Things that get under my skin

Yesterday Maud Newton posted an interview with the Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy that prompted a very mixed bag of feelings. What follows are my thoughts as best as I can collect them. Although it will seem lame and artificial, I want to assure readers, and Maud herself, that my intent is not to somehow attack Maud personally or denigrate her site. I read her regularly and bear no ill will toward her; in fact wish her the best. There seems to be some pressure on her to post more often or cover more subjects or in some way please her readers more. I have no issue on that front. Maud should post whatever she wants whenever she wants. (I had troubling following it but I think I was on Maud’s side in the New Partisan contretemps.) She should do what she thinks is best and in her own interest. I doubt very much that any criticisms coming from this post will hurt her or cause her stress, but if in some way they do I apologize. But this blog is often a way for me to get things off my chest and wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if I held back. What follows is simply my reactions, feelings, thoughts, and whatnot. If you disagree feel free to fire back, if you agree feel free to shout amen, if you could care less feel free to ignore it.


First off what I liked:
– I like the whole idea of a series of writers on writing.
– I too find the interface between issues of faith and contemporary fiction lacking. I agree with Maud on this:

Despite its prominence in our culture, religion is ignored in most contemporary fiction. When it is considered, it is ridiculed or serves as fodder for satire. Kennedy is one of the few current writers whose work seriously engages the subject.

– I found this question and answer interesting and illuminating:

Between your novels, short story collections, nonfiction book on bullfighting, and opinion articles for the Guardian, you’re an incredibly versatile and prolific writer. Do you find it difficult to move between these different forms?

The differences between forms are actually illusions. If you think about them at a fundamental level then what I produce are stories about people that other people have to be able to understand. The stories should all have an honesty within them that indicates a respect for the reader and a self-respect on the part of the author. The honesty of fiction lies in created reality and accuracy of invention, in non-fiction it lies in some kind of ruthlessness and accuracy of observation. (Not that I’m saying I achieve any of this, but at least I’m not afraid of going from one form to another.)

It is at this point that the Q&A begins to take a deep plunge for me. Instead of exploring how faith can be dealt with in fiction, the interview seems to turn into a commiseration on the idiocy and dangerousness of America. Maud starts prefacing her questions with long comments full of insinuations and hyperbole:

– “In the States there’s an ever-widening gap between Evangelical Christians and the rest of the country.”
– “there’s a tradition in the U.S. of religious extremists like LaHaye. After all, the country was founded by zealots. LaHaye’s the contemporary answer to Cotton Mather, the original Puritan fire-and-brimstone preacher. ”
– “Yeah, the media situation in the States is outrageous. We get the truth, or glimpses of it, from the BBC and the international press, and there are documentaries like Control Room, but for the most part our own press just parrots Bush’s spin doctors. Aside from Seymour Hersh’s articles for The New Yorker and a few decent segments aired in the last three or four months on CBS’ 60 Minutes, there’s very little actual reporting.”
– “If Bush gets into the White House again, I’m not sure I can stay here.”

There are two things that really bug me about this: 1) most of this is rubbish and 2) it is not particularly enlightening.

