My short story Succession was published recently in Kudzu House, a Florida-based literary magazine focusing on art and the environment. Click here to see it online.
Now that the U.S. has elected a fascist-leaning president, it’s worth remembering that fascism originally arose as an outgrowth of the left. It appealed to those who felt they’d been betrayed and exploited by the ruling class, and of course added an element of blood loyalty to its appeal.
Fast-forward 85 or so years. Last night’s result wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been decades of art and rhetoric advancing the argument that the average American had been screwed over by an uncaring and irredeemable Washington elite. For 40 years, that has been the theme of American culture. Conspiracies in movies and television shows inevitably go all the way to the top. Those celebrities who rallied for Clinton have spent their careers depicting an American democracy that was a sham, an American economy that was a shell game. Think of Washington as depicted on television: Veep, Scandal, House of Cards. Think of the career of Bruce Springsteen, who has spent 40 years writing about the dreams of working class men being betrayed. Is it any wonder that when he appeared with Clinton in Pennsylvania at the last rally of the campaign, he was unable to help her win the Rust Belt states?
Years ago, when I was a history student, I spent my last year working on an honours essay and directed readings course on the intellectual environment of the 1920s and ‘30s, when vast numbers of western writers and artists supported Stalin and a not-negligible number supported fascism. This abandonment of the centre occurred because of a widely held belief that the system, with all its compromises and hypocrisies, was hopelessly corrupt. The only course of action was to raze it in order to build something new. (Virginia Woolf, you may recall, wrote a famous essay after being asked to give money to establish a woman’s college – she answered that, rather than support an effort towards progress within a fundamentally flawed social, political and educational system, she would make a donation to buy “rags, petrol, matches.”)
For decades, the left has been passing around words of wisdom about the futility and fraudulence of democracy. We’ve seen the t-shirt slogans: “If voting could change the system, it would be illegal.” We’ve seen the assessment of Gore Vidal (who went to his grave with kind things to say about the Oklahoma bomber) that the Republicans and the Democrats are just the “two right wings” of the Property Party. Years of this allowed for such a degree of disgust with America that a substantial number of Americans were quick to jump on the 9-11 Truth bandwagon (which began on the left before the extreme right jumped on board). Years of this allowed for the return to a kind of legitimacy of actual communists, most notably Slavoj Zizek, who openly hoped for a Trump victory. And obviously years of this thinking allowed for the spread of the idea that trade agreements are evil – an idea the left has been spreading for the last 30 years and one to which Trump made direct appeal in his promise to end NAFTA and force American companies to bring jobs back to the manufacturing heartland.
And then there’s the toxic mix of racial appeals and anti-establishment anger. Are we really that surprised that white voters in the poorer parts of the country were ready to make that connection? After all, a precedent for racial politics had been set by the left. One of the largest Latino organizations in the U.S. is called La Raza. The Black Lives Matter movement is based on nostalgia for the black nationalist Maoism of the Black Panthers (cool half-time show, Beyoncé!). Progressives have used the term white privilege for the last few years to shut up white people, who, if they wanted to express support for racial equality or appreciation of non-white cultures, also ran the risk of accusations of white saviour complex or cultural appropriation. It has become an article of progressive faith in recent years that white people need to become more conscious of their race, but only in a way that highlights the bad things white people do and have done. Does anybody outside of a university Cultural Studies department believe that this fits with the way human beings actually behave?
Ultimately, then, the left has been increasingly vocal in support of three toxic ideas: 1) that democracy is so rotten that is requires a wrecking ball rather than a repair crew; 2) that trade is not an exchange of goods and services based on supply and demand but a conspiracy to impoverish workers; and 3) that race, rather than a fixation of a few backward relics of the past, is the natural and unavoidable dividing principle in society. Good job letting those genies out of the bottle, progressives. Too bad they call someone else master.
I’m pleased to announce that my current novel, tentatively titled Prodigies, is finally at the stage where I’m looking for a publisher.
Like any novel, this one has been a long project and a labour of love. The story has taken turns I hadn’t anticipated when I started about 18 months ago and new characters have walked into my life as I’ve been writing it. I’ve had to spend a fair amount of time revising earlier chapters to fit the new ideas that came to me as I’ve been writing and, of course, there’s been a lot of revising to make the words sing or to make them fit the characters and the mood of the piece.
Overall, I’m proud of all 102,000 words.
I’m hoping as well that the next announcement I make here is that I’ve signed a contract with somebody that will see me rework (and probably trim) those 102,000 words.
Until then, keep reading, and buying books.
My effort 15 years ago to land a first professional production came back to me recently when I received a message from a scholar who had come across a letter I sent to one of the most influential figures in Canadian theatre in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The researcher is examining the voluminous correspondence of the late Urjo Kareda, who was artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre from 1982 to his death in late 2001. During those two decades, the Tarragon premiered new work by pretty much every major English language playwright in Canada, including Judith Thompson, Joan MacLeod, Morris Panych, Jason Sherman, Michael Healey, and Daniel MacIvor.
In early 2001 I sent a draft of my play Noble Savage, Savage Noble to the Tarragon, where I expected it to languish on the slush pile like most unsolicited scripts sent to theatre companies. In September of that year, I received a detailed reply from Kareda, which, although it was a rejection, gave me the morale boost of knowing that a guy who read piles of scripts every year liked it. Encouraging as the tone of Kareda’s letter was, there was also something pretty bleak in its message: even in the biggest city in the country there might not be enough people with an interest in and knowledge of the ideas of the French Enlightenment to make a play about Rousseau and Voltaire a success. The play did go on to have a successful production in Winnipeg by Theatre Projects Manitoba and, though I never landed a second production, I saw a staged reading of it a few years later at a festival at New York University, an event I’ll go to my grave thinking of as my Broadway debut.
I’m not sure how much of my story, or of Kareda’s letter, will make it into the scholarly book, which is planned for 2017. But here’s his response to that long-ago query:
“Thank you for letting Tarragon have a look at your script Noble Savage, Savage Noble. It’s an intelligent and amusing piece, which makes good use of the techniques of anachronism and fanciful history. The set-up is droll (I had an image of the historical figures against the backdrop of a classic Canadian landscape painting), there are several excellent jokes, and the dialogue has a self-confident poise and polish. I very much enjoyed reading it.
“Having said that, I also have to acknowledge that I can’t see its production possibilities at Tarragon. The piece would be best received by an audience with some easy familiarity with French literature, philosophy and history. I’m not sure I could deliver such an audience for the five to six-week runs that our productions need to fulfill. Your writing lives more in the head than it does in the heart or the loins, and while that is certainly an agreeable change to someone like me who reads a lot of scripts, I cannot help but feel, still, that it is a very specialized piece, a bit rare for a general audience (even as educated as ours is). A good piece, then, and congratulations, but I’m afraid I can’t use it.”
My impetus for redesigning my website (a project that hit a bump when my WordPress account was hacked) was that my publisher, Turnstone Press, made me their Author of the Month for February. Yay me!
In this capacity, I did an interview with Turnstone about my writing process and motivation, wrote a short piece on my writing room, and wrote an essay on the unusual route my novel Dadolescence took to become a book.
Read more about Dadolescence or buy it from Turnstone’s website here.