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Interview with Brooke Allen

By Bernard Chapin
web posted April 11, 2005

Dr. Brooke Allen is a pundit, scholar, and literary critic who has produced a bountiful amount of prose over the last few years. I first became familiar with Dr. Allen’s work after reading her observant and skillful essays appearing in The New Criterion. Even though she made it perfectly clear that she was not a conservative, I thought it would be valuable to hear her opinions on both political matters and those concerning literature. So many discussions with the left end with enmity and I thought that this would provide some valuable insight as to what the other side believes. With all the straw men hurled into debates nowadays, allowing individuals to fully state their views should increase understanding or at least civility. Personally, I don’t agree with the answer she gives in response to my first question, and that is more due to my conservative beliefs than a desire to dispute those held by leftists. Your interviewer is a conservative who believes in biological Darwinism as opposed to social Darwinism and am also opposed to completely disbanding our social safety nets. During his presidency, I saw little evidence of Reagan making radical changes, and I’ve never met anybody who wanted to prevent labor from organizing. I suspect that my experiences are fairly similar to those of other conservatives. However, Dr. Allen is kind enough to share with us some excellent insights such as her comment about the lack of correlation between character and talent. To have read half the books as she would amount to a first class education for anyone.

BC: I usually interview conservative individuals and you mentioned to me at the outset that you were not a conservative. Could you clarify some of your objections to the right in America? It may be educational for myself and our readers. Also, do you see a distinction between Republicans and conservatives? In other words, are your objections to the right more based on the actions of the Republican party than to our theories about government?

Brooke Allen: First of all, I very much object to the term "conservative," which has come, at least in political terms, to be meaningless. Ever since Reagan took office the Republican party has been on a course of extreme radical change. While I have always voted Democrat or Green, I consider myself far more of a conservative in the real sense of the word than Clarence Thomas or Tom Delay. I want to conserve the social fabric, or what's left of it, and conserve the New Deal policies that have traditionally helped those in need; I want to conserve respect for the elderly embodied in Medicaid; I want to conserve educational standards (or more properly, restore them to what they once were); I want to conserve (or restore) the respect that America has traditionally enjoyed in the world community; I want to conserve the right of labor to organize; I want to conserve the wall of separation between Church and State established by our Founding Fathers; I want to conserve the character of our countryside and towns and to limit the hideous sprawl that is swallowing the countryside; I want above all to preserve the environment, or what's left of it. Republican administrations since the 1980s have sought either actively to destroy these things or to destroy the legislation that has protected them. This radical social agenda is a long way from traditional conservatives such as Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford, who simply tried to run the country on fiscally conservative lines without imposing their own extreme ideology on the country. I (and many of my friends) are deeply offended at the idea of men like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Newt Gingrich (all flawed men who have led far from blameless personal lives) preaching their version of morality. In America we are all supposed to be free to make our own moral choices. In recent years the American right has embraced a very crude form of social Darwinism (while denying biological Darwinism!) of which the basic principle seems to be "eat or be eaten." If someone succeeds on a grand scale, good for them; if not, too bad for them; the safety net is to be removed. The most vulnerable populations in our country -- children and old people, who are literally defenseless -- are being stripped of resources daily. The rhetoric of the New Right appeals not to the ideals of the electorate but to their fears and prejudices, thus persuading populations (such as blue collar workers and organized labor) that have traditionally depended on liberal policies for their well-being to vote against their own interests.

BC: One of the publications for which you write, The New Criterion, is unabashedly rightward in its orientation, is it difficult to reconcile your beliefs while working for a conservative publication? Obviously though, analyzing Henry Green and Anthony Powell is not the same as discussing social security reform.

Brooke Allen: I would never write about political issues for The New Criterion, but on cultural ones I see very much eye to eye with the editors, and think that when it comes to art, literature and music it is a superb publication. Like the editors, I have little patience with the more baroque excesses of postmodern art and literature. The New Criterion is one of the only publications in this country willing to give a significant amount of space to the kind of writer I find interesting. You mention Henry Green and Anthony Powell: they are perfect examples. I also recently wrote a 6000 word essay on John Betjeman. Where else could this appear, outside of England or possibly Australia? What I like about the New Criterion is that one can write on this sort of subject precisely without bringing up politics, which are so often either irrelevant or uninteresting when it comes to art, into the matter. The magazine is interested in the work for its own sake. It also happens to be run by an extraordinarily nice group of people who make the whole enterprise a pleasure and a joy. What does irk me is that a lot of people assume that I am a political conservative because I write for the New Criterion. But I have no one to blame for that but myself.

BC: Is it your belief that art should ideally be non-political? What do you make of politicizing art? Is criticism that cannot separate itself from partisan posturing worthless?

Brooke Allen: That is a difficult question. I would say that for the most part art and politics are two different things, but of course there are exceptions to every rule, and a writer like Orwell, for example, is impossible to imagine without the political reflections that run through all of his writing. A recent example of this kind of thing is Philip Roth's latest novel, The Plot Against America. This is a book with a political agenda and a fine novel at the same time. And then there are always the classic examples like Goya, or Picasso's Guernica . I guess the conclusion might be that only someone as brilliant as Roth or Orwell, Picasso or Goya, can get away with it. I would say as a general principle that politics tends to make for black-and-white opinions that are death to art of any description. Political art almost always becomes agitprop to some degree. Good art tends to encompass the contradictions in the human animal, while political proselytizing does not.

