June 2, 2016
About that open letter… Aleksandar Hemon responds
by Julia Fleischaker
Last week, we wrote about a petition, at the time signed by 450 American authors, denouncing Donald Trump. In their “Open Letter to Fellow Americans,” the signatories, including notable authors like Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, David Shields, Lydia Davis, Rebecca Solnit, and Dave Eggers, made clear their correct but unsurprising opposition to the presidential candidate. As we noted at the time, the usefulness of such a petition is tenuous at best.
We applaud these 16,000 brave souls for daring to say in public that Donald Trump is a small-fisted bigot unfit for office. He is. But I can’t help wondering what exactly the purpose of this statement might be. There’s nothing wrong with declaring one’s opposition to a pig-faced fascist with bad hair, but it’s probably not the most useful thing in the world either.
The acclaimed novelist Aleksandar Hemon has also been thinking about Trump, and open letters, and American letters. Although he too detests “Trump and everything he and his squirrel-pelt hair stand for,” he declined to sign the letter for reasons he lays out in a post on Lit Hub, Why I Didn’t Sign the Open Letter Against Trump.
His first objection is straightforward. The American electoral process provides one real way to truly oppose Trump’s candidacy — to vote against him. As long as Trump follows the rules of an American election, which, however coarsely and angrily, he has done so far, he has the right to run. “The election,” says Hemon, “is the job interview.”
The Open Letter demands that Trump be excluded from the democratic process because he and his words are repellent, because his pelt and short fingers tarnish the comforting picture of American history that “despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together.”
Hemon goes on to wonder what actions would have been taken as a result of a Cruz or Carson nomination.
Would the writers have written a letter opposing Ted Cruz, an ardent sociopath who at some point in his life must have tortured rodents, and who is just as hateful as Trump, because he would’ve conformed to the accepted practices of American politics? Would Ben Carson, a stranger to reason, comply with the writers’ belief “that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate”? What is the threshold of acceptability? Being a professional politician? Being a Democrat? Not having short fingers? Not being Trump?
And here, says Hemon, is the problem. Rather than being an integral part of the American discussion tackling the fairly heinous hangover left by the Bush era, and its through line leading straight to Trump, novelists have largely left George W. Bush and his legacy in peace. Where are the novels tackling the post 9/11 era, with all of its crimes and, for lack of a better word, evildoing?
One has a hard time recalling a novel that has forcefully addressed the iniquities of the post 9/11 era: the lies, the crimes, the torture, the financial collapse, not to mention Americans’ complicity in all those glories, including the fact that Bush had approval ratings reaching the nineties on the eve of the Iraq invasion. If some future historian attempts to determine what occupied the American writers’ minds since the beginning of the millennium by reading all the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners between 2002 and 2016, s/he would find few traces of Bush, or Iraq, or Abu Ghraib, or Cheney, or the financial collapse, or indeed any politics. Apart from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has some things to say about American exceptionalism, the closest to political engagement a recent Pulitzer winner comes is by way of North Korea, the setting for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, addressing the outrageous misdeeds of a reassuringly non-American regime.
Why have we been content, Hemon asks, “to let the bygones be bygones, and continue ‘the great experiment,’ even if it’s repeatedly plagued by predictably terrible results.” Where is the author, he asks, “eager to develop a narrative in which Trump—or his hairier, more narratively compelling avatar—wouldn’t be the false cause of our discontent but a symbol of an America struggling to forestall its precipitous intellectual and political decline, to which the absence of its literature from its politics must have contributed.”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.