Azar Nafisi thinks the best way to pin down a culture is to take a look at its canonical works of literature. In The Republic of Imagination, as Adam Begley details in a review in the Times Literary Supplement, she examines a few of America’s classic novels, including Babbitt, Huck Finn and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. You could also read Jonathan Russell Clark’s review of the book for The Millions.
Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
When the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction was released this week with only one woman author out of 10 nominees (and only one person of color), I thought, wow, the jury (two of whom are women) must have completely missed the increasingly vociferous discussions over the past few years about the lack of gender equity in the literary world. Then I read the Slate essay in which Katy Waldman calls nonfiction the “patriarch of the book world.” As the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book, a biography, I have become aware of how male-dominated the field of biography is. But why all of nonfiction?
Last year’s longlist wasn’t much better: only three women out of 10. Prior to last year, the National Book Award announced only shortlists, which look pretty good since 2010 (two or three women out of five) but for much of the 2000s were dismal (mostly one or even no women out of five). A recent study in Mayborn also showed that among all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women and five percent by people of color. The study also found that these results don’t simply prove jury bias; the percentage of books by women submitted to the major competitions was only 30 percent last year. (The study also found the awards skew towards East Coast writers nurtured by institutions that are predominately white and male.)
Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries). Even within these parameters, there were some notable, well-reviewed books by women that didn’t make this year’s list:
Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War
Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space
Joan De Jean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Two books in science, a topic which attracts surprisingly little attention from NBA juries, should have been strong contenders this year (along with E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which did make the list):
There are other nonfiction genres, however, in which women are prolific—namely memoir and the essay—which get short shrift from the major awards. The only book by a woman on this year’s NBA longlist is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It is also the only memoir on the list. Of the past 50 nominated books, Waldman points out, only four have been memoirs (three of them by women—one of them won, Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010). Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile. Memoirs and essay collections by women that deserved the judges’ attention this year include:
Leslie Jemison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays
Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything
Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir
Then there are those nonfiction books that defy genre. In 1976, when Maxine Hong Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction with The Woman Warrior (her China Men won the NBA in 1981), it seemed as if nonfiction had experienced a seismic shift. Unfortunately, in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction (such as history, biography, literary criticism, and memoir). There are a number of compelling works published this year by women that inject memoir into these more conventionally objective subgenres. I would conjecture, in fact, that women writers are more likely to investigate how their own lives intersect with larger issues—such as great books, our nation’s founding documents, or returning soldier’s PTSD—as they did in these works:
Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch
Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism
Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
This year’s NBA nonfiction longlist is disappointing not simply because of its dearth of women writers but also because of its unwillingness to think beyond the male-dominated forms of nonfiction that have garnered the most gravitas in the past. We can keep hoping, however, that the subtle biases that govern out understanding of literary value—why is a great work, as Ron Charles points out, called “seminal” rather than “ovular”?—will gradually become as quaint as those 1950s videos instructing women in how to become the perfect housewife.