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a:What Now, Storyteller?

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I had a much different post prepared and uploaded for today. But then, as they say, things happened.


All of which culminated on Wednesday, the day identified by the Constitution for the ceremonial counting of the Electoral College ballots from the November election, when a mob, spurred on by those cynical leaders and feeding off their lies and conspiracy theories, stormed the Capitol building in the middle of the counting.

Like many of our fellow fiction writers, I’ve been riveted to the news and social media, following events as they happen. But for the sake of this post, I want to step back for a second and ask: What now? What role will the writing and reading of fiction play in the days, weeks, months ahead?

As historian Anne Applebaum makes clear in her excellent book, TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism, the most conspicuous attributes of a democracy at risk of backsliding into autocratic one-party-rule are: “the widespread dissemination and embrace of disinformation (i.e., lying), in service to a ‘restorative nostalgia’ that seeks to blunt the fearful uncertainty of the present, accompanied by a greater willingness to use violence to achieve political ends.”

In the book’s final chapter, she notes that this situation is hardly unique: “the precariousness of the current moment seems frightening, and yet this uncertainty has always been there….The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability.”

The more history I’ve read this past year—it’s the one thing I actually have managed to read other than philosophy—the more that point has been driven home. There is nothing atypical about this moment. As Adam Gopnik wrote in a recent article for the New Yorker titled, “What We Get Wrong About America’s Crisis of Democracy:”

“Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.”

Democracy is always at risk. Benjamin Franklin, when asked by Elizabeth Willing Powel, a prominent member of Philadelphia society, whether the Constitutional Congress had managed to create a monarchy or a republic, famously answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

He and many of the other Founding Fathers were well steeped in the history and literature of democratic and republican governments that had risen only to fall. Thucydides was one of the commentators they paid particular attention to, especially in his remarks concerning how faction ended up undermining all attempts at debate and compromise:

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In short, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was lacking was equally commended, until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations sought not the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition to overthrow them; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime.”

A little over a century after our nation’s founding, Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of two American presidents—John Quincy Adams and John Adams, respectively—put it a bit more pithily in his autobiography:

“Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatred.”

Although the term “fascist” is a favorite among those for whom a lusty insult always gratifies, what we’re facing, despite certain methodological parallels to the 20th century totalitarianism of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, in fact bears a greater resemblance to the homegrown nativist populism that has been very much a part of the American zeitgeist from the republic’s outset, something historian Michael Kazin demonstrates convincingly in his recent book, The Populist Persuasion.

Similarly, historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out that anti-intellectualism and the “paranoid style” in politics has also been part of American life all along, as has white supremacy, and the use of “socialism” as a weapon against its enemies, something recorded extensively and trenchantly by historian Heather Cox Richardson.

The racial aspect of the current fever against acknowledging the legitimacy of the election results is dissected in its historical context with particular force by Adam Serwer in an article from yesterday’s The Atlantic titled “The Capitol Riot was an Attack on Multiracial Democracy“:

“In America, despotism always arrives cloaked in the language of freedom and liberty.… [True ] multiracial democracy in America is young and fragile, just a few generations old, and the insistence by a largely white political party that the victories of its multiracial counterpart are illegitimate is deeply familiar.”

What populism requires is a populis, a sense of “us” all too often defined not positively but negatively, by identifying “them.” And in America, “they” have routinely been African Americans, immigrants, and anyone else easily identified as “other,” including intellectuals, academics, and other “elites” associated with much of the professional class—not just lawyers and doctors and civil servants but artists, painters, writers.

Alexander Hamilton, who specifically feared a leader who combined avarice, ambition, and vanity, foresaw the danger and noted in an oft-quoted section from a 1792 piece that he wrote as Secretary of the Treasury:

“When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents…despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”

If there is a unique aspect to the storm and whirlwind we’re currently experiencing, it’s the fact that though populist leaders have arisen in the past, none has reached the presidency, and then been resoundingly voted out. This has created a political moment that, ironically, might best seen through a literary lens. Jeffrey R. Wilson, a Shakespearean scholar at Harvard, recently remarked:

“This is classic Act V behavior. The forces are being picked off and the tyrant is holed up in his castle and he’s growing increasingly anxious and he feels insecure and he starts blustering about his legitimate sovereignty and he starts accusing the opposition of treason…We’re approaching the end of the play here and that’s where catastrophe always comes.”

The literary allusion is not gratuitous. Each of us has to ask ourselves, honestly and fearlessly but humbly, what is my role in this current moment?

Discussing the merits of novels and stories can seem not just trivial or escapist but strangely at one with the “dark and fictional place” of our current politics. Oakley Hall, not entirely tongue in cheek, described fiction as creative lying, and Lawrence Block’s most famous writing guide was titled Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

Isn’t fiction then just another expression of the wholesale flight from reality plaguing the country? Isn’t what’s needed a firm commitment to cold, hard fact?

It was while asking myself this question and contemplating its repercussions when I remembered a quote from Picasso that I cited in my November post, in which I also referred to the political situation and how stories cannot save us:

“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that it is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

Yes, I realize that, coming from another quarter—say, someone of distinctly Machiavellian inclination—where political machination is seen as an art form, that quote could be chilling. And that troubles me deeply. The tools of my craft, storytelling, are also the methods of propaganda. And the country right now is drowning in a sea of lies.

And yet I also know that I have encountered some of the most profound—and true—depictions of the human condition in the great novels I have loved, any of which depict moments of extreme upheaval such as we’re witnessing now: A Tale of Two Cities, The Charterhouse of Parma, War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Plague, The Grapes of Wrath.

For the most part those novels have been written after the fact, when time and reflection have provided the perspective necessary to understand what it was that actually happened—and, more importantly, why.

So what are we to do now?

Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of OUR OWN WORST ENEMY: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy, advised his Twitter followers yesterday:

“Contact your elected officials. Show you’re engaged and paying attention. Stay informed and follow the news… But for the future: Never forget the names of the enablers who caused all this. Never.”

I would call that a good start. I would also suggest, if you are not already supporting or involved with a pro-democracy group of some kind such as Common Cause, Fair Fight, Protect Democracy or others, now is the time.

There is an adage that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. It may be that, for now, beyond whatever social or political engagement one feels necessary, our job as writers is to bear witness, record our impressions faithfully, and begin the process of reflection that will someday turn what we are seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling into meaningful, powerful fiction. That said, there is no guarantee that this level of social discord is not the new normal. If it is, we will not have the luxury of retrospection to aid us in our work, but will need instead to carry on regardless, taking inspiration from such fearless advocates for justice as the nine Mexican journalists murdered this year.

I would personally add that, given the requirements of our particular calling, that we resist as best we can the allure of hatred—systematic, organized, or personal. Anger is a masking emotion, used to reassert a sense of power in the face of shame, guilt, or fear. We need to be more honest with ourselves than that. It’s part of the job.

Are you maintaining your faith in fiction in light of current events? Are you finding it difficult to focus on your writing? Beyond that, I’m open to any comments anyone would like to offer, and will respond thoughtfully.


About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.


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