Some years ago I attended a conference at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington DC on art and democracy. Along with the artists and patrons and at least one historian, many who came were national and local activists for marginalized communities invisible to national culture. They made impassioned pleas for the assembled artists to take the time to bring them and their needs into the spotlight.
I wasn’t kind to the idea. Its fine for people outside to express concern, to channel aid, but artists can’t be anyone’s mouthpieces. Culture requires imagination. It demands oblique correlatives, odd connections, and fantasy, a voice not determined by big-picture grandees but the kind of misfits who stay up all night sweating the details.
I’m not saying writers should be divorced from their societies but they should not try to confuse their role as entertainers and provokers of thought with measurable social value. Health workers, diplomats, union organizers, investigative journalists perform functions fiction can’t replace. We can highlight the work of others, we can discuss the state of the world and the nature of rightness, but it is the height of vanity to believe a work aimed at feeding minds can also feed bellies.
I understand the impulse. One wants to matter, preferably in the course of one’s day just by being oneself. But then one should have gone to medical school or gone to work in a mission. Most of us are bricks in society’s wall, more vital in aggregate. Some of us even want to be loose bricks.
Think of writing as a way of making others stop and think — instead of fiction and journalism, call it stealthy and direct. The direct way is easy and satisfying: help the oppressed, fight the corrupt, feed the hungry, stop the war. J’accuse! Hundreds of years later it still feels good to say.
The stealthy way is hard even to explain: to dream and delight and disturb in the hopes of keeping the world turning. It demands a faith that whatever one is doing, one is in touch with an important truth — a faith that may go unrewarded in one’s lifetime.
No one would have thought that in the 21st Century, the United States Government would have been overthrown by a novel, but Atlas Shrugged is well on its way. William Shatner was embarrassed to perform Captain Kirk instead of Hamlet, but Star Trek was one of the few television shows Martin Luther King let his children watch, because it showed the world he wanted, not the world he had. Mikhail Bulgakov never got to see his countrymen embrace The Master and Margarita, a quirky magical tale of the Devil partying in Soviet Moscow, but Russians now know it as the best and truest story of the banal and brutal hell they went through.
To say that one should say is to miss what’s being said. If I can’t write about hobbits and rings, I can’t write about the dangers of centralized power. If I can’t write about gay whores and prisoners in Paris, I can’t write about how easily the jailed can become the jailer. If I can’t talk about Fight Club, I can’t talk about fascism, about the curdled despair that leads to anarchy. Not that I might even mean to. Like tragic Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly, writers often don’t know the best thing they actually do — and they probably shouldn’t.
Albert Einstein disliked the disorder at the heart of quantum theory, and insisted that God did not play dice with the universe. Niels Bohr said it wasn’t Einstein’s place to tell God what to do. I don’t mean to exalt my little fantasies through comparison: I only note the profound humor in Bohr’s inversion, and the irony that the man who proved that existence rested on relativity insisted there was only one correct end of the telescope.
Recently I received marketing from a new social-welfare organization that seeks social change by getting rival groups to share stories. The goal is laudable, the principals excellent and accomplished individuals. I should be so lucky as to be asked to help them. I’m probably upset over nothing.
But it sticks in my craw. I don’t want to write for any group; I just want to write for individuals, in all their selfish bewildering ways. If I help anyone, sometimes I’d rather not know.