There is a tradition in literature of the novelist as social critic. In this role, the writer, within the controlled environment of a novel, peels back the onion skin of fashionable optimism to reveal the cruel, or vain, or corrupt, or narcissistic, or dysfunctional truth guiding our communal ship. The hope, I suppose, is that in doing so anyone reading the book will never again commit the sin of vanity, narcissism, etc., and society will be all the better for it. I don’t mean to be flip. All writers were children once, and most of these writers were sensitive, observant children. Many parents, whether in suburbs, in exurbs, in apartment buildings, or in gated communities, fall for the easy trap of maintaining the veneer that EVERYTHING IS OKAY. Meanwhile, of course, the parents themselves are only human, and they worry, and they argue, and they drink, and they get divorced, and the sensitive, observant child is quite aware that everything is NOT okay.
And so, the harder the parents try to maintain the illusion, and the more they ask the children themselves to participate in the maintenance of the illusion, the more the unexpressed truth gestates in the child, so that by the time this child is thirty and writing his or her first novel, the desire to unleash a scathing social commentary about how everything is not okay has become a kind of irresistible force.
So I have sympathy for the social critic in all of us. There is no point in pretending we don’t suffer and lie and steal and kill. But I believe that which the social critic criticizes is just another layer itself, only somewhat deeper than the transparent veneer of public politeness that covers it. The question is not whether we lie and argue and divorce, but why we lie and argue and divorce, and the only reason anyone does anything of this sort is fear, and even the most astute social critic in the world has been afraid.
I would never propose a ban on social criticism; that would be like proposing a second prohibition. But no matter how many politicians deceive, no matter how many fathers cheat on their wives, no matter how many mothers demean their children, anyone, at anytime, in any circumstance, can be okay. Nothing can be taken from us, it can only be given away. That is always the deepest truth, the truth we spend our lives at once resisting and praying for.
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