Discover more from Woman of Letters
Political correctness is just one form of aesthetic mediocrity
(Anti-wokeness is another)
One thing I like about all the recent writing on political correctness in art (e.g. essays by Rothfeld, Greenwell, and Berg) is that they go beyond the idea that content of a story is orthogonal to its aesthetic merit—each of them attempts to articulate a sense of aesthetics that encompasses an artist’s political and social aims. Whereas there is a countervailing idea common on both the right and the left in the early 20th century, that you can evaluate a work’s aesthetic worth separately from its content.In Russia, the Russian formalists tried to distill fiction (and its merits) down to formal terms, while in America and the UK the New Critics attempted the same thing. A good novel can be about anything, so went the thinking, what mattered was the particular beauty of the relationship between its components (words, sentences, etc) and the sonic properties of its language.
This thinking draws heavily from the way we think about instrumental music and non-representational art. The work is still meant to (and does) arouse an emotional response, but it has no ideological content. The work doesn't mean anything specific. We can say that Dvorak's *New World Symphony* captures the energy and sprightliness of America, but if it wasn't called the New World Symphony, we probably wouldn't associate it with America at all (but we would still hear its energy and sprightliness). If it was called "The Oriental Symphony" it would still be just as good.
This idea never really went out of fashion! I've spent my life around other writers, and I've never heard someone seriously propose that the content of a story matters more than how it is written. At the highest, most theoretical level, the idea of quality has only been attacked once, by post-modern theorists in the 80s and 90s, who posited that all of our ideas about quality were socially constructed (and were constructed in ways that upheld traditional power structures). Good is only good because someone in power said it was good.
But they lost. They lost a long time ago. There is not an active debate over whether aesthetic merit exists. Nor is there an active debate that aesthetic merit should be sacrificed in favor of political correctness. What's far more common is a position like John Guillory's (which is drawn from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu)--he thinks aesthetic merit exists, but that it has no political meaning. Art is of interest in itself, but it does not change or improve the world. And, moreover, the teaching of English--the profession of English literature--is itself embedded in hierarchical power structures that potentially change the world in negative ways. Which is to say, it's precisely because some books do have an inarguable aesthetic merit that there is so much fighting about who "owns" them, because that merit constitutes a source of power.
Nonetheless, it's also true that for much of the last ten years, evaluation of books has been on political grounds. But I think it's important to note that this isn't the result of any formal theory. This isn't like Soviet Social Realism: no intellectuals truly think that fiction ought to only portray good people with good moral beliefs. And if they do, they certainly haven’t written this belief down in any comprehensive or well-argued way.
What happened, instead, is that aesthetic critique--criticism of the aesthetic qualities of fiction--went out of fashion. It became passe, boring. Far more interesting was to analyze the political implications of a fiction, precisely because it seemed to have real-world implications. Guillory is a great example: he's made a career out of saying professors spend too much time looking at the political implications of fiction, but he himself has made a career out of looking at the political implications of academia. At this point he is no longer a professor of English--he is basically a sociologist who studies English departments.
During the twentieth century, the social sciences simply began to seem much sexier and more important than the humanities, and many professors of English, without explicitly disavowing the concept of aesthetic value, started to look at the political implications of books. So they produced monographs about, say, the notion of manifest destiny in American fiction, or the view of Blackness in Jane Austen. They weren't saying Jane Austen was only good or bad because of its political implications; they were merely saying it had political implications.
What happened wasn't that people started to think politics and aesthetics were equal, what happened is they simply forgot how to make a sustained case that aesthetics was important. And, in the meantime, a form of critical reading, originally developed in English departments, began to shake up other departments. Critical Race Theorists do explicitly believe that some of our foundational legal principles (equality under the law, for instance) are actually racist, and they're prepared to argue their point quite convincingly.
This led graduate students, in particular, to wonder, can we perform this same operation in English departments? Can we argue that certain aesthetic qualities are inherently linked to white supremacy? Can we argue that any aesthetics that doesn't produce politically correct fiction is inherently flawed? And they very much attempted to make these points in classrooms and on Twitter, but, here's the key, they never succeeded. The key difference between Critical Race Theory and what happened in English departments is that CRT proponents made a very strong and sustained case for their argument, whereas in English departments it never really gelled.
