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conversations: What makes Good Political writing?
Richard Melo, novellist
Richard Nash, publisher
Lynne Procope, poet
Rebecca Shoenkopf, journalist
Scott Woods, poet

RICHARD NASH: The thing that I always look for in political writing is self-implication. I love first person political writing, and I love narratives. Most compelling political writing, to my mind, involves story and character – one of the most compelling political books I’ve ever been involved with was a book by Paul Berman called Power and the Idealists. Deep down, the book approved of the Iraq War, which meant that deep down I completely disagreed with it. Yet Berman’s ability to tell a story (a story, in this case, of the European Left, from the late 1960s to the present) created a momentum that was very powerful, as effective a rhetorical device as I’ve ever seen. Also, without getting into the Great Man vs. Socio-Economic Movements dualism in historiography, by allowing the personalities of Cohn-Bendit, Kouchner, Regis Debray, Joschka Fischer to be present, the reader felt inside the debates they’ve had with one another over the years...

It was manipulative, for sure, but isn’t everything?

REBECCA SCHOENKOPF: Hello, everyone. I would like to start by citing the best political writer I know: me! Rebecca Schoenkopf! Why am I such an awesome political writer?

First, probably, because I write in a forum that allows me to call a twat a twat (Maureen Dowd can't do this, and so is forced to use fey little constructs like “the boy king” or whatever), and second, because it turns out I know a lot of stuff. Go ahead: ask me anything. I won't even use Google!

Here, for instance, is something I wrote about Arnold Schwarzenegger: “When Arnold Schwarzenegger talks, I listen.  Well, I mean, sometimes I listen. Sometimes I just stare off into space and wonder what would happen if you put a cheeseburger in front of Maria Shriver.  Or a plump baby.  Actually, come to think of it, I really don’t listen at all.”

Or: “Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected governor of the golden dream by the sea. He reneges on every campaign promise he can remember making, and then reneges on other candidates’ promises for good measure.  Everyone is thrilled to pieces and blames the legislature, except Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-The Taliban), who blames Bill Clinton.”

Here’s one: “A sex scandal could never sink our good Governor Schwarzenegger, though not for his lack of trying.  And I’d still sleep with him before I slept with Kevin Federline, though I have to say: not happily.”

And here’s my personal fave: “Hey, you know who’s charming?  Arnold Schwarzenegger!  He’s so charming!  I think it’s especially charming how the emcees at his events goad the mobs to ‘find the guy from the Los Angeles Times and beat him up!’ Ha!  That is hilarious!  It is so very funny—especially when you consider how very easy it is to sway and incite the kinds of folk who would show up for an Arnold rally. By which I mean they are simple-minded and stupid.  Thank you. “Hey, here’s a funny one the emcees should try: ‘Find the shops of the Jews and break all the windows, and in the morning, we will round them up and put them on the trains!  Ha, ha, just kidding!’ Thank you.  You know what’s even more charming than that?  How Arnold grabs the breasts of the women and says to them, ‘Have you ever had a man slide his tongue up your ass?’ and all of these things.  No, I’m not bothering to put 'allegedly.' “Sue me.”

See? Awesome! But I also know lots of stuff, too. I won't bother with that right now.

I will say, I think some of the best political writers of our time are women. (You know who else is a woman? I am!) Dowd doesn't do it for me very often – she's got both a shallowness and an image-driven spite that can be off-putting. But how about Digby, of Hullaballoo, who's just come out of the gender closet? How about Nora Ephron, whose meanderings about her neck distill the personal with a germ of political universal truth? Ellen Goodman may be a bit mainstream for my tastes, but she is direct, progressive, and concise. How about our sainted Miss Ivins? That woman was funnier than shit and didn't need to call people faggots or wish death on anyone to make her point – a point that may have been pointed but was also imbued with warmth and love for all of humankind, even the stupid ones. I really miss that lady. She was a great old broad. Can I get a second?

RICHARD MELO: As a slow-working novelist, I am already thinking about what reading audiences will be looking for deep into the post-Bush era. As an enthusiastic reader of new fiction, I am also eagerly anticipating a novelist with the nerve to write the next Great American Political Novel. What would it look like?

The next Great American Political Novel might or might not resemble previous works such as Robert Coover's The Public Burning and E.L. Doctorow's Book of Daniel. The novel might or might not draw from the satirical impulse and expose the blindspots in how Americans see themselves. It might or might not look back on George Bush as a remarkably ineffective and unreflective leader who fears failure as much as he wallows in it. It might or might not look back on these times and ask the question, does a nation get the leaders it deserves?  I also hope that all of it is without a trace of dogma and funny as hell. With the 24-hour news cycle and no time to digest what's happening before the next thing happens, it's left up to literary writers to establish lasting perspectives on where we've been.

