THR Web Features   /   October 5, 2021

Neither This Nor That

The problem with democracy in an age of compromise.

Rhoda Feng

( Clay Banks via

Reviewed here

On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal.
By Rachel Greenwald Smith

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2021.

During the few years I worked in publishing, one of my less glamorous duties was to secure permission to reprint photos. I would reach out to magazines, museums, archives, and estates on behalf of authors to request—in the boilerplate language regrettably tattooed on my brain—US, English language rights to use an image in all editions of a forthcoming book, published or distributed in any medium and in any material based on the book, including advertising or promotion for the book. Clearing that hurdle was relatively easy. Dealing with the authors was another matter.

One famously tetchy one took an especially proprietary interest in our permissions log and liked to kvetch, with clocklike regularity, about our choices. He would call one day to complain about the omission of a Time magazine cover, the next about a “sorely needed” cartoon from the Chicago Tribune, yet another day about a reproduction that had gone missing, which was unfortunate as it had served as the raison d'être for his whole enterprise. (At the time, a friend noted, only half facetiously, about having the obligatory anxiety nightmare that she didn’t clear something, and the press subsequently gets sued out of business because she had dropped the ball.) By the time the male author’s book went on sale, it contained just half of the photos from the author’s original list and boasted a cover image that pleased no one—not the author, the editors, publicists, or sales reps—entirely.

Compromise, Ambrose Bierce quipped in The Devil’s Dictionary, is “such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.” It is, in other words, the embarrassingly thin veneer of peace or legitimacy that smooths over dissent. It is also endemic to the project of publishing books.

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In an age when the “Big Five” publishing companies dominate the market, there is simply no way for books to be entirely insulated from the imperative of profit-seeking. Money dictates everything from cover design to blurb choices. As one recent article points out, even nonprofit publishers are not exempt from the financial exigencies of selling books. “Despite the cant of liberation, markets still mattered to nonprofits: Their innovation came from balancing market success with other priorities,” write the authors. This certainly jibes with my experience in nonprofit publishing. We were rarely in a position to offer huge advances and it became a rite of passage to have your heart broken over books that you would bid on, only to receive a rejection from an author's agent to the effect of: “Thanks so much for pushing as high as you did. In the end it went to [insert name of conglomerate here], but it really seemed like it could go either way!”

The same piece, which analyzes trends in commercial and nonprofit publishing, also offers a useful new heuristic for thinking about the current literary landscape. If Zadie Smith charted “two paths” for works of lyrical realism versus those of the avant-garde and Mark McGurl posited a distinction between MFA vs. NYC novels—novels sprouting from the hothouses of either creative writing programs or New York publishing—Dan Sinykin and Edwin Roland have conjured a different model. The new framework takes in an arguably larger literary ecosystem, mobilizing agents, editors, and publicists alongside authors, and it effectively subsumes the two older models under the banner of commercial or nonprofit publishing.

Beginning in the 1980s, the story goes, market-driven and nonprofit publishers took divergent literary paths. Corporate conglomerates tended to publish novels that “produce allegories for themselves” and were rife with the “language of ambition, bureaucracy, and social mores.” Subsidized nonprofits, on the other hand, “doubled down” on the “language of embodiment.” The publisher Graywolf is one prominent example of the latter. Early on, it positioned itself as a countercultural foil to conglomerates and signaled its commitment to publishing writers of color and translations. Its mission statement carries the promissory note that its “books often help to promote cross-cultural and international understanding” by representing “underrepresented and diverse voices in a crowded marketplace.”

Graywolf’s forerunner, as Sinykin and Roland suggest, was in some respects, New Directions, a famed redoubt of literary modernism and the avant-garde that garnered public attention by publishing works by Jorge Luís Borges, Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams, William Carlos Williams, and others. Its founder, James Laughlin, seized on a profitable gambit early on: It would “claim authenticity by differentiating [itself] from a sell-out, then use that authenticity for profit.” This was a strategy that later presses, including Graywolf, would adapt for their own ends. Even if nonprofits were less beholden to the bottom line and were, in theory, freer to take risks on experimental and ethnic literature, they still had to answer to funders. Each book effectively stakes out some form of compromise between the desires of its patrons—the market, in the case of conglomerates, and foundations and arts agencies, in the case of nonprofits—and its authors. What might this tell us about the health of books being published nowadays? Against the “axes of conglomeration and literariness,” where might we plot a hybrid work of contemporary fiction? Does it gesture toward anything like a genre? And if so, what might be some of its defining features?

