Art & Argument:
Issues and Ideas in American Fiction
3. Argue Better
by Marlon James
This is the third of five pieces discussing the role of issues and ideas in American fiction and how it can become more socially engaged. These sections are adapted from remarks at the 2013 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Boston, entitled “Troubling Ideas: The Renewal of Argumentative Fiction.”
How can we escape this taboo of confronting the argumentative in fiction? How do we bring argument back to the imagined story, to the center of the work while realizing that it underscores rather than undercuts the other things we want in fiction such as plot and character? I have two answers to that question, or maybe one answer in two parts:
- Recognize that argumentative fiction, meaning fiction that poses an argument or incites it, never went away, and
- Argue better.
The idea that argumentative fiction ever went away would surprise the European, Latin American, Indian, or African reader. Roberto Bolaño wasn’t just presenting a series of novels; he was presenting a series of arguments, a necessary heresy in the world of Latin American letters too beholden to magical realism, or arguably insufficient in its initial reactions against it (Alberto Fuguet et al). The fall of argumentative fiction would similarly be news to the Kundera, Pamuk, Jelinek, or Atwood reader. Did argumentative fiction disappear, or did Americans simply stop arguing about it?
Recently, when Anis Shivani wrote an important piece in the Huffington Post on contemporary writers who may have been overrated, it was interesting that most of the comments from readers were not challenging his list or staging a counter argument but registering outrage that he would launch such an argument in the first place. But Shivani recognized something all but lost in our contemporary discussion, which is that books are worth fighting over just as much as they are worth fighting for.
As for argumentative fiction itself, sometimes there is a failure to recognize the argument. In 1991, Carolivia Herron’s novel Thereafter Johnnie threw a cold splash of water on the socially compelled position on incest, complicating it in ways that Margaux Fragoso’s nonfiction Tiger Tiger has done only recently. There was no way to separate sexual manhandling from racial manhandling, pun intended. The truth is that fiction becomes argumentative once it complicates itself. There is a stunning discourse on race and fear in Richard Price’s Freedomland, and you don’t have to look very far to find it. There is argument in the ‘80s New York cocaine novels, just as there is in the recent work of Edward St. Aubyn and Jonathan Dee, chief among them the very legitimacy of novels set among people on privilege in the 21st century. What, they ask, makes those lives relevant? Are these novels merely keeping a storytelling tradition that dates back to Greek Tragedy: The poor lives of rich people?
Orhan Pamuk’s novels dissect the value of Turkishness to the praise of some and the consternation of others. The Black Book raises vital questions about roles and identities: who we are and who we can return to; whether a modern metropolis can rise out of a dying one (perhaps Pamuk has answers for Detroit). What do you lose when you shape-shift? Who or what governs the version of yourself you choose to use? This all leads to a far more damning question: Why is The Black Book missing from our arguments about identity politics? And what about Pamuk’s later novel, My Name Is Red, which raises questions about the very future of metaphysics while also grappling with the nature of offense? Or what about Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which confronted what Pankaj Mishra called the “fundamental instability” of the immigrant after 9/11?
Hamid’s novel as well as Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss both put forth one of the most stunning arguments in years. Both novels break from everything we expect from the Immigrant Novel with one simple question: What if the immigrant never finds a new place? This runs so contrary to the accepted narrative of immigrant fiction in say, the novels of Amy Tan, that it’s a wonder either novel found a publisher. What if the immigrant never finds place, never finds a way to come to peace with his new world, and rejects the place of adoption altogether?
Arguments are there wherever you choose to look for them. To raise one last example here, Maile Meloy’s stories pose an argument so fundamental that it’s easy to see why people miss it: Why do smart people fuck up?
These are all serious issues, and they prove that argumentative fiction did not disappear. Maybe the problem is that we have changed in our expectations of the literary argument. Michel Houellebecq’s fiction is often held as the banner for fiction-as–argument, but it is too often undercut by the writer’s intense love of his own voice. Witness how often in The Elementary Particles his purportedly transgressive ideas, such as anti-feminism and perverted sexuality, are undercut by his often schematic plotting and high volume didacticism. He has ideas, damn it, and he’ll forgo the actual novel writing so that you hear them. (Sex is consumption—say it ain’t so!) Our leaving the lion’s share of discussion to a narcissist like Houellebecq highlights another problem with argumentative literature, in this case the discussion about such work: We need to argue better.
We need to recognize that issues and arguments did not disappear simply because Americans stopped talking about them. And sometimes the issue is not in the fiction itself but the argument raised over it. It’s an old and already much discussed article, but the one that immediately comes to mind is Katie Roiphe’s “The Naked and the Conflicted,” a piece that could have been called “What Ever Shall We Do With The White Penis?” Ignore that her argument confused narrow-mindedness with focus. Ignore that it strove for gravitas by dropping tautologies in nearly every paragraph. What made her argument fall limp was the cultural bigotry of it. After reading the article you are left wondering, are non-white male writers American? Do Latinos fuck? Are there black men with penises?
To quote Roiphe: “the current sexual style is childlike. Innocence is more in fashion than virility.” She then cites Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and the Jonathans Franzen and Safran Foer. To be fair, if the writer wanted to only focus on white men as a specific comment about white male American sexual malaise, that would have been something else entirely. But by positioning white male sexuality as American male sexuality the author shows a shocking ignorance of the world outside her own window. In all its heavy breathing about men and their boy-bits and how they should feel about women and their girl-bits, not once does she talk about perhaps the only American male writer confronting these issues head-on, so much so that it is the central thrust of most his work. That would be Junot Diaz. Why wasn’t Yunior held up as the true counterpoint to Portnoy? Which other writer is confronting the nature of sexuality, from the rush of it to the deep violence that colors it, with more revelatory power than Diaz? And yet his omission revealed many problematic issues, not the least of which was willful ignorance of a crucial writer so as to not complicate her own weakly structured argument.
But by doing so she wrote her own article into irrelevance. You want to prove that argumentative fiction is all around us and never left? Argue better.
Jamaican-born Marlon James is the author of John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, which was the winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is working on his third novel.