The New Era of Engaged Literature
by Okla Elliott
When I was fourteen years old, I naively and ignorantly and perhaps over-seriously declared myself a Marxist. It was around this time that I also began considering myself a writer, though most of what I wrote sounded like quasi-plagiarized Bad Religion and Pixies lyrics. When I think back on that younger me whose main goals in life were to become a professional skateboarder and to save the world with his bad poetry, I feel a kind of wistful nostalgia; I also want to ruffle his hair and tell him to chill out a bit. That said, I can’t deny that in many ways those formative years are still with me and shape much of how I view literature today. Sure, I am no longer a Marxist (if in fact in my youthful ignorance I ever was), but rather a democratic socialist of the Bernie Sanders variety, but I sport a Black Flag tattoo that the fourteen-year-old me would be proud of, and I likewise have Simone de Beauvoir and Slavoj Žižek tattoos that the fourteen-year-old me would appreciate if he knew their work.
To be honest, my ignorance has likely been the guiding star for my literary development. Neither of my parents graduated high school, so when I made it to college, I had no idea how one went about becoming a writer. I ended up double-majoring in philosophy and German, double-minoring in French and religious studies, because I had somehow gotten it into my head that this was the way to become a writer. I also studied abroad to Germany and Poland in undergrad, another weird idea I had gotten into my ahead about how one becomes a writer. I remained highly political, preferring writers such as Gore Vidal over the aesthetes of the literary world. It wasn’t until I began my MFA in creative writing at Ohio State University that I learned politics and literature are frequently seen as opposing activities.
I have often half-joked that just as the rich don’t talk about money, American authors have tended not to talk about politics, since we’re members of the most powerful nation on Earth. The rich don’t talk about money, and the powerful don’t talk about politics. Authors in virtually every other nation are expected to incorporate politics into their work, however openly or obliquely. But I have seen this state of affairs in American literature change dramatically in the past handful of years (and of course there were notable exceptions beforehand). American writers are producing more of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “engaged literature,” and I couldn’t be more pleased to see this happening. As citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, it’s about time we realized the rest of the world is out there and that our government’s decisions affect the lives of billions of people.
Putting aside my half-joke (which I don’t think is entirely empty), why else might American authors have had this tendency to avoid politics? There is one other key reason I see: rampant anti-intellectualism among Americans that reaches even into the corridors of universities, where our programs in creative writing are housed. One of my favorite professors during my own MFA referring to the scholars in the English department as “those pointy heads on the fourth floor” (the fourth floor being where their offices were). He said this several times in the years I was there, yet I never sensed an ounce of animosity in his words; it was merely a casual dismissal, and one that always got a chuckle of agreement from most of the students in the workshop. I have heard dozens of similar reports from other programs, with some even describing real dislike/distrust between the creative and scholarly factions within English departments. But I and many writers I’ve talked to feel this distaste for political thought and intellectual engagement in cultural issues is changing, at least among a sizable subset of us. The causes for this change are numerous, but having 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 collapse, and the unprecedented wealth inequality all hit us over the course of a decade or so are foremost among them.
Director of Ohio State University’s MFA program Michelle Herman said the following when I asked her about this trend:
In 28 years of teaching at Ohio State—and teaching through some pretty contentious election cycles, too—I cannot recall my graduate students (or the alumni of our graduate program, for that matter) injecting themselves quite so intensely into the whirl of political discourse.
Herman also has a theory as to why this might be happening at this point in history. She points out that “the ease of disseminating ideas, of moving from thought to ‘print’ (electronica) quickly enough for those thoughts to matter—or anyway to be heard” might have as much or more to do with this increase in political activity than some sweeping cultural change. I certainly agree that social media has played a huge and incalculably important role in such movements as Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and I think Herman has accurately hit on that importance. This moment in history is saturated with the effects of online activity in ways we likely won’t understand for many years, if ever.
There are three main causes, to my mind, for the shift to more political engagement in American literature in the past decade or so. 1) Institutional changes at the level of grant-giving entities and universities. 2) A general awakening to political and international problems across the culture. 3) An increase in literary inclusion of marginalized people.
I’ll begin with and focus largely on the institutional changes, because they are so pervasive and more easily quantified.
