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The Essentials of Socialist Writing

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Interview by Mark Nowak

Prashad, V. (None). The Essentials of Socialist Writing. Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/socialist-writing-publishing-books-reading/

Writing should be crisp, not for itself — because there is a new aestheticization of writing, a kind of writing for its own sake. I have many friends who say that V. S. Naipaul — forget his politics — is a great writer. I’m not keen on this kind of attitude.

Writing is a form of communication. The point of writing is to reach someone, to say something. What you say is relevant, of course. But I don’t want to get dogmatic. I like to read people I might not agree with, certainly, and I can judge them by the basis of their ability to tell me what they think. This is not clarity, but precision. Is the writing precise? Why should writing be spare or precise? Because it must be able to evoke something in a reader. The reader should not have to run for cover because the author has fired off clichés — a fusillade of dead words. Writers must pay special attention to evoking something in the reader. Even texts on development should attempt to reach the heart of the readers — not to manipulate them, but to interest them.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Writing should be crisp, not for itself — because there is a new aestheticization of writing, a kind of writing for its own sake. I have many friends who say that V. S. Naipaul — forget his politics — is a great writer. I’m not keen on this kind of attitude.

Writing is a form of communication. The point of writing is to reach someone, to say something. What you say is relevant, of course. But I don’t want to get dogmatic. I like to read people I might not agree with, certainly, and I can judge them by the basis of their ability to tell me what they think. This is not clarity, but precision. Is the writing precise? Why should writing be spare or precise? Because it must be able to evoke something in a reader. The reader should not have to run for cover because the author has fired off clichés — a fusillade of dead words. Writers must pay special attention to evoking something in the reader. Even texts on development should attempt to reach the heart of the readers — not to manipulate them, but to interest them.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

W. E. B Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk asked a question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This was his detonator sentence. It carried the entire book with it. People of African descent in the United States had been made — through slavery and Jim Crow codes — to experience a subdued dignity. That was Du Bois’s point.

I came at it from a different place. In my second book, Karma of Brown Folk, I developed an argument about race in the United States, and why certain races stood for success while others stood for failure. This hierarchy of races allows white supremacy to make the claim that it is not after all racist.

South Asians in particular, but other Asian Americans as well, entered the United States after 1965 with advanced degrees. Their success story was written by immigration law, so that their “genius” was not through natural selection but by state selection. Nonetheless, South Asians were being positioned, against African Americans, as a success story. Drawing from Du Bois’s detonator sentence, I asked, “How does it feel to be a solution?” That question grounded the book.

One of my other books — The Darker Nations — is about the Third World Project, the political movement of the formerly colonized states on the world stage. The term “Third World” had become resonant with disparagement — state failure, corruption, violence. But this was a phenomenon of the 1980s, when the Third World Project had been, as I wrote, assassinated. From the 1920s to the 1980s, the term referred to that immense struggle to produce an alternative inter-state system. So the detonator sentence for that book — in fact the first sentence — ran, “The Third World is not a place, but a project.” In other words, the disparagement — which is about places in the world that had been reduced to penury and hopelessness — could not account for the political struggle — the project.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

W. E. B Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk asked a question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This was his detonator sentence. It carried the entire book with it. People of African descent in the United States had been made — through slavery and Jim Crow codes — to experience a subdued dignity. That was Du Bois’s point.

I came at it from a different place. In my second book, Karma of Brown Folk, I developed an argument about race in the United States, and why certain races stood for success while others stood for failure. This hierarchy of races allows white supremacy to make the claim that it is not after all racist.

South Asians in particular, but other Asian Americans as well, entered the United States after 1965 with advanced degrees. Their success story was written by immigration law, so that their “genius” was not through natural selection but by state selection. Nonetheless, South Asians were being positioned, against African Americans, as a success story. Drawing from Du Bois’s detonator sentence, I asked, “How does it feel to be a solution?” That question grounded the book.

One of my other books — The Darker Nations — is about the Third World Project, the political movement of the formerly colonized states on the world stage. The term “Third World” had become resonant with disparagement — state failure, corruption, violence. But this was a phenomenon of the 1980s, when the Third World Project had been, as I wrote, assassinated. From the 1920s to the 1980s, the term referred to that immense struggle to produce an alternative inter-state system. So the detonator sentence for that book — in fact the first sentence — ran, “The Third World is not a place, but a project.” In other words, the disparagement — which is about places in the world that had been reduced to penury and hopelessness — could not account for the political struggle — the project.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

I think socialist writing has an important and very difficult challenge. One of the things that has become clear to me is that once human beings surrender to the present, the idea of the future wears thin. There is only a present. The present stretches on into infinity. When we say tomorrow, we mean only tomorrow in time, but not in epochal terms. Tomorrow will look like today. The sensation of an endless present greets us each day. Change is never going to come.

That feeling — of futility — is the greatest detriment to the socialist imagination. Socialist writing, to my mind, has to help break that fatalism and create what Arundhati Roy calls “a new imagination” — an imagination of a different kind of world, with different priorities and different sensibilities.

[...]

But more than anything else, the socialist should not write in a register of anguish or even merely anger. For gloom and doom does not help clarify the future, the possibility of the future.