So why did it become possible to 'cancel' a book? Why, for a time, did writing workshops become so heated and so full of call-outs? Why were so many reviews devoted to the political implications of stories?
It's because professors and writers and literary critics had become spiritually bankrupt. They were used to writing checks on the importance of the canon (i.e. the political implications of Austen only matter because Austen matters and Austen only matters because she is a great writer) that they had forgotten that the sum of money in the bank account wasn't infinite. As Roger Kimball wrote in *Tenured Radicals*, these professors were too used to feeling like anti-establishment rebels, and they didn't want to do the boring work of telling everyone that, yes, Jane Austen's work is intrinsically good.
Added to this, the economic value of an English degree went down, even as the cost went way up. This added a moral bankruptcy to a spiritual one. Professors were in the position of hawking this discipline to students, even while knowing that, on some level, this wasn't a very good deal. This was most true of course for grad students, who faced an immense shortage of tenure track jobs when they got out. So professors couldn't make the larger case that this body of knowledge was important when they knew, in reality, that this body of knowledge was ruining their grad students' lives.
So young people were left unmoored. They were angry, and they were in love with these new ideas, new critical readings that seemed to shake down old concepts.
Then careerists got into the picture. Certain very mediocre individuals, in every field, but in particular in writing, started to make statements that parroted what these young people believed. And the young people flocked to them. The individuals published books that the young people found unproblematic, and the books did well critically, precisely because the critics too didn't really have a passion for aesthetics. Moreover, after so many years of an academy that mostly did social science rather than real humanities, the critics themselves didn't know how to read for aesthetics. And political criticism of art became another avenue for getting ahead. You could get reads, get a career, by writing a takedown of a book. It became a little circle of people on the make: race grifters.
Now this situation is, thankfully, dying down. But what will replace it? Many want to cancel out everything we've done for the last eighty years and go back to formalist criticism. But, unfortunately, New Critics and the Russian Formalists were both wrong. Content matters.
It's true that great art can be about anything, but an individual artist can only write about their own subject matter. People don't get to choose their subject matter. They don't choose their themes and their concerns, just like they don't choose their own life. To say, in a facile way, it doesn't matter what a book is about, what matters is the beauty of the language--well that sounds very plausible, but that's not actually what pushes most great artists to write, and it’s not what readers get from reading books. Fiction in particular is a narrative art, and narrative art is always about conflict and moral action.
Moral action isn't the same thing as politics. Politics is about the organizing of society. Morality is about individual choices. But the two things are certainly cousins! And a person's political beliefs have moral implications, and vice versa. And especially today, when most of us don't have a lot of close interpersonal connections, one of our strongest bonds is to the polis itself: we experience public affairs as a form of psychodrama, in which we are intimately a part. And that is a good subject for fiction!
Sally Rooney often comes under fire in discussions about politics in fiction, and it's true that her characters are very politically correct, but isn't that true to life? Her characters are haunted by the meaninglessness of their own politics, and by how little they affect daily life. Like in Normal People, there is a persistent sense that the class difference in the relationship ought to matter more, ought to put the girl on a higher plane than the boy, but somehow it doesn't quite operate that way. This is good fiction! It's totally possible to write good fiction about people with orthodox political beliefs, so long as there's still some moral action in there.
I personally don't care about a book's politics. I'll read anything. I read the six-volume Knausgaard series that ended in an apologetic for Hitler. But writers often care deeply about politics, and it would be strange if this didn't show up in their work. Moreover, oftentimes, the motive to write a great novel is explicitly political. Take George Orwell's 1984 and Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon, there is an urgency in these books, a desire to unmask Soviet communism for what it is, that is clearly driving both writers. And because they're great artists, they create troubling and fascinating worlds that serve their purposes. In 1984, the human spirit is so buried that it seems impossible to win, and yet it endures. In Darkness at Noon, the communist cadre is so divorced from true morality that he is spiritually unable to resist the tortures inflicted on him--even though he knows, on some level, that what is happening is wrong, he has nothing to fall back on, morally, nothing to give him strength in this trial. In this, he resembles the English professors and critics and writers who allowed terrible political literary criticism to spread.