– I am not sure there is any proof to Maud’s assertion that “there’s an ever-widening gap between Evangelical Christians and the rest of the country.” On top of that it poses so many questions as to make the assertion hopelessly unclear. What type of gap, political, cultural, religious, economic? How is it widening? Have we always had a gap or is it just getting wider? How can you possible compare “evangelical Christians” (defined how?) with everyone one else?
– Again, I am not sure it is accurate to say that “the country was founded by zealots.” I suppose most of the early settlers were religious zealots by today’s standards but outside of the Puritans (who I would guess she is referring to) the motives of the settlers were quite wide ranging and often economic in nature.
– I don’t see Cotton Mather as the original fire-and-brimstone preacher and he is a more complex person than he is given credit for.
– I laughed out loud when Maud deplored the outrageous US media and lauded the BBC and international media for giving us the “truth.” This is silly. Has Maud missed the controversy surrounding the BBC? Does she really think the Beeb and the international press give us the unvarnished truth?
– I am baffled by anyone who reads the papers, and lives in New York no less, and can honestly assert that the US media parrots Bush spin doctors. Yeah, that is why Bush loves the media so much because they spin everything just the way he wants them to; always noting when the economy experiences a boost, always interpreting the news in a positive light which reflects well on him, questioning the motives and assertions of his rivals. Yup, a veritable Bush love fest on every page!
– Maud’s assertion that “If Bush gets into the White House again, I’m not sure I can stay here” bugs me the most. Has it really gotten that bad folks? Has Maud become like a Hollywood actor threatening to leave if the election doesn’t go their way? I have never even conceptualized an idea like that in all my life. In fact I told my wife the other day that we shouldn’t get to emotional about politics, that if Kerry won life would go on and America would survive just fine. This kind of talk makes me depressed, it makes me think there is some kind of conceptual barrier between me and folks who think like this. How can I communicate and exchange ideas with a person who will leave the country if Bush is re-elected? It is hard to communicate when people can look at the world and see things so differently. I can handle people who think differently about politics but when it is stretched to a certain point, it seems beyond rational differences. Perhaps this is the divided Maud was talking about between Evangelical Christians and the rest of the country.

All of the politics aside, however, what did any of that have to do with writing or fiction? It seems to me that it was simply emotional bonding over shared politics and worldview. It didn’t add anything to the over-all discussion or theme of the interview in my mind. I guess it helps me understand where the author is coming from but couldn’t I just get that from her articles?

Perhaps, my own expectations are to blame. I was really hoping for an intelligent discussion about the role of faith in fiction and the way writers approach issues of religion and faith. If I wanted rants about the US media or about the terrible policies of our current president I would read the Nation or Salon. Maybe a Kerry win would have a silver lining: at least I wouldn’t have to wade through all this Bush bashing nonsense.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

View all posts

9 Comments

  • Just read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. There’s a guy wrestling with the spiritual side. The Beats did not dismiss religion, not at all. Jack K searched out Zen and Catholic. Maud is a Progressive. That means she is too smart for what can not be seen but not smart enough to see that European Socialism is a disaster.

  • Kevin,

    Your thoughts are interesting — I have to confess (and apologize in advance to all interviewers) that I tend to skim the questions and head straight for the answers. I really did enjoy Kennedy’s comments, especially the final statement about how quickly her mother read as compared to how long it took to write, but can see where both parties could have explored the issue of faith more. Especially since we can’t seem to have frank discussions on the topic in this country.

    I will, however, respectfully disagree with you on one point — the media does parrot what they’re told. I complained about it under the Clinton administration, and I’m complaining about it now. Two weeks ago, I saw an MSNBC interview with [can’t recall name] where talking points went unchallenged despite being discussed ad infinitum in the press and discovered to be distorted — yet the reporter nodded like the comments were revelations. There are many great journalists out there, but the corporatization of the media has, in my opinion, lead to a distinct lack of curiosity by reporters.

    It’s always great to get another viewpoint on topics — sometimes it strengthens my resolve on issues, sometimes it changes my mind…so I’m glad you posted this.

  • Kevin, interesting points. I think the beauty of Western Democracy is that we have the right to bitch about the countries we live in. The USA is a great country with considerably more positives than negatives – it’s fine for its citizens to criticize what they don’t like, but they should never lose sight of the bigger picture, that it IS a great, culturally rich, democracy.
    I have to disagree with you on the BBC, which has been proved right by the recent reports on the pre-war intelligence on Iraq. And the BBC has a fine reputation for being a thorn in the side of whichever Party is in power.
    Finally, on a lighter note, might I remind you of Garrison Keillor, who said that his ancestors left England for America, in order to enjoy a level of repression not permitted at home.

  • I expect you’re surprised to see me here, Kevin. (Not.)