BC: I know that one of the chief complaints that many conservatives have about the left is political correctness. Do you feel that it’s possible nowadays to be on the left without embracing many of its cultural accoutrements such as queer theory, radical feminism, and post-modernism?

Brooke Allen: Absolutely. Why should an interest or lack of such in queer theory have any effect on one's feelings about education, law enforcement, zoning, or taxation? Things like queer theory -- and more contentious issues like gay marriage and abortion -- have proved handy weapons in the hands of the right to discredit the Democratic agenda, which is largely still the same populist agenda of FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. Again, they appeal to fear; if you vote for the Democratic candidate (who represents your economic interests) the country will be turned over to radical atheists and married gay couples will live next door to you. One could rephrase the question and ask whether it's possible to be on the right without embracing such cultural accoutrements as fundamentalist Christianity. "Radical feminism" is a term I've never quite understood. Either one is a feminist, believing in equal rights for women and men, or one isn't. I suspect that despite its 100 year history in this country the idea in itself still seems radical. I don't think that many women who think of themselves as non-feminists would readily give up their paychecks, their right to work, or their right to express themselves independently of their husbands. Ann Coulter would never be where she is today were it not for feminists, "radical" or otherwise.

BC: Speaking of political correctness, your background appears nonpareil for teaching in a university. Is there a reason why you have forsworn the academic route?

Brooke Allen: Yes, it certainly is one reason. I got a PhD in English at Columbia University in the 1980s, and was appalled at the sort of mind control efforts that went on there. My major interests were not in the "race-class-gender" area that monopolized debate, and having lived in Africa for some time I was very conscious of the speciousness of so-called "post-colonial" studies. It was not an interesting moment in academic history and I have never liked a party line. But I can't say that I made a very conscious decision. While I was working on my dissertation I was offered a job as managing editor of the magazine "Grand Street". I stayed there a year or two and then discovered that I was pregnant with twins. I quit my job, hurriedly finished my dissertation and hunkered down. At this time I began writing a lot of criticism and that just slowly became my major career.

BC: Congratulations on the release of your book, Artistic License : Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior. Is there a tendency in our society to excuse the behavior of writers simply because they’re artistes? Do we enable some of their self-destructive tendencies? Are we disappointed should we discover that the authors we admire happen to be just regular people?

Brooke Allen: One of the things I have discovered in my career is that there is no connection whatever with character and talent. Some great writers are wonderful people, some are dreadful people, some are disciplined, some are horribly disorganized. They do seem to have a disproportionate level of manic-depressive illness and alcoholism. I don't really think that their private life is anyone's business but their own, and I certainly don't think that a writer's private life, however disgraceful, should reflect on his or her work; the work has to stand on its own. I have to admit that the theme of bad behavior was only a device to link these rather disparate essays. The level of dysfunctionality among these folks certainly did jump out at me, though.

BC: I’ve read only excellent reviews of Artistic License, but have some received it coldly based on their perception that you unjustly dig up dirt on literary immortals? Is there anything you could share regarding critical nastiness that may have been directed towards you?

Brooke Allen: No, I have been very lucky. The only really negative thing I read about myself was a comment in an otherwise positive review that the introduction to my book was marred by neo-conservative venom. This distressed me as I am certainly not a neo-conservative nor am I able to find any venom in the introduction. I really wanted to make it very clear that I approached these writers with personal affection and professional reverence.

BC: You have a previously published work entitled Twentieth-Century Attitudes : Literary Powers in Uncertain Times. Do you see yourself continuing to address famous writers of the past? Are you planning any future work concerning contemporary writers? Who, in your mind, are the foremost writers of our day?

Brooke Allen: I am working on two books at the moment -- one is a historical study of the Revolutionary period, and one is the collected letters of Terry Southern -- if not a great writer, certainly a unique one who is due for a revival! I also continue to write the sort of essays that appeared in Twentieth Century Attitudes and Artistic License for the New Criterion and other publications. Best writers today? No real surprises, I guess. In this country, I still don't think Philip Roth and John Updike have been outdone. In England , V.S. Naipaul, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes. My favorite younger writer (not so young, about 50) is a superb Indian writer now living in Canada named Rohinton Mistry. Kazuo Ishiguro has just written an extraordinary new book.

BC: As an established literary critic, what do you make of the pronouncement that “the novel is dead?” Is it an obsolete medium? Has film replaced it in our modern age?

Brooke Allen: The novel is not dead and never will be, so far as I can see. In fact it seems to me to be thriving. Film and TV have just added to the plethora of stories that we can choose from. The efflorescence of book clubs in this country is a sign that people still treasure literature and are creating their own arenas for sharing it in the absence of traditional ones. Oprah's influence in this area has been quite impressive.

BC: I always close with this question, do you have any books to recommend to the rest of us? A few works that you cannot possible do without in life?

Brooke Allen: Among recent books: A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. I have recommended this to everyone I know and everyone has been thrilled. Anything at all by Pat Barker. Old favorites -- David Copperfield and Vanity Fair. A Christmas Carol. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Northanger Abbey. Best children's books: anything by E. Nesbit. My own favorite author is probably Evelyn Waugh, especially the early books: Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust. Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is superb, but at twelve volumes a major undertaking. P.G. Wodehouse. Barbara Pym. The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty. I could go on and on but won't.....

BC: Thank you so much for taking the time to enlighten us on these aesthetic matters. Best of luck with your next two projects.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.


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