Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Unsmiling novels and a post-COVID world

(I drafted much of this blog a couple of weeks ago, in the midst of the civil war in Israel and when Salman and Madiha Afzal and their family were attacked in London, Ontario.  Then I sat on it for a couple of weeks, thinking through my analysis.  I've left the historical context of the drafting in place.)

For a whole host of reasons, I've been reading a lot of "unsmiling novels" lately.  You know the kind:  they take on a serious and important topic like gender or injustice or inequality or race or addiction.  They don't contain an iota of description that stops you in your tracks with its beauty, though the prose is often as precise as a scalpel.  They don't contain any conversations that make the reader smile with recognition at the wit or the cluelessness of the speakers.  There is no laughter.  There is no joy.  There is a lot of suffering and anger and meanness and selfishness.  There is very little kindness, as if the world were a malign machine.  The most recent unsmiling novel I read was essentially a twenty-first-century revenge tragedy, with only one very lost and directionless character left standing at the novel's close.  It saddened me for days. And then, I admit, I got angry.  I had all the revenge tragedy I could stomach watching the latest cynical war between Israel and Hamas.  So I'll just say up front that, yes, my feelings as well as my thoughts are visible here. 

Let me be clear:  every skilled, thoughtful voice is needed in our literary ecosystem.  Only by coming at the challenge of being human from a variety of perspectives will we understand ourselves and our world.  What disturbs me is how publishers' choices have made the unsmiling novel one of the major genres of the twenty-first century, as if being hopeless and relentless were the same as being serious.

Here.  Let me ask you this.  Are you tired of the fact that the evening news is full of COVIDCOVIDCOVID?  Do you suspect that other things are going on in the world?  In other words, the news, like the unsmiling novel, is capturing only one facet of our public lives, though this morning it showed drone footage of the streets of London, Ontario flooded with people who were standing in solidarity with the traumatized Muslim community over the murder of the Afzal family.  Solidarity is not part of the unsmiling novel; it's every woman or man for themselves.  And like the news, the unsmiling novel, while interrogating crucial elements of modern society, is not an accurate reflection of reality.  As screenwriter, producer, and director Richard Curtis has written, "You make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years--something that has happened probably once in history--it's called searingly realistic analysis of society.  If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it's called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world."  Our aesthetic these days privileges the unsmiling novel for its 'searing realism,' for the fact that it's unafraid of darkness.  Those are two important virtues, but they're not the only ones.  And we need to call the unsmiling novel to task for its cynicism before we accept wholeheartedly its view of the world.  Really?  Nothing goes right?  No one is kind?

There are a handful of people whose brave research makes the assumption that people are good, kind, altruistic, and hopeful.  One of these is Bruce Mau who is co-founder/CEO of Massive Change Network, a Chicago-based global design consultancy. His goal is "to help people design the change they want to see in the world." In "Imagining the Future" he writes, "There seems to be a growing split between reality and mood, a conflict between what is actually happening in the world--what we are capable of, what we are committed to, what we are achieving--and our perception of how well we're doing.  The prevailing mood feels dark, negative, harrowingly pessimistic, and tending to the cynical.  Bizarrely, this kind of negativity has become the vogue even in creative fields which are traditionally committed to vision, beauty, and pleasure, to notions of utopia--to possibility, in other words."  One of his principles is to start each project with optimism.  How do you effect change in the world if  you don't have a modicum of optimism?  You'd be defeated before you started.

Another is Stephen Pinker, whose The Better Angels of Our Nature has sometimes been critiqued, particularly in light of small, intractable civil wars that question his vision that the twenty-first century is mainly peaceful. (It also needs to be said that The Better Angels of Our Nature was written before Black Lives Matter dramatically highlighted the murder of Black Americans and Canadians at the hands of the police.) Still, some of his facts remain:  across the planet, we are healthier than we've ever been and have longer lifespans. Better educated.  More women have control of their lives, which means circumstances on the ground are better--since one of the best ways to improve any society is to improve the lives of women.  We are including more and more people under the umbrella of human rights, to the extent that when someone questions whether Muslims belong in Canada by murdering a family, thousands come out to support that inclusion. Think of Pride month, and of how many letters are getting added to the older LGBT acronym:  we're willing to think about how varied sexual desire is, how varied love is.

