Art & Argument:
Issues and Ideas in American Fiction
4. Argument as Invitation
by Helen Benedict
This is the fourth 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.”
“The duty of the writer… is not to go shut himself up as a coward in a text, a book, a magazine from which he will never emerge, but… to go out and… attack the public spirit… if not, of what use is he? Why was he born?”
That was written in 1948, in a letter by the French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, and I quote it here to introduce the topic of why not only argument but political argument belongs in fiction.
The inclusion of political argument in fiction is often seen as an anathema in this country these days. It shouldn’t be. Fiction, and particularly novels, not only can but should tackle everything about life, including political, moral, and ethical questions. Novels are supposed to delve into how we live, after all, to pry open the lid to secrets, to probe and poke and question and challenge – and, yes, even to teach. Novels are supposed to engage in argument. So to my mind, the question is not whether to use argument in fiction, but how.
Basically, argument can be written in three ways. The writer can address the reader directly; think of Tolstoy, Kundera. and most of the French. The writer can have a character wrestle with an argument in her own head: think of Woolf, Joyce, and again Tolstoy, along with almost all non-American fiction. Or the writer can have characters argue amongst themselves – not only about domestic matters but about politics, morals, religion and other such Big Subjects. These three approaches are not mutually exclusive, but my impression is that this last one, in particular, has atrophied in recent American literature, and I have been wondering why.
American fiction – and forgive me for this wild generalization – does seem to have a fear of engaging directly with political argument these days, at least in any way that is not ironic. It’s fine to have characters argue about infidelity, sex, friendship, childrearing, organic food and so on. But make your characters debate politics, war, or current affairs with any earnestness and you will be accused of not being “literary” before you can blink. Instead, you will be called manipulative, polemical or, worst of all, journalistic.
This may be partly because, with the explosion of memoirs, self-help books and therapy, along with the “information highway” via the Internet, chronic American busyness, and Desconstructionist cynicism, the poor novel has been demoted to mere entertainment. I hear so many people say they only read fiction to escape, and by that they mean escape to a world where everything works out just fine, no matter what.
But that’s not what a serious novel should offer. A serious novel should never serve readers a platter of happy endings and unrealistic hopes, of sentimentality or any other self-delusional mendacity – leave that to Disney. A serious novel should challenge a reader’s assumptions, the received wisdom of the times and the rhetoric of popular culture. It should “attack the public spirit,” to use Artaud’s words, by making readers think in ways they have never thought before.
One of the ways to achieve this is through argument. I love both to write and to read about characters arguing over things that really matter because it can shake me out of my accustomed viewpoints. It can remind me that many topics don’t have a simple right or wrong – that two people can be both right and wrong simultaneously. And indeed, it is just that sort of gray, complicated, puzzling, ambiguous, paradoxical landscape that makes a novel.
I’ve come to wrestle with all this recently in the novel I am writing now called Love in the Long War about the Iraq War and its aftermath. In one scene, Khalil Pachachi, an Iraqi who works as an interpreter for the US Army, is arguing with his wife, Naema Jassim, about his job.
“It isn’t only the danger I mind, or even all the secrets we must live with,” Naema said. “It’s that this job is changing you so. It’s making you hard and distant from me. You lie to me all the time now – I can see it. Tariq hardly knows you any more, and even I wonder if you’re the same man I married.”
Khalil looked down at the table, pained by the truth of her words. “I know it seems like that, ayuni. But remember, it’s not only our survival at stake but my honor – my honor as a son, a father and husband.” He raised his head. “My honor as a citizen of Iraq.”
Naema drew herself upright, her face hardening. “What honor? Have you forgotten what the Americans have done to us?”
“Of course not.”
“Then how can you keep working for them?”
Khalil looked at her in exasperation. “I’ve told you. It’s the only way I know how to help our people. I can prevent the misunderstandings that cause so many needless deaths. I can make it clear if people are innocent.”
“What do you mean, if they are innocent? Are we not all innocent? Aren’t we only trying to defend ourselves?”
“You know it’s not as simple as that. I must do what I can to stop my country from destroying itself.”
“It’s the Americans who have destroyed us! They should have left us alone.”
“So you would prefer to have stayed under Saddam?”
Naema raised her chin angrily. “How can you say that? No, Saddam would have fallen in the end. You know he was growing weak. We didn’t need imperialist occupiers to murder us and smash our cities.”
Khalil shook his head. “That’s not true, Naema. Even if Saddam were as weak as you say, Qusay would have taken over and been just as bad. I agree the Americans have made terrible mistakes, but as it is now, who else will keep the peace? Shia and Sunni, Kurds, too – we’re tearing one another apart. This country’s lost its reason — without the Americans, we’re doomed. Surely you see this?”
My purpose in writing this argument, along with others in the book, was to force the reader to think, not just to sit passively and absorb. Whom do you agree with? An Iraqi who works with the occupiers in the name of peace and democracy, even though he’s seen as a traitor for doing so? Or an Iraqi who believes the Americans have done nothing but harm and that interpreters are betraying their own people? It is not a question with a simple answer.
But beyond the specific subject matter, my hope is simply to use argument to engage the reader in my book – not to entertain or placate or numb, but to provoke. In short, I see argument in fiction as an invitation. Come with me, it says to the reader: let’s talk.
Helen Benedict, who teaches at Columbia University, is the author of Sand Queen and five earlier novels. Her writings on the Iraq War inspired a lawsuit against the Pentagon and the film The Invisible War.