I recently saw a tweet by writer Thomas Chatterton Williams that said, “We are going to need very brave novelists again.” My first reaction was that he’s right. My second was that very brave novelists already exist, it’s just that nobody’s ever heard of them.
I’m slightly skeptical of the word brave here. People who fight in wars or put out fires or take care of sick people are brave. A brave writer to me is an atheist blogger in Bangladesh, not an American novelist. Then again, as we have been reminded by the recent attack on middle school teacher Samuel Paty in France, beheaded for showing cartoons to his pupils, there is still a danger for anyone wishing to express themselves wherever they are in the world.
But I can tell you one place you’re not likely to find a brave novelist again anytime soon: mainstream American publishing. Though I can think of a few famous contemporary novelists whom I’d call brave, they mostly rose to prominence in previous decades, when the literary world was a little less hysterical and a little less ideologically driven.
I recently heard an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, on Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast. Both Ellis and Palahniuk agreed that, had they debuted today, they would never have been published by a mainstream American press and probably would have had to self-publish.
It’s always been difficult for any novelist who takes risks to get published, but in an industry ruled by sensitivity readers, morality clauses and Twitter mobs, that uphill slope is even steeper. And before any novelist can get a manuscript onto a publisher’s desk, they usually have to pass it through a literary agent. I myself was told by one agent, not that my book was badly written, but that the main character had “flawed thinking.” When I told her that he’s supposed to have “flawed thinking”—my novel is called Lying Bastard for a reason—she remarked that “it seemed to be not just a character flaw of him personally but something the manuscript itself is steeped in.”
Williams is correct that there is a problem here, but it is going to take more than a few brave novelists to solve it.
Another place you’re not likely to find a brave novelist again is at a university. Who can deny the continuing influence of the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) programs on American literary culture, where most mainstream American writers now emerge (and make all those important literary connections). Many will enter an MFA program with the desire to be a great American novelist and leave with the desire to be a university professor, which means that they will need an impressive CV with publications in all the right places to compete for those future tenure track jobs. Many will attend literary conferences before they’ve even written anything decent. The careerist intent of a writer destroys any inclination to be brave. As someone who occasionally teaches creative writing, I know that a lot of good comes out of these programs, but the academic environment as a whole does not reward bravery. Some professors, often fearful for their own jobs (and rightfully so, especially since most are adjuncts without any protection), even forbid certain types of writing that might lead to too much transgression. I recently had a student reach out to me, asking if I had a “ban” on any types of stories and inquiring if he might add my class, because he was told by another instructor that the writing he wanted to do (horror, I believe) wasn’t acceptable.
The strangest part is, it’s not like there isn’t a market for transgressive, bold, honest, brave or even just shocking writing. Readers thirst for writing that isn’t safe, watered down or altered by a hired hand to make sure it doesn’t offend anyone. As a reader myself, I’m always looking for novels which don’t make me feel like I’m being spoon-fed some sanitized bullshit. A brave novel, to me, is one that doesn’t flinch or turn away from some truth about humanity no matter how ugly, in which something is revealed to me, not preached at me, and usually one in which the author’s political leanings aren’t obvious and I am forced to think deeply about the subject matter.
Not even the small press is safe—or perhaps it is too safe? Once a harbinger of transgressive writing, much of it has been reduced to the same sort of moral panicking as mainstream publishers. The small press is no longer what we used to call the underground. Some small presses still take risks, but the glory days of the small press—from say, the 1960s to the 1990s, when transgression was a virtue and risk was valued—are long gone. Gone also are the days of literary magazines with submission guidelines that merely said “No taboos.” You’re more likely to find a long list of ethical codes in small press submission guidelines today, warning writers of their responsibility to the community. At least when you sign a morality clause at a mainstream publisher, they usually give you a hefty advance on your soul.
There are multiple reasons for these changes. One, perhaps, is generational (cue my sensitivity reader for ageism); another is branding. The youngest and savviest might not only have a different mindset about art, but also understand that when it comes to running a small press, survival depends upon community acceptance. Individualism and contrarianism are no longer virtues. Whether this is motivated by fear or desire remains unclear. After all, the mob is perhaps more frightening to a small press. Without the big budgets and clout of mainstream publishers, a powerless small press can be ruined far more easily over a single infraction. For a small press that just wants to stay afloat, there is tremendous pressure to toe the line.
The sad part is, often that pressure is applied not by government or religious officials but by other writers, publishers and editors themselves—as when young adult fiction author Amélie Wen Zhao was forced to withdraw her debut novel from her publisher to appease a Twitter mob (composed of other authors); or when Hesh Kestin’s satirical novel The Siege of Tel Aviv was dropped by Dzanc shortly after its release, after a small group of writers, who had apparently only read an excerpt, accused the book of having Islamophobic undertones. Likewise, the controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt (which, at its core, concerned the fact that Cummins wrote about a Mexican bookseller, despite not being Mexican), spearheaded once again by other writers, led the author to cancel her book tour over safety fears.
For too long now, artists have failed to defend other artists. In fact, the very literary communities that should be defending their own are more often than not the ones inciting outrage. I’ve seen well-intentioned but fragile writers cancel themselves in public self-floggings, for the smallest transgressions, usually due to some fictitious accusation invented by another member of the same community. I’ve seen writers withdraw their own work from publishers who have been deemed problematic by the community, purely out of fear of exile; I’ve even seen editors step down from their own magazines.
In another podcast appearance, this time on Joe Rogan, Chuck Palahniuk remarked that even he had been kicked out of a writing group he’d been part of for decades, for being too transgressive in his writing.
Such tensions aren’t particular to our age. The greatest novelists have always offended somebody, Mary Shelley for immorality, James Joyce for obscenity and Richard Wright for being one of the first bold African-American novelists to depict the cruelty of life under Jim Crow. Not to mention James Baldwin, for not only depicting his African-American experience, but for writing a love story between two men in his novel Giovanni’s Room, not something on (or in) the books in the 1950s. The difference is that at least the artists and publishers mostly stuck together and the battle was usually against the government or the church or other powerful outside forces.
Technology may have made a difference too. Given that we are so much better (if you can call it that) connected via social media, the stakes are much higher for both individuals and presses, and being brave may have more totalizing consequences.
Who would defend Salman Rushdie if a fatwa were issued against him today? (Of course, some did not stand up for him even in 1989, though many did, including organizations like PEN, his own publishers, and the many bookstores that continued to carry The Satanic Verses, despite bombings and death threats.) In some ways, Rushdie was lucky to have already been established by the time the fatwa happened (though I guess one benefit of being an unknown is that you’re less likely to have a fatwa issued against you), or he might’ve lost even more than he did during those years in hiding. He might’ve lost the chance of having his works read at all, which is the most frightening consequence for any writer. Williams is right that “we are going to need very brave novelists again,” but we are also going to need very brave agents and editors and publishers.