic friends are likewise.

Here's what's interesting to me from a writer's point of view about all this.

Novelists dream about that large category, people. Yet there is a whole mass of people about whom novelists won't write except from a stance of scorn. Can anybody tell me the names of some first-rate novels from the past decade or so by writers who tell a story about conservatives with a stance of love and understanding, rather than scorn? That attempt to grasp the worldview, that clamber inside a paper brain with more in mind that mockery and destruction?

The strange thing about this tendency is that writers, of all people, should be able to enter into the ideas and views of those unlike themselves with charity for all. But in this one case, they do not. Will not. And yet for novelists, that is our calling . . . Entering-in is our vocation, or a major part of it.

25 comments:

  1. very interesting point, Marly. Thinking about this, it occurs to me that a lot of writers are ready to mock liberals and conservatives, alike. Personally, i find it curious that while few seem to want to get into the conservative psyche, many relish getting into the minds of all sorts of unsavory--and evil--people.

    Compared to you and probably most of your blog/fb/twitter readers, i am not a big reader and can certainly be accused of watching too much tv--so--i can tell you that from my perspective, a lot of Hollywood writers (usually liberal) have created likable and admirable, politically conservative characters. Even on that very left wing, West Wing. The Alan Alda Republican candidate immediately springs to mind, as well as several others that were regulars on the show.

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  2. Hmm, that's interesting! I don't watch t.v., so that's a whole area where I know nothing.

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  3. facebook excerpts that I found interesting--4:49 PM, October 02, 2012

    I'm borrowing these from facebook, so I'll just identify them by initial... I found the first interesting because it's a clear response from a conservative voice finding the post accurate. And I liked the idea of learning charitable reading and writing in the second one.

    NR
    Indeed, Marly. I'm ever so grateful for your post. We're that group disdained as those "clinging to their guns and bibles." And this from the President, of all people. I spent more than twenty years in higher ed (I'm no longer think "higher" is applicable here), and I've never seen such regressive attitudes as I did among my so-called progressive colleagues. To disagree is to incur the haughtiest sort of rancor. Where is the inclusion here, I wonder? Again, bless you for your unfailing, compassionate insights.
    10 minutes ago · Unlike · 1

    AM
    A lovely post, Marly. I will always be thankful to two professors I had who truly taught me how to read with charity. Those two professors had a lot of work to do on me, though, as I had many more professors over the years who confused "critical reading" with "uncharitable reading." Charitable reading both of texts and of other people is, perhaps, what forms our imaginations in ways that enable us to also write charitably.
    8 minutes ago · Unlike · 2

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  4. I've never read with this in mind, but I'm sure Ayn Rand would be considered someone who has created sympathetic conservative characters. I'm not sure she ever treated liberals the same.

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  5. You know, I've never read Ayn Rand...

    I guess that I mean somebody who treats all as though they were interesting and worthy.

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  6. Maybe it's for you to do, Marly! How interesting though. What you're saying seems accurate—in all the contemporary fiction I've read over the last few years, there's nary a sympathetic conservative character with any real depth to be found. I wonder if it's the one place where it is implicitly believed that sympathy would imply condoning in some way, as though the author would be implicated by the character in a way that isn't true otherwise. Dunno. Will think about it and possibly get back to you with more ideas about it later... as always, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  7. So maybe . . . maybe novelists are in part responsible for the predominant attitude of scorn because they adopt that lovelessness? Because they refuse to make fully human, fully loved characters who are conservative in outlook?

    Yes, perhaps it's a fear that a conservative character could only come from a conservative writer? So one would rather narrow the window of sight?

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  8. P. S. I do have an idea for a novel in mind that has little to do with politics, though it has something to do with religion... an element often seen by others as automatically conservative.

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  9. I suppose that's my suspicion. I picked up The Corrections by Franzen today again, and was freshly struck by his moments of real contempt for characters on that side of the spectrum, who were paper-thin caricatures. The zeitgeist seems to push otherwise talented writers in that direction—there's a certain sort of narrative that doesn't allow for the existence of compassionate, thoughtful, and intelligent conservatives, and it has a lot of artists in its grip, from what I can tell. And I agree with you that when it infiltrates the art, it results in a failure of imagination and loss of love, but those failures are not often recognized as such.

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  10. I'm sorry if I've been one of those people who showed a general distaste for the conservative. Perhaps it's because I grew up with racists and had to quell my response to that view. But conservatism is not necessarily equivalent to racism at all, or homophobia, or anti-semitism, though these often come together in one package. Being on the other end of anti-semitism and sexism has made me angry, and perhaps less tolerant than I would otherwise have been. But I do wish to engage in a dialogue with those who do not agree with me, unlike some.

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  11. And by the way, if you look at my FB Wall, you will see many people who are not at all of my political complexion.

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  12. Robbi,

    No, wasn't thinking of you, even if you are a feisty little habanero!