I’ve been saying that the time of the present is over, and that the time of the future is at hand. What this means is not that we are on the threshold of a breakthrough, but that the managers of our world order are not capable of solving our problems. That means that the present has no solutions for us. We need to seek our solutions from the future, from a different way of ordering our needs and our luxuries, our excesses and our scarcities.

We don’t need texts of frustration and rage, but texts that suggest inevitability, the idea that we have in our marrow that this present of ours is simply not able to deal with our problems of inequality, climate catastrophes, war and so on, and that we not only need an alternative but that in our struggles an alternative is at hand. In other words, the time of the future exists in our struggles. Our writing has to capture that sensation.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

I think socialist writing has an important and very difficult challenge. One of the things that has become clear to me is that once human beings surrender to the present, the idea of the future wears thin. There is only a present. The present stretches on into infinity. When we say tomorrow, we mean only tomorrow in time, but not in epochal terms. Tomorrow will look like today. The sensation of an endless present greets us each day. Change is never going to come.

That feeling — of futility — is the greatest detriment to the socialist imagination. Socialist writing, to my mind, has to help break that fatalism and create what Arundhati Roy calls “a new imagination” — an imagination of a different kind of world, with different priorities and different sensibilities.

[...]

But more than anything else, the socialist should not write in a register of anguish or even merely anger. For gloom and doom does not help clarify the future, the possibility of the future.

I’ve been saying that the time of the present is over, and that the time of the future is at hand. What this means is not that we are on the threshold of a breakthrough, but that the managers of our world order are not capable of solving our problems. That means that the present has no solutions for us. We need to seek our solutions from the future, from a different way of ordering our needs and our luxuries, our excesses and our scarcities.

We don’t need texts of frustration and rage, but texts that suggest inevitability, the idea that we have in our marrow that this present of ours is simply not able to deal with our problems of inequality, climate catastrophes, war and so on, and that we not only need an alternative but that in our struggles an alternative is at hand. In other words, the time of the future exists in our struggles. Our writing has to capture that sensation.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Art cannot by itself change the world. It can provide insight and perhaps an epiphany — but it does not change the relations of power in the world. For that, one needs organizational power and struggle.

But art at the same time must be free to engage with contradictory consciousness without a predetermined end — the ends of politics, for instance. If a political line drives the process of elaboration, then we would know the answer to our question before we began our studies among the people. In order to best understand social relations, socialist writing and art must have freedom to come as close as possible to the contradictory common sense and produce — again in conversation with the people, with one’s comrades — the good sense of our times.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Art cannot by itself change the world. It can provide insight and perhaps an epiphany — but it does not change the relations of power in the world. For that, one needs organizational power and struggle.

But art at the same time must be free to engage with contradictory consciousness without a predetermined end — the ends of politics, for instance. If a political line drives the process of elaboration, then we would know the answer to our question before we began our studies among the people. In order to best understand social relations, socialist writing and art must have freedom to come as close as possible to the contradictory common sense and produce — again in conversation with the people, with one’s comrades — the good sense of our times.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Antonio Gramsci in his prison notebooks has a theory of elaboration, which I think is very important. Gramsci argued that people in a capitalist system absorb ideas from a variety of sources — family, education, media, workplaces — and that the totality of these notions forms what he calls “common sense.” Now this common sense is useful because it explains a great deal about the world as it is — and how it appears. But there are fundamental elements of the world that remain difficult to fully understand. There are contradictions that make no sense.

Gramsci says that the mass of the people experience reality through a contradictory consciousness. Gramsci argues that the communist or the socialist goes among the people, interacts with them, and listens intently to their common sense. Then the communist activist or journalist critically elaborates upon their common sense, takes this contradictory common sense and elaborates it into “good sense” or philosophy. Good socialist nonfiction writing does not assume that it emerges from the genius of the writer or an inspiration — but it comes from being absorbed by the common sense around us, and by being honest about elaborating it into philosophy of good sense.

To come at this from another level: socialist writing is about democracy, about seeing readers as part of our process and not as consumers who must buy the commodities we produce. Socialist writing should be a conversation.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Antonio Gramsci in his prison notebooks has a theory of elaboration, which I think is very important. Gramsci argued that people in a capitalist system absorb ideas from a variety of sources — family, education, media, workplaces — and that the totality of these notions forms what he calls “common sense.” Now this common sense is useful because it explains a great deal about the world as it is — and how it appears. But there are fundamental elements of the world that remain difficult to fully understand. There are contradictions that make no sense.

Gramsci says that the mass of the people experience reality through a contradictory consciousness. Gramsci argues that the communist or the socialist goes among the people, interacts with them, and listens intently to their common sense. Then the communist activist or journalist critically elaborates upon their common sense, takes this contradictory common sense and elaborates it into “good sense” or philosophy. Good socialist nonfiction writing does not assume that it emerges from the genius of the writer or an inspiration — but it comes from being absorbed by the common sense around us, and by being honest about elaborating it into philosophy of good sense.

To come at this from another level: socialist writing is about democracy, about seeing readers as part of our process and not as consumers who must buy the commodities we produce. Socialist writing should be a conversation.

by Vijay Prashad 3 months, 2 weeks ago