Literature and political commentary: how far from reality can we stray?

The other night, I finished reading Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, a haunting examination of Chile’s reckoning with the aftermath of dictatorship. The play itself was emotionally powerful, concentrated in its characters and ideas (somewhat in the way poetry has a density of meaning, like the brief but all-consuming burst from a candy against fiction’s more mellow carrot sweetness). It remained ambiguous enough that the audience had really to consider its interpretation. I recommend it heartily.

The play, set in “a country that is probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship,” poignantly explores this political context, but in the pared-down microcosm of three characters. It makes me consider literature’s role in today’s continuingly fraught political arena, as social inequality, denigration of human dignity, and environmental crisis loom ever larger.

Although much of the critical response to Dorfman’s play was positive, some argued that it oversimplified the Chilean political landscape. I ask then, how should we as writers engage with political issues? Is it our responsibility to do so? If so, with what techniques? How explicitly? At how much peril to ourselves?

I am far from being able to answer these questions. Today, I want to at least broach the topic, using Dorfman’s afterword to the play as a starting point. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please share.

First, a bit of context

Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden in 1990, soon after General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte’s authoritarian regime began shifting to democracy. Dorfman describes an uneasiness during the transition, the lingering fear of another military coup, and an eagerness to bury the past and move forward.

Although many felt that artists should wait, should allow feelings to settle before invoking the raw Pinochet years, Dorfman believed that “a fragile democracy is strengthened by expressing for all to see the deep dramas and sorrows and hopes that underlie its existence and that it is not by hiding the damage we have inflicted on ourselves that we will avoid its repetition.”

Fiction and reality

Dorfman writes about the relationship between his fictional story and the very real socio-political forces it personifies. He says…

I knew from experience that distance is often the best ally of an author and that when we deal with events that are being enacted and multiplied in immediate history, a danger always exists of succumbing to a ‘documentary’ or overly realistic approach, losing universality and creative freedom, trying to adjust the characters to the events unfolding around us rather than letting them emerge on their own, letting them surprise and disturb us.

Ariel Dorfman, Afterword to Death and the Maiden, 11 September 1991

I think I’ve often thought of fiction as, at its best, reflecting the real. Obviously not literally so, but the emotions, questions, and characters should be recognizable from life, and that this recognition is what makes the story relevant to readers. Dorfman seems to be coming at these ideas from a different direction, and what he says at first surprised me. Now I feel it percolating into my own mind, rearranging an idea here and a question there.

William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper,” the second portion, from Songs of Experience. Many of Blake’s poems deal with social issues of the day. He’s definitely stylizing, fictionalizing, and the effect is powerful. For more images and poems from Blake, see the Blake Archive.

Dorfman’s idea is that in fact a certain distance from our real subject matter, temporally if nothing else, is usually preferable. When we try to write about something we’re so close to, we tend towards this “documentary” approach, in a way a kind of journalism. “This is what it was really like,” we seem to be telling our readers. Testimonial. And I know that this tendency is real. The focus so many of us place on research for our fiction writing processes, the bejeweled goal to make our fictitious worlds as realistic as possible–this is something I think we often regard as given as writers, that realism, or at least a kind of believability, should always be the objective.

Dorfman seems to argue that, actually, this focus on accuracy or believability constrains us. A more universal, more creative, and perhaps more humanly true story emerges when we distance ourselves from objective reality, when we embrace a more free-flowing journey through our own minds.

This is interesting. Is he right? I’m not sure. I think of the sacred suspension of disbelief that I’ve so often referenced in these blog posts, yet I think too of the Lincoln Michel article on worldbuilding I cited a few weeks ago: “representing reality — whether ‘real’ reality or a fictional one — is simply one way of telling a story,” Michel says, “just one house in the city of fiction. Surrealists, magical realists, post-modernists, and countless other movements or styles create fantastic worlds that function on other levels.” My dad, faithful reader of this blog, likes to say of any unlikely event in a story, “It’s fiction.” Perhaps he’s right. 

At risk of lingering on the point too long, I’ll say too that perhaps Dorfman’s point was not this at all. Perhaps, in a way, it is an affirmation of realism, just of the more poetic, harrowingly truthful kind than of the literal. Human concepts of justice, morality, kindness, all the values we use to map the world, these rarely fit cleanly into facts as they come. Perhaps Dorfman’s hesitation before “documentary” fiction is not so much that we should be open to the unreal as it is an argument that the true reality does not become visible until we shed the facts away. I’m not sure.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica. Through its invention, the painting depicts real horrors of war.

Fiction as political commentary

These questions, about politics, about our role as writers–the question here is, if I am to write about climate change or wealth inequality or the student achievement gap or refugee exoduses, to what extent should I stick to facts? Are invention, ambiguity, condensation, exaggeration–do these tools help? Do they confuse? Are they disrespectful? Are some topics simply off-limits entirely?

And then I step back. What am I saying? We’re fiction writers. We invent. We can write nonfiction. Fine. Nonfiction is essential. Fiction is too, in a different way. I like Dorfman’s idea, that the invention is where the truth comes out. It’s where the facts as they exist are interpreted, the situations hewn into a recognizable, comprehensible, perhaps a mythic kind of form.

I wonder what great fiction and other art today’s political era will generate. If we wait to write, or if today we write about the quandaries of the past, maybe we will have the distance necessary to understand. Or perhaps it’s simply a different kind of understanding, one that yields particular benefits as opposed to the more immediate kind of art.

And yet, political commentary, if it is to result in change (I think of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, whose publication led to sweeping changes in the United States’ food regulation policy), it must come quickly. If we wait, perhaps we will only be writing a eulogy.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for writing. Best wishes,

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