On writing about America today

The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

If you’ve been reading this column in recent weeks, you know that I’ve been musing aloud about how exactly I should be going about my task of writing about America today. It might sound self-referential or even self-indulgent, but I think it’s a central and even urgent question in a society whose collective life, as expressed in its politics, is increasingly dysfunctional, incoherent and nonsensical. Indeed I’m no longer sure the word “politics” should even be used anymore, in any commonly understood sense.

What we call literary culture in the U.S. is almost always implicitly, and often quite explicitly, all about current events and politics. To get a word in edgewise on any topic that’s not the latest urgent crisis or obsession has always been an uphill battle in a country whose very lifeblood, closely tied to its self-congratulatory self-image as a globally leading democracy, is politics. But though I am, to be sure, a working journalist, my own aspirations have always been fundamentally more literary than journalistic or political. And, to me, the word “literary” connotes taking a step or two back from current events, finding ways to articulate a longer and wider view. And in a way, I would even suggest that doing just that is our most urgent task, because if we can’t do that then we won’t understand what we’re facing.

The genre of travel writing straddles the frontier between journalism and what we consider literature. In my own books of narrative travel, beginning with Alive and Well in Pakistan (2004), I’ve striven to offer what is, at least in my own mind, a kind of journalism that’s alert to events and personalities of the moment, but that remains comprehensibly readable and interesting over a longer term. The modern master of the form, Paul Theroux, expressed this well in a short essay he titled “Travel Writing: The Point of It.” He argued for writing that’s “prescient without making predictions,” and added that he had “always felt that the truth is prophetic, and that if you describe what you see and give it with your imagination, then what you write ought to have lasting value, no matter what the mood of your prose.”

So, I see travel writing as one way to do what I think is needed – stepping back from the urgency of the moment and taking a wider view. And lately I find that, semi-intentionally, I’ve been reading other writers who have asked different versions of the same question about how to acquire and communicate to readers an understanding of what’s going on, when the received definitions and categories don’t actually make sense. One is the wonderful American essayist and activist Rebecca Solnit. In “Preaching to the Choir,” included in her new book Call Them by Their True Names, Solnit argues: “Often, it’s an example of passionate idealism that converts others. The performance of integrity is more influential than that of compromise. Sometimes, rather than meeting people where they are, you can locate yourself someplace they will eventually want to be [my emphasis].”

In a different vein V.S. Naipaul, in his 1987 essay “On Being a Writer,” addressed essential matters of who a writer is in relation to the society he or she is trying to address as readers. “All literary forms are artificial, and they are constantly changing, to match the new tone and mood of the culture,” he wrote. “… The point that worried me was one of vocabulary, of the differing meanings or associations of words. Garden, house, plantation, gardener, estate: these words mean one thing in England and mean something quite different to the man from Trinidad, an agricultural colony, a colony settled for the purpose of plantation agriculture. How, then, could I write honestly or fairly if the very words I used, with private meanings for me, were yet for the reader outside shot through with the associations of the older literature? I felt that truly to render what I saw, I had to define myself as writer or narrator; I had to reinterpret things. I have tried to do this in different ways throughout my career.”

Even longer ago, the American novelist Philip Roth put his finger on what I’ve identified as the oppressive topicality of what American readers demand if they’re to read anything a writer writes, and the distortions and falsifications that creates. What’s fascinating about Roth’s essay “Writing American Fiction” is that he wrote it as long ago as 1961 – a moment that, to one who, like me, was not even born yet, now seems not only remote but enviably stable compared to the present day. Apparently there’s nothing new under the sun; the gripes I have about my country and its aggressive triviality and self-destructiveness are not so new or original after all.

American writers of fiction, Roth complained sardonically way back in 1961, “are generally full of concern for the world about them; finally, however, they just don’t seem able to imagine the corruptions and vulgarities and treacheries of American public life any more profoundly than they can imagine human character – that is, the country’s private life. All issues are generally [considered] solvable, which indicates that they are not so much wonder-struck or horror-struck or even plain struck by a state of civilization, as they are provoked by some topical controversy. ‘Controversial’ is a common word in the critical language of this literature as it is, say, in the language of the TV producer. But it is clear that though one may refer to a ‘problem’ as being controversial, one does not usually speak of a state of civilization as controversial, or a state of the soul.”

The depth of the current crisis in America is such that today, as in Roth’s time, the real problems are of civilization and of the soul. And – annoyingly, given that Americans like nothing better than to solve problems – those might well be problems that can’t be solved. •