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One new book, published under the colophon of Graywolf, offers an answer by way of an ardent call to action. On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal, by Rachel Greenwald Smith, agitates against consensus as a useful horizon in politics and art. We are living in an “age of compromise” and Smith wants to take us to a world beyond it. She sets herself a difficult task. Even if you don’t consider yourself a savant of civility, a seeker of compromise at all costs, there’s a good chance you know someone who is. Smith notes, for instance, that a Pew Research study from 2014 cites 82 percent of “voters on the left said they preferred leaders who compromise, as opposed to only 32 percent on the right.” There are actually more recent figures that paint a slightly less polarizing picture, including a Gallup study from 2017 that shows 62 percent of Democrats favor leaders who compromise, while 44 percent of Republicans and independents do. Still, the left’s attraction to a middle path bears unpacking—and it is the left this book is primarily addressed to.

What, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about compromise? Smith is careful to distinguish between compromise as a means and as an end. “The first occurs when people disagree but want to move forward with something,” writes Smith. “The result is something no one can be proud of, but everyone has agreed to live with.” This form of compromise, to my chagrin, was the norm in deciding on a book’s cover art. By contrast, the second form constitutes something like a regulative ideal; it refers to “a tendency toward moderation. A suspicion of strong forms of argument or firm beliefs … an affect, an attitude.” Though Smith doesn’t use the phrase, it might even take the form of a “cruel optimism,” or a kind of attachment to a purportedly positive (liberal) value, like reasonableness, that paradoxically keeps us from flourishing. Indeed, one of the difficulties of writing against compromise is that the notion is closely bound up with a foundational principle of democracy: our country’s commitment to liberalism. Liberalism, after all, places a premium on such unimpeachably upright values as “freedom, tolerance, incremental rather than revolutionary change, and the rational exchange of ideas.” To speak of compromise is to reflexively invoke these other stubbornly adhesive principles. What then follows, Smith asks, from thinking of consensus as a telos, as the endpoint to which all individuals should strive in their lives and in their political and aesthetic commitments?

Smith’s answer is as catholic as it is discursive—appropriate enough for such a leaky concept. She attends to moments of rupture in literary and cultural history, the carnivalesque years of the Trump presidency, and her own experience—as a Riot Grrrl enthusiast, member of a postpunk band, film aficionado, mother, English professor—to show the costs of compromise and what happens when we see them “as finished things that either shimmer or stink.” Her chapters are almost cubist exercises: We view the concept of “compromise” from all sorts of oblique angles, some more illuminating than others, yet always subtly aware of an immanent threat.

Smith also amasses an oceanic range of references in discussing the advantages of illiberalism—the obverse of compromise. She finds unusual bedfellows in Carl Schmitt and Ayn Rand, Nietzsche and Maggie Nelson, Terrance Hayes and Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag. There is a golden syllabus on illiberalism and literature to be found in these pages. Yet her citational practice is not limited to the purely theoretical. In a sequence of episodic chapters, she carefully reads images from Claudia Rankine’s poem Citizen, the film Almost Famous, and Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance. It all somehow coheres.

One chapter braids together a clear-eyed reflection on living in Missouri—“a state established under the sign of compromise”—with a thoughtful meditation on what it means to engage with the work of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt, a member of the Third Reich who ascended the ranks of the Nazi Party, formulated the friend/enemy dyad as the structuring antagonism of the political. He also, Smith tells us, “wrote pieces advocating for the destruction of any work of thought or art containing ideas influenced by the work of Jewish intellectuals.” Yet even as she rejects his odious politics, Smith senses a certain intellectual kinship with his critique of liberalism. The key difference is that for Smith, enemies are “those who aim to create, profit from, and actively defend unjust forms of structural disempowerment” and friends, “those who disagree with and challenge those structures.”