LYNNE PROCOPE: I began in poetry, believing myself to be very political. That meant a decided leaning toward the reactionary spoken word voice. Now that's not at all a bad thing but nowadays poetry that insinuates itself into the political dialogue by examining the intimate space and the individual human being really grips me and lingers for years. That’s not news at all but, for the record, when I write this I’m thinking of Martin Espada’s work in particular, from “Jorge the Janitor Finally Quits (Rebellion is the Circle of a Lovers Hands)” to “Parole Hearing,” which I think is in Alabanza but I could be wrong so don’t quote me.

I’m also considering Patricia Smith’s hardnosed persona poems which work because they are personally revealing and simultaneously directly political in what they strive to say. For me this type of poetry presents compelling political writings because they are capable of inviting in the person without space in their lives to consider art or politics or intellectualized exposes on socio-political theory. This type of clean, precise work opens up the discourse at a level where, in our time, it is most crucial and makes it possible for the reader to regard facets of life that aren’t always available or attractive.

SCOTT WOODS: There is a difference between recognizing the evils of the world and making people think or feel differently about the evils of the world. No one thinks the world is perfect, and more than a few people get that the world is filled with bad governments, people and acts. Art that talks down to these basic acknowledgements is not only ineffectual, it’s pandering and disrespectful to both the issues and audiences it pretends to address. It’s why no one uses the old excuse for gangsta rap anymore (that its images and tales reveals the street to those who won’t listen): because no one buys it. So we expect more from work that intends to guide us, to show us the political way. We expect that work that is meant to be political not be pedestrian. We expect it to illicit action with its sharing.

The time of passive political work has come and gone. The world is too big and too uncaring to give much of the work that would fall under this mantle much credit. I care enough about both the world and art that I only want to come into contact with political work that genuinely attempts to change the world around it. One does not accomplish this task with statistics or laundry lists of the world’s ills or preaching to the choir. One does that by changing the way the world sees itself, manipulating how it feels about what it sees. Work that tries to guilt an audience into simple recognition of problems is failing work. People naturally resist guilt, and with the proliferation of the internet, news outlets and the sheer magnitude of bad governing the world over recognition of social ills isn’t the problem.

There is good and productive political work out there in all forms today. Sadly, the good works are too few and far between, sunk in a sea of too-like-minded and cliché-driven works that pretend to the activist throne.

RICHARD NASH: We're not really firing salvos at one another here, which might not make for the best theater, Victor! Hope you don't mind that we endorse one another.

One of the key statements here is, I think, “One does that by changing the way the world sees itself.” This is the key, though of course the challenge is to decipher what that will entail at any given moment. There can be a presumption that satire achieves this ipso facto and it sure don't. If I had a dollar for every fiction submission I got in the 2003-2006 time frame involving a brash Southern president and bald manipulative crony set anywhere from 2008 to 2108 AD I wouldn't have had to sell Soft Skull. It was truly remarkable. It's the quieter and more personal stuff, the stuff that Lynne describes, that I'm most reliably moved by, though I'll also say that where one can take broadbrush satire *and* have characters function the way Lynne describes, a la Matthew Sharpe in Jamestown or Lydia Millet in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, that's where you'll find me awfully happy! A novel wherein Lynne and Rebecca are characters. (Incidentally, one of our panelists does this awfully well in a novel called Jokerman 8, though I must confess to being that book's publisher.)

RICHARD MELO: I've been painting the exterior of a house over the last few days, so I've had plenty of time up on a ladder with nothing else going on to think more about this topic:

Richard: You got me wondering, maybe all political writing is manipulative, and the art to it is when all you see are the puppets and not the strings.

Rebecca: Here's a second on your praise of Molly Ivins. She saw The Shrub coming long before most. I wish I shared even a small share of your self confidence when it comes to political writing. When I comment on politics myself, I always feel like I'm not saying anything that anyone doesn't already know and that only anger and emotion show through. It's something I wish I could do better.

Lynne: For me, political writing is at its most effective and compelling when it's at a personal level. It's much easier to relate to individuals and single voices than theory or groups/ movements.

Scott: I see a huge challenge in moving past the stage of “preaching to the choir.” It just seems easier for folks to stay within their comfort zone. Creating vigorous political work is part of it; getting it out to an audience is a nightmare.

REBECCA SCHOENKOPF: Scott wrote: “There is good and productive political work out there in all forms today.  Sadly, the good works are too few and far between, sunk in a sea of too-like-minded and cliché-driven works that pretend to the activist throne.”

