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Wherein I Discuss Literary Agendas and Why They Suck

I don't always do the Literary Blog Hop, because, frankly, it's challenging and requires me to actually think, as opposed to writing about how hot I find certain 19th c. authors. But last week's topic is one of my favorite ranting subjects, and why would I deny myself that? Fiddle-faddle, stuff and nonsense, I'm not scorning that sort of opportunity. What-ho and so forth.

Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?

Here's my deal with questions: they never have a straightforward 'yes' or 'no' answer. There are always going to be areas of grey. But that's boring if everyone says "Well, let's look at several sides of it..." and if it's not a way important issue like nuclear things being proliferated, I think it's much more fun to take a definite stand.

My definite stand is that "literature" with an agenda is shit. I don't care how good the author is; their bias is going to come through and you won't be able to trust that anything they're writing is truth. I hate that.

Any time you write a fictional book to prove an agenda, it's going to be dumb, because obviously you can twist the plot to suit whatever point you want, thereby proving nothing. Ugh.

The examples that immediately come to mind are Dickens' Hard Times and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I didn't even finish the latter. I got through about 20 pages and then thought 'Ok, so this whole thing is written to make the workers look as sympathetic as possible and the Chicago meatpacking industry as disgusting and exploitative as possible. No."

It had its merits at the time. Sinclair wanted to inspire sympathy for the workers, and instead everyone got grossed out by the factories and they established the FDA. Responding to this, he said "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach." Touché, sir. But its purpose has essentially been served. The meatpacking district of Chicago is basically nonexistent today, so while conditions he names might be true somewhere, the book is very much Set in Chicago amongst early 20th century Eastern European immigrants. Nowadays it's read mainly as a historical relic (if you will), to say "Oh, this is the book that inspired this or that reform." But not because of any particular literary merit.

I have an article I saved, and I surely could find the reference if I googled a phrase from it, but I'm lazy, so just know I didn't write this:

Grudgingly called a “minor masterpiece” at midcentury by critic Howard Mumford Jones, The Jungle today is certainly regarded as less than that, more likely to be mentioned alongside Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Bad but Important) than The Grapes of Wrath (Political but Good). While writers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal took at least a passing and sympathetic interest in Sinclair’s work, now it is nearly impossible to imagine an emergent American novelist for whom The Jungle is an influential or cherished book.

As for Hard Times, I'm never reading it again. When a certain character in the book is killed, it's to serve the message that Utilitarianism Is Bad. Yeah, sure, it's bad when taken to an extreme, but that's the case with pretty much everything, Dickens. Come on. I will, however, admit to having a Louisa Gradgrind playlist on my iPod, which is kind of the best thing ever (her theme song is Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway -- it totally makes sense, go away).

Anyway. Books with definite agendas can be entertaining, but I find that I can't trust them and am almost always on edge while reading them. Everything serves the message, and that, my friends, is lame.


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