Do I Have to Have an Argument?
So one of the purposes of fiction is to imagine alternate realities, or to reimagine the one we have. In other words, novelists make themselves useful to the rest of us by thinking outside the box on our behalf. A supreme example is the great British novelist J.G. Ballard, who once told an interviewer that growing up during the Second World War in the chaos of Japanese-occupied Shanghai – which he called “almost a twenty-first century city” – had taught him “many lessons, above all that the unrestricted imagination was the most accurate guide to reality.” By contrast much, if not most, American writing published during my lifetime has been motivated by a desire or felt need to recommend public policy, whether explicitly or tacitly. That desire is deeply ingrained in hoary national habits of mind connected to an unquestioned presumption that the North American imperial state not only is powerful, but should be and will remain powerful. The subtext is a fealty to that state that is felt and implied, if not always expressed. And one reason it’s often left unexpressed, what makes it a subtext, is precisely that it’s so deeply ingrained as to be moving below even the writer’s own awareness. For example, even seemingly independent literary writers with liberal reputations, like John Steinbeck and John Updike, undermined their own credibility by speaking out, as if they knew what they were talking about, in support of the American war in Vietnam. We saw the same embarrassing phenomenon all over again in 2003 with the Iraq War.
Thus the legacy institutions of American book publishing are deeply infected with the largely unspoken assumption that a book worth writing and publishing should, one way or another, serve some non-literary public or state purpose. Being about something that’s inherently interesting or important in a human sense doesn’t impress the industry’s gatekeepers, who yet seem largely unaware that they function as handmaidens of an imperial state. But this edifice is becoming more difficult to maintain because, for the recommendation of policy to be a comprehensible gesture, there needs to be a tacit agreement that state and societal institutions are both stable and legitimate as well as – first things first – extant.
In 2004, over lunch in Manhattan, I strove to impress a literary agent by telling him that my book on Pakistan had been published earlier that year in London. “What’s your argument?” he asked, as if any book on Pakistan had to have an argument. His name was Sam Stoloff. I can’t remember whether I had the presence of mind to say it at the time, but my answer to Sam is that I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story. A story is what my book Alive and Well in Pakistan is, and ditto Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti. I’m not here to tell American policymakers what their policies should be toward Pakistan or Haiti. And in 2012 I felt that the so-called United States cried out not for arguments or policies but for stories, so I drove around the country and wrote Home Free: An American Road Trip.
That lunch with Sam Stoloff was not my first run-in with a literary agent, someone whose business is to sell books that people will buy, but it was my last. After that, I gave up trying. A decade earlier, when I was living in Bangkok, I had pitched a travel book about Vietnam twenty years after the fall of Saigon to Ed Knappman of New England Publishing Associates. He had replied that, sure, he didn’t mind if I gave it a try, but I should be warned that American readers had little interest in “foreign topics, especially non-European topics.” Soon after that, just after Bill Clinton had invaded Haiti, thereby finally and very imperfectly addressing the appalling tragedy of “boat people” (the phrase itself an echo of Vietnam) washing up dead on Florida’s beaches and languishing at Guantanamo Bay, another agent, Lelia Ruckenstein, had informed me that “people’s interest in Haiti has peaked.” Don’t get me started on that one.
I never did write the Vietnam book, which is a shame because just such a book should have been written just then, and I would have learned a lot by writing it. I did end up learning other things through other means, and Justin Wintle had already written Romancing Vietnam, so I guess on balance it’s cool. But I would need to be bruised several more times before I quite understood the importance and value of kicking against the establishment anyway.
I had already written and breathlessly submitted (in hard copy, by international airmail, at my own expense, while enduring a hardscrabble freelance existence in Southeast Asia) a book-length manuscript to Lelia Ruckenstein, when she said what she said about Haiti. I fully understood the real importance of that subject at that time, though as it turned out I would have to wait until after the January 2010 earthquake – until people’s interest in Haiti had peaked and troughed several more times – before I could bring a greatly revised and updated version of my book to publication. The problem was that Lelia was all too right – if by “people” one meant, as she obviously and unthinkingly did, potentially book-buying members of the middle-class American public. There are other kinds of people, I wanted to remind her. “But I’d love to stay in touch,” she breezily ended her brief brush-off. “Please tell me what else you’re working on.” Never, was my silent reply. I don’t care how well connected you are in Manhattan.
