Next month, I will be talking to a group of anti-war activists about the role of literary fiction in undermining the bad narratives that prevent critical thinking. I look to my favorite political satirist, Mark Twain, as an example.
When Huck Finn ponders whether or not he should turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave, he is deeply conflicted. Good Christian society of the day has taught him that slavery is sanctioned by God. Huck truly believes that to help Jim escape would be immoral. But he decides, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
It’s moments like this in literature that serve humankind best in its often-halting progress toward tolerance and peace. Throughout history, good, decent people routinely condone revenge, segregation, greed, fascism and war, simply because they follow those they admire most. Every era has its own peculiar blindness, and going against complacency and conformity can be more difficult than directly confronting tyrants themselves. It is often a disenfranchised voice, such as Huck’s, that awakens the literature of a nation, makes it more self-critical. Sometimes the voice needs an author—a humorist, a poet, or a good story-teller—to help him speak in a way that he can’t be ignored or further ostracized.
Twain published his famous novel a generation after freedom had been won for the slaves, but the hypocrisy continued, and Twain revealed it to the public using a voice unusual in literature. A “literary” writer uses language in unusual and often poetic ways to encourage critical and creative thinking. What we call “literary fiction” today is writing that is conversant with the literature of the past and questions the notion of narrative itself, as it questions the assumptions of the some of the dominant narratives of society. In contrast, “general fiction” and “genre fiction” tend to affirm stereotypes and prevailing narratives. Literary fiction strives to keep readers in a constant state of awareness of the process of meaning-making by putting it in the foreground. Literary fiction authors can help readers have greater empathy for their adversaries and to better understand themselves.
Unfortunately, much of today’s so-called “literary fiction” is dedicated to questioning the assumptions of Fox News audiences, institutionalizing the avant-garde, and lulling readers into voting for lesser evils with the soothing warm milk tone of NPR. Many of the best literary fiction authors today preach, quite beautifully, to the choir. But what crimes are the choir—the educated, liberal, progressive purveyors of culture—ignoring today?
In 2009, a poet I know, Tom Briedenbach, author of IXXI, told me (somehow, it’s important to me that the messenger is a poet) that the dust sample from ground zero he sent to a team of nano-chemists tested positive for high-tech, military-grade incendiaries. Our government—I’m very sorry to say this—decided not to test the dust for explosives. For whatever reason, this evidence of a larger conspiracy has been ignored. I knew that to write about these two indisputable facts (incendiaries detected, government didn’t test) could likely wreck my literary career. At the least, I, grouped in with “conspiracy theorists,” would be ridiculed by good, decent people.
So be it then.
I relinquish my seat at the table with the highbrow, the degreed, New York Times subscribers, the fit and traveled, that community of well-intended liberals—with whom I share reading lists and favorite subtitled films.
I’ve risked my career before. In fact, I’ve always written in the posthumous style, as if I had no reason to fear censure and derision. And so yes, now, I am scorned by people who have not given a second thought to what I have spent years trying to understand.
In my novel, Locus Amoenus, a 9/11 widow and her son, Hamlet, move to the country to start a sustainable farm. Eight years later, Horatio, who has had a ground zero dust sample tested, arrives to tell Hamlet that his new stepfather, Claudius, a government bureaucrat who worked on the World Trade Center towers report, is a fraud. The report, even Claudius admits to himself, is “nothing but a fermented blend of preconception and irrelevance.” As “conspiracy theorists,” Hamlet and Horatio are labeled nutcases. Like Huck, they are marginalized and seen as socially unfit.
Case in point, Martha Frankel, of Woodstock Writer’s Radio, loved my novel; “genius,” she said, and she had me come in to the studio to record an interview last August. She asked, “What was it like, having to do all that research on conspiracy theory?” Apparently, she hadn’t realized that complacent readers like herself were the target of the satire, not the conspiracy theorists. I told her that, as a researcher who valued empirical evidence over speculation, I built my narrative strictly on the facts revealed by scientific analysis of dust samples and what was written in the government reports.
After the interview, she sent me an email,
I liked meeting you. But something s out our interview made me uncomfortable. And when I registered I realized I should have stopped you when you were talking about the explosives.
It’s my inclination to be gracious, but I really can’t in any way support a “the towers Might have been set with explosives” theory. Not in any way.
Before I could respond, she followed up with,
Ooops. Sorry. Hit send too soon.
Am I wrong? Tell me you don’t believe any of that truther crap and I’ll run the interview.
I was not able accommodate Ms. Frankel’s request. She did not run the interview. Like my Hamlet I decided, “When the world is crazy then it is the sane ones who appear to have lost their wits. Crazy it is then. Hysteria, be thou my sanity.”
Shakespeare’s play ends in a pile of bodies. Likewise, my Hamlet and his family are all dead (apparently) in the final scene, reported in the coda, which takes the form of a poorly written, factually inaccurate local newspaper article. The faux article reflects the dominant narrative today about 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Only ironically do I give the “good, decent” people of the world the ending they expected. What is reported in the paper is so very much out of tune with everything that has been related in the main narrative that no serious reader can accept it uncritically. By the time my readers get to the end of the novel, they have learned (I hope) that they cannot believe everything they read in the paper. Doubt is good, if it keeps you open-minded and encourages you to ask difficult questions.
The “War on Terror” has been based on false assumptions. It is creating terrorists where none existed before. True global security depends upon turning our attention from manufacturing weapons to supporting (as my Gertrude and Hamlet do, not incidentally) green energy infrastructure, local organic agriculture, and critical thinking in the schools.
I am grateful to my readers and reviewers who have opened their minds to this terrible news and recognized Locus Amoenus as an important anti-war novel. I am looking forward to the release of the audiobook, produced by 5 Films and read by Ben Jorgenson, very soon. With the exception of some few people, the reception has been extremely positive and Locus Amoenus continues to find new audiences among the good, decent people of today.