    And I don't think that is common--that mixtures. I see a lot of chumminess that involves similar stands. But good for you.

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  13. Martyn,

    Interesting that you picked that book. There's a D. G. Myers bit on Franzen that picks up the idea of the lack of conservatives somewhere, either on his Commentary blog or on his own blog. Not sure--my head is a battered sieve. Definitely influenced my thinking, wherever it is. I'll have to look it up.

    One imagines that failures of imagination that people don't notice now may be powerfully evident to later generations, just as the overly politically correct statements will come to be over time.

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  14. Oh, I liked that comment--even if nobody else got to see it! Wendell Berry: good idea. I haven't read his fiction.

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  15. Drat. Computer issues. Mark tried to post, then it came out under my name, etc. Then the phone rang. In any case, yes, Wendell Berry and I'd add Marilynne Robinson to that, also. There are a few out there, but not so many. Allison

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  16. Perhaps the free market is at work. And, at heart, isn't the free market one of the tenets of conservatism?

    If there were indeed a market for novels with a conservative world view, more would be available.

    No?

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  17. Allison,

    Just got rid of the post from you that was four comments up, and which the third up referred to--sheesh, this is silly! I didn't think that the remains could be deleted, but eventually they went away. Like the cheshire cat, they vanished slowly and in pieces. Sometimes I do not understand the internet.

    That's a good list, albeit short.

    Gary,

    That's a clever response. I'm still thinking about whether it is true. The latter questions, that is.

    I mean, if there's a vocal opposition before one even starts... and if the small number of what we can call readers of literature is already alienated...

    Hmm. Shall think some more.

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  18. I've read almost no modern fiction, so I really couldn't say. But literary fiction has deep liberal roots: you could almost say it's been a liberal, populist enterprise from the start. English poetry and history, have conservative founders who are still revered as classics -- Shakespeare and Carlyle are as conservative as they come -- but fiction? English fiction comes down to us above all from Dickens, who was modern liberalism incarnate. In some ways I think the liberalism of fiction may be a historical accident. It arose at a particular time, and was sneered at as the sort of thing that church ladies and working-class people shakily achieving literacy would waste their time on: as time went on and it became the dominant literary form, it still carried the resentments of its origins.

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  19. (Oh, by "modern" in the my first sentence should have been "recent." I have no idea what people are writing nowadays.)

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  20. Oh. I guess I'd better be honored that you read my most recent novel, Dale!

    That's an interesting point. Long before Dickens, there's the "savage indignation" of Jonathan Swift. And certainly Fielding, my favorite novelist from the eighteenth century (I have a mad love for "Tom Jones," the only novel from that era that I have reread multiple times), was very much an anti-Jacobite liberal from the start, with his satires against Sir Robert Walpole.

    On the other hand, Samuel Richardson was involved with a Jacobite broadsheet early on, and he was much concerned with the morals of the day... So wouldn't we call him a conservative? And I think he and Fielding did not get along for many years, although that improved and it seems they did later.

    And I have just poked around and found that Fielding wanted a happy ending for "Clarissa." Astonishing.

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  21. Oh, I just realized that I told a whopper because I have reread some of Defoe (Richardson published him), and when I was a child, I read "Gulliver's Travels" many times--it was one of the books I owned. And I have also read the famous shorter pieces by Swift many times.

    Always liked that epitaph for Swift: "He has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more." That's five trochaic feet followed by four iambic feet...

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  22. Yes, Richardson's an interesting case. The older 18th century novels though belonged to the 18th century readers, who were almost all upper class or professional people. I think there's a different wind blowing with the mass audiences Dickens and his successors reached.

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  23. Dickens and and his pal Wilkie Collins of the morganatic marriage . . . they certainly were wilder than their times. And Dickens is wonderful on class and poverty.

    Now I'm thinking of our own Cooper of Cooperstown, with all his litigations and political points.

    I've never been all that interested in writers' lives, but in these matters, it is illuminating. I ought to know a bit more than I do. (But isn't that a true generalization that covers a lot of ground? Alas.)

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  24. Marly: Thank you for your kind and compassionate comment. I've recently been reading essays here and there re: the ironic condescension expressed by liberals toward their conservative counterparts. Out of curiosity, do you know if you are related in any way to someone named Marion Youmans who used to live in Florida? If so, we may be related! Burgessneedle@gmail.com

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  25. Hi Burgess--

    Glad you liked it--the changes in attitude toward people who hold opinions different from one's own have changed radically in my lifetime. And I think that's sad, particularly in academia, which used to be quite varied.

    I have a cousin Marion in Florida, but she's from the Morris side of my family...

    My understanding is that all who bear Yeomans/Youmans names are descended from four brothers who came over before the Revolution. They arrived in New York; one stayed, and three went to Georgia (including my direct ancestor.) Oddly, I now live in a part of New York where there are Youmans descendants. But no doubt we are related if you have the name in your family tree.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.