I'm online upwards of eight hours a day, precious few of them constrained by “work,” and maybe it's the blog company I'm keeping, but I read very little that's too choir-focused or like-minded. Sure, it's almost all liberal – like Barbara Bush, I refuse to waste my beautiful mind on unpleasantness, although she and I diverge on what constitutes that. For her, it was the body count in Iraq, while for me, it's Jonah Goldberg's bald, cynical lies on the op ed pages of the LA Times.

I read Talking Points Memo for its deep investigative work – when I taught a poli sci class on scandal and the media last quarter at UC Irvine, TPM was one of our class texts. They brought the US Attorneys scandal to the forefront through sheer tenacity and force of will, and only McClatchy News Service could touch them. It was amazing, actually, having McClatchy onboard; all of us lefties had probably forgotten what a mainstream news org could do when it really tried. I read all manner of political blogs – and to a person who gets paid for writing about politics, it was truly scary how well-written the top ones were, by people who were giving it away for free. The middle ranks may be filled with cliché (I guess I'll make it personal: Amanda Marcotte always rankles me with her shrill assumptions about anyone who disagrees with her), but there's bounty out there.

SCOTT WOODS: You'll get no argument from me that there is plenty of erudite and keen political discourse to be had for even the casual scanner of politics.  But when it comes to political art, I maintain that we live in a time when much of the work that presents itself as such isn't truly political and is only art by definition.  That, and it is surprising how difficult it is to find truly good political art in a time as socially and politically dire as the one in which we live.  In a time when technology has put the world at the fingertips of even the least of us almost 24 hours a day, it's almost depressing.

LYNNE PROCOPE: Hmmm, I'm peering sadly at Scott's despair.  Scotty, don't despair, there’s always slam poetry ;-0.    

Ok, seriously now before my sun baked brain slides back to MySpace or something equally ridiculous.  I recently re-read a quote from Camus, where he says, “One either serves the whole of man or one does not serve him at all.  And if man needs bread and justice, and if what has to be done must be done to serve this need, he also needs pure beauty which is the bread of his heart.”  I think that in the world-view of political writings, there is such hope for bread, justice and beauty all at the same time.  From my home space, the Caribbean peninsula, you see the commitment looming.

My bourbon buddy Roger Bonair-Agard’s increasingly more personal and vulnerable poems investigate the staid bullshit of lower and middle class Caribbean society and the underlying chauvinisms and misogyny in them as well as the precise dance between the so-called 3rd world and what I suppose what must be this 1st world in occupying in exile.  Then there’s Marlene Nourbese Philip, of a half-generation or so before us.  She often writes in her first language, island patois, and explores in colorful and wildly transdisciplinarist style issues of racism, cultural territory and exile.  Ntone Edjabe writes with great wit and hope about pan-African politics and culture and edits Chimurenga mag in Cape Town, which also brings to mind the feminist writer Pumla Dineo Gqola, who’s on the front page of that site these days.  Gqola’s writing investigates, mostly, the development of the black female psyche in the light of historical social and sexual stereotyping of our bodies.  Like the other writers on this list, she’s desperately involved in the work that our civilization must do to move forward but is creating work of some style and beauty.  

Globally there are countless writers working at re-memorying historical, political and personal issues to understand what we’ve come out of and/or projecting the impact of our current political climates.  Their work helps move us toward a newer more decent humanity, it deconstructs with great imagination and often outside the syntactic and idiosyncratic and cultural limitations of the English language.  They are pressing at the applied social norms in our society and theirs, the ones which let us persist in our witty apathy about everything as the news unfolds across the globe.  Writers from the ‘un-privileged edge’ are shifting our perceptions of both beauty and need on a democratic level.  They are writing from the bitterest heart with great hope.  Consider also in that list Espada again, his Republic of Poetry is both wildly poetic and very beautiful, as well as Lorde (in her time) and in her tradition Bettina Judd and Aya de Leon.  Then there are sistahs such as Arundhati Roy, Miriam Ching Louis and Grace Chang who confront women’s issues and the dangerous impacts of globalization at the intimate level of literature and in the broad stroke of boldfaced, plainly worded political journalism and essay.  

The only true source of despair, it then seems to me, lies not in a dearth of fully engaged writers doing impeccable work that serves both that need for justice and the need for beauty.   No, it’s in the lack of a global platform similar in its scope to the global platform for porn, spam and violence.  We can get all the rest into our homes on a daily even hourly basis but seldom if ever the strange and wonderful writing and art from every corner of the globe.  

Whew!  Where the heck did that pulpit come from and what is that tune the choir is humming?

REBECCA SCHOENKOPF: I thank you all for what's turned into a hefty reading list of authors that had been unknown to me.

