(Feature) If you only read one book, read one that isn’t true

Idol worship

A connection of mine recently self-pubbed a cyberpunkish dystopian sci-fi novel. Since I’m universally supportive of gatekeeper-free publishing, I was enthusiastic at first, but it’s since turned out to be little more than a thinly-veiled political diatribe in which a noble loner resists a state collectivization scheme.

Now, I don’t share that brand of parochial ideology, which I’m sure contributes to my distaste, but I also don’t care for that kind of fiction generally. Earlier this year, I stopped watching the BBC mystery Unforgotten because it made a hero of the benevolent state to the point that all the social conservatives were villains. It’s fine, I guess, if you’re a wide-mouthed nestling who likes your views regurgitated back to you, but I don’t.

Any creator’s point of view can’t help but inform their art, of course — especially narrative art, which must impose a story on the chaos of the world — but there is a genuine difference between telling a story from your point of view and asserting your point of view through story.

I am not Christian, but I love C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters,” which is a fictionalized account of the Anglican world view. In it, a demon — the eponymous Screwtape — writes a series of epistles to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter. Like the letters of Paul, we never see the replies, but through Screwtape’s successive advice, a story unfolds of the humble human Wormwood is supposed to lead stray, along with a wonderful description of Anglicanism “in reverse” — that is, as it is seen by the forces of darkness.

By the end of the book, faith certainly comes out of the bath smelling sweet. It saves the man in question from temptation and Screwtape turns on his own nephew. But in reading the book, one feels merely that Lewis has opened a door, not that we’re obliged to walk through.

There’s value in such things, in seeing the world from a different point of view. One does not have to be (or become) liberal to appreciate “Beloved” or “A Handmaid’s Tale.” In fact, those whose lives are furthest from the experiences described will likely have the most to gain.

Novels, like any art, can exist as both subject and object. The paradigmatic art-as-object is the print advertisement, which often includes illustrations or logos or elements of design — which we call art. Professional artists like Banksy make a living defacing and denigrating advertisements, especially billboards, but what they’re objecting to is not the art, and rarely even the message, as much as the unquestioned belief that public spaces should be for sale.

But time leaches all advertisements of their commercial content. Those from the 19th century or the art nouveau period are framed and hung on walls these days, meaning they have ceased to be art-as-object and have become — however weakly — art-as-subject.

Good novels, novels that are art-as-subject, describe an experience. Bad novels, art-as-object, prescribe one. They want you to buy something, or at least buy into it. They are worse than advertisements in that, when you are looking at an ad, at least you know you’re looking at an ad. We feel cheated when something that is not supposed to be an ad turns into one — as in the classic scene from the movie A Christmas Story, when Ralphie locks himself in the bathroom to decode a secret message. He expects a thickening of the plot only to discover an Ovaltine pitch.

“1984” and “Lord of the Flies” and “The Screwtape Letters” and “A Handmaid’s Tale” describe a certain world from a certain point of view. They invite us to walk around and see what it’s like there. My shabby novels aim for far less. The world they invite you to explore is merely a fantastical one.

A good novel bends the message around the reader in this way. A bad novel bends the reader around the message. When what it “sells” is a political view (versus, say, a specific candidate), we don’t generally call it an advertisement. We give it a different name: propaganda.

When Picasso painted his Guernica, he was reacting to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, so there is a certain sense in which it is an “anti-war” painting. But there is a difference between Guernica and a Vietnam-era protest poster. The painting merely opens the door on the experience of the town of Guernica, which was casually bombed by the fascists. It is anti-war without becoming propaganda in the same way that “The Screwtape Letters” is pro-Christian without becoming a sermon.

That distinction — between art and propaganda, between having a point of view and selling it — might seem academic, but it matters. In fact, the ability to tell the difference might matter more now than in the recent past because today we are surrounded by ideologues who label everything they don’t agree with as “fake.” We’re told entire media outlets, from The New York Times to FOX News, are best avoided because they’re biased, by which is meant propaganda.

This is not merely wrong, it is pernicious. If the mere presence of a different point of view is your litmus test for propaganda, then you immediately rule out any experience but your own — the scientific equivalent of discarding or explaining away any observations that don’t fit your theory.

We should all read widely. We should all think widely. That includes points of view that appall you.