Another chapter is a wistful look back on a twentieth-century literary magazine that embraced experimentation and the avant-garde. The Little Review, founded in 1916 by Margaret Anderson, published an assortment of works going against the mainstream grain, including parts of James Joyce’s Ulysses as well as anarchist treatises and works by Dadaists and surrealists. Anderson herself was a woman of “uncompromising stances” and called for, somewhat vampirically, art that “uses up all the life it can get.” Smith recognizes a kindred spirit—“a hand on the exact octave that is me.” She also senses a line of descent from Anderson. In a brilliant elaboration, she summons a lineage of ferocious women committed to difficulty: “stormy-noggined women whose overall comportments are carefully composed in direct proportion to their anger, their desperation, their fear, their drive.”

The book’s core concern is with a literary turn that Smith diagnoses as “compromise aesthetics.” (In an interview, Smith has acknowledged that her book was originally intended to be a tightly focused monograph on this phenomenon. That the final version is a much looser and variegated work makes one speculate whether her ultimate choice of Graywolf as publisher had anything to do with its final form.) Two central chapters examine “compromise aesthetics” and its discontents in works of literature from the last 30 years. For a book that reads at times like a progress report on the encroachment of neoliberalism on a constellation of literary artifacts, it curiously sidelines the role of publishers that facilitate their production. Instead, Smith trains her gaze primarily on writers who serve as exponents of the form. David Foster Wallace—who publicly agonized over seeming like a sellout for writing “formally innovative yet digestible works” that would cater to a mass audience—did much to inaugurate this form in the 1990s. Later writers like Ben Lerner and Tao Lin also found themselves succumbing to the gravitational force of the free market. In the chapter “Selling Out,” Smith argues that hybrid works of fiction by Wallace and others exemplify “a compromise between the desire to challenge readerly expectations and the desire to reach a broad contemporary audience, a coeval readership.” The danger of making such compromises is that they become self-perpetuating and that radicalism loses a foothold in art, coming to seem “at best ridiculous and at worst disingenuous.” For all its self-reflexivity and self-awareness, a work like Lerner’s 10:04 is, for Smith, irretrievably “damaged” by its proximity to profit motives.

“Compromises,” Smith writes, “are containers for conflicts”—and we are meant to hear the dual meaning of “container”: Both an inert box and a suppressing agent. It’s a useful and seemingly unproblematic metaphor until one discovers, almost exactly halfway through the book, that the author has cubed the meaning to distorting effect. In an essay on the formal aspirations and affinities among Beyonce’s “Formation” music video, Terrance Hayes’s poetry, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Smith includes an illustration taken from an interview with Hayes depicting a man pretzeling himself in a box. Hayes has referred to the sonnet as a “straitjacketed” form and, in one of his sonnets, called it “part prison, part panic closet.” As Smith goes on to explicate, “form’s constraining properties can also afford opportunities for the performance of individual virtuosity … the box can be a container, an equalizer, a reminder of social embeddedness. But it can also be a cage that one can, Houdini-like, use to perform one’s uniqueness.”

Can a “container for conflicts” hold such latent potential? That compromise acts as a (superficially) homogenizing force seems evident, but might it also act as a springboard for singularity? Given Smith’s aversion to compromises and their annulling of differences, it’s certainly an odd idea to consider, which is perhaps why she feels the need to “redraw the cube in my head, imagining that there are many people stuck in that box together. And when I do that, I realize that this new image has a name: solidarity.” Metaphorically speaking, it is a hop, skip, and a jump from compromise to solidarity. The distinction between the two concepts gets even muddier when Smith writes: “I think form is most interesting politically when it heightens our collective experience of structures of power rather than putting our focus on the specific, the particular, the personal.” She is referring to solidarity here, but can compromise not effect this as well?

Even if the two are not exactly twinned, one wonders if compromise can ever shade into solidarity. Smith offers not much insight on this front. Alas, it might not even make much difference whether we stay sealed in the keg of compromise or Houdini our way out, for the specter of compromise seems to stalk our every move. Writing about the journal Fence, which published work that was “formally provocative, attuned to the dynamics of language and power,” Smith reflects: “I also think it’s inevitable that celebrating getting out of all boxes falls into the trap of compromise aesthetics: It will entail a rejection of the kind of militancy associated with movement-based literature, and I wish that wasn’t the case.” I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with as many descriptions of boxes in as few pages. By the sixth mention in a single chapter, the item has been virtually torqued out of recognition, becoming a “vortex of identification.”

