Immediate. Cosmic. Reform.
In the autumn of 1991, Professor Anita Hill went public with harassment allegations against soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The Hill-Thomas hearings, like the video evidence and trial over the police beating of Rodney King, turned the early 1990's into a serious period of racial reckoning in America. For a privileged white girl with a strong inborn hankering for social justice, these events hit me hard. I still lived in California when Rodney King was brutalized and the Los Angeles riots erupted. I listened to Anita Hill's testimony on the radio every day at work.
I was drawn to these stories so much that I inserted myself into them. It was Nina Totenberg who broke the Anita Hill Story. The following year, she was flooded with requests for speaking engagements. She came out to Stanford to speak at the journalism school, in fact. On the day she arrived, I left my secretarial desk at the History Department, where I was working to pay off student loans, and cornered her as she tried to get out of the elevator. I stuck my hand out, and said, "Hi I'm Erin Clune. I applied to be your intern this year. I wanted to introduce myself."
Nina later told me that she chose me, from hundreds of intern applicants, because of my weird elevator stalking. "It showed me you had that oomph," she said. Yes, she actually said oomph. It's a real word! I am a big admirer of Nina to this day, and am happy to report that she still answers my emails. She is one of several women with powerful voices who has immeasurably influenced my own voice.
Now, this may seem like a narrative detour at first, but please hang in there.
Another personal hero of mine, in the category of powerful vocal women, is Doris Lessing. Through college and this entire period that I'm describing, I cherished my copy of The Golden Notebook -- this exact beat-up copy, pictured below. I read it over and over. In a literary sense, I thought that the genius of Lessing was her ability to layer a complex narrative through an explicit treatment of political themes and trends: Colonialism, Socialism, Capitalism, Feminism, Modernism, Racism. A lot of people hated it, I came to discover. Reflecting on the novel's poor reception in certain critical circles, Lessing wrote in the introduction to this copy of the book: "[T]here is no doubt that to attempt a novel of ideas is to give oneself a handicap." I read this at the time but I didn't pay much attention to it. The only sentence that I underlined in her introduction was this: "[G]rowing up is after all only the understanding that one's unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares." As a freshly-minted young adult, motivated to learn and understand as much as I could about racial and social justice, it was women like Nina Totenberg, Doris Lessing, Anita Hill, and Hillary Clinton who showed me where I might fit in, and make a difference.
I went back to read Didion's essay on Doris Lessing recently, and was amazed at her sour response to what was my favorite book. Didion called Lessing "a woman of determinedly utopian and distinctly teleological bent, assaulted at every turn by fresh evidence that the world is not exactly improving as promised." Didion wanted nothing to do with characters who represent ways to change the world. Who communicated Lessing's current theory about how to change the world. Who explored their role in a specific political end game (teleology). Madame Bovary, Didion wrote, "told us more about bourgeois life than several generations of Marxists have[.]"
Well. I've never read Madame Bovary. Or a novel by Joan Didion. But I adore Doris Lessing's fiction, in part because it told me so much about colonial Africa and the struggle of feminism! So when Didion dunks on Lessing for being "possessed" by her politics, for writing "exclusively in the service of immediate cosmic reform," I say: "Okay, Joan Didion. Different strokes for different folks. There are lots of different kinds of novels. And that's a good thing." But to wit: Isn't there also a place in the world for novels about immediate cosmic reform?
Now, let me close this heady loop for you.
Last year, as our nation roiled through another painful period of racial reckoning, I wrote my first novel. In my inaugural post on this blog, and subsequent others, I've talked about how this story -- imagining people and layering a narrative -- was fundamentally an expression of my political voice, the literal product of my historical perspective and research. I'm not sending out query letters saying, "Hi, I write like Doris Lessing." That would be embarrassing. I do view my story in her genre, though. I see it as a novel of ideas. I wonder if the "utopian and teleological bent" of my writing maybe strikes fiction people, including agents, as stereotypical and shallow. I have to wonder! It's all I got right now.
I'll leave you with these questions, to ponder. What do you think about, in Joan Didion's words about Doris Lessing, a "novel in which the characters exist only as markers in the presentation of an idea"? What if that idea is racial equality and justice? What if political novels are another tool by which to engage people in movements? What do we need? Immediate cosmic reform. When do we need it? Now.