September 6, 2009

Toward Discourse or Direction?

Justin Katz

Aesthetically, it's hard to disagree with Arthur Blaustein's argument for the value of literature to civic health:

Novels offer genuine hope for learning how to handle our daily personal problems—and those political issues of our communities and our country—in a moral and humane way. They can help us to understand the relationship between our inner lives and the outer world, and the balance between thinking, feeling, and acting. They awaken us to the complexities and paradoxes of human life, and to the absurd presumptuousness of moral absolutism. They can give us awareness of place, time, and condition—about ourselves and about others. As our great Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner said, the best literature is far more true than any journalism.

Being an apparent progressive, however — the piece seems to have first appeared in Mother Jones — Blaustein betrays a somewhat narrow view of intellectual richness. The lamentations against shortened attention spans and the sensationalization of news are well justified, but the value of literature to the likes of Blaustein is less to deepen civic discourse than to ensure agreement before discussion has even begun:

We depend on our fiction for metaphoric news of who we are, or who we think we ought to be. The writers of today's political and social realism are doing no less than reminding us of our true, traditional American values — the hope, the promises, and the dreams. When we read these novels, we learn about who we are as individuals and as a nation. They inform us, as no other medium does, about the state of our national politics and character—of the difference between what we say we are and how we actually behave. They offer us crucial insights into the moral, social, and emotional conflicts that are taking place in communities across America.

A novel necessarily restricts circumstances to suit the theme, and although doing so draws out Faulkner's truth truer than facts, it sets aside other applicable truths that muddy judgment. Blaustein notes that novels "give us awareness of place, time, and condition," but they are conditions of the author's choosing and construction, and from an ideological, strategic standpoint, controlling publication and promotion thereby controls readers' sense of reality.

Personally, I take the supposed coarsening of civic dialogue to be an indication of growing pains more than decline. The Internet has given society the tools to keep up with the pace of cable news — to pluck stories of interest from the constant stream and debate their significance. Twitter's a step too far, but blogs also offer a remedy to the magnification of non-news. With a handful of networks (whether on the classic channels, cable, or satellite) and print publications controlling the spigot, it was easy for splashy, yet insignificant, news to drown out all else; with the current multiplicity of outlets, it is possible for the public to look around the celebrity controversies and see the policy events that would formerly have been obscured behind them.