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Becca Rothfeld

Sanctimony Literature

As many have noted and some have lamented, politics are multiplying: these days everything seems to have one. The search term “the politics of” yields over a million results in my university’s library database. There is “the politics of dirt,” “the politics of sleep,” and even the politics of abstracta, such as “presence” and “absence.” Obviously political entities, such as “authoritarian rule,” have politics, as do things that might seem to the uninitiated to be staunchly apolitical, such as “dogs” and “snow.” In a quaint display of reactionary nostalgia, my thesaurus suggests that “governmental” is a synonym for “political,” but the political has evidently bubbled beyond the bounds of the state apparatus by now. It would make little sense to speak of the “the government of dirt” or “the government of absence,” but both of these things apparently have “a politics.”

Many of these freshly politicized phenomena do not just have politics so much as they are political, no matter what else they might appear to be. Like Plato’s forms, a thing’s politics have come to constitute its true if invisible essence, or so the popular story goes. The ethical, for instance, has become political: there are more than nine thousand hits for “the politics of ethics,” whatever that means, in the library database. The aesthetic, too, is on the verge of annexation. As Lauren Oyler observed in Bookforum, “anxieties about being a good person, surrounded by good people, pervade contemporary novels and criticism.” By “good person,” contemporary novelists and critics do not mean someone rational, as Plato did; or someone merciful, as Augustine did; or someone who regards others as ends rather than means, as Kant did; or someone who celebrates the singularity of others, as Buber did. Instead, a person qualifies as “good” only if she conforms to a specific set of political standards, her personal virtues be damned. The standards in question, of course, are the ones endorsed by the crudest, most online leftists. “A good person,” Oyler explains in her criticism of her moralistic peers, “possesses a deep understanding of power structures and her relative place in them.” This is not understood by Oyler’s adversaries as merely one of the many aspects of goodness: rather, it is all that they suppose virtue to consist in.

That is to say, a good person is concerned about global warming; she #believeswomen; she voted for Bernie and posted about it on Instagram. Admittedly, she bullies Warren supporters from an anonymous Twitter account with a snake avatar, but this amounts to “punching up” and is therefore morally commendable. A good person acknowledges her privilege frequently, and when she apologizes for it, as she often does, she pledges to “Do the Work” (but uncharacteristically declines to demand adequate compensation). A good person understands that “owning the libs” is of paramount importance, though she doesn’t know any libs personally, probably because she understands that good people do not ever associate with bad people. (In any case, she is ultimately opposed to ownership.) In a word, a good person has no unpredictable opinions, no friends with whom she disagrees about anything of any importance, no views that could not be distilled into slogans and printed on canvas tote bags, and no unruly appetites. (Naturally she is a vegan.)

This person shows up in contemporary fiction as character, author, and regulative ideal alike. She is Bobby in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Adam Gordon in Ben Lerner’s Topeka School, and Mia Warren in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. She is also the conscience of all three novels, and under her watchful and unforgiving eye a body of writing has emerged that we might call “sanctimony literature.” Its flourishing, commercially and critically, is one of the most salient features about this moment in the politicization of culture.

Sanctimony literature is, in effect, an extension of social media: it is full of self-promotion and the airing of performatively righteous opinions. It exists largely to make poster-cum-authors look good and scrollers-cum-readers feel good for appreciating the poster-cum-authors’ goodness. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin wrote of sententious reformist fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.” Sanctimony literature has similarly affirming and consoling effects: it serves to make us feel proud that we share its ethical assumptions.

