In the aftermath of September 11, the question of literature acquires an urgency it has not had since the close of the Vietnam Era. During the twenty-eight years linking our national tragedies, the political character of literature has come to seem a given. Few have been anxious in this interim to argue that aesthetics transcends differences of class, race, wealth, power, gender, if only because our history has presented such obvious evidence to the contrary. Our nation’s value judgments, at least as carried out in our dominant cultural organs, have tended to mirror changes in political and economic ascendancy generally. However, a paradoxical side-effect of the September 11 attacks has been to unsettle this given. Against the devastating backdrop of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, what has suddenly seemed obvious is how un-political writing and reading are. Now American literature’s capacity to sustain, not just its dominant values, but any values seems at issue.
Like some of you, perhaps like most, I returned to my computer, books, manuscripts, and students on September 12, fighting waves of futility and impotence. My involvement with words seemed a preposterous decadence, an indulgence of someone insulated from the realities of his situation. Often bin Laden’s harsh condemnations of America seemed directly applicable, not just to me, but to all who, like me, imagined their political participation could somehow occur behind a desk. A week after the bombings, one of the grant applications on which FC2 depends for its survival was due. As I worked past midnight preparing our budgets, I marveled at my own obsession with these trivialities. In the face of potentially unparalleled global destruction, who cared whether new forms of writing saw the light of day?
In mid-October, as our nation was completing its first week’s bombardment of Afghanistan, I attended the Modernist Studies convention at Rice University in Houston. I was surprised there by the number of papers arguing for the political importance of writing that was not explicitly political. Many speakers explained that their presentations were composed after or in response to the September 11 attacks, and in the ensuing discussions, no one seemed anxious to characterize such arguments as self-deluding or naive. There seemed a new anxiety about the possibility of an omnivorous politics subsuming the human altogether, and accompanying this anxiety, a renewed interest in aesthetics, in responsible value judgments, in the question of what literature is meant to do.
What is the significance of these events for FC2?
FC2’s soul is staked in the openness of the question of literature. We survive to cultivate a space in which modern writing’s self-development can continue. If FC2 becomes a coterie press, an organ devoted to publishing the under-published, or a non-profit version of Knopf, then our soul has been lost, and we should cease to exist. As a successful and cantankerous friend of mine said to me recently, “Half the planet has no food. The other half is bombing them. Don’t ask me to bleed for writers who can’t find a publisher.” FC2’s political task today continues unchanged from its Vietnam Era origins: to provide American literature with what, in its absence, “American literature” ceases to exist. I normally call this autonomy, but in the present circumstances I prefer to call it enduring freedom. FC2 exists to assert writing’s independence in the face of those institutional, economic, and social forces, both national and global, that would reduce it to a function of themselves. If there’s anything on which George Bush and Osama bin Laden agree, it is that a world that denies to each leader’s culture its power of self-development is a world that must change.
I hold out no hope that by supporting new forms of writing FC2 will stop international terrorism. Thank God for men and women who carry out their political commitments in places more treacherous than behind a desk. But preserving the space in which cultural practices can develop in their own way can change our world, making it a more human place, and even if that won’t stop international terrorism, it is the only way to defeat it.
R. M. Berry’s short fiction has been widely published and anthologized and his critical essays have appeared in such journals as Philosophy and Literature and Narrative. His FC2 books include Dictionary of Modern Anguish, Leonardo’s Horse, and Plane Geometry and Other Affairs of the Heart.