January 2012

Josh Cook


It's OK to Have a Point: A Defense of Literature with an Agenda

Writing with an agenda creates bad literature. This is a consistent idea in contemporary writing about writing. Book reviewers, critics, and writing teachers all tell us an agenda leads to preachy works that insult the intelligence of the reader, restrict the reading experience, and assert the dominance of the writer's vision over the reader's imagination. Whatever the agenda, having one turns a conversation into a monologue.

The first thing I think of when I read this idea is 1984. Orwell had a clear point -- language and fear are powerful components of systems of oppression -- but that agenda didn't prevent him from exploring the limits of human empathy, the powerlessness of ignorance, and the ability of the mind to accommodate obvious lies, or from telling one of the English language's saddest stories. Whether it's an anti-war agenda, as in Johnny Got His Gun and Catch-22, an environmental message as in The Sheep Look Up, or a philosophical statement on the nature of humanity as in works like The Castle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and In Search of Lost Time, an agenda does not inherently limit the experience or effect of reading or the overall quality of the work. Reading a great work with an agenda is like walking around Paris; there is freedom to explore, to get lost in the small streets and alleys, to discover something you weren't looking for. And in front of you, or just over your shoulder, or around the corner, the Eiffel Tower is always there.

Where did this idea that agendas inherently stifle come from and why is it so dominant? It could be part of the seemingly endless backlash against the aesthetics, styles, experiments, and innovations collected under the “post-modernism” label. It could be a response to the ham-fisted literature of leftist political movements, from the cultural “revolution” of the sixties, to party-line literature of early 20th century communism and socialism. Or maybe it's a truth too strongly asserted. Literature with an agenda can be everything its critics accuse it of being. There are few things more frustrating in reading than getting smashed in the face with a moral. It could also be that a great work of literature with an agenda hasn't been published in a really long time. And this is discussing published work, not the amateur attempts of creative writing students their teachers, usually writers and critics themselves, must slog through. In the same way the success of Hemingway's style, combined with Strunk and White's dictum “Omit needless words,” came to mean not, “Write efficiently,” but “Simple sentences are the best communicators,” the accurate critique of literature that forces moral conclusions on readers has come to mean not, “An agenda must not restrict the reader's ability to explore other ideas,” but “Only undirected representations of phenomenal and emotional experience communicate applicable truth.” To put it another way; the writer's job is to present the world through the techniques of literature and it is the reader's job to draw ideas from that representation. Any attempt by the writer to work directly with a specific idea is an arrogant imposition.

A lot has been written recently about the effect of the proliferation of MFA and other writing programs on American literature. It's easy to see a connection between this writing environment and the edict against agendas. The agenda is a function of the vision part of the writing process, the mysterious and necessary spark that separates art from the rest of human expression, and most writing education honestly admits that vision cannot be taught. But sentence structure, plotting, character development, editing habits, and other skills can be taught. Essentially, writing education sells the techniques of literature, the craft of writing to use the more popular term. Literature with an agenda, however, can succeed with sub-par craft, as in much of Philip K. Dick's work (and even some of Vonnegut's), if the agenda is compelling, original, and important enough. I'm not arguing the edict against literature with an agenda is part of some manipulative ploy to drive people to MFA programs, but to figure out why the idea is so powerful now. People who teach and attend writing eduction believe in the preeminence of craft; they are spending and making money on it. It's only natural they would believe in craft-centric aesthetics. Why else would they be there? Furthermore, America's particular brand of anti-elitism (sometimes productive, sometimes destructive) quite often comes to mean that nobody can tell anybody else whether an idea is good or not; leaving book reviewers and critics without much to say about idea-centered books. The nature of our critical culture focuses critique and review on techniques and away from ideas. Together, these critical forces congeal in a coherent and dominant aesthetic.

But, of course, that is an agenda itself; it is a particular aesthetic that promotes itself through claims on a more powerful representation of the truth. Every aesthetic has an element of the didactic, even if that element is the active negation of the didactic, because the aesthetic asserts the truth of itself. Essentially, undirected representations of life promote an agenda of emotional truth, asserting that those undirected depictions are more truthful than depictions organized around a central idea. Even more essentially, emotional experiences tell a meaningful story; ideas do not. Humans have been, are, and always will be emotional beings, and literature has a responsibility to explore those emotions; but automatically rejecting explorations of specific ideas rejects an important part of our decision making process -- thinking about ideas.

This is a problem. Our national discourse is essentially idea-free. If your political platform cannot be summarized in ten seconds, it might as well not exist. If your idea takes more than a minute to explain, an opponent will be attacking you with sound bites, empty platitudes, and spurious facts before you've finished your introduction. And woe to you, if you promote a policy with any nuance. Politicians who interact with our emotional understanding of the world through the rhetorical and visual techniques of political communication win elections. All the time. Blaming the state of politics for our rejection of literature with an agenda is going too far, but the connection is there. It's true that the ban on agendas is a response to and a reflection of the general state of our culture, but literature is supposed to lead.

I don't want to overstate my case either. An absence of agenda isn't equal to absence of significance or an absence of ideas. In the way that works with an agenda are like Paris, works of undirected representation are like the Amazon; the reader wanders through the events and images focusing on whatever landmarks of narrative topography catch her interest, creating significance and ideas through his intellectual interaction with the work. We shouldn't condemn literature with an agenda, but we shouldn't demand agendas either.

Whatever you think of The Jungle as a work of literature, it accomplished something. Through its craft it advanced an agenda in ways standard political techniques did not. It used the power of the novel to prove to people their food was dangerous. Now our food is safer. Of course, it's been a long time since something that politically direct has been successful, but literature has always been better at changing culture than at influencing policy. One has to wonder what the state of American civil rights would be if Harper Lee hadn't spent a few hundred pages bashing us in the face with the idea that all people are imbued with inherent dignity. And Lee's message of dignity didn't prevent her from creating two of America's most beloved characters; Scout and Atticus Finch. Nor did it prevent her from exploring the nature of childhood, humanizing the mentally disabled, or evoking a time and a place. This isn't an argument for or against either form of expression, but a statement that both are important in understanding and improving our world. Telling a good story is important in literature, but so is telling a good idea. There are some things you can only learn from wandering around in the Amazon and others only from strolling the streets of Paris.