Historical Marxism’s complicated relationship with writing

Communism is ultimately a Utopian project rooted in the idea that shit as it’s going now ain’t acceptable, and we ought to fix it, and as part of the conversation on what we ought to fix and how, some pretty fundamental things end up questioned. Like, should our work weeks be the same? Why not a planned economy? Why not get rid of pests? We are hoping for a renegotiation, for a reassessment in who is the recipient of violence, who may speak, how we live, and that means living in ways nobody has tried before. There will be failures.

One of the things on the table: what the fuck should art be, anyway? There was a recent Twitter… thing where I believe someone identifying as Marxist-Leninist declared all genre fiction fascist, sort of defaulted to “because it is” when pressed, and couldn’t articulate much more than that. The devil deserves a better advocate, even if he must lose in the end.

Let’s take a crack at it.

China Melville, himself a commie, has several lectures available on YouTube that cover at least  historical socialist skepticism of fantasy. The two I’ll direct you two are his lecture on the tensions between science fiction and fantasy, and on a Marxist defense of Halloween. The first sticking points, historically: we are materialists, and writing about things that do not exist, especially for children, may teach them that non-existent things… exist. Of course there was Soviet Realism, an art movement countered by the CIA’s backing of (mostly) unwitting surrealists and pop artists in the United States. Also backed by the CIA, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop’s critique process, which, in part, beat into writers that didactic writing, writing that advances ethical or political opinions, is bad. It cannot be understated how influential this is on modern literary fiction.

So I think it’s a little facile to say that genre is where all the restrictions are and lit fic is where we’re free to break away from genre convention. I mean, yeah, genres have a lot of conventions and obligatory scenes you must include, and some of those are suspect. But those conventions are things the writer is in conversation with, and not all authors agree with them in the text of the book they’ve written. For example, if you want to question whether romantic love as we’re taught it is worth it, a romance and its conventions isn’t a bad place to start (although you may end up shelved in women’s fiction at the end depending on your verdict).

Personally, I think you’re less free in literary fiction to be didactic where needed, to really say something which is bad is bad. We must trust the same audience which took The Jungle and decided the only problem with workers falling into meat grinders is that eating people is icky. I don’t think we must be didactic at all times, and art probably is better if we assume all readers are brilliant and can be trusted. But making art only for the highly aesthetically trained is a choice. One I think you should be free to make as a writer, but not the only good one.

Modern socialists are generally a little better about declaring non-representative fiction regressive. There is a rather extensive tradition of America installing dictators in South America because we’d rather it be looted by fascists (in exchange for our cut) than have democratically elected socialist rule. From these many years of trauma in South America and Spain came magical realism, a means of expressing the emotional reality of living under fascism. I think most socialists are hard pressed to call art written (often, but not always by socialists) to express the horrors of fascism regressive.

America in the 1960s and 1970s had two different counter-culture threads, one explicitly leftist and interested in resisting capitalism, and one that was inflected by communalism, a rebellion against how families were organized, which was related to but distinct from the radical political resistance. A lot of people in the second camp were, for lack of a better term, anarcho capitalists. There’s sort of an aesthetic of radicalism, of futurism, of creating communes on the moon or online through technology. You can see that aesthetic in Steve Jobs or Elon Musk and in a lot of old school sci fi. Sort of a soft communist utopia for the rich and fuck the rest of us. This is probably the prevailing aesthetic for the bourgeois now. So, it is probably important to note that while a remarkable amount of sci fi especially can be read as pro-communist, keep in mind that communalism coopts a lot of the aesthetic of communism without adopting any of the radicalism or economic backing to make that envisioned society actually equitable. And it’d be really hard to de-tangle which a book is really about, it being, you know, a book. An aesthetic object.

If you wanna know what I think: I think a book can be a tool. You can use a book to feel good, or to feel bad in a safe(r) environment. You can appreciate its beauty, you can learn from it, you can have your mind changed by it. A book can make an argument, or multiple arguments, or hold several supported and contradicting propositions at once depending on what the reader brings to it. Making a book into a tool that only rests comfortably in the hands of the oppressed and bites the oppressor is difficult. And it is hard for me to buy that that’s the only thing a book ought to do.

I personally think we over-glorify the book as an object in a way that reminds me of the profuse thanks I used to get for doing direct care for disabled clients. Not from the clients, but from people who gave us thanks as a substitute for the appropriate way to thank workers: paying us. For all people claim to value books– they LOVE them, they stroke them on Instagram, publishing’s unpaid interns howl wounded rage when other brands’ unpaid interns suggest using Vitamin Water as a bookmark— writer wages have cratered, and publishing runs mostly on free labor. The industry is being gutted by Amazon, which doesn’t rely on books at all to make a profit. Books do a lot of valuable things, and I think we venerate them as objects, but we absolutely don’t value them. The way you value a thing is you pay its makers fairly. We don’t, and we’re not taking steps to make sure that’s fixed.

Are certain books fascist? I mean, some of them espouse or fail to espouse one ideology or another, sure. But this is media criticism, which feels several layers removed from material things to me. Relevant, but perhaps not the most pressing problem. I personally think task number one is maybe valuing books by valuing book workers and see where that takes us. I think who gets to write and what we write will naturally change if we put workers and their rights first, if we make sure everyone who wants to write can eat, that every editorial assistant can make rent, if publishers and publications aren’t shuttering because a “benevolent” billionaire got bored and stopped sending in their monthly donation to the arts. The conversation will more naturally flow from there. I bet we’ll be surprised where it goes.

For a look at this that’s a bit more rigorous, try this book. And beware of hot takes. Stay hydrated out there.

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