Militant Writers Needed

Was the civil usefulness of literature lost?

In a few days, on July 5, the Premio Strega, the most important Italian literary prize, will be assigned. After a selection process between twelve chosen writers, the jury shortlisted five novelists, each of them presenting a brand new book. What is striking is that none of the works competing for the first place, as well as most of all the semi-finalist dozen, is a representation of contemporary Italian society. Indeed, if we take a closer look at the five finalist novels, it can be noticed that they are either historical novels, or present stories where contextualization is not so relevant.

In other words, even when the plot is set in contemporary society, this element does not seem to be crucial. Take the example of Il gioco, a book centered on a sexual affair between the three main characters, that mostly reveals atemporal aspects of human being. Other three titles (La ragazza con la Leica, Resto qui, Questa sera è già domani) are all set between the ’20s and the post-Word War II period, whereas La corsara is the biopic of Natalia Ginzburg, a famous Italian author, intellectual and activist born in 1916. This widespread historical rediscovery denotes a taste for an undoubtedly still-significant past and, in general, for civil literature. However, the Italian contemporary society seems far from being one of the main subjects among writers, as it often does not cease being a mere background, when present.

The ancient role of the novel

Albeit a militant attitude, capable of giving a true, direct and multifaceted picture of our society, is a quite common trend in poetry, it is equally true that nowadays poems are much less common among the population. Indeed, this form of art is well-known almost exclusively in the academic world or in few other very sectoral contexts. This is why modern-day novels should take a closer look to current events and rediscover their original nature that, in contrast with romances, give a very realistic view of reality and act as a mirror of the society they derive from. This has always been the main feature of the great American narrative, from Ernest Hemingway to John Steinbeck and John Fante, till the most recent Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, to name but a few.

Italian writers’ civil literature tradition

In Italy, there is a long tradition of civil literature blooming in the immediate post-World War II period and over the following decades. However, this trend recently seems to have stopped. Not for nothing, a recent edition of the weekly Italian magazine L’Espresso, focusing on the latest facts of the rescue ship Aquarius, has been entitled Uomini e no (Men and not men), recovering the title of Elio Vittorini’s masterpiece published in 1945, still considered one of the cornerstones authors of Italian resistance literature. This strong editorial choice reveals somehow a distress call from the press to literature, aiming to demonstrate that journalism can be efficient up to a point. On the contrary, nothing like art is capable to shake consciences, get straight to the heart of the people and scandalize, when necessary.

Pasolini as an exemple of militant artist

This last concept, the scandal, let me think about Pier Paolo Pasolini, a great all-round intellectual, as well as a leading figure in the Italian cultural stage, at least from the ’50s to his tragic death, in 1975. Anti-fascist, close to the Communist Party and strongly critical of the middle-class, Pasolini lived his whole life trying to provide a reasoned and sometimes purposely contradictory view of the society.

pasolini italian writers
Pier Paolo Pasolini

Whether his ideas are shared or not, what is certain and what really matters is his extreme dedication to the message he wanted to give throughout different form of arts. In his last interview dating back to October 1975, Pasolini said: “I think scandalizing is a right, being scandalized is a pleasure, and those who refuse to be scandalized are moralists. the so-called moralists.”

A powerful weapon

In conclusion, the power of literature and narrative should be rediscovered, as “art for art’s sake” does not always have a positive sense. If times are hard as they effectively are, writers should remember that they have a strong means to give a message, by describing the reality and helping a community to know itself better, even when this means revealing an inconvenient truth. So we must echo Pasolini’s words “being scandalized is a pleasure”, because sometimes it is the most effective way to tell a story, the story of all of us.