Toward the end of the question-and-answer period at a recent talk of mine at the local Barnes & Noble, an audience member stood up and asked, “Are readers of your novels ever surprised to discover you’re a conservative?”
The natural response is that there’s no inherent tension between conservative thought and literary expression — even if not everyone realizes it. For example, when playwright David Mamet came out as a conservative several years ago, veteran British theater critic Michael Billington wrote, “I am depressed to read that [he] has swung to the right. . . . What worries me is the effect on his talent of locking himself into a rigid ideological position.”
In fact, although the image of the writer as rebel has been popular at least since the Romantic period, great writers through history often do not fit that mold. Think of, say, Sophocles and Dante, both of whom gave voice to timeless conservative values: reverence for tradition, skepticism about sudden or drastic change, and insistence on personal accountability.
Nor does the canon of American novelists tilt relentlessly leftward. Modern conservatives will find much that is congenial in writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos, Walker Percy, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, and John Updike.
On the other hand, conservatives are noticeably rare among our current crop of literary novelists. The two names that jump to mind are Tom Wolfe and Marilynne Robinson. Both have created fictions that show an abiding respect for entrenched moralities. Then, too, we have their nonfiction: Wolfe has written scathingly about the knee-jerk radicalism of Manhattan elites; Robinson, about the smug secularism of academics. Christopher Buckley is another possibility — though not the slam dunk the Buckley name would suggest. None of the three, it must be noted, is a spring chicken. (Neither am I; plus, I’m obscure.) The current ratio of left-of-center to right-of-center literary novelists, in short, looks at least as lopsided as the ratio of left-of-center to right-of-center faculty members at an average liberal-arts college.
Maybe that’s not altogether coincidental.
Before getting into that, however, let’s set aside conspiracy theorizing — you know, the idea that the publishing industry is consciously biased against conservatives. Editors and agents are driven, first and foremost, by the desire to sell books. Among those who write bankable bestsellers rather than literary fiction, even an arch-conservative like Tom Clancy has no trouble getting novels into print.
Since history suggests that conservative instincts do not thwart literary talent, and since the publishing industry doesn’t blackball conservatives, why should such an imbalance now exist?
Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the aforementioned ideological imbalance among university faculty. That suggestion might sound odd — if you still believe that literary success emerges strictly through individual effort. But the romantic image of the writer slaving away in solitude, wrestling his inspiration onto the page, is passé. Today’s literary novelist is much more likely to be the product of an academic writing program than to be a lonely visionary.
The statistics are startling: Granta’s list of “Best Young American Novelists” for 2007 (the last year it was compiled) named 21 authors. Fifteen of them had emerged from Master of Fine Arts programs; three more had been mentored in non-MFA creative-writing programs by famous writers on their college’s faculty. That leaves only three who didn’t come from programs specifically designed to produce fiction writers.