The Role of the Novel in a World of Lies

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photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

Last week Sir Salman Rushdie gave a humor-laced talk to a packed house at Princeton University, on a topic of profound interest to every writer and reader. In the old days, say two hundred years ago, one purpose of the novel was to “bring people the news,” he said. People who read novels learned about issues they had no direct experience or knowledge of: Charles Dickens and the exploitation of children, the impact of indifferent schooling, and the depredations of the poor-house; Harriet Beecher Stowe and slavery. (Rushdie repeated the apocryphal comment of Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war!”)

Today, with so many media outlets providing so many opportunities for people to get news, that purpose for novels has been supplanted. At the same time, “we,” he said—possibly meaning Princetonians, Americans, or citizens of the world—are more suspicious of the news we get. The attack on truth has gained traction because people are disillusioned with the news media; accusations of “fake news” fall on receptive ears. This, he agrees, is a dangerous development for the republic.

So what can literature do? “Should we be writing fiction when the world is full of lies?” he asked. While you can anticipate his answer, he gets there in an interesting way. He points to the Pakistani genocide of the educated class in Bangladesh shortly before the latter country’s independence, a well documented episode routinely denied by Pakistan. You may be reminded of the Armenian genocide, and the persistent Holocaust deniers. In writing about events such as that which occurred in Bangladesh, which is in Rushdie’s living memory, even “the act of remembering is politicized.” The difference between this world of lies and the novel, is that “fiction tells you it’s a lie.”

I’m watching the superb televersion of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and I find it so disturbing, so seemingly possible. Even though its underlying truth resonates, I know it flows from a work of fiction—something made up—and that it is not a reflection of objective reality as the purveyors of alt.right dogma contend with their false fictions.

Over many generations, artists (and scientists) find themselves in frequent conflict with politicians because “politicians want to control the narrative.” The more authoritarian they are, the more control they want.

Here he did not explicitly describe Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for his death, issued after publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, but that dramatic episode was clearly on the minds of his audience. (In case you’ve forgotten, Rushdie went into hiding for a few years, and a further fatwa against anyone involved in the novel’s publication apparently resulted in the murder of his translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, and assassination attempts against the book’s Italian translator and its Norwegian publisher, while its Turkish translator was a likely target in an arson attack that resulted in 37 deaths.)

The current crisis in America, he said, arises out of the desire not just to control the narrative, but to totally rewrite it. The recent threats to defund the arts and public broadcasting were transparently not based on the politicians’ stated aim—cost-cutting, which was dubious on its face, since in the federal budget context, these programs are miniscule—but on a much more fundamental hostility to the arts and artistic expression.

In the end, Rushdie said, it is the arts that help us understand the culture of the past: how do we know what went on generations and millennia ago absent the writing, paintings, sculpture, architecture, and other artistic expressions of those former times? While the authorities may control the present, artists’ legacy controls what future generations will think of us.

WEDNESDAY: Rushdie and the Role of the Novelist

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