7 December, 2020
There is a pervasive argument today that writers should not represent other races, classes, genders, sexualities, disabilities, ideologies or religious persuasions in their fiction unless they have ‘authentic lived experience’ from which to draw. The argument is driven by a concern for social justice and a fear that institutions with power will continue, as they have in the past, to misrepresent people with less or no power to speak for themselves. It is a laudable agenda and a reasonable concern in the face of continued racial oppression, sexism and a litany of societal failures.
The mechanistic application of this concern into a de facto policy of rejectionism – where ‘representation is bad’, writers are not to do it, and institutions that don’t defend that orthodoxy are to face sanction – not only constitutes an unacceptable threat to freedom of expression (which is, perhaps, the familiar rebuttal), but also threatens to oppress the very people the policy aspires to support.
I’m a novelist, so let me tell you a story about how a flawed, clumsy and even misinformed act of representation gave courage to a nation and helped millions feel less alone in a world that had forgotten their suffering.
Shortly after he published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, the American novelist John Steinbeck took a trip to Latin America to work on a movie. America was still not in the war and his experience proved to him that Nazi propaganda was widespread, increasingly effective and needed to be countered. Dr Donald V. Coers explained in his 1991 study John Steinbeck Goes to War, that the novelist wrote to President Roosevelt arguing that, ‘a crisis in the Western Hemisphere is imminent, and is to be met only by an immediate, controlled, considered, and directed method and policy.’
Steinbeck wanted to do something about it personally. He found an audience and supporter in the Office of Coordinator of Information at the Office of Strategic Services, then under Colonel William J. ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. The OSS was the forerunner to the modern CIA and Wild Bill had a reputation for out-of-the-box thinking (insofar as he cared about the box at all). With his support, Steinbeck published a book of propaganda to support the occupied peoples of Europe. It was called The Moon is Down. It’s one of my favourite books.
The story was set in an unnamed peaceful, defenceless country in the north of Europe that had been occupied by the Nazis, a country widely accepted to be Norway. In the story, the occupied people were not encouraged to be super-human resistance fighters. Instead, it was about the fundamental ideas that organised and sustained that community through time: ideas of liberty, and participatory government, and freedom of thought, and independence of action – and how they could not be simply ordered away by the occupiers. In the book, the Nazis came to the dawning realisation that they were up against a force much more powerful than themselves.
As Coers tells us, Steinbeck wrote a fable that celebrated ‘the durability of democracy’, and argued through his story that ‘free people are inherently stronger than the “herd people” controlled by totalitarian leaders, and that, despite the initial advantage of the militarily mighty dictators, the democracies would eventually win the war’.
Relevant to our times, an issue over representation sparked the most heated literary debate of World War II. It was not because or how Steinbeck represented the voiceless, powerless and occupied Norwegians (a country he had never visited, a culture he didn’t know, and an experience with which he had no ‘authentic lived experience’), but because of how Steinbeck portrayed the Nazis. Influential critics like Clifton Fadiman and James Thurber were outraged that Steinbeck had portrayed them as intelligent human beings committing evil, rather than mere demons.
Thurber, in The New Republic, said even the title, The Moon is Down, would get him into ‘soft and dreamy trouble’ (it came from a line in Macbeth) and he sarcastically added, ‘a title like Guts in the Mud would have produced a more convincing reality.’
As it happens, Steinbeck was right and his detractors were wrong. Dr Coers learned through his documentation of the impact of The Moon is Down that the occupied peoples of Europe – of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere – had been deeply moved by the book. As he writes, ‘Their explanations of its effectiveness are remarkably similar: somehow an author living thousands of miles away in a land of peace sensed precisely how they felt as victims of Nazi aggression.’ And his portrayal of the Nazis? ‘It never occurred to them that the novel was sympathetic to their enemy. In fact, they regarded it as far more effective than the prevailing formula propaganda, which struck them as comical because it was so absurdly exaggerated.’
In Norway, they were so moved that in 1946, King of Norway bestowed on Steinbeck the Haakon VII Cross, a medal given only to those who distinguished themselves by ‘outstanding service to Norway during the war’.
Steinbeck did not know Norway, or Norwegians. His portrayal was, at times, strange; they were – so to speak – misrepresented. But the Norwegians were moved by the effort – by the act of kindness, by the sympathy and humanity – and they looked past all that. By their own testimony, The Moon is Down helped them feel less alone during a time of darkness, and so they forgave the flaws and celebrated the love.
This forgotten story does not prove that representation is inherently good – that would be an outlandish claim. What it should do to the conscious mind, however, is to awaken it to the reality that it is not inherently bad either. Rather, representation is a tool of art, and one that both writers and the writing community (especially publishers and reviewers) need to approach with maturity, sympathy and a capacity to be moved.
It is a point of fact that, at times, and done right, acts of representation can be a Godsend to those whose lives are cloaked in darkness; whose voices are drowned out by war and genocide, and whose daily experiences are too foreign or unexpected for them to be easily understood by distant peoples without some act of interpretation.
We must take to heart that representation can be a form of cooperation and not oppression; that the fear of causing offence must not silence the efforts to give comfort; that artistic failures are not necessarily moral ones and that justice is never achieved by mechanically applying rigid orthodoxies to the glorious expanse of artistic expression.
We must take these things to heart because sometimes even our failures can help lift the soul of a nation.
Derek B. Miller
Derek B. Miller, Ph.D. (international relations), is the award-winning author of Norwegian by Night and the forthcoming novels Radio Life and How to Find Your Way in the Dark. He lives in Oslo, Norway.
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