This conversation unfolded as part of Bill Moyers' "World of Ideas" tour during the presidential election year of 1988, which elevated the voices of writers, educators, historians, poets, scientists, and many other deep thinkers in a rather remarkable interview series. I wrote about it here, with special attention to Moyers' interviewing tactics.
At the time of this interview, E.L. Doctorow was acclaimed for his novels Ragtime and Book of Daniel. Billy Bathgate was his most recently published book. He wouldn't publish another novel until 1994's The Waterworks.
MOYERS: Do you still think, as you did a couple years ago, that our literary life is quiet compared to earlier periods in our history?
DOCTOROW:: That's my impression. I don't believe we're doing work equivalent to our nineteenth-century novelists or even to some of our early twentieth-century novelists. Beyond that, several things have happened that have constricted us as a group or "trade." One of them is the movement of the social sciences into the realm of fiction. Anthropology, psychology, and sociology are now using many of fiction's devices and forcing us to become more and more private and interior. We have given up the realm of public discourse and the political and social novel to an extent that we may not have realized. We tend to be miniaturists more than we used to be.
MOYERS: Miniaturists writing in small strokes.
DOCTOROW: We look for the major statement that comes from the metaphor rather than trying to put together the sloppy, all-encompassing novel of a Dreiser, for example. We do less reportage than we used to do in terms of the actual great social issues. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Novelists are writing about Vietnam. Black women novelists have been writing very social and political material. But, as a generalization, I think it's true that we've constricted our field of vision. We have come into the house, closed the door, and pulled the shade. We're reporting on what's going on in the bedroom and in the kitchen, but forgetting the street outside and the town and the highway.
MOYERS: The big story. You once said our writers are less and less inclined to take on the big story. What is the big story?
DOCTOROW: The big story is always the national soul -- who are we, what are we trying to be, what is our fate, where will we stand in the moral universe when these things are reckoned? That's always the big story. But all this is not to say that we're doing bad work. As a matter of fact, writers today are technically more expert than fiction writers have ever been in this country. The average first novel is far more accomplished today than it was forty or fifty years ago.
Young writers today know a lot more, too. They have a degree of self-consciousness that perhaps comes of the fact that you can now study the craft of writing in college graduate programs all over the country. This is a great thing, but it has its drawbacks. ... (The writing profession) gets very guarded, and the sensibility becomes a little precious. ...
MOYERS: The political passion in fiction today is coming from abroad, from people like Nadine Gordimer in South Africa, Günter Grass in Europe, Gabriel Marquez in Latin America. Why is that?
DOCTOROW: As a practicing writer, I am, of course, happy to put some of the blame on the critics. There's no critical fraternity today that has that much regard for the political novel in America. But when political novelists come along from other countries, the value of their work is recognized. It's almost as if we're too good to need political novels in this country. It's like President Reagan's feeling about trade unions. He likes them as long as they're in Poland. We like our political novels as long as they don't come out of this country. We think if you write from a political awareness, you're bound to preach. We've always had a bias against preaching in our art. We like Tolstoy, but we don't like his moralizing, his essays on history. We like the individual witness. We have a feeling that to the extent politics or political passion or social or religious passion gets into a novel, that's an impurity.
MOYERS: Aesthetic malpractice.
DOCTOROW: Yes ... I subscribe to the idea that you want your convictions to come up out of the work, not to be impressed upon it. That you have to trust the act of writing to scan your brain and to represent whatever beliefs you have, but you cannot impose those beliefs on the work, you cannot twist it and bang it and torment it into shape, because if you do, you become a propagandist, a hack, an entertainer, or a shill. All that is true. It's a valid point of view, but as piety, it restricts us.
MOYERS: ... The novelist of the thirties wrote about the failure of America to nourish life. But today that's considered in many quarters an unpatriotic theme.
DOCTOROW: Or more likely, too tiresome to be borne. There is a definite disinclination to accept writers who take on these big social, political ideas. It's the "Who do they think they are" sort of criticism. We seem to prefer the perfection of the miniaturist. That may be a reflection of the orthodoxy we live in today.
MOYERS: You say it's not the role of the writer to save society.
DOCTOROW: No, you can't have that kind of self-aggrandizing view of yourself. You like to feel that somehow, you might inch things along a little bit in a good way toward civility, toward enlightenment, and toward diminishing the suffering. But you don't want to get too pompous about that. Really what you do is to distribute the suffering to it can be borne. That's what artists do.
Image credit: New York Magazine