The moderate novelist
Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on November 6, 2012.
I never wanted to be a moderate. Growing up, and especially in college, I believed in coming down strongly on one side or the other of any particular issue, and was drawn to the people around me who embraced similar extremes. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer, which to my eyes represented a clear choice between the compromises of an ordinary existence and a willingness to risk everything for the life of art. My favorite classical hero was the Achilles of the Iliad, who might waver or sulk into prolonged inaction, but always saw the world around him in stark terms, with cosmic emotions that refused to be bound by the standards of the society in which he lived. And although I hadn’t read On the Road, I suspect that I might have agreed with Kerouac’s initially inspiring and then increasingly annoying insistence that the only true people were the ones who burn “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
No one has ever compared a moderate to a roman candle, fabulous or otherwise. Yet as time went on, my views began to change. In many ways, this was just part of the process of growing up, which tends to nudge most of us toward the center, on the way to the natural conservatism of old age. But it also had something to do with the realities of becoming a writer. Writing for a living, at least on a daily basis, is less about staking out a bold claim into the unknown than about coming to terms with many small compromises. It’s tactical, not strategic, and encourages a natural pragmatism, at least for those of us who want to write more than a couple of novels. You learn to deal with problems as they occur, and a solution that works in a particular situation may no longer make sense when it comes up again. Above all else, as a writer, you need to figure out a way of life that is mostly free of hard external dislocations, which are murder on any kind of artistic productivity. Hence my favorite writing quote of all time, from Flaubert: “Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.”
All these things tend to encourage a kind of reasonable moderation, at least on the outside—there’s a reason why most writers have boring biographies. And in my own case, it also shapes the way I see the rest of the world. There aren’t a lot of clear answers in ethics or politics, and as much as we’d all like to be consistent, dealing with reality, like writing fiction, is more likely to impose a series of increasingly messy workarounds. A novel forces you to deal with issues of character, behavior, and society in a laboratory setting, and even when you control the terms of the experiment, the answers that you get are rarely the ones you set out to find. In a defense of moderate thinking in the New York Times, David Brooks once wrote: “This idea—that you base your agenda on your specific situation—may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.” And this describes bad fiction as well as bad politics.
As a result, my own politics are sort of a hodgepodge, and like my fiction, they’ve been deeply shaped by the particulars of my life story. I’m a multicultural agnostic who has spent much of his life under the spell of various dead white males. Not surprisingly, my strongest political conviction remains that of the power of free speech, but I’ve also got a weird survivalist streak that once left me more neutral on issues like gun control—although I’ve since changed my mind about this. I spent years working in finance, and I mostly believe in the positive power of capitalism and free markets, but I also think that it leads to conditions of inequality that the government needs to address, for the good of the system as a whole. And I could go on. But the bottom line is that I’ve found that a writer, and maybe a citizen, needs to be less like Achilles than Odysseus: adaptable, pragmatic, capable of changing his plans when necessary, but always with an eye to finding his way home, even if it takes far longer than he hoped.