Though it purports to treat themes of great gravity and complexity, such as sexism and economic inequality, sanctimony literature is suspiciously easy to read. Perusing a sanctimony novel feels like binge-watching a series on Netflix or scrolling through Instagram, pausing every now and then to read an inspirational caption. (Unsurprisingly, Rooney’s Normal People and Ng’s Little Fires have both been adapted into popular TV shows.) The vocabulary of both texts is often unambitious, and the syntax undemanding, for despite the sanctimony novel’s pretensions to subversion and system-smashing, it is usually formally unadventurous. (Ben Lerner, an inspired stylist, is a notable exception to this rule.) The little exploration that the genre permits is so easily digestible that it hardly constitutes experimentation at all: in place of Proustian effusions we get fragments, strewn strategically amid complete sentences, to signal that the text at hand is capital-L-Literary. Emma Cline’s The Girls, a gem of a sanctimony novel, is full of such shards: “Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name. Women reaching for their boyfriend’s hands.” These slippery non-sentences may seem daringly ungrammatical, but they are so easy to gulp down. A good person knows that ethical consumption and creation are impossible under capitalism, so she sets out to write a blockbuster, reminding herself that naked clauses are Tweet-adjacent and therefore apt to sell better. Like the protest novels that Baldwin so deliciously excoriated, sanctimony novels contain morals that are, as he puts it, “neatly framed, and incontestable like those improving motoes sometimes found on the walls of furnished rooms.”

Above all, sanctimony literature is defined by its efforts to demonstrate its Unimpeachably Good Politics in the manner of a child waving an impressive report card at her parents in hopes of a pat on the head. The Topeka School is admittedly stylistically sophisticated, but Lerner nonetheless makes sure to lambaste Trump in no uncertain terms, lest we mistake his narrator’s adolescent wrongthink for his own mature worldview. In the final scene of the novel, the author’s alter-ego attends a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nefariously known as ICE. Flush with the sense of his own bravery, he reflects that “It embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be a part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning slowly how to speak again.” In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, two fine exemplars of the sanctimony tradition, Sally Rooney reminds us over and over that her characters, like their author, are Marxists with the Right Opinions. “I’m gay, and Frances is a communist,” one character in Conversations announces as she introduces herself and her friend to some new acquaintances. Later, Frances the communist avows that she “want[s] to destroy capitalism and consider[s] masculinity personally oppressive.” In Normal People, one character remarks that an injustice has occurred for reasons she cannot comprehend: “it’s something to do with capitalism,” she concludes gravely. Her interlocuter replies dolefully, “Yeah, everything is, that’s the problem, isn’t it?”

These books — millennial agit-prop, millennial middle-brow — are inflated and animated by an unshakable faith in their own rectitude. Impossibly foreign to their guiding sensibility are such characters as Henrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the mesmerizingly bloodthirsty protagonist of Michael Kohlhaas, or Philip Roth’s Portnoy, the venomously sexist yet perversely charismatic anti-hero of Portnoy’s Complaint. Now all the eponyms read Gramsci, respect women, and recycle. When and if they do make minor political gaffes, they acknowledge their faults and repent immediately, in a desperate bid to stave off the inevitable torrent of external criticism. In the era of sanctimony literature, Oyler writes mockingly, “a good person is not perfect (she has read enough not to fall for that trap), but she is self-aware.”

Traps though they may be, these displays of preemptive self-flagellation have proved commercially irresistible, which is to say that they have elicited the coveted pats on the head in the form of prizes and plaudits. Their authors closely resemble masochistic Tweeters eager to cancel themselves before any of their enemies has a chance to close in for the kill. As Ligaya Mishan explained in her incisive genealogy of “cancellation” in the New York Times T Magazine,

On Twitter, people speak scoffingly of canceling themselves…There’s the hope that if we have the grace to cancel ourselves first, our ostracism will be temporary, a mere vacation from social media. Absolution is reduced to performance, a walk with a bowed head through jeers and splattered mud.

Mishan’s prognosis may sound exaggerated — but recall the self-erasing contrition of Jessica Krug, the white professor at George Washington University who confessed to posing as Afro-Puerto-Rican in a deranged and remorseful blog post. “You should absolutely cancel me,”, she imperishably declared, “and I absolutely cancel myself.” The literary sanctimonists are likewise tripping over themselves to repent loudly and in print.  

