The triumph of the MFA mills is nearly complete. Most contemporary American writers of what is called “serious fiction” seem to be products of academia. And because academia is generally liberal, most American fiction writers seem to be leaning left these days. The MFA-mill/serious-literature merger seems to have developed primarily over the last forty years or so. Before that, we had plenty of conservative writers of serious literary fiction, men such as John O’Hara, James Gould Cousins, John P. Marquand, and the late-career John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck. Even in academia, there were conservatives, such as Vladimir Nabokov, a staunch anti-communist, who supported the Vietnam War and didn’t think much of female writers other than Jane Austen, whom he grudgingly admired. John Updike was another Vietnam War supporter and champion of traditional small-town, churchgoing values who managed to achieve success without always towing the liberal line.
Nowadays, when an MFA from a prestigious university writing workshop seems to be a prerequisite for a fiction-writing career, it is far more difficult to find novelists and short-story writers who are both conservative and held in high regard. Nonetheless, the conservative male writer of serious fiction is not quite extinct.
Mark Helprin, one of America’s finest living fiction writers, is also a conservative who writes cranky opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal, jeremiads against progressive copyright laws, and was once a speech writer for Bob Dole during the former Senator’s failed bid to unseat President Clinton. Despite his rightwing politics, Helprin seems to have no difficulty placing his stories in such prestigious litmags as The New Yorker and Atlantic. One could argue that, were he a liberal academic, he would have won a few Pulitzers and National Book Awards by now. In fact, Helprin himself has argued just that. His bitter outbursts against the liberal literary establishment notwithstanding, Helprin remains a highly regarded and hugely successful fiction writer.
Helprin isn’t alone. Tom Wolfe has spent nearly his entire career gleefully trying to epater la bourgeoisie of liberal America with both his fiction and nonfiction. Although he has never been awarded any of literature’s top prizes, his best books are likely to outlive the works of such Pulitzer-bedecked authors as Jhumpa Lahiri and Jennifer Egan.
James Salter, widely considered one of America’s greatest living novelists, attended West Point, served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and holds at least some conservative opinions (The New Yorker once quoted him as saying that he believes that only those with military experience should be allowed to serve as president of the United States). On his website Parabasis, cultural critic Isaac Butler writes that Salter’s work “is political in the way that people who don’t want to talk about politics write political work. It is small-c conservative, largely about wealthy elites, and it neither questions nor actively interrogates privilege (be it white, male, or monied).”
Thomas Mallon has carved out a successful career as a novelist despite strong Republican leanings. His books include Bandbox, Henry and Clara, and most recently Watergate. According to Wikipedia, he also ghostwrote Standing Firm, the memoirs of former vice president Dan Quayle. His conservative credentials haven’t prevented him from publishing in The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, and other bastions of mainstream liberalism.
John Calvin Batchelor may not be as well known or as highly regarded as Mallon and Helprin, but he is nonetheless a talented and unique voice in American fiction who has managed to publish seven highly inventive novels despite being a rightwing radio talk jock.
Stephen L. Carter’s status as a conservative political commentator hasn’t kept him from a successful career as a writer of right-leaning novels, including New England White and The Emperor of Ocean Park.
Scott Turow may not be a true right-winger, but he served as a public prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office during the Reagan administration, and was appointed to a statewide panel to evaluate the death penalty by Illinois Republican Governor George Ryan. His novels are conservative-friendly enough to have earned high praise from the likes of George Will.
Will has also been generous in his praise of the novels of James Webb. Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, Webb is currently a conservative Democratic senator for the state of Virginia. His novels generally explore military subjects and tend to extol conservative values such as service to one’s country and obedience to authority. His 1979 editorial “Women Can’t Fight,” about the role of women in the military, was praised by conservatives and condemned by liberals.
Though his fiction is mainly confined to the stage and screen, David Mamet has nonetheless published three novels. Over the years, he has evolved from a political liberal into a staunch conservative.
