From a certain angle, Donald Trump’s presidency may not have moved the United States in entirely the wrong direction. One of the few areas to benefit from his stewardship, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen suggested in a New York Times op-ed last December, was American literature. Prior to 2016, he argued, Barack Obama’s “warmth” had lulled the literary world into a deep quiescence that amounted to imperial complicity. “It took Mr. Trump,” he wrote, “to awaken it to politics.”
As epoch-defining generalizations go, this is about as accurate as the solemn proclamations about the end of irony after September 11. The George W. Bush years, after all, gave us a crop of novels attempting, however awkwardly, to wring meaning from the catastrophe in lower Manhattan, to say nothing of the numerous Obama-era fictions marked by years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are ambitious and profound writers such as Phil Klay, whose debut story collection, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award, apolitical? Nguyen casts him as a “veteran writer” distant from most Americans, who “are insulated from the deployment of the war machine and prefer not to think about their implication in it.” What about pressing existential questions such as climate change, environmental degradation, and the unsustainability of industrial agriculture? These subjects have been taken up by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, and Jenny Offill, but he shrugs off such concerns too, as “targets . . . acceptable to white liberal interests.” What about riveting, humorous depictions of evolving sexual manners and power dynamics such as Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? He is silent on this score. In one way or another, none of this work qualifies as genuinely political writing, because what Nguyen is really talking about is racial and ethnic identity.
Narratives of oppression, he insists, are missing from today’s “poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping apparatus that is mostly white and privileged.” Though some literature by immigrants and minorities also remains too accommodating for his taste in its failure to “rip off” the “mask” of American inequity, “explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.” Therefore, if the cruelty and ineptitude of the Trump Administration is to have a silver lining, all writers will have to take up overt activism.
This isn’t just a matter of questionable history, but of bad aesthetics. Nguyen would have every author become a strident advocate on and off the page. In recent years, “many writers, like me, texted voters, donated to activist causes, got into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration,” he declares with perplexing satisfaction, as if texting and posting were the moral equivalent of marching through billy clubs and snarling dogs in Selma. Of his similarly engagé peers, he cautions, “Their political fervor impressed me. But if these writers retreat to their pre-Trump selves, then the lessons of this era will have not been learned at all.”
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