Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

With Coffee and an Explanation in Hand

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With great respect for the time and care they took, I'm devoting today’s blog to the readers who posted to my earlier entry, In Search of Coffee and Bad Writing. I truly believe the pressing question of the role of politics in literature needs to be discussed openly and often. I respect their willingness to do so exactly because, first and foremost, it is a debate. The question is neither over nor answered. Every reader and writer has input and a voice worth hearing.

Let me first please clarify something in response to the thoughtful posts of Ms. Lauren Davis. In retrospect, I now realize that my “sans coffee” post, especially if seen in isolation without the context of all my posts on Open Book, could be read as something I absolutely did not intend. Please let me state publicly that it was in no way meant as a reflection on any of the panel of marvelous writers I saw that day, Ms. Davis included. I truly apologize if it came across as such. Please note that when I bristled at the line, “The purpose of good fiction is to ask questions not to answer them,” I did not even attribute the comment; I was reacting completely and solely to the idea itself. My “lost patience” and my “list” were both short-hand references made back to several of my previous posts here on Open Book.

As my contributions to the debate, please see, When an Empty Chair Speaks Louder than Words and An Empty Chair in the True North Strong and Free is Still Empty. As I attempted to elaborate there, as a disabled feminist writer I am concerned by the distancing trend of some Canadian writers who lately make it a virtue or badge-of-honor to publicly claim that they are “not political at all.” I am even more troubled by those who go further, who claim there is no debate and judge and censor other writers by smugly asserting that there is no place for politics in “good literature.” Please see the list of such quotes I’ve collected over the past year and a more detailed explanation of my concerns in the above posts.

Again, my comments to follow have nothing to do with any single author, or responder, but I will attempt to address to all the readers’ posts in general. I’ll repeat the question I’ve asked before: by what dispensation do we make art when the house is burning down around the artist’s head?

I would first argue that the very notion of an apolitcal novel is impossible. In the simple construction of plot, the choices writers make and the ramifications of those choices are always political in the largest sense: good-bad, right-wrong, selfish-altruistic, punished-rewarded, rebellious-accepting, progressive-reactionary, etc. I respect Chekhov’s position: "What is obligatory for the artist is not solving a problem; but stating a problem correctly." I appreciate it immensely when artists spend time and craft to state a problem correctly. But the same Chekov also wrote, “A writer is not a confectioner, a cosmetic dealer, or an entertainer.” I assume he might also have said that while answers or solutions are "not obligatory" they are not verboten. I could find any number of quotes from other great writers who would argue that just as painting and music have changed since Chekov’s time, writers face new social responsibilities in this century.

Something that has always separated literature from popular fiction is the willingness and expertise of the author to go beyond a good story and delve deeper into the human condition. Novelists don’t just pose problems and walk away; we create characters who suffer from, or benefit from, the world’s problems. We take sides. We deliberately build sympathy for characters who take action (or not) to struggle with/solve/be defeated by personal and public problems. I see those authorial choices, for better or worse, as the collection of the political choices we are offering for our readers’ considerations. Just as we have made such choices inside the novel, I am arguing that we should be open about explaining, defending and evaluating our choices outside the novel. I’m suggesting literature only benefits when authors, critics and readers talk about their entire process openly, and include the examination of political choices.

To put my money where my mouth is, my own novel, When Fenelon Falls, contains an ostracized adopted and disabled teenager who eventually commits suicide by entering a bear cage wearing nothing but butter tarts. Of course I have to be prepared to discuss/evaluate/defend that disturbing choice both inside and outside the novel, to address the suicide of bullied teens as both fiction and reality. If authors ignore their own political choices, or refuse to address them as such, who can that possibly help? It distresses me to say that I’ve seen too many writers of brave books who once they get outside the novel appear to dumb themselves down to assume on stage/public personas as ever-so-polite “nice Canadians.” I wonder how much writers fear the dismissive label of being called “too political?” I wonder why this label is only used against left-leaning writers or writers from the margins who openly critique the powers of the status quo? I’m reminded of the saying, “There is no such thing as neutral. Silence is always affirmation.”

Accordingly, it is my position that the debate is not over and that every writer has the responsibility to join it in the explication of their own work. I openly disagree with the distancing trend and with any authors who throw up their hands and publicly abjure a political discussion of their work with the telling excuse that politics tarnishes their “art.” To name just three of many, Dickens, Zola and Atwood, in A Tale of Two Cities, Germinal and The Handmaid’s Tale, all stand as clear proof that great art can come from an overtly political stance. I echo pagok’s sentiments that there should be no artistic cop-outs or buy-outs for writers in these so troubled times.

Finally, anyone who tries to enforce the absence of an overtly political stance as a requirement for “good literature,” is concomitantly ill-informed, censorial, ridiculous, and deeply concerning. Simply put, we ask readers to read literature because we have something to say. Novelists have the same skill and desire for getting at the truth as non-fiction writers and the same researched expertise to offer. And we are citizens. This is Canada. If any Canadian artists choose to be open spokespeople for causes or ideas they may or may not have addressed in their art, it is entirely their right to do so. PEN would not exist without them. In Canada, we pay more than passive lip service to an empty chair and all it stands for, knowing ours is the luxury to to debate the role of politics in writing without fear of jail. We actively work to free Nasrin Sotudeh so she can take her chair and speak from it. Let's do likewise.

If I had to sum it up I’d say this. There is no such thing as a novel with no politics. There are novelists with undisclosed/unexamined/withheld politics. I think none of the latter are responsible or honorable. I think all writers should join the debate. I don’t believe silence makes for a good dialogue about what makes “good literature.”

I hope this goes at least some of the way towards stating my view of the problem correctly and again, to all of you who posted, I thank you most sincerely for adding your voice to the debate.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page