    At the risk of beginning to appears like Maud’s Secret Service detail (and as I’ve said before, she doesn’t need my to defend her), I would like to make a few BRIEF points.

    Re: Evangelical Christians – I don’t see how you can take issue with this assertion. The rise in power and influence of the religious right over the last two decades is exceptionally well documented old news by this point. And I think it’s fair to say that Bush has pressed the envelope of church and state separation like no modern president before him – largely in an effort to satiate this crowd. (As a Jew, I’m particularly aware of his endless Christian references, as well as his frequent coded Biblical references.)

    Re: Zealots – Obviously, Maud is referring to the Puritan settlers. I think it’s a trifle disingenuous to cast wider than that. And in that context, “zealot” is a fair designation.

    Re: Mather may have been more complex than is given credit for but that does not undermine Maud’s correct assertion in any way. Your argument doesn’t connect – one can be complex AND fire breathing all at once.

    Re: Media – Again, Maud is quite correct as far as the free pass American media has generally given Bush. No tough questions, no follow up, nothing. The recent Irish television interview (which she’s no doubt remembering) should serve as a clear example of how journalists should hold politicians accountable for their words. And the UK has a much more vital tradition of challenging its politicians than we do.

    Re: Living where one wants. I don’t understand why this should give you such heartache, Kevin. It’s, frankly, not a terribly unusual stance. (I made similar threats in 2000 but lacked the fortitude to follow through, although Paris is looking pretty good once again.) One can certainly understand why the policies of this administration could be considered so repugnant that one would choose not to be associated with them. It’s a measure of strong and deeply held feelings and – as Maud as often pointed out, hers is a personal website – that doesn’t really deserve criticism. One may disagree but the rest seems unfair and overblown.

    As for writers and politics, I do direct you to Maud’s tagline (emphasis added) which very clearly reads: Occasional literary links, amusements, politics, and rants” So she’s just delivering on her mission statement.

    Most serious writers are political animals. And, for whatever reason, you’re likely to find many of these writers are more likely to share Maud’s and my politics more than your own. And it’s fine to disagree with a writer’s (or blogger’s) political ideas. But that does seem to be an enduring preoccupation for you, and if you’re going to disagree, I think it’s best to do so on the facts, and not merely because one’s position has somehow offended you.

    OK, reasonably brief.

  • Just to follow up on Mark’s comments. It has to be said that, for all the sense of common purpose and culture that we share with the US, the one thing which we find hardest to understand here in Britain is the Evangelical Christian Right. We simply don’t get it, which, to refer back to Keillor, is probably why they left these shores in the first place. I also agree that most writers are political animals and, although I would never instigate it, if an interviewer wanted to ask me about my right wing libertarianism (do what you want, as long as you don’t ask the rest of us to pay for it!), I’d be happy to talk at length. And maybe that would say as much about my writing as anything else. After all, Kevin, it probably goes some way to addressing the issues you had with People Die.
    I still maintain though, that you make some interesting points, and we should celebrate the fact that we all have this freedom to disagree with each other.

  • Just to follow up on Mark’s comments. It has to be said that, for all the sense of common purpose and culture that we share with the US, the one thing which we find hardest to understand here in Britain is the Evangelical Christian Right. We simply don’t get it, which, to refer back to Keillor, is probably why they left these shores in the first place. I also agree that most writers are political animals and, although I would never instigate it, if an interviewer wanted to ask me about my right wing libertarianism (do what you want, as long as you don’t ask the rest of us to pay for it!), I’d be happy to talk at length. And maybe that would say as much about my writing as anything else. After all, Kevin, it probably goes some way to addressing the issues you had with People Die.
    I still maintain though, that you make some interesting points, and we should celebrate the fact that we all have this freedom to disagree with each other.

  • Isn’t it amazing that this issue has become so clearly two sided? And both sides feel the other is brainwashed and blind. I agree that both sides make valid points and frankly, both extremes scare me.

