Zoë Heller is a total ninja of a critic, and I think everyone should read her review of Salman Rushdie’s new memoir of his fatwa years, Joseph Anton for its evisceration of Rushdie’s self-regard (the stuff on his marriages sounds like it may not even be believed if it is seen), and even more particularly, for her explanation of a contradiction that’s evolved in Rushdie’s work. While he initially argued that literature shouldn’t be exempt from political criticism, now, Heller writes, Rushdie’s falling back on arguments that fiction of sufficient quality to be considered literature ought to be somehow exempt from political criticism:
More troubling, however, than his exaggerated claim to naiveté is the case that Rushdie seems to be making for fiction’s immunity from political or religious anger. In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend. Muslims who were insulted by The Satanic Verses were guilty of a category error: just like Anis Rushdie, in his “unsophisticated” reading of Midnight’s Children, they had confused fiction with other sorts of speech…
In his famous essay “Outside the Whale,” written five years before the fatwa, Rushdie attacked various books and films for propagating imperialist myths about the nature of Indo-British relations during the Raj. (He argued, for example, that the rape plot at the center of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet endorsed a racist fantasy about the sexual threat posed to white colonial women by “lust-crazed wogs.”) Novels, he claimed, could not be excused from criticism of this sort on grounds that they were “just” fiction: all art, in as much as it ventured to assert “what is the case, what is truth and what untruth,” was inescapably political, and part of “the unceasing storm, the continual quarrel, the dialectic of history.”
It is not surprising that Rushdie should be a little warier of history’s storm these days, but his impulse to quarantine literature from “the cacophony of other discourses, religious, political, sociological, post-colonial” is an unhappy one, nevertheless. Certainly, not all opponents of The Satanic Verses were as alert to the ludic techniques of the modern novel as they might have been. But to claim that their wounded reactions were inconsistent with Rushdie’s artistic motives cannot be the end of the argument. Had Paul Scott been around to answer to Rushdie’s critique of The Raj Quartet, he might well have insisted that he had not meant to be racist. He might even have accused Rushdie of engaging in thin-skinned identity politics. But these rejoinders would hardly have embarrassed the legitimacy of Rushdie’s complaint.
I wish she’d made the point that quality conversations and political ones aren’t separate from each other. Falling into dreadful politics can also mean falling into cliche without transcending it. Ignoring the details and realities of life in your search for “what is the case, what is truth and untruth,” a failure to reckon with politics, can mean a failure to tell a truly engaging and revealing story. Good politics aren’t enough to make literature, of course—there’s a lot of awfully stiff execution of noble ideas. But an entirely careless approach to the politics of your subject is a danger, too.