The danger with the "aesthetic turn" is one we can already see happening. If it's unaccompanied by any deeper understanding of what constitute truth and beauty, then what we'll see in ten years is merely a rote anti-wokeness. It's like what this critic noticed in stand-up comedy: a perfunctory edginess simply what is expected from male comics today.
It's not good for books to hew uncritically to political shibboleths--but avoiding politics can itself become a shibboleth.
To this end I want to close by talking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In a recent article in Esquire, Will Blythe noted this as a bad book, a piece of propaganda. And ever since the term "Uncle Tom" became synonymous with a Black race traitor, the book has been difficult to take seriously. Moreover, it seems somehow inherently suspect that we no longer read a book that once out-sold the Bible--the assumption is that UTC must be really terrible if it didn't endure.
But the reason we don't read UTC today is simple and has nothing to do with the book's quality. It was simply superseded by authentic slave narratives. UTC was less a novel and more a piece of carefully-crafted journalism, depicting the horrors of slavery, drawn from Stowe's own interviews with runaway slaves. In the years after it was published, two slave narratives in particular: Twelve Years A Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl substantiated two of UTC's more outrageous claims, which was that slavery in the Deep South was brutal and involved working slaves to death (12 years) and that women under slavery were subject to routine rape (incidents). Both of these narratives are genuine works of art that are still read today. And both were published after UTC came out, and in part because UTC was such a success.
But taken on its own terms, UTC resembles nothing so much as a slave narrative. It has many of the tropes of slave narratives: it has a good master, forced to sell his slaves due to debts; it has conflict with overseers; it is inflected by deep Christian beliefs on the part of the enslaved narrator. It is a powerful work that is carefully designed to take you through every stage of hell: you start with a relatively good master, then go through steadily worse ones, so you can see that in no form, under no circumstances, is slavery good. And in the end, Tom dies rather heroically and quixotically--he is made a foreman by Simon LeGree, a brutal overseer, but when he refuses to beat and rat out the other slaves, Tom is beaten to death. As in other stories about radical resistance (Cool Hand Luke comes to mind), he knows this path will lead to his death, and he chooses it consciously.
I don't think Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to create a work of art. She just wanted to write something that would convince people slavery was wrong. She was the opposite of a careerist or a mediocrity. But because she felt so deeply and authentically about this issue, she used every tool at her disposal, and with those tools created something quite authentic and beautiful. The beauty and the message are, to my mind, inextricable. What is beautiful is how carefully she worked through the moral implications of her politics.
If we swing to an aesthetic criticism that doesn't allow us to appreciate the beauty of Uncle Tom's Cabin or 1984 or War and Peace or Grapes of Wrath or L'Assommoir or any of the other great ideologically-driven fiction out there, then we risk empowering a new, and to my mind, more dangerous form of mediocrity, because at least the politically correct grifter provides lip service to higher social ideals, if not for beauty, while the anti-woke grifter has no feeling either for beauty or justice, and, thus, has an entirely malign influence on the world.
Decided I need to do a lot of substacking in order to substack well. So I’ll substack twice a week I think. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Ironically it is precisely this notion that makes some on the left think it is possible to pick and choose when it comes to aesthetics. “Why can’t we have something that is just like this, good in exactly this way, but where the characters don’t say racial slurs or don’t beat their wives or don’t make war, etc, etc.” If aesthetics are merely a matter of the beauty of the lines, then why can’t people write beautifully about politically correct topics? This is one reason committed leftist authors often drift into the avant-garde: if they’re not able to experiment on an ideological level, they decide to experiment on a stylistic or formal level. But in reality, it’s all connected. Oftentimes softening the hard edges of a work would mean sacrificing precisely what makes it beautiful.