Often they do so by explicitly renouncing their past failures. The Topeka School is a sort of rejoinder to Lerner’s first two novels, both of which sparkle because they take a mordantly ambivalent stance towards a narrator who is craven yet sympathetic. Sometimes they do so by introducing politically suspect characters solely for the sake of loudly disavowing them. It is telling that both Rooney and Lerner pit themselves against debaters who believe in earnest engagement with opposing positions: Rooney’s villain of choice in Normal People is a college debater who defends freedom of speech, and Lerner’s adversary in The Topeka School is a high school debate coach who urges his students to consider conservative arguments. Their respective protagonists flirt with these corrupt influences not because they suspect that thinking through Bad Politics might prove philosophically fertile, but rather so that they can demonstrate personal growth when they finally denounce disagreement for good. The enemy is anyone who would countenance the Wrong Position even for the sake of rebutting it. Beware the contamination that may result from exposure to the other side even in a good-faith exchange. Protect yourself! Lerner and Rooney demonstrate their piety by practicing what they preach: their novels are both exercises in retiring intellectual curiosity, and the result is a literature of consummate self-cancellation.


It is probably just as well, at least in the case of the sanctimonists, that aesthetics is dissolving into politics, because novels that cancel themselves and all their wayward characters do not make for strong art. For one thing, they are stupefyingly smug. As the critic Nathan Goldman has remarked about the passage in The Topeka School in which Lerner’s protagonist recollects how much he loved performing cunnilingus on his high school love interest,

To be sure, the tone playfully mocks the young Adam’s self-seriousness, self-congratulation, and self-regard. But it also reaffirms his understanding of himself — an understanding his parents share — as an outsider to the world of crude misogyny which, though it is his milieu, remains fundamentally external to the proto-feminist, Ivy-bound poet who goes down on his girlfriend.

It is not insignificant that so much of Lerner’s novel ridicules his adolescent alter ego for being such a “man child,” a term with which he intends to highlight the link between masculinity and childishness but which in fact illuminates the link between sanctimony literature and “young adult” fiction, colloquially known as YA. In truth, YA is something of a misnomer, as the books that qualify are not really for young adults so much as they are for tantrum-prone children. Now, there is nothing wrong with fiction written for ten-year-olds, much of which I loved when I was ten; but just as Lolita would fail as a children’s book, a novel supposedly composed for moral and intellectual adults errs when it offers up moral nuggets that would sustain a fourth grader. Baldwin disparagingly compares Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Little Women, and it is flooring how many recent literary hits are likewise set in the simplified ethical universe of adolescence: both of Rooney’s novels are about college students, Lerner’s is about a high schooler, Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is sort of about parents but largely about their teenaged children, the protagonist of Cline’s The Girls is fourteen, the viral story “Cat Person” follows a jaded college student, and so on and on.

Sanctimony literature is aesthetically wanting not only because its language and moral outlook are juvenile, but also because its characters are not human agents so much as avatars of identity categories. In Normal People and The Topeka School, evil debaters are no more than roughly sketched ambassadors for unpalatable conservatism. In The Girls, a sexist cult that doubles as a symbol for The Patriarchy effaces the subjectivity of its female members. The book is indeed about girls, members of a group defined by their abuse at the hands of lecherous men. The cult’s leader, Russell, is sexism personified. Though he is modelled on Charles Manson, he is stripped of the murderer’s more memorable quirks: according to the logic of sanctimony literature, to represent someone evil as interesting or even idiosyncratic is necessarily to “glorify” him. (In this sense, the greatest anti-sanctimonist text of all time is Paradise Lost, with its irresistible portrait of Satan.)