But I tend less toward political theory and more to the practice of it. I also like work that delves into the political media. For that, the seminal work is Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus.

It's been nice chatting with you all. See you around!

RICHARD MELO: The initial question has me wondering, what is political reading? Readers choose what they read and make up their minds about what they read, so it seems like a fair question. I recently saw episodes of Electric Company from the early ’70s and was fascinated at the urgency in teaching young people to read that marked the period. Reading was seen as a way of freeing yourself from oppression. It's not why they are most remembered, but the Black Panthers started several schools. These days, the urgency behind reading is so that children will be able to grow up and find jobs in a competitive global economy. To me, this seems like a profound cultural shift occurring at a greater level than just the school system. When it comes to political education, reading is becoming passé.

On the topic of "preaching to the choir," if you just take the example of blogs that oppose the war (when not occupied by everything else going on), how many are written for young people at risk of military recruitment? How many are offering advice to enlisted soldiers who want to end their service? How many are attempting to organize contributors so that students who refuse to register for the draft can receive "alternative" financial aid to help pay for school? So much of political writing (my own included) involves complaining and complaining and complaining to the likeminded. Rarely is anyone writing to change the minds/offer encouragement to those with the most to lose.

Final thoughts: Impeach, impeach, impeach, and don't stop impeaching until impeaching day has ended.

RICHARD NASH: I’ll confess, as a person who really expresses himself through the books he publishes, rather than directly, I’m finding myself a wee bit stuck, but I just saw this interview with one of my authors, Lydia Millet, just now, and so I’m going to revert to speaking through my authors:

Your novels tend to have a strong political side to them.  In “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart,” war is a main theme, and “My Happy Life” is the tale of a helpless woman whose life is directed by those with status and power.  Do you consider yourself to be a political writer?

LM: I do, though I would hate to be reduced to that label alone. Politics are deadly dull to me unless they're wildly vested with imagination, subtlety, and pain. The inappropriate is important too. Without that, they're just a baseball game—or sometimes pro wrestling.

But I admit I'm pretty impatient with contemporary novels that don't have some kind of political or philosophical bent—or, at the very least, a strong sense of humor about the limitations of the personal. It's easier to write novels, of course, that lack an abstract, large scope, partly because that's where the literary mainstream is — in a kind of interpersonal, material realism that's microscopic instead of macroscopic — and partly because we're trained in personal stories from the time we're born. It's a natural, unconscious medium for us. The never ending narrative of our daily lives is everywhere and we're steeped in it. I want to write past that narrative because it's a trap.  It fosters an entrenched conviction that life is all about the individual self and its problems.

SCOTT WOODS: At the end of the day, I want great discourse, great debate and great art that generates those activities.  In my own work the politics are subtle, trying to find the individual stories in the broad issues.  My poem about a rape survivor, "Queen Takes Black Knight", doesn't thump the podium and shout "rape is bad."  Who thinks rape is good?  And if artists can assume that people generally, if not entirely, feel the same way about rape, why do we feel the need to dumb down our work and insert preamble and statistics that make our work bad?  If I hear another poem with statistics in it, I'm going to kill the first statistician I see.

I only ask that those of us who care about changing the world or changing our corner of it do so with the best art that can be mustered, with art that challenges and binds, not caters and limps along the political foul line.

LYNNE PROCOPE: Uhm... my real final thought on this is, "what do I know?"  but for something that sounds like I have a clue...

The diaspora of voices out there clamoring for change is incredible for its diversity of place and person.  The most interesting thing to me is how different it is between the 1st world with our privileged position on the perceived top, where we're wondering what-to-do!?! what-to-do!?! and wittily commenting on the foibles of our leaders or the ridiculous self-destructiveness of the patriarchal construct (same thing actually) or bemoaning the inevitable in the most erudite of blogs.  We're (and yes, I have to lump myself in there) writing from such privilege and with a great deal of certainty that the nebulous but very popular someone (else) should step in and follow our instructions for saving the world.  Make no mistake, we recycle, we shop mom-&-pop for our coffee, we advocate against AT&T (net neutrality is a must!  AT&T must be stopped!), Amazon and Procter and Gamble in the most pointed way but we're proactively the problem and we know it.  In so much of the third world the intellectual exploration of politics sees the individual as both culpable and capable and the creative class is proactively working for change in the trenches because they understand that they have no choice.  Therefore, the writing IS personal, IS vital, and possesses a commitment and a faith in change and progressiveness that we can't begin to grasp in our living rooms on our Macs.

(The conversation doesn't have to end here, feel free to continue the discussion in The November 3rd Club Forum !)