The literature of a country – not “literature” in the starchy sense of wacky academic theories or fanciful turns of phrase, but writing that touches on the essentials of life as it is actually lived, the mud and the blood and the sex and the sweat and the struggle of that is, to put it bluntly, everything. All with regard to this project, we call civilization, and the ethics, morals and laws which at certain times and in certain places make us more civilized than savage; those ethics, morals and laws that could be summed up in the seemingly simple phrase, Love your neighbor as yourself. Or: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To to like and do thus compel us to step out of ourselves and into another person’s experience, to recognize that that person’s humanity is just as vital, rich and precious as our own. One could say that all morality, all civilization rests on this profound act of imagination, this necessary extension of the self. And it is the failure of this imagination that allows the unlimited human genius of cruelty.
History, reporting, sociology, economics offer certain facts about human existence, but it is literature that immerses us most intimately in the feeling of a thing, and this feeling is what gives made their fullest sense. One can read the horrific stories of Texas border massacres and kidnappings and recognize the informational trauma, but a top-notch novelist on the order of Paulette Jiles puts us in the shoes of the people who lived these horrors, with an immediacy that few historians or biographers can match and sustain. It’s this visceral twist, the well-placed punch in the gut, that shocks us out of ourselves and paradoxically makes us better able to explain ourselves.
We are of course talking about empathy. The experience, in a deeper rather than a passing sense, of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Fiction, when it does its proper work, is an enlargement rather than a reduction of life; an enlargement of the self, if we are open to it. Then there are the books – maybe no more than a handful for each of us – that pick us up, open us up, and drop us off in a different place. We are no longer the same as before. We had an experience that burned our information circuits for smoking potato chips.
“I know a farm manager,” Larry McMurtry wrote in the late sixties, “a man who had recently emigrated from the valley to the high plains, who was sincerely shocked that the Mexicans were beginning to want houses To live in. Tents and sleeping trucks, fifty cents an hour in cash and a free goat every week or two no longer satisfied them. They had come to see themselves as human beings, an attitude that filled the director with astonishment and vague dismay.
The phenomenon observed by McMurtry in 1968 has continued to grow and expand ever since. These “Mexicans”, along with many others born outside the traditional Anglo-Texan circle of grace, continued to emphasize their humanity and, in doing so, brought to light a harsher and more complex reality than that portrayed in the triumphant model of the Texas border. nostalgia and manifest destiny. Although Texas offered opportunity to many, it was also a desperate and bloody terrain, prone to war (no less than four from 1835 to 1880), mob violence, corrupt governance, disasters natural disasters, economic turmoil and ruin. Generations of Anglo-Saxon settlers lived in conditions little better than medieval Europe, and for Native Americans, blacks, and Hispanics below them on the social ladder, life in Texas was often hell. .
This darker history has been with us forever, passed down through the psyches of successive generations, but it’s only recently that a critical mass of Texas writers has pushed beyond the fairy tales of Anglo triumphalism into darker territory. difficult, more mature and more challenging. As always, much of this new fiction will not be very good. Diversity of subject matter and identities is no guarantee of literary quality, and we may well find among this new wave of writers the same drift toward stereotyping and sentimentality that has plagued previous generations of Texas fiction. But the field is wider now, the potential greater, and talent that wouldn’t have had a chance forty or fifty years ago now has a decent chance of a career in writing.
Meanwhile, the astonishment and vague dismay that Larry McMurtry detected in this farm manager of long ago has been demagogued in our time in total panic. For more than a few overexcited Texans, this more diverse literature signals a frontal assault on heterosexual white Christian America. The hysteria around critical race theory, the political heat exerted on school and public libraries, conspiracy theories about the indoctrination and grooming of schoolchildren by homosexual educators: these remote fringes of reaction have become common among an influential minority of Texans. . Maybe reaction will win, but in the long run trying to silence writers tends to be a losing proposition. El Paso native John Rechy delivered one of the pioneering works of LGBTQ literature with the 1963 publication of his novel night city. Savagely attacked by some in the critical establishment when it first appeared, and a regular on lists of the most frequently banned books in America, night city is still in print nearly sixty years later and has sold over a million copies. 2012 novel by longtime El Paso resident Benjamin Alire Sáenz Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe was banned for its depiction of homosexuality and references to drugs and sex, and was included on a list of 850 suspect books that State Representative Matt Krause compiled and sent to school districts in Texas. Still, the book continues to sell fast, and a film adaptation co-produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Eva Longoria is in the works.
Perhaps the most dramatic recent example of frustrated censorship in Texas letters is on the nonfiction side. Accommodation, Jim Schutze’s classic account of white supremacy as it was practiced in Dallas circa 1950-1985, so alarmed the Dallas establishment that he strove mightily to suppress the book, and largely succeeded. For almost 35 years copies of Accommodation were as rare as oboe players, but last summer Dallas publishing house Deep Vellum reissued the book. The first printing of 5,000 copies sold out within weeks and a second printing was quickly ordered. This fall, 30,000 copies of Accommodation will be distributed free of charge to the city’s Big D Reads book club.
Is this the arc of justice at work? The weight of history? The raw power of demographic change? Maybe a combination of all three. Call it what you will, it’s hard to stop a rising tide.
Dallas writer Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s long halftime walk, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was made into a major film.
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas monthly with the title “The author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Says it. Subscribe today.