Until his death in 2010, Louis Auchincloss was a lifelong Republican as well as a wealthy Manhattan attorney and prolific writer of novels and short stories. He probably deserved a Pulitzer for his 1964 novel The Rector of Justin, but the fiction committee awarded it to Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House, a liberal-friendly attack on racism whose timing, the height of the Civil Rights movement, was impeccable. Despite never winning an important literary award, Auchincloss had a long and productive career as a writer of books with a right-of-center sensibility. His fictional bankers, Wall Street tycoons, and heirs to great fortunes could be seriously flawed characters, but Auchincloss never demonized them or stereotyped them as soulless worshippers of Mammon.
Budd Schulberg deserved a Pulitzer for his classic 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run. But rather than award the prize to a novel that was critical of the labor movement, the Pulitzer committee opted to award no prize that year. The snub didn’t seem to harm Schulberg’s career much. He continued to publish fiction into the 1990s, and died at the ripe old age of 95 in 2009.
Saul Bellow’s writings became more and more conservative with age. Likewise his admirer, colleague, and tennis partner Joseph Epstein. Though better known as an essayist, Epstein is the author of two excellent collections of short fiction, The Goldin Boys and Fabulous Small Jews.
David Brooks is a top-notch opinion columnist whose recent foray into novel-writing, The Social Animal, is not one of his triumphs, but it is at least another indication that there are highly regarded conservative male writers out there producing fiction. Brooks seems to be filling the role vacated by the deaths of William Safire and William F. Buckley, two literary conservatives who enjoyed success both as novelists and columnists.
Some of the most highly respected male writers of genre fiction are also far to the right of the political center. Ray Bradbury is probably the most prominent of these men.
But where are the conservative American female fiction writers? Today’s top female novelists and short-story writers all seem to be a predictably liberal lot: Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Anne Beattie, Bobby Ann Mason, Maxine Hong Kingston, Dorothy Allison, Louise Erdrich, Lorrie Moore, Ann Patchett – can anyone imagine one of these writers penning op-eds for a conservative newspaper like The Wall Street Journal, or signing on to work as a ghostwriter for, say, Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman, the way Helprin did for Bob Dole and Mallon did for Dan Quayle?
It’s impossible to imagine an Ann Patchett or a Lorrie Moore writing a novel or holding a political opinion that would anger the NPR or New Yorker crowd. But male novelists, even liberal ones, frequently draw fire for crossing the ideological demilitarized zone. In 1991, Edward Hoagland, a highly regarded liberal essayist and novelist, came under fire from a number of liberal writers (including Louise Erdrich) for denouncing anal sex as dangerous and implying that promiscuity among gays was worsening the AIDS crisis. Chuck Palahniuk is gay and, presumably, approves of such liberal causes as same-sex marriage. But it’s much harder to take his political temperature from one of his books than it is to judge a serious female writer’s politics from her work. Palahniuk, for instance, supports the death penalty. In fact, Palahniuk spoke up in a courtroom to demand the death penalty for Dale Shackleford, the man convicted of killing Palahniuk’s father, Fred. It’s impossible for me to imagine an Ann Patchett or a Barbara Kingsolver standing up in a courtroom, pointing at the accused, and telling a jury, “I demand that you fry this bastard until his eyeballs start to sizzle and melt.” Even if the victim were a close relative of hers, Kingsolver (or Patchett, or Erdrich, or Alice Hoffman) would probably ask for nothing more than life in prison for the murderer.
Too often, when reading a novel by a contemporary female, I am reminded of John Updike’s review of Alice Adams’ novel Superior Women. He wrote: “…its many characters fall almost entirely into four groups: blacks, Jews, Irish Americans, and upper-class wasps. The wasps are the heavies, with their ghastly clubbiness and haughty prejudices…Whereas the blacks are beautiful people…The Jews, too, are beyond reproach. Whatever the job set before them, they do it. Blacks and Jews in this book are invariably figures of comfort…Only the Irish have in them the potential to be good or bad – to be human, in short.”
When a contemporary female writer gives us a gay villain or an African American villain, it is almost certain that the book will contain many other gays and African Americans, all of whom are paragons of virtue. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary female writer giving us a book like Lonesome Dove, in which the only significant Native American character, a rapist and murderer named Blue Duck, is an embodiment of evil so pure it could almost pass as integrity. And Lonesome Dove was written by Larry McMurty, an old-school liberal (see for instance his lavish praise of Bill Clinton’s presidential memoir My Life).