And then there's Rutger Bregman, whom I work into every conversation I can, partly because, like me, he's optimistic, partly because he's a remarkable researcher.  As I remember, Better Angels of Our Nature depends a lot on statistics that support historical generalizations. Bregman certainly has data, but he's also a wonderful storyteller and finds compelling examples of what his data tells him about human beings and the human condition.  Wondering why, out of the five hominims besides us--Homo erectus, Homo floriensis, Homo luzonensis, Homo denisova, and Homo neanderthalensis--we survived while the others died out, he debunks the common theories by comparing us with other species.  Are we stronger?  A chimpanzee "can clobber us without breaking a sweat."  Is it our smarts?  A team in Germany assessed subjects on "spatial awareness, causation and causality."  Zoo animals did about as well as two-year-olds.  Some chimps have much better working memory than many adults.  Are we more cunning?  (Machiavelli is the prototype here.)  Turns out the chimps are better at that too.  In fact, human beings, singularly, blush when they're caught out.  (This tendency to show shame by blushing is lost once people gain power.  But you already knew that.)

What humans are good at is learning.  In particular, we're good at learning from others.  (Or, in too many cases, particularly bad at learning from others, a quality that often shows its face as racism when the people around us are racist or when our communities resist vaccines.)  We're also good at sharing, and even for developing infrastructures for sharing, like governments and networks of mutual aid, both of which were crucial during the pandemic.  Sharing, Bregman argues, is "the bedrock on which everything else--markets, states, bureaucracy--is built.  This may help explain the explosion of cooperation and altruism that happen in the wake of natural disasters" like Hurricane Katrina, as Rebecca Solnit has written. Learning from one another and sharing with one another, Bregman argues, allowed Homo sapiens to thrive while other hominims died out.  Learning from one another and sharing with one another have certainly been crucial qualities when it comes to getting through this pandemic.

And we need social learning and sharing--things not depicted in unsmiling novels--even more right now.  The pandemic has revealed in stark detail the inequalities in our society. We have a chance, as we move forward toward a post-COVID time, to make important changes:  to reconsider the minimum wage, to build green spaces in areas where the poor have been ghettoized, to invest in programs like social housing and universal child care.  Our collective horror at the bodies of over 200 children means that we are prompted to consider the generational effects of residential schools. To address inequality we need different models for our relationship to people whom we consider "other" that welcome them to the human family. We need governments to get creative, modelling inclusion in budgets and laws.  How do we do this without hope?

The Dalai Lama considers being happy an ethical choice because so often we build--or rebuild--the societies our world views envision.  Happy people are kinder, more generous, more compassionate; unhappy people, in contrast, are often self-absorbed. (We're talking about unhappiness here, not depression, which is something altogether different.) From completely different quadrant of the idea-verse, psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson wondered what the positive emotions like joy and happiness contributed to our survival.  It is clear that fear and anger mobilize us to action immediately.  So what do joy or a sense of belonging contribute to our repertoire for survival?  It turns out that we think more broadly when we're in a good mood.  We have the patience to think more deeply.  We make connections with people--connections that help us solve problems through collaboration. We see the bigger picture and we have the ideas and energy to bring ourselves closer to our ideals.

In this context, readers and publishers need to acknowledge that the unsmiling novel is not the only model of "seriousness" in our literary ecosystem.  We're heading toward a time when we have the opportunity and the responsibility to effect important changes to our social culture.  The unsmiling novel will tell us, in great detail, what is wrong--even hideous--about our current society and the relationships that structure that society--both intimate and social relations.  But it's writers who inspire hope and who depict our aspirational desire for joy, love, and the happiness that comes from living meaningful lives who will guide us toward the big picture thinking we need for creating a post-COVID world that is more just and inclusive.



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