Monday, September 22, 2014

Toward a New Conservative Literature

“Politics flows downstream from culture,” my friend the late, great Andrew Breitbart was fond of pointing out. This is an insight too many conservatives have yet to take to heart; many are still dismissive of, or pay lip service to, the cultural battleground as a critical front. But thankfully, a few conservatives are getting the message out and leading the conversation.

For example, my friend Andrew Klavan, novelist/screenwriter/essayist extraordinaire, published a must-read Freedom Center booklet earlier this year entitled Crisis in the Arts, in which he discusses why the left owns the culture and how conservatives can begin to take it back (which just happens to be the booklet’s subtitle). “There should be more TV shows and movies and novels,” he writes, which celebrate the conservative values and themes “currently being excised from the arts by left wing censorship and so-called political correctness.”

There is Adam Bellow, the man behind the publishing venture Liberty Island, a platform for conservative writers whose work might not otherwise find a home in the left-leaning literary establishment. He recently wrote a counterculture manifesto at National Review in which he called for more support for a greater conservative presence in the literary world. Mainstream fiction writers, he says, benefit from a “well-developed feeder system” that promotes them, including “MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics.” But nothing like that exists for writers on the right:

This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.

Bellow described the sort of work he hopes to promote at Liberty Island: “good still triumphs over evil, hope still overcomes despair, and America is still a noble experiment and a beacon to the rest of the world.” The fact that this is a need to be filled speaks sad volumes about the current American literary landscape, even in genre fiction like mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi, et al.

But Tablet’s Adam Kirsch posted an objection to those values: “The problem is not that these are conservative ideas, but that they are simpleminded ideological dogmas, and so by their very nature hostile to literature, which lives or dies by its sense of reality.”

Really? Goodness, hope, and America as the home of a noble spirit unique in human history are simpleminded ideological dogmas? Are they any more simpleminded and ideological, or less true, than the nihilism, anti-Americanism, and moral equivalence so revered by the left? At least the conservative literary “dogmas” are more compelling to the human spirit than an amoral void. But Kirsch feels that they are out of sync with reality:

If you are not allowed to say that life in America can be bad, that Americans can be guilty as well as innocent, that good sometimes (most of the time?) loses out to evil—in short, that life in America is like human life in any other time or place—then you cannot be a literary writer, because you have censored your impressions of reality in advance.

Well, Bellow never said that those things are not possible or that they would not be allowed at Liberty Island. Of course life in America can be bad (though it’s better than anywhere else). Of course Americans can be guilty and good sometimes loses to evil. Conservatives know this – we are realists. But Kirsch is skeptical that you can be a “literary writer” if you choose to focus on the positive, if you celebrate the good, the innocent, and life in America. I believe that you can, but the literary establishment simply won’t embrace you for it.

That doesn’t mean that conservative literature should read like the novelistic version of a Norman Rockwell painting. In fact, as Klavan says,

The single biggest mistake conservative cultural warriors make is this:  they expect a conservative culture to look conservative.  It will not… Conservatives should not be afraid to make and praise art that depicts the worst aspects of human nature as long as it does so honestly — that is, in the context of the moral universe in which every choice has its price and every action has its consequences whether internal or external or both.

In an insightful response to both Kirsch and Bellow, Micah Mattix at The American Conservative wrote that the latter “makes some good observations… [but] it’s the overemphasis on the political value of supporting popular culture and the arts that sticks in my craw.” The problem with Bellow’s approach, Mattix writes, “is that it would most likely lead to ideologically ‘pure’ but bad work.” He wants more conservatives to “write good fiction and poetry, not in order to win the culture war, but in order to have better fiction and poetry.”

Ultimately Mattix urges conservatives to reject Bellow’s proposal “because it is not conservative. It inescapably treats art or culture as a tool, or weapon, in the struggle for power. This, it seems to me, is a progressive or revolutionary conception of art.” No one likes to be preached to, not even progressives, which is why a heavy-handed “Bush lied” message movie like Matt Damon’s The Green Zone bombed despite being packaged as an exciting action thriller.

The trick, then, is to put aside the ideological jackhammer, focus foremost on the storytelling, and allow conservative values and messages to arise organically from compelling tales grounded in an unflinching moral universe. Easier said than done, of course, but audiences and readers must be – and want to be – seduced, not lectured. That is the way to a powerful, effective, conservative art that can reshape the cultural landscape.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 9/19/14)