One can safely proceed to think outside of Smith’s boxes and still accept her larger claim that there is an insidiousness in viewing compromises as ends unto themselves. As she writes, they are “supposed to solve problems and maintain stability such that no one needs to feel substantial loss. Of course what this means in practice is the maintenance of hierarchies, the preservation of power. Because people do lose in all compromises; it’s just a matter of who feels it.” When congressional leaders “compromise” on a piece of legislation, enabling drug companies to price gouge patients on an array of medicines, it's very clear who pays the price: Millions of Americans suffer under monopolistic pricing. The stakes for “compromise aesthetics” in works of literature, it would seem, are drastically lower.

The book derives much of its power from deftly weaving the personal and polemical. Smith discusses, among other things, the keen pleasures of playing bass and creating friction by using a distortion pedal and watching the protests in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown, before drawing to a close, somewhat predictably, with brief dispatches on her time in pandemic lockdown. There are some brilliantly evocative passages in the book, including one describing the well-practiced choreography of lockdown: “walk[ing] your dog in the park, charting wide half-moon paths into the grass to maintain distance from others, the colors of spring emerging in shifting palates every day, green coming up in slow motion from grass to shrubs to small trees and finally into the branches of the two-hundred-year-old sycamores that shade the park’s perimeter.”

In another essay, about an off-putting neighbor who holds views that are unreconstructedly misogynistic and xenophobic, she describes the man as a “stunned gerbil, shouting at his grandkids and gesturing broadly as if he owned the street suggesting with everything about him, his posture, his voice, his mean stare, that anyone who is not white, male, Christian, and heterosexual is an idiot or a threat, and I think—I’m sorry, I can’t help it—I have more in common with my dog than I do with this man. I welcome the extinction of his species. It cannot come soon enough.” If reading can ever be an inoculation against some of the baser emotions, this is one mighty vaccine of a sentence. No sooner does one read it—and perhaps experience a cringe of recognition, as I did—than one recoils at the image offered up. Smith, for her part, admits that she is “as disturbed by my own genocidal fantasies as I am by my neighbor and his cabal.”

It’s also at moments like this when I find myself wondering what might have happened if the author had harnessed her fury, her avowed “distrust of half measures,” to another form. What might have happened if Smith had eschewed the zigzagging maneuvers of the essay for that most resolutely uncompromising of forms: a manifesto? At several points, you can sense her arguments cresting towards something like a sustained salvo of stridency, but they invariably get borne back on a low tide of an anodyne anecdote, such as one about participating in the 2017 Women’s March and feeling rootless and deflated in a sea of pink-hatted women.

Nowhere, perhaps, does Smith come closer to manifesto territory than in the coda, an essay on compromise in a time of COVID-19 that crystallizes her key themes. Here are phrases that might not be entirely out of place as mission statements for some progressive organization. Addressing the uses of illiberalism, Smith concludes that “sometimes we have to refuse to compromise … in the name of solidarity against racism and all forms of injustice.” And: “Democracy suffers when we are asked to compromise on our principles in advance in order to be practical, palatable, or unthreatening to those who want to maintain a system of injustice … democracy means confronting pain, looking suffering people in the face, and rejecting our impulse to think we can solve every problem with a compromise.”

In issuing such blunt force declarations, Smith sounds very much like what the thinker Sara Ahmed calls a killjoy, or a person who acts as a wedge between bodies that would be in agreement. This is all to the good—the world could certainly use more killjoys—yet it is sometimes possible to detect another kind of fissure in her prose, as when she writes that a refusal to compromise entails “hav[ing] to change, to tolerate not getting what we want, to do so without the glamour and praise that come with moral sacrifice.” The first two traits sound more like synonyms of compromise than antonyms, and as for the third, it’s jarring, to say the least, for a milky agglomeration of milquetoast nouns to suddenly calcify into the sturdy stronghold of sacrifice.

When politicians today boast of their willingness to reach across the aisle, to compromise, the word is often articulated with the optimism of a speech act. But is that such a good thing? Should we strive to elide and override differences for the sake of a fragile and always reversible détente? On Compromise helps us recognize other truths: that to work for compromise might be to defer your real aim, to collapse the distinction between friends and enemies, to foreclose other possibilities that would bring about a more democratic and humane world. To be reminded of all this is to feel, as Smith wrote of Margaret Anderson, a restive hand on my octave.