Issue: Art You Engaged

(No) Rules of Engagement by Maya Sonenberg

Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety. 

(No) Rules of Engagement

1. Double-bind

Trying to satisfy contradictory demands, I’m automatically wrong.

Be clear, simple, and change the world; be subtle thought-provoking, and expose the complexities of the world.

According to conventional wisdom, politically engaged fiction best approaches issues through the vividly rendered lives of individual characters, revealing the oppressive and/or liberating structures behind their personal pain and joy. Effectiveness is the goal;empathy and particularity, the mechanisms. In other words: traditional Realism.

A teacher once admonished me: Just write the damn story! Why doesn’t this comfort me?

2. Political

What does “politically engaged” mean?

My parents were painters and also co-founders of Artists and Writers Protest against the War in Vietnam. They were so politically engaged that in the middle of a hot July, they chose to drive AROUND Texas rather than through it, all because LBJ—that Hawk, that war-monger—came from there, but they believed that paintings or poems which addressed political issues directly were propaganda rather than art. This was an easy call for them.

But American fiction has also been lambasted—even by its own practitioners—as domesticated and dull: “Writing as the clamorous protests of the 1960s faded away, Philip Roth seemed almost envious of writers in Communist Eastern Europe, who had gained moral prestige and authority through their perilous defiance of repressive governments: ‘There,’ he wrote, ‘nothing goes and everything matters; here everything goes and nothing matters.’”[1]

Eastern European jazz musicians who grew up behind the Berlin wall report that listening to “Take the A Train” was a political act. Just hearing that flood of pure emotion felt revolutionary in the midst of oppression, and yet the music itself is not overtly political. Is context enough? Must the work in question directly address specific real world events? Fictionalized real world events? Allegorized real world events?

Are only headline-causing events political? At what point does the personal become so personal that it is no longer political?

3. Position of Privilege

May I write from any position, even one I’ve never experienced? From the position of another body (damaged, harassed, polluted, destroyed by grief over the murder of a son or daughter, killed)?

Yes, but the responsibility that comes with doing so is daunting: the need to get the writing right.

Does my relative privilege (white, straight, financially solvent) mean it’s time for me to just shut up?

4. Form

When I encounter politically engaged Realist art, I burn, I want to act, but I also feel oppressed by the work’s vision, even if I agree with it. Watching Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, I, like the reviewer from the New York Times “found myself squirming …. as I watched the forces of fate, or, to be more specific, the mechanics of 21st-century American capitalism, bear down on these characters with the brutal power of a jackhammer smashing through concrete,” but as economic decline led to union busting, poverty, and racism, I also felt controlled by the play’s carefully rendered scenes and complex characters and “nifty ticking time bomb of a plot”.[2] The inevitability of the violent climax and of the conclusion’s bitter-sweet reconciliation seduced me but suffocated me too, and I realized that instead of conjuring a world, I’d been colonized by it.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a wrenching play and true. But could it have left room for me to think and breathe?

Is Realist fiction like this too? A sort of Fascism?

I was taught to read Realism as if it showed the reader a world without comment, but “The writing of Realism is far from being neutral, it is on the contrary—loaded with the most spectacular signs of fabrication.”[3]

If Realism = Fascism, does Anti-Realism = Democracy?

Or does the empathy generated when we encounter complex characters act as a bulwark against Fascism?

Is the answer Anti-Fascist form rather than Anti-Fascist content?

Formal experiments require each reader’s active participation to create a web of meaning(s). The writer lays out the terrain on which and through which the activity (activism) takes place: a politics of form.

“Why does realism equal verity? And whose verity is this? Why does realism equal accessibility? Might there be ways outside the standard models that could afford both reader and writer a few more options? Accessible in whole new ways.

“Would disrupting or upsetting the lexical surfaces, and the deeper structures disrupt other contracts (social, political) we have entered with those who have continually tried to dismiss us?

“If we joyfully violate the language contract, might that not make us braver, stronger, more capable of breaking other oppressive contracts”[4]

See Bhanu Kapil’s Ban En Banlieue.

Or is this type of literature navel-gazing and elitist?

Sometimes I do want to be direct.

5. Overwhelmed

As I write this, the Republican presidential candidates blather on stage, cops kill unarmed African-American men and women, a gigantic island of plastic floats in the Pacific, women are denied control over their own bodies.

Although my parents supported many progressive causes (the Civil Rights movement, the nascent feminist and environmental movements, the War on Poverty), only the War in Vietnam spurred them to action. On TV every night at 7:00: the body count, the napalm. Now so many issues flood the 24-hour news cycle that I turn away. Silenced. In the movie Sex, Lies and Videotape, the Andie MacDowell character says, “All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. I can’t stop thinking about it. I just… I’ve gotten real concerned over what’s gonna happen with all the garbage. I mean, we’ve got so much of it. You know? I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually. The last time I started feelin’ this way is when that barge was stranded and, you know, it was goin’ around that island and nobody would claim it.”

I keep circling the island of engagement, not sure how to land.

[1] Pankaj Mishra, “How Well Does Contemporary Fiction Address Radical Politics.” New York Times Sunday Book Review, September 22, 2013, accessed July 15, 2015,

[2]Charles Isherwood, “Review: Lynn Nottage’s ‘Sweat’ Examines Lives Unraveling by Industry’s Demise.” New York Times, August 16, 2015, accessed August 27, 2016,

[3] Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, (New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), 67-68.

[4] Carole Maso, Break Every Rule (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000), 158-159.


Maya Sonenberg’s story collections include  Cartographies (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Voices from the Blue Hotel. More recent fiction and nonfiction appear in Web Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. The Cupboard will bring out a chapbook of her prose and drawings in 2015. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington.

Image © Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons.