An Interview with Diana Sheets: A House Divided
Michael F. Shaughnessy -
1) Diana, the election is over, and it seems that America is truly “A House Divided”. Your thoughts?
Yes, America is divided. Until we find a way to rebuild the American Identity so that we find common ground in our culture, history, and collective selves, I don’t think this political polarization will end.
2) What do you think this says about American culture in 2012?
If we’re writing about American culture circa 2012, I think that could be the shortest essay in the world. What culture? There’s the Internet, the 24-hour “news” cycle, celebrity, sex, and money (or the lack thereof). Birth, race, class, hookups, politics, and death. That pretty much covers it.
3) American literature is founded on certain ideals. Let’s compare and contrast the literature of 1776, 1876 and now 2012, if you will.
Well, that would be a rather long discussion on a number of different topics. But let me make a short stab at it.
At the beginning of 1776, Thomas Paine anonymously published “Common Sense”, a pamphlet in the guise of a sermon that made a passionate case for severing our colonial ties with Britain while advocating the cause of American independence. That same year English historian Edward Gibbon published the first of six volumes of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which some Americans see as an analogy for our circumstances today.
Then, shifting again back to America’s shores, when I think of “the literature of 1776”, I am reminded of those American foundational documents that shaped our identity as a nation and a people.
That would include the “Federalist Papers” (1787-1788), 85 articles written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, that made a case for ratifying our Constitution. And, of course, the “Constitution of the United States”, which was ratified in 1788. Finally, I am reminded of the “Bill of Rights”, those initial ten amendments to our Constitution, ratified in 1791, that set out to define and limit the power of American government in order to safeguard our personal liberties.
By 1876, a century after our inception, our distinctive American identity was clearly evident. Consider, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) whose essay “Self-Reliance” (developed over the years and finally published in 1841) stressed the importance of individuality and the need to avoid conformity.
Let us also not forget his memorable speech, “The American Scholar”, given to the Phi Beta Kappa society in 1837, which emphasized the distinctive nature of the American intellectual identity.
Then, there was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). His essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849) was written in defiance of unjust governance, as well as his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War.
The American character can’t be considered without mentioning “American exceptionalism” as espoused in Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (Vol. 1, published in 1835, and Vol. 2, published in 1840).
Finally, our American identity is evidenced in the fiction of two of our greatest American novelists, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) and my favorite, Herman Melville (1819-91). No one can truly understand America without reading Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” (1850) and Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” (1851).
Leap ahead to 2012. The 21st century cultural landscape, by comparison, is very parched. Fictional narratives engaged in presenting the American story have essentially been relegated to the dustbin. Norman Mailer, now diseased, wrote his greatest contribution, his “nonfictional novel”, “The Executioner’s Song”, published in 1979.
Tom Wolfe’s most compelling presentation of the American story remains “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, published in 1987. Here is a riveting tale of money, greed, class antagonisms, and racial strife set against the metropolitan New York landscape. Wolfe has written two other novels in this tradition—A Man In Full (1998) and, most recently, Back to Blood (2012).
Philip Roth has been celebrated for his American Trilogy—“American Pastoral” (1997), “I Married a Communist” (1998), and “The Human Stain” (2000). He announced that “Nemesis”, a novel he published in 2010, would be his last.
Mailer, Wolfe, and Roth have written manly fiction engaged with the world. One is dead, the other two elderly. Their worldview does not resonate with “millennials” (born from 1997-1992) whose tastes dictate the marketplace, although their feminized interests trend toward Facebook and texting, rather than the solitary pursuit of reading. Sadly, the literary novels celebrated today are steeped in identity politics, drenched in interiority, and consumed with false virtue.
Consequently, as Tom Wolfe noted, “The American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs . . . ‘food’. It needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts for . . . ‘America’ . . . as she is right now”. But that, of course, would require an appreciation of realism—favored by Mailer, Wolfe, and Roth. It also would necessitate that writers create the American story, again quoting Wolfe, “with the energy and the verve to approach America the way her moviemakers do, which is to say, with a ravenous curiosity and an urge to go out among her 270 million souls and talk to them and look them in the eye”.
My novels “The Cusp of Dreams” (2009) and “American Suite” (2010) are in this tradition.
4) You have written about Romney and Ryan as being superheroes. How would you characterize Obama?
As a backdrop to your question, I invite your readers to read my Literary Gulag essays on Barack Obama (“What’s Memoir Got to Do with It? The 2012 Presidential Election: Fiction Versus Reality, Part 1, Obama”), http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/70,and Mitt Romney (“Part II, Romney”), http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/73).
I also direct your readers to my controversial blog on Huffington Post “Our Superheroes Romney and Ryan: Why You Should Hope Republicans Win the Presidential Election”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-diana-e-sheets/our-superheroes-romney-ryan_b_1980198.html.
Now, let me reply to your question. Barack Obama is a man whose values and principles have been shaped by the counter-cultural calamity of the 1960s and its aftermath. His sensibilities are global and post-colonial, rather than American. He is a postmodern relativist who believes that truth depends on your cultural reference rather than a universal standard of right and wrong.
Obama believes that social justice can be mediated through vigorous state intervention. But what if it can’t? What if this strategy of devoting enormous resources toward a retribution of wealth and opportunity severely limits our ability to compete in the global marketplace and leads to our economic ruin? Obama’s sentiments are academic. Put simply, he doesn’t understand how power works or what the consequences are for embracing social justice at the expense of competitive excellence.
I believe that Obama’s two-term administration is accelerating America’s decline as a superpower. It is also leading to the inception of a more or less permanent “Mad Max Economy”—reinterpreting Andrew Martin’s phrase—where every day becomes a primal fight for survival. This perilous state of decline puts us—and our allies—in great peril.
If you embrace Obama’s values, you believe he is America’s savior. If you don’t, you worry that he’s the antichrist. Hubris, when encapsulated in a worldview that is woefully misguided, has catastrophic consequences.
5) Literature revolves around values—what values are being promulgated in America, in your mind?
Literature is feminized, a domain where almost all readers insist on reading stories that will judge them and their values to be good and just and fair. The stories they long to read are divorced from disturbing truths about the world. Readers have, in effect, become child-like in the desires and demands for a narrative that depicts the triumph of a kinder, gentler universe where our empathetic sensibilities are vindicated. Their literary fiction is divorced from disturbing reality, that “wretched realism”.
The result is that novels—especially literary stories—have nothing to say.
Go back and read early 20th Century American Naturalism if you want to understand what life is really about. Start with Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” or “Sister Carrie”. Then, read Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” or watch the movie adaptation when it debuts on November 21st, and then tell me fiction hasn’t been feminized and infantilized.
For a fuller explanation on the consequences of feminized literature, see my essay posted on Literary Gulag, “The ‘Pink and White Tyranny’ & Its Toll on Fiction”, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/5.
6) I am trying to think of a book that might reflect the deep division that seems to be permeating America- what comes to your mind?
Today, everything is film. I hope your readers will watch the movie adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” (1927), which is entitled “There Will Be Blood” (2007). If you’re a man, rent that video and see it with a woman. Watch her response. Ask her how she feels about it. Most women will express disgust. To them, this film reveals men at their most brutish.
Today, women expect sensitive men to share and celebrate their feminized values. Women would much rather read “Twilight” (adolescent fantasy) or even “Fifty Shades of Grey” (fantasy, softcore sadomasochistic pornography) than be confronted with disturbing reality.
7) Since we have no “superheroes” in the White House, what can we refer to the present occupants?
Misguided “boy-men” who think they rule in the “Kingdom of Virtue”. If this were a virtual game on the Net, no one would care. But we live in a real world and the consequences of societal infantilization can be dire.
8) Is there a literature of dependence? Of independence?
Literary fiction today is feminine virtue, a.k.a. dependence. American Naturalism with swatches of Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Philip Roth is independence.
9) How does your website, Literary Gulag, www.literarygulag.com, address these issues?
My website is called Literary Gulag because I make the case that only in the gulag—the Soviet-style jails fostered under Stalin—does a writer—me!—have the freedom to present the truth. My essays on literary criticism and political commentary, as well as my fiction strip away the facade of gentility to present unvarnished realism. These articles and stories reveal many of the current trends in literature and politics. I invite your readers to check them out.