Could Heaven Ever Be Like This

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Why Read Fiction?

Appreciating literature doesn’t mean identifying with an author

The Signal

The line between progressive cultural criticism—book reviews, movie reviews, etc.—and progressive political commentary seems to be thinning. As the American critic Lauren Oyler has noted, creators must now justify their work as “necessary” or risk putting its very existence in question. In published criticism and social-media posts, new novels and television shows get assessed not merely on of the identity of the creators, but according to whether they are making unambiguously correct political arguments. Art is deemed bad if the artist has (or even had) objectionable politics or was awful in his personal life. Professors, critics, and other cultural authorities will conflate the enjoyment of art with an endorsement of the ideas of the artist (or even of the prevailing mores of the time and place the artist emerged from). Readers and viewers, guided by contemporary criticism, can assume the presence of bigoted fictional characters—or merely ones whose mores are of a different time—indicates a bigoted work. While this trend in criticism presents as progressive, some of the most engaged counter-criticism against it is grounded in liberal ideas. Even if you share the belief that art should be inclusive, in terms of both who should be considered an artist and whom art should represent, should this have to mean banning or cancelling certain works—or, at minimum, ignoring them?

The London-based writer Hannah Williams noticed a discrepancy between her own reading preferences and the expectation of what a woman today ought to read, or more importantly not to read. Williams is not on a quest to purge her shelves of white male authors—even of the ones who were not very nice, or even at-all good, people. And she discovered that she was not alone: In an article for Mel Magazine, “The Women Who Read ‘Bad’ Male Authors Are Sick of Your Stereotypes,” Williams shares the accounts of several women whose actual reading habits diverge from these expectations. The article is a response to a social-media meme about white male writers and the awful white ex-boyfriends women associate with their books. Williams demonstrates how older, benevolent-feminist concerns converge with more recent ideas about the supposed political necessity of avoiding white male authors entirely. The phenomenon, she explains, isn’t merely a criticism story, but also part of a performative online hatred of men among women who date them.

Moving beyond the idea that white men’s experiences are somehow the most universal does not, Williams believes, have to mean imposing a special set of restrictions on readers who aren’t white men. If fiction is an opportunity for everyone to be able to gain insight about the human experience from—or just enjoy reading—authors of all backgrounds, and in all kinds of settings, then it doesn’t help anyone to insist that only people who share the same race or gender as canonical authors can read them.

Read the article here.

‘We Are Going to Deprive You of an Enemy’

What did winning the Cold War do to American life?

The Signal

There’s a feeling of disintegration in the United States. Partisanship has reached extraordinary levels. Since the early 1990s, the number of Democrats and Republicans who have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party has more than doubled to well above 50 percent. Americans routinely see each other—not Russia, or China—as their country’s gravest enemy. In 2018, a plurality of Democrats said that the world leader who posed “the greatest threat to peace and security” to the U.S. was Donald Trump. In January 2021, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election—or as they apparently saw it, to restore the election after its “theft.” Even in mainstream media, there is talk of cataclysmic unrest or civil war. Why are the national bonds frayed and possibly broken?

Read the article here.

Are You Marginalized?

Variations on the theme of social exclusion

The Signal

In a December 2020 op-ed in The New York Times, “The Post-Trump Future of Literature,” author Viet Thanh Nguyen made a case for politically engaged fiction and poetry: “Explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.” It’s a common kind of list, and it raises a set of questions we may often pass over without asking: Are these groups always the marginalized? Or are the marginalized different in different contexts? And if so, what if anything do these groups and contexts have to do with one another?

When people talk about marginalization, what are they actually talking about?

Read the article here.

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