A country’s literature—not “literature” in the starched sense of far-out academic theories or fancy turns of phrase, but writing that gets down into the stuff of life as it’s actually lived, the muck and blood and sex and sweat and struggle of it—is, to put it bluntly, everything. Everything as it relates to this project we call civilization, and the ethics, morals, and laws that at certain times and in certain places make us more civilized than savage; those ethics, morals, and laws that might be summed up in the seemingly simple phrase, Love your neighbor as yourself. Or: Do to others as you would have them do to you. To love and do in this manner require us to step outside ourselves and enter into the experience of another person, to recognize that this person’s humanity is just as vital and rich and precious as our own. One might say that all morality, all civilization, is based on this profound act of imagination, this necessary extension of self. And it’s the failure of this imagination that enables the unbounded human genius for cruelty.
History, reportage, sociology, economics—these offer certain facts about human existence, but it’s literature that puts us most intimately inside the feeling of a thing, and that feeling is what gives the facts their fullest meaning. We can read the awful histories of massacres and kidnappings on the Texas frontier and acknowledge the trauma at the level of information, but a first-rate novelist on the order of Paulette Jiles puts us in the skins of the people who lived through those horrors, with an immediacy that few historians or biographers can match and sustain. It’s this visceral twist, the well-placed punch to the gut, that shocks us out of ourselves and paradoxically makes us better at explaining ourselves to ourselves.
We’re talking about empathy, of course. The experience, in a profound as opposed to passing sense, of standing in someone else’s shoes. Fiction, when it’s doing its proper work, is an enlargement rather than a reduction of life; an enlargement of self, if we’re open to it. Then there are the books—maybe no more than a handful for each of us—that pick us up, crack us open, and set us down in a different place. We aren’t the same as we were before. We’ve had an experience that scorched our information circuits to smoking crisps.
“I know a farm manager,” wrote Larry McMurtry in the late sixties, “a man but recently migrated from the Valley to the High Plains, who was sincerely shocked by the fact that Mexicans were beginning to want houses to live in. Tents and truck-beds, fifty-cent an hour cash and a free goat every week or two no longer satisfied them. They had come to consider themselves human beings, an attitude which filled the manager with astonishment and vague dismay.”
The phenomenon McMurtry observed in 1968 has been developing and expanding ever since. Those “Mexicans,” plus a lot of others born outside the traditional Anglo Texan circle of grace, have continued to insist on their humanity and in the process brought to light a harsher, more complex reality than that portrayed in the triumphant Texas template of frontier nostalgia and manifest destiny. Though Texas has offered opportunity to many, it has also been a desperate, bloody ground, prone to war (no fewer than four from 1835 to 1880), mob violence, corrupt governance, natural disaster, and economic turmoil and ruin. Generations of Anglo settlers lived in conditions little improved from medieval Europe, and for the Native Americans and Blacks and Hispanics below them on the social scale, life in Texas was often hell.
This darker history has been with us all along, passed down through the psyches of successive generations, but only recently has a critical mass of Texas writers pushed beyond fairy tales of Anglo triumphalism into harder, more mature, more challenging territory. As in any era, a fair amount of this new fiction won’t be much good. Diversity of subject and identity is no guarantee of literary quality, and we might well find among this new wave of writers the same drift toward stereotype and sentimentality that ran through previous generations of Texas fiction. But the field is wider now, the potential greater, and talents that wouldn’t have had a chance forty or fifty years ago now have a decent shot at writing careers.
Meanwhile, the astonishment and vague dismay that Larry McMurtry detected in that long-ago farm manager have been demagogued in our own time into full-blown panic. For more than a few excitable Texans, this more diverse literature signals a frontal assault on white Christian heterosexual America. The ginned-up hysterics over critical race theory, the political heat being brought to bear on school and public libraries, conspiracy theories about indoctrination and grooming of schoolchildren by gay educators: these far fringes of the reaction have become common among an influential minority of Texans. Maybe the reaction will win, but over the long term, trying to shut up writers tends to be a losing proposition. El Paso native John Rechy delivered one of the pioneering works of LGBTQ literature with the 1963 publication of his novel City of Night. Savagely attacked by some in the critical establishment when it first appeared, and a regular on lists of the most frequently banned books in America, City of Night is still in print almost sixty years later and has sold more than a million copies. Longtime El Paso resident Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has been banned for its depiction of homosexuality and references to drugs and sex, and was included on a list of 850 suspicious books that state representative Matt Krause compiled and sent to school districts across Texas. Yet the book continues to sell briskly, and a film adaptation coproduced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Eva Longoria is in the works.
Perhaps the most spectacular recent example of frustrated censorship in Texas letters comes on the nonfiction side. The Accommodation, Jim Schutze’s classic account of white supremacy as practiced in Dallas circa 1950–1985, so alarmed the Dallas establishment that it strove mightily to suppress the book, and largely succeeded. For nearly 35 years copies of The Accommodation were as scarce as oboe players, but last summer the Dallas publishing house Deep Vellum reissued the book. The first printing of 5,000 copies sold out in a matter of weeks, and a second printing was quickly ordered. This fall, 30,000 copies of The Accommodation will be distributed free of charge for the Big D Reads citywide book club.
Is this the arc of justice at work? The weight of history? The raw power of demographic change? Perhaps some combination of all three. Call it what you will, it’s hard to stop a rising tide.
Dallas writer Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was turned into a major motion picture.
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Says So.” Subscribe today.