“Our literary elites may all come from the same expensive institutions,” Jessa Crispin writes in issue 62 of The Baffler, “but they are all working stiffs in their own minds, pretending to feel solidarity with the working classes.” Those literary elites, she writes, have helped flatten contemporary literature into a few “dead zones incapable of innovation . . . How does one expect to find something wild in a plot of feed crops constantly doused with herbicides?”
Meanwhile, the titans of multinational corporations scaffold their shitty politics with precepts ripped from shitty novels. Politicians, oligarchs, sextons, and janitors routinely junk fictions for parts in order to get things done. Thankfully, the writers in this issue are first readers who approach a fiction, or even literature itself, as a collection of scenes of instruction. Lucy Ellmann, in “My Study Hates Your Study,” compares literature (and art more broadly) to a “last wilderness” unspoiled by science and technology; for his part, Nathan Shields recounts the century-long winnowing by which classical composers became just another set of entrepreneurs hawking personal brands. Lucy Ives, writing about the fiction of Dodie Bellamy, follows the nonexistence of the clitoris in fiction to a startling revelation on the mirror-like emptiness of sex. Wen Stephenson links the scandal scenes of Dostoevsky to a moment of profound domestic horror in his own life.
Other writers approach political rationales as fictions (and not merely as falsehoods). As Sophie Pinkham reminds us in her essay on Ukrainian writer Yevgenia Belorusets, “This is a moment when facts are both utterly compromised and vastly overvalued—asked to do all the work of politics, to justify whole worldviews with single data points.” Writing about the grave history of human contagion, Ben Ehrenreich explains that the science surrounding aerosol transmission was never “a noble crusade against superstition, as modernist mythmaking would have it, but a political struggle.” Maxwell Burkey unwinds the civil religion of postwar American patriotism, finding a literary genre with its own Christs and perennial left-wing devils. Lisabeth During, perusing Jacqueline Rose’s writing on male violence, asks, “Do you need to be above or beyond violence to deliver judgment on it? And if you are above it, how on earth can you understand it?” Sophie Lewis, in our opening salvo, takes to task a historical feminism whose exclusionary fiction of womanhood has made very real ways of living “impossible to knit into the story.”
While the powers that be stop to lick their pencils, taking more cues from lousy science fiction writers as they pen these political rationales, Christopher Urban turns instead to the astronauts and academics (not to mention the vampires) that populate Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, which provides “a critique of the kinds of bourgeois literary fiction unwittingly produced today to maintain the status quo.” Will Burns finds both communion and transgression in the literature of the English pub. And Michael Hofmann surveys the career of Bei Dao, whose poems “stare back at the reader, unflinchingly, confrontingly. One can feel the energy that has gone into their making, the hard masking-tape edges, the chips and curds of unmixed color applied with a palette knife. There is no empty space, no wash, no contextualizing, no aspic. No throat-clearing, no storytelling, little paraphrasable content.” We’ll take it—and let the literary elites keep to their light reading.