Interestingly, just as the advent of MFA programs and therefore the age of craft in American literature aided in reducing the amount of politically oriented literature in this country, I argue that the advent of the PhD in creative writing is aiding in ushering in a new age of engaged literature—though without totally jettisoning what we learned from our decades in the craft trenches. How so? Well, as part of their course load, PhD candidates in creative writing also have to take scholarly courses that expose them to thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Gayatri Spivak, and many others. They likewise receive introductions to the larger fields of disability studies, gender studies, trauma studies, and postcolonial studies. All of this means PhD candidates in creative writing receive at least a cursory knowledge—and in some cases an in-depth understanding—of major political and philosophical thinkers from around the world. This new hybrid degree is, in effect, creating a new hybrid category of creative writer, one that is interested in craft and social engagement in equal measure.
The other major institutional change that has helped bring about this new era of engaged literature in the United States is at the level of grant-funding entities. Obviously the events on 9/11 themselves were horrendous, as were the majority of the Bush administration’s reactions, but one interesting accidental byproduct of those events is that Americans were woken up and were forced to recognize that an outside world beyond the United States exists. There was a time when scholars were heavily funded to learn Russian and German, since those were languages of Soviet Russia and East Germany. In the years after 9/11, the US government pumped millions of dollars into the learning of Arabic, Korean, and Farsi—while still funding the study of Russian and Chinese at high levels. And in a kind of cultural trickle-down, universities have begun offering more courses in these languages and cultures.
Likewise, programs in translation were created, often connected to varying degrees with the MFA in creative writing program at the home university. Here are just some examples of recent translation programs added to major universities: University of Illinois added an MA and various certificate programs in translation in 2008; University of Maryland started an MA in translation in 2013; and University of Iowa, which already had an MFA in translation before this recent boom in such programs, has added an undergraduate certificate in global engagement via translation. This last one is especially salient for my point, since it overtly names engagement as part of its goal. And the list of new programs and journals focused on translation from around the world goes on and on. In 2015, even Amazon announced an investment of $10 million over the next five years in AmazonCrossing, its translation program founded in 2010. Since politics is heavily global in nature now, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of all these new programs and investments in terms of its effects on literature.
The gifts of translation for English-language literature are myriad: blank verse as a solution for translating unrhymed Latin verse, the sonnet and sestina forms from Italian, couplets from French, and, some have claimed, free verse from Chinese. I argue that the 21st-century gift translation can give is an understanding of how political and literary discourses may most profitably mix.
I also believe that the adjunct crisis has created increased awareness among writers. With nearly 70% of our courses now being taught by adjuncts, emerging writers are often working for criminally low wages and no benefits or job security. This newfound economic precariousness among many writers has forced the issue of economics and institutional policy into the lives of writers in a way that was not as pronounced in previous decades.
The change at the institutional level therefore originates from several sources, ranging from government funding to greater global awareness to the increasing need for more higher education in the form of PhDs in creative writing if one wants to pursue a career as a creative writer in academia. The causal lines here are sometimes direct and sometimes roundabout or even totally accidental.
As I mentioned earlier there have of course been numerous exceptions throughout American literary history: Erica Jong, Norman Mailer, W.S. Merwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal, and Richard Wright, among others, and there were of course excellent organizations like Cave Canem before the time period I am discussing. I am therefore emphatically not claiming that this is an entirely new phenomenon, just that there is a notable increase in it. Interestingly, we find that the least powerful among us—minorities, women, and the impoverished—are often more likely to inject politics into their literary production. Here is where my third main reason for this change comes in. A more open acknowledgment of racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ practices in the literary industry, as well as the founding of groups such as VIDA to highlight and combat such practices, have brought more marginalized writers to the forefront of American literary culture, thus bringing a more politically engaged literature to the forefront as well.
Given the limited space I have here, I have focused largely on changes institutions and organizations and how those have caused a shift in the literary culture in the United States, but as mentioned earlier, there is a broader and more nebulous increase in interest caused by recent historical events, a topic worthy of an entire essay unto itself. But that, as they say, is a project for another time.
As so many great authors from here in the United States and around the world have proven, literature does not have to choose between being aesthetically pleasing or politically engaged, between being of the moment or achieving timelessness. Aristotle famously defined humanity in two ways: 1) Humans are political animals. 2) Humans are linguistic animals. I would argue that engaged literature which still keeps its eye on craft brings these two definitions into enjoyable and productive harmony.