The lack of contemporary female conservative novelists is especially odd when you consider that one of the icons of contemporary conservatism is Ayn Rand, an American female novelist. It’s true that no one with any taste or intelligence would label Rand’s fiction “serious literature,” but perhaps if we had more right-leaning women of letters, this country might eventually produce an Ayn Rand who could actually write well.
Offhand, the only female novelist I can think of with any claim to conservative credentials and some literary credibility is crime writer Patricia Cornwell. Cornwell has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican political candidates and has been chummy with such conservative icons as George H. W. Bush and Orrin Hatch. But a review of her Wikipedia entry makes it clear that it would be difficult to label her as either a doctrinaire conservative or liberal. She is pro-gay rights, has contributed money to plenty of Democratic candidates, and has vociferously criticized George W. Bush’s presidency.
Because of their embrace of traditional religion, both Alice McDermott (a Catholic) and Marilynne Robinson (a Congregationalist Protestant) are sometimes referred to as small-c conservatives. But nowhere in the works of either writer will you find an endorsement of the kind of conservatism espoused by the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.
Carolyn Chute, according to her Wikipedia bio, is a fierce defender of the second amendment to the Constitution who has been involved with the underground militia movement and keeps an AK-57 as well as a small cannon in her Maine home. But it would be wrong to peg her as a conservative. I’ve read her novels The Merry Men and Snow Man and would classify her as hostile to all forms of government, liberal or conservative. She’s also a class warrior who invariably sides with the underclass.
What does this tell us about today’s female writers of serious literature? Lately, it seems that female writers, even more so than their male counterparts, are likely to graduate from MFA mills such as the Iowa Writers Workshop and then go almost immediately back into academia as teachers. If they don’t get an MFA, these women at least get a degree in English. Consider, for instance, the bio of Allegra Goodman. She sold her first short story on the day she entered Harvard (where she pursued an English degree). Her first novel was accepted for publication on the day she graduated from Harvard (according to the bio on her website). Later she studied English Literature at Stanford. When her student days were over, she went on to teach a writing workshop in the graduate program in Creative Writing at Boston University. If she has ever held a job not related to fiction-writing, it isn’t mentioned in her official bio.
I realize that MFA programs and academia have become easy targets for those bemoaning the state of contemporary literature. But so what? Rightwing talk radio has become an easy target for those who wish to denigrate the state of contemporary conservative thought. The fact that a target is easy to hit doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not worth aiming at.
Many of the abovementioned conservative male writers had extensive careers outside of academia. Auchincloss, Salter, and Helprin all spent time in the military. William Safire worked as an adman on Madison Avenue. Tom Wolfe toiled in daily newspaper journalism for years. Auchincloss, Turow, Carter, and others had successful legal careers.
Plenty of female novelists may have spent time waiting tables or cleaning hotel rooms for a brief period between school years, but not as many of them seem to have had entire separate careers the way Auchincloss, Wolfe, and others have. There are exceptions, of course. Perri Klass is a pediatrician. Anna Quindlan was a longtime journalist before turning to fiction. Ditto Joyce Maynard. Yet none of these writers ever breaks from the liberal mold in her work. There are reputable female writers of nonfiction who break the liberal mold – Peggy Noonan, Camile Paglia, etc. – but where is our female Mark Helprin or Thomas Mallon, a topnotch novelist who is also unapologetically of the conservative political persuasion?
Although I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, bound neither to left- nor rightwing ideology, the truth is that I hold far more leftwing opinions than rightwing ones. Nonetheless, I like knowing that my taste in literature isn’t held slave to my political views. I like the fact that Helprin, Auchincloss, Epstein, and Wolfe – right-leaning individuals all – are among my favorite fiction writers (David Brooks is also among my favorite contemporary writers, but I can’t claim to have admired his “novel” The Social Animal much). But as I was patting myself on the back recently for being large-minded enough to permit conservatives into my personal literary canon, I realized that all my favorite conservative fiction writers were men. At that point it occurred to me that perhaps I had a blind spot where conservative female fiction writers were concerned. But, try as I might, I couldn’t make a list of contemporary female authors of serious literature whose politics are right of center. Am I missing something? If so, perhaps one of you out there reading this essay will do me the favor of setting me straight.