    That said:

    Who is telling us what we hear on television, the radio and in the newspapers of America? Corporate America. We aren’t voting them into office and we don’t have a say in their referendums. But in a very insidious way, they are telling us what to do and what to think. Consider the ownership of most of the media supplying us with the information we use to make our choices. Use the link:

    http://www.cjr.org/owners/

    to find out who owns what in America. AOL/ Time Warner owns CNN, Warner Brothers, Warner Music Group, most of the magazines on store shelves, Turner Network Television, HBO, Warner Books, Mysterious Press, Little Brown & Company, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett Packard, eBay, General Motors, Citigroup and much, much more. Their decisions affect you.

    This country was founded on the seperation of Church and state. The religious protocal of the few should not be the law of the masses. Bush constantly and obviously panders to the religious right. For that and many other reasons, if he is re-elected, I will leave the United States.

    Have no doubt that I love this country, that I support the soldiers in Iraq and across the world and that I believe in what this country was founded on: From M. G. J. de Crèvecouer, Letters from an American Farmer (Philadelphia: Matthew Carey, 1793), “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.-This is an American….”

    “Jesus only told half the story. The truth ‘will’ set you free. But, first it’s going to piss you off.” – Solomon Short

    “Liberty is not merely a privilege to be conferred; it is a habit to be acquired.” — David Lloyd George

    “If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking.” — George S. Patton

  • Isn’t it amazing that this issue has become so clearly two sided? And both sides feel the other is brainwashed and blind. I agree that both sides make valid points and frankly, both extremes scare me.

    That said:

    Who is telling us what we hear on television, the radio and in the newspapers of America? Corporate America. We aren’t voting them into office and we don’t have a say in their referendums. But in a very insidious way, they are telling us what to do and what to think. Consider the ownership of most of the media supplying us with the information we use to make our choices. Use the link:

    http://www.cjr.org/owners/

    to find out who owns what in America. AOL/ Time Warner owns CNN, Warner Brothers, Warner Music Group, most of the magazines on store shelves, Turner Network Television, HBO, Warner Books, Mysterious Press, Little Brown & Company, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett Packard, eBay, General Motors, Citigroup and much, much more. Their decisions affect you.

    This country was founded on the seperation of Church and state. The religious protocal of the few should not be the law of the masses. Bush constantly and obviously panders to the religious right. For that and many other reasons, if he is re-elected, I will leave the United States.

    Have no doubt that I love this country, that I support the soldiers in Iraq and across the world and that I believe in what this country was founded on: From M. G. J. de Crèvecouer, Letters from an American Farmer (Philadelphia: Matthew Carey, 1793), “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.-This is an American….”

    “Jesus only told half the story. The truth ‘will’ set you free. But, first it’s going to piss you off.” – Solomon Short

    “Liberty is not merely a privilege to be conferred; it is a habit to be acquired.” — David Lloyd George

    “If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking.” — George S. Patton

  • Whew, the fingers are ahead of the brain today. I’ve read Kevin’s post several times because it covers a lot of ground. Starting with the role of faith in fiction I think it’s implicit in everything from hard boiled noir to chick-lit. Faith is what we’re all tethered to by birth, education and experience.
    My background includes 3 long years in a Benedictine Seminary. In the Sixth Century The Rule of St. Benedict was written as a guide to monastic life. It includes instructions on killing infidels as well how often to eat, an allowance for a blanket and pillow, and the observation of Silence. The Rule governs monastic life today although monks no longer carry daggers.
    I think novels like the DaVinci Code are idiotic but entertaining. The Jenkins-LaHaye stuff is a comic book version of scripture that’s making two guys rich. As for Dubya and the media, I’ll never forget Geraldo kneeling in the dirt drawing a map of Iraq for the viewers at home. It was the deer in the headlights moment in which poor judgment collided with poor planning to produce the defining blink of idiocy. We all deserve better.