Tomorrow, I get to wake up to two realities: one, on Tuesday, November 15, I am going to launch my first novel; and two, Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. And while I’m still excited about the former, the latter has simultaneously enveloped the whole thing with the darkest, or maybe just dimmest, of shadows, for results like the ones we saw yesterday are enough to make you ask some serious questions about your own motivations, in life and in art.
I am, first and foremost, a storyteller, so I will be plenty happy if people pick up my book, give it a read, and feel as though they were entertained and stimulated. But a person doesn’t pick up a pen, put it to paper, and spend three years issuing heart and soul to characters, situations, and themes, without hoping that the words also offer some semblance of provocative insight into our flawed culture. A writer’s mind is occupied by many things while writing a book—some political, most philosophical—and it is inevitable that a certain worldview, even a temporary or ever evolving one, will work its way into the prose. A reader can decide whether they want to latch onto it or not, but the important thing is that the option is there for them. If they do latch on, the experience is bound to be more fulfilling, and in some cases, life altering.
But then, suddenly, Donald Trump happens, and you start asking yourself, what was the point? Because surely if someone whose brand is xenophobia and misogyny and anti-intellectualism can get elected to the highest office in the world, art’s basic message has failed. For who should art be directed at, the people who understand its fundamental power, or those who really need it? The people who appreciate art are the people who already appreciate its function: to act as a counterbalance to the mad, forceful realities we live with on a daily basis. Whatever the method—satire, history, or straight drama—art is a doorway to clairvoyance, to helping humanism meet its moral potential. But there’s a problem: it is people’s lack of exposure to art that makes them blind to art’s guiding hand, and they will retain that blindness as long as people like Donald Trump—fear monger, panderer, person who “loves uneducated people”—continue to actively propagate the idea that they don’t need artistic inspiration, they just need him.
My friend Bryn, for her Master’s degree, wrote a thesis claiming that literature, at its best, can turn people into more morally upstanding and empathetic people. I believe books have that power, as I believe it about movies and music and theatre and paintings. For storytelling, in any form, is a way to transport an isolated mind into someone else’s. Experience a day in the mind of Oliver Twist, and learn some sympathy toward orphans. See things through the eyes of Offred, and better understand a woman’s voiceless day-to-day challenges. It is not perfect empathy, of course. It never can be. But it is better than merely standing by the whims of an authoritarian despot who simply “tells” you things, and has no interest in showing you.
Some people close to Donald Trump have implied that he hasn’t read a book in twenty years. Whether that’s true or not, one thing that cannot be argued is that the man is short on empathy, at least towards people who share much more than superficial differences with him, so I’m not shy to conclude that art is not a big presence in his life, unless, of course, he sees profitability in it. I’m sure he’d be happy to let art touch his wallet, not so much his soul. His book, after all, is called The Art of the Deal (which he didn’t actually write, by the way). Matt Good once said that “politics is the art of passable corruption.” I agree with that sentiment, mostly, except that it’s kind of hard to call Donald Trump passable. His racism isn’t passable, it was simply ignored. His misogyny isn’t passable, it was just underwhelming. To his supporters, that is. They weren’t interested in Trump’s horrors because they lacked the ability to identify with its effects. To the white man, he is no burden; to the uneducated, he requires small thinking.
And so I become depressed, because I am now faced with the reality that my book is unlikely to land in the hands of people who need to feel a better connection to their fellow man. They aren’t interested in such things. My readers will be mostly people who can sort through the madness and properly glimpse our problematic future. And, in a way, that’s fine—I’m happy to add to their arsenal of perspective. But I write because I want to speak to people, and many people just proved that they cannot, for now, be adequately spoken to. Spoken at, yes, but not spoken to. I finished my book thinking that I may have created something impressionable, something forward thinking, but the world just took a major step back, and I’m not sure if my book is about to land on store shelves or a fire pit in a town square. Surely, great literature has sprung from hard times, a reaction to the emergence of evil, but, at the time, the wrong people were reading it—only those who read because reading helped them cope. Trump supporters need to read, and watch, and listen, and let their insides become expanded from the experience. Oh how I wish they would pick up a copy of 1984 right now, but they are not going to—they are too busy wanting to keep things simple and marginal. There is a future, and art will have a place in it, but right now, as an artist, my place in the conversation is feeling limited. And there is no worse feeling than spending three years pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a work of art, and then find yourself asking, why did I bother?