I suspect that one of the reasons that Latin American fiction was so good during the mid-20th century—the years known as “The Boom”—was that the societal and political conditions that surrounded life for Latin American writers and intellectuals then (and now) were such that fiction could draw equally and paradoxically on both optimism and despair for its energy—as well as look towards Europe for cultural inspiration.
The conditions of life for the “Boom” writers (Cortázar, Márquez, Llosa, Fuentes among others) closely resembled that of the great the 19th century Russian writers (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov). Politically, spiritually, economically both 20th century Latin America and 19th century Russia were intensely, feverishly revolutionary; the literature which comes out of those times, even if not even not literally about the events of the day, reflects the dynamic intellectual atmosphere of the times.
I am not trying to imply that there is some absolute sociological law which dooms or guarantees the production of literature (Marlowe couldn’t write like Shakespeare despite drawing on the same cultural energy, et al) but that there are patterns in literary boom times that indicate the heuristic importance of certain cultural habits and the irrelevance of others. The paradoxical embrace of despair and optimism in other words, the existence of which—as I’ve pointed out—was a feature of two periods of classic writing, should therefore be considered important to any culture that wants to cultivate its own great works.
Without exhaustively cataloging what I might as well call the spiritual bipolarity of certain books, one only need brush up on one’s Dostoyevsky—or Márquez for that matter—to know what I mean: one of the things we love about reading is having our inner highs and lows mapped out for us, and as easy as that might seem, only the rare writer can do it profoundly.
Russians took their inner lives seriously (as least their writers did) and they took the fate of their nation, their national identity as Russians, seriously (very seriously) as well. The exploitation, the dictatorships, the economic volatility, the Catholic history of Latin America (Latin America is a term I’m using very loosely and broadly here) can easily be interpreted to resemble Russian society of the previous century—so too can the huge importance placed on new literature and public intellectuals in both epochs. A new book or article by Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, a new play by Chekhov was a national event, while in Latin America, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru in 1990 and lost a close run-off election.
For a literary writer to hold political office, or to exercise real political, public clout, in the U.S., is almost inconceivable—but my point is not to suggest that writers should run for political office (I would suggest the opposite), but that a society which vaunts its writers on a national scale, is one that loves literature, and one where literature must be flourishing; one where the sense of national fate is somehow tied to the fate of national aesthetics.
For a writer working in the United States, while the actual politics of a nation like 19th century Russia should not be enviable, the sense of event and importance that surrounded the release of new books in my examples should be a source of jealousy.
But more seriously for our writers—the spiritual, political, and aesthetic intensity (generated by the movement between hope and despair) of a great Russian writer, or a great contemporary Chilean or Mexican or Argentine writer, should be something worth emulating. Our writing, and more deeply, our sense of what it means to be a writer, has just become—on a general level at least—too trivial, too flippant. While the next pamphlet by Tolstoy was an event that legitimately could change the course of Russian history, the next novel by Jonathan Franzen is likely only to change the schedule of a book signing in Park Slope.
Writing a novel, a poem, a play, an essay—anything that one intends to publish and not keep private—should not be an act for the sake of itself, or for the sake of self-satisfaction. I don’t know for sure how it is that we can intensify (that is: Russiafy) our literary lives and our literary culture, but I do know that we ought to; that our new writing seems to lack (and this is a collective action problem) a singular conviction and power.
One suggestion, might be that we simply have to take life more seriously, as seriously (and yes that means we dispensing with our reflexive postmodern irony folks) the Russians did, or as the “Boom” writers did. We have to be serious in the sense that we see literature as having force enough to alter its surroundings, and serious in the sense that those surroundings are worth the time it would take to alter them.