From Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories:
Sandy Bates: But shouldn’t I stop making movies and do something that counts, like-like helping blind people or becoming a missionary or something?
Voice of Martian: Let me tell you, you’re not the missionary type. You’d never last. And, and incidentally, you’re also not Superman; you’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.
That quote comes to mind after reading most of a long winded New Yorker article entitled What Julio Cortázar Might Teach Us About Teaching Writing (external link). In it, the conventional teaching writing model, advice on improving your craft, is supplemented or replaced by the idea that you should use your writing to improve society. Pasha Malla quotes Viet Thanh Nguyen:
“As a young aspiring writer, I was troubled by how these workshops, aside from the ‘art’ of writing, did not have anything to say about the matters that concerned me: politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideology.”
Malla writes a little by himself in this selection and quotes Cortázar again, “As Cortázar’s social awareness developed, he decided that the purpose of writing was to ‘counteract as much as possible the propaganda of those in power.’ This project required not only engagement in the present moment but an awareness of social context and historical precedent.” And that as writers, “‘[W]e should have the fundamental obligation to analyze and, in some cases, to criticize, and, if really necessary, to destroy.'”
I don’t get it. I struggle with every sentence and every paragraph I write. I work under deadline. I’m lucky to finish six 2,000 word articles a year, my slowness due to perfectionism, research, internet writing, and handling the demands that life requires of us all: grocery shopping, talking to friends, dealing with money, cleaning my apartment, getting my truck serviced, going to the dentist, and so on. I cannot begin to think how I am supposed to enlarge my mission beyond the requirements my editors set and the deadlines imposed by them.
Where in a story to appear in Rock&Gem Magazine am I going to war against the establishment? And if I am going to write like Rage Against The Machine, who is going to pay for that drivel? Who wants to hear it? Where is the market? I’m politically aware and I contribute when I can to certain causes. But don’t ask me to politicize my writing. I’m here to inform on the subjects my editor and I have agreed upon. I’m not a politician. To paraphrase Woody Allen, I’ll make the world better by being a better writer.
A Last Thought
Orwell is perhaps my favorite writer. A completely political writer. I don’t know how he supported his writing. I think he had sponsors with money. His finances are a mystery but at different times he packed off to France and once to Spain to fight in Catalonia. His career was successful from the start and he often got editing gigs and for a long time worked for the BBC. Perhaps you can be a political writer if that is what you specialize in and you are brilliant. As for the rest of us pedestrian writers, there will always be a need for someone to describe a duck refuge or where to look for garnets.