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.
Or consider The New Yorker’s “Twenty Best under Forty” for 2010 (which slightly overlaps the Granta list): Seventeen hold MFAs. Two of the remaining three were mentored by famous authors in non-MFA writing programs. Only one went to college without the goal of becoming a writer. The National Book Foundation’s 2010 list of “Five under Thirty-Five” includes four MFAs and one “civilian.”
Such lists are not merely honorific. They create buzz, which leads to contracts with large publishing houses, publicity tours, author interviews, and full-page book reviews in national periodicals.
Here is where the issue of politics becomes germane. That the professoriate at American colleges leans leftward is well known; peer-reviewed studies set the ratio of liberal to conservative faculty nationwide at three to one. There is reason to suspect that the numbers may be even more skewed among writing faculty. A 2006 study of teachers at elite journalism schools conducted by the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture put the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans at four to one — a disparity that would have been much worse if not for an outlier result at the University of Kansas, where Republicans actually slightly outnumbered Democrats. Though there are no reliable data on the politics specifically of creative-writing faculty, a quarter-century of academic experience tells me that journalism schools are bastions of ideological neutrality compared with undergraduate and graduate writing departments.
You have to wonder, under the circumstances, whether the ambitions of a young conservative novelist would be unreservedly encouraged and diligently nurtured in a contemporary MFA program.
If the answer is no, then the ramifications are profound — and profoundly disturbing. For the issue here runs deeper than the run-of-the-mill ideological browbeating that goes on in college classrooms across the country. Students can always weigh their professors’ rants against more moderate views, and indeed contrary ones, that they hear off campus. But MFA programs now seem to exercise a gatekeeper function. If you don’t pass through one of them, your odds of literary recognition are vastly diminished. It may be that we’re cutting off future generations of conservative novelists at the knees.
That’s not fair. Fairness, though, is a secondary consideration. If conservatives are being denied entrée into the halls of literary production — not by a sinister gentlemen’s agreement but by an inbred ideological disdain — then what we’re cutting off is not just a group of writers, or a political agenda, but an entire sensibility.
That sensibility, if I may speak personally for a moment, is at the core of my being as a writer. I don’t set out to write conservative novels. I wind up writing them because the things that most resonate with me, that most provoke my intellect and stir my emotions, are misconceived challenges to tradition — in the case of my latest novel, the scalding effect of postmodern cynicism on the human heart. That thought wasn’t my starting point for the book. Rather, I wanted to write a risqué, slapstick story about a guy who waits on long lines for a living and who falls in love with a TV exercise girl. I didn’t know the underlying theme until I began reading over my early drafts.
That’s the way writing novels often works. You don’t know what you’re driving at until you get there. If conservative voices are not heard, fewer literary destinations are possible.
As a culture, we’re poorer for it.