“Literature is the question minus the answer.”
“To learn which questions are unanswerable and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
—Ursula K. LeGuin, from The Left Hand of Darkness
Perhaps you, like me, find yourself asking a lot from literature these days: greater solace, finer insight, deeper resonance. For me that’s led to thinking more pointedly about such expectations, and I’ve found it is useful to ask not only what literature can do to respond to current events, but also how; not just what meaning literature can make, but how such meaning operates.
If contemporary literature is an endeavor writers, readers, and editors undertake together—and, in moments such as this, with pointed attention—what should we ask of ourselves and of the work? Perhaps something like this: that we should locate the essential questions and then linger over them, suspended in a state of uncertainty, while also increasing (by nearly undetectable increments) our understanding, expanding our empathy, and challenging our intellect. Such is the liminal dwelling space of literary fiction, poetry, and certain types of nonfiction, or more exactly, the space we occupy when we write, read, and discuss literature—and this is the liminal space literature occupies when it questions contemporary culture. We don’t, we shouldn’t, come to literature for information or answers. We go to our essential and trusted (not to say infallible) bastions of history and journalism for information—though if we are alert readers even in doing so we should come away with a slew of new questions. We should come to literature for profound engagement with the most intractable and consequential questions of life. Who are we, as a species, as a culture, as individuals within a series of systems, many of which may be of our making but also beyond our control? Why do we act as we do? Who were we yesterday, really? Who could we be tomorrow—for better or for worse?
Always get the last word.
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This invitation to wonder, to question, is why we—citizens, artists, and storytelling creatures—need literature, especially now. We need information, yes; we need the anchor of our moral convictions, of course; but we also need the wisdom of uncertainty, the strength to tolerate doubt, as uncomfortable as it may be, and we need to cultivate our imagination and empathy in this tumultuous time.
“Tumult” was one of my immigrant grandmother’s favorite English words, an affinity that seemed charmingly random to me as a child, simply because the word was so seldom heard elsewhere. “What a tumult,” she used to say whenever there was a commotion of some kind. But given her (our) family history, I’m haunted as an adult by the deeper resonance; indeed, tumult has been a defining quality of the human experience, as have been displacement, conflict, immigration, injustice, perseverance—and art.
Storytellers, teachers, poets, historians, editors, and readers owe the tumult of this era our most sustained engagement with the principles governing our work as well as with uncertainty itself. This dovetails beautifully with the fundamental role of a literary journal. For ours is the endeavor of offering up contemporary work not yet ratified by any canon, and taking the bold first step of suggesting to an audience, This is worth your time. We make room for careers still in development, for work that is challenging and rough-hewn, often by writers with little or no name recognition.
“But, how do you know which stories and books from today will still be read in a hundred years?” asked a young woman after a panel once. I answered that I didn’t know, couldn’t know—no one does. I urged her to consider the value of reading contemporary literature in different terms, to consider the value of engaging with the creative work of her contemporaries. It’s another way of remaining alert to (and questioning) the world you’re living in—and that time is not wasted regardless of whether that story is in print or fully appreciated a hundred years down the road. But I could see she was dubious.
Our society does not value the often long and halting process of creating art, but it exalts (and in only a very few cases) the product resulting from that work. Literary journals like ZYZZYVA push back against such expectations; we’re engaged almost exclusively with art that is new, in-process, and uncommercial. The tension between art and commerce is inherent in the structure of publishing, but journals, when persevering relatively far out on the art end of the spectrum, simply do not work all that well as a commodity. Journals are very much about works in progress, careers in progress, ideas in progress, and contemporaneous responses. They’re a conversation, filtered and considered, playing out almost entirely in real time.
This conversation requires adventurous readers who want to engage with contemporary art—because without an audience, none of this works. This is another aspect of how literature’s meaning operates: it requires the involvement of an audience. This issue, like every issue before it, is a chorus of overlapping dialogues—the writers with their subjects; characters with one another; the poem juxtaposed with an essay; far behind the scenes, the editors with each other and with the authors; and all of it in communion with you, our readers.
And now we are broadening the scope of that conversation to respond to the tumult of our times.
For the first six years Oscar and I edited this journal, we largely kept politics out of the journal’s pages. In a relentlessly noisy world, we believed, there’s value in maintaining spaces for a different mode of engaging with the fundamental concerns of contemporary life. But an era of relative stability has closed, and we feel the journal must evolve to meet new demands. To that end, you can expect to see more nonfiction speaking to the tumult.
Together we are passing through a particularly vile segment of the pendulum’s arc. The question is, how much damage will be done in this pass through the lowlands? And in answering this question, there is a role for literary communities to play. Dire though these days feel, we can do our part to pull into the light, to mitigate damage.
In “Against Epiphanies,” Charles Baxter writes, “A story, as Borges has shown, can be a series of clues but not a solution, an enfolding of a mystery instead of a revelation.” So can a poem. So can an essay. And this is the kind of work you’ll find in our Resistance Issue. For us, resistance means, among other things, resisting the degradation of language, meaning, and humanity; resisting false historical narratives; resisting the cliché and the pat.
In this themed Winter issue you’ll find a special concentration of nonfiction pieces, but please know we will continue to seek out such pieces in the future and bring them to you as often as we can, all without diminishing the space for fiction and poetry.
We hope you can always turn to ZYZZYVA for the distinctive contemplation of questions—without expectations of obvious answers—that is literature’s unique, astonishing, and profoundly necessary purview.