Before I moved to Bangkok, Ed Knappman and his wife-slash-business partner had given me some kind of classy salad for lunch, and I had pitched to them a travel book about Texas, beside their swimming pool in a woodsy suburb somewhere in Connecticut. To me, my proposed subject’s bigness and Americanness, and thus inherent interest and marketability, were self-evident. For his part Ed seemed to think it might be a pretty good idea, and he wanted to encourage me by indulging me. But his wife sniffed at what to her was clearly the risible notion that Texas could actually be interesting enough to travel around and write a book about, and the couple had a tense little exchange of words in my presence. I don’t love Texas and wouldn’t want to live there, but on a couple of counts I was offended. First of all, I was born in Texas and both of my parents grew up there. My cousins, whom I love and admire, grew up there. One of them still lives there, on a chicken farm. My parents left Texas, on purpose, pretty much because it was Texas. So I’m entitled to have views on Texas. You, sitting smugly poolside in your Connecticut suburb, are not. Didn’t your parents teach you that snobbery is impolite?
Second, I distinctly remember thinking, even at the time, callow and provincial though I was then: These people are supposed to be my literary agents, and they can’t even agree with each other on whether a book about Texas is worth writing for an American audience, notwithstanding whether I have the talent or capacity to do it justice. I guess I’ll have to figure that out for myself, and maybe I’ll write one and maybe I won’t. But I’m damn sure not going to write a whole book about Texas, on speculation, and then ask these people to sell it to publishers in New York.
The point in both cases is about the parochiality and fickle attention span of the American public and establishment. And I mean both: not only the public, but also, and especially, the metropolitan establishment. (Camus was a provincial, indeed a colonial, whereas Sartre was a Parisian. Which of the two is more read and respected today?) And that parochiality has compelled American writers to trade in, and readers to consume, false perspectives on our society that have ossified over decades into severely damaging clichés. Both of my erstwhile subjects – Texas and Vietnam – are all too obviously and durably relevant to understanding today’s America. If Mr. and Mrs. Knappman and other Northeastern liberals had taken any real interest in Texas circa 1990, they might have seen George W. Bush coming, for one thing. And they might have had a glimmer of understanding in 2012, when Texans elected Ted Cruz as their United States Senator.
The parochiality of the Northeast resolves into astonishing clarity if you live on the West Coast, especially if you live in the far northwestern corner as I do. Growing up in the Midwest, as I did, or in the South, you become habituated to being disdained and ignored by the snobs of the metropolitan East. That’s not pleasant or justified, but it is to be expected. You get on with life despite them, and you learn to return the disdain: Fuck ’em. But it’s only on the West Coast that one gets the true measure of Northeastern self-regard. Hundreds of square miles of California – the state where more than ten percent of Americans live – can be literally in flames; the Central Valley, whose agriculture feeds much of our great nation, can be literally sinking from long-term unsustainable lowering of the water table; Governor Jerry Brown – the most mature, serious, and competent American elected official in recent years, not that many back east have noticed – can order draconian statewide water rationing – none of the above merit more than passing mention in the New York Times. When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, the Post’s intrepid reporters informed the world, as if it were interesting or surprising information, that he planned to continue living in Seattle. To the mighty Amazon tycoon, who is remaking the South Lake Union area of downtown Seattle into a forest of new skyscrapers to house the HQ of his global empire, and who has expressed a personal desire to go to outer space, $250 million to purchase a vestigial newspaper as a civic good deed is pocket change. Why would it even cross his mind to consider moving to Washington, DC? Geez, those people really should get over themselves.
A friend of mine in Seattle, the musician and author Dennis Rea, once suggested an intriguing idea: that a cable news network should be established based in Los Angeles, San Francisco or – why not? – Seattle, with the brief of covering the United States from the perspective of the West Coast. Dennis and I both thought such a network would be a breath of fresh air, but we concluded that the East Coast establishment would never allow it. Why not? Because its coverage and, first and foremost, its existence would demonstrate that the Northeastern establishment perspective is only one of many legitimate ways to look at America. But the thought experiment itself points up the arbitrary quality of our national media and the unsustainable artificiality of the United States as a unitary society with a metropolitan center.
You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.