“On the Duty of Writers”

It isn’t much. One might say, as Faulkner claimed, that we have a duty to unearth the truths of the human heart—whatever those are, or wherever those lie (not in the loins, Faulkner claimed). Others, like Steinbeck, Dreiser, and Dickens, believed, even if they didn’t say it—though perhaps they did say it; a wiser man would know—that fiction has some duty to elevate humans, to improve humankind, or improve people’s standing in life. The Soviet Realists might frame that in terms of class, social revolution, what have you. For Dickens, the effort was probably more moral, arguably Christian, and certainly grounded in faith, or a commitment to what he’d call moral behavior, or more exactingly, avoiding that which he, in David Copperfield, lampooned as “odious behaviour” (referring to the wondrously despicable Uriah Heep). All of these espousals are just in my mind, albeit a tad contradictory.

Then there are the aesthetes—Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire—who claimed art serves the purpose of art, or something to that effect, and believed any political or moral purpose compromises the integrity of work. One can make that claim, too. In recent times, critics like Harold Bloom have.

My view of art is a bit different. It can achieve any of these aims, and in many cases does. But all an artist’s conception of truth has to be grounded in is his or her own innate conception of reality, as distorted or vexed as that might be. Man Ray famously remarked, “I do not photograph nature. I photograph my visions.” Anyone who has seen his gelatin prints, what he termed “rayographs,” would agree that they resemble dreams more than any concrete depictions of reality, even if they are indeed photographs, or something approximating that (he does strange things with light and blurred contrast, and thereby integrates painting with photography). But certainly he has a sense of what the world should be, or how it should appear to him—what he terms “visions”—and his art tries to correlate with that.

I would say the same for my fiction. Most of my novel and stories are truthful. By the same token, most of my nonfiction is lies. I cannot account for this discrepancy, except to say that I, like most practicing artists, am less concerned with genre or the “formalities” of truth than I am with making a piece work and allowing it to reinvent itself as needed, sculpt itself even, rather than fitting it into a mold. Anything less would be dishonest in my account and untruthful to what I see as art.

Again, whether there’s a moral intention behind my work, I cannot say. Theoretically, I subscribe to the doctrine of Marxism, seeing all work and artists as embedded in a system of class, and therefore susceptible to it. Whether my work perpetuates disparity, or ushers in The Revolution, I also cannot say, although I would hope, as with Wilde’s work, that it makes people laugh, perhaps even cry at points, and, in any case, question their place in the world.

Most of all, though, I’d say, not unlike Dickens—despite my distaste for his moralizing—that I try to help humans feel better about themselves and the world in which they live—precisely by entering this conception of art, this world where rules are ever-changing, border lines shift, and the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction collapse. Maybe these rules exist for a purpose and the approach I have taken is unwise. It’s also probably fair to say that none of Steinbeck’s novels ushered in a revolution, and while they might have presaged The New Deal, they echo it more than they started it. Regardless, if generations of children have been taught to regard migrants as half-decent folks, albeit vulnerable, like them, that can’t be entirely bad. And certainly misers and lawyers, as Dickens would explain, have done their fair share of harm to the world, and possibly some good things, as well.

In summary, I can’t say what fiction does, or what it should be intended to do, any more than I can try to account for what my own novels claim to explain. Certainly, any tried-and-true writer will tell you that novels ask questions, not answer them, though asking is also its own form of explanation (see: Socrates), and saying otherwise is, I believe, quite naïve. But there’s a point to the complexity, to the sensitivity invoked in not trying to resolve every claim.

Maybe Samuel Johnson was right when he remarked in Rasselas that “to a poet nothing can be useless.” To a writer, no work is useless—be it moral, atheistic, communist, or committed to its own sense of art. All that matters is integrity—the artist’s sense of worth, and her unshaken belief that the words she’s set down in ink matter.

Of course, no one really uses ink any longer, and it’s possible all writing is a sham. The postmodernists would agree with that—Pynchon, Coover, Barth—and I can’t say they’re entirely wrong, but a world without writing, without sculpture and art, would be, I suppose, like a world without any sex. Cold, dark, and sterile. Meaningless, in fact. And contrary to why humans live. Certainly there are those who have tried to suppress it, regulate it even, or keep it out of the taverns and schools. All laudable efforts, one might claim, in so far as the sex itself is dangerous, incendiary, even. And all futile efforts, like waving one’s arms at the sun.

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About J. A. Bernstein

J. A. Bernstein is the author of a novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues, 2019), which won the A.W.P. Award Series and Hackney Prizes; and a chapbook, Desert Castles (Southern Indiana Review, 2019), which won the Wilhelmus Prize. He is an assistant professor of English in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and the fiction editor of Tikkun.