All three of these novels and their characters lack what Lionel Trilling called “the personal vision affirming itself against the institutional with the peculiar passionateness of art.” Their approach is familiar. In accordance with the tenets of progressivism, the collective and the systemic are their primary units of interest. In activist contexts, of course, a focus on structural reform is sensible: it seems manifest that, say, the anti-racism movement would be better served by prison abolition than by milquetoast corporate trainings in which white people are urged to fortify their fragile psyches. But a novel is not a social movement, nor is it a piece of political theory, and good fiction homes in on particular people — people who are shaped by their social environments, to be sure, but who are also so irreducibly singular as to amount to more than just epiphenomena of their conditions. As Trilling cautions in an essay on John Dos Passos, written in an earlier era of progressive piety, “too insistent a cry against the importance of the individual quality is a sick cry.” And as Baldwin warned a generation later, there is not much to be gained from attempting to “lop” the human “down to the status of time-saving invention. He is, after all, not merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is — and how old-fashioned the words sound! — something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable.” Irving Howe, who wrote an important book on the political novel, echoes both Trilling and Baldwin when he reflects that his literary contemporaries believe it beneath them to consider “anything so gauche as human experience or obsolete as human beings.”

You do not need to deny that people’s habits of mind are to a significant extent the product of their material contexts in order to accept the essential corrective of Trilling, Howe, and Baldwin’s bold anti-reductionist approach. It might turn out, though I doubt that it will, that people are, at the most foundational level, nothing but accretions of social circumstance — but even if it does, we will have to persist in perpetuating the fruitful fiction of personality if we are to produce profound and persuasive novels. Fiction flourishes when it reflects actual individual existence, and no matter how enthusiastically theorists accept a “systemic” analysis of art in principle, few manage to experience themselves, their lovers, or their enemies as reducible to socio-economic tokens in practice. In our daily interactions, Trilling notes, “we do not easily tolerate people who are content to ascribe their personal — I do not mean their practical — failures to circumstances alone.” This is not to say that we are not sometimes delusional: it is only to say that fiction succeeds when it captures our real, if perhaps mistaken, sense of self. Trilling goes still further, asserting that social and economic determinism’s inability to account for our basic experience of individuality is a strike against its truth. And Baldwin, too, carries his critique of the politicization of art in a similar direction: “the failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization which is real and which cannot be transcended.” The upshot is not that we should abandon social and economic analysis altogether — Trilling, Howe, and Baldwin were all, to say the least, sophisticated social and political thinkers— but rather that we should not export a method well-suited to political criticism into the foreign province of fiction, where it frequently deserves no place. Heretical as it sounds, there are realms of life in which politics does not always belong. After all, as Baldwin rightly observes, “literature and sociology are not one and the same.”

Of course, even in the realm of the novel, concern with morality is not misplaced. If sanctimony literature is soporific, it is not because it portrays people who strive to live ethically. Trying to be good is an important — if not the only important and not always the most important — part of being a person, and nothing that is human can be alien to literature. There are plenty of honest and unsentimental fictions about people trying their best to be good, or to figure out what goodness entails. Vasily Grossman’s monumental Life and Fate is in large part about Viktor Shtrum’s struggle to retain his integrity in the face of totalitarian pressures, and an entire planet away, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice follows Elizabeth’s Bennet’s vexed efforts to judge her acquaintances with charity and justice. These are careful and complex creations that neither lapse into homily nor shy away from ethical conundrums.

They succeed in part because they resist Manichean temptations: both are populated with characters who are neither angelic nor diabolical but morally mottled, compound creatures, as real people are. Elizabeth Bennet is usually a sharp judge of character, but she occasionally succumbs to the prejudices of the title. Her certainty in the infallibility of her initial impressions prevents her from grasping that Mr. Darcy is well-meaning, despite his apparent standoffishness. For his part, Mr. Darcy can be pretentious, though he is ultimately honorable. And in his reduced and terrifying circumstances Viktor Shtrum also vacillates, alternately colluding with and defying his Stalinist oppressors. The sanctimonists maintain a tidily bifurcated interest in good people and bad people, when in fact what they should be studying is the good and the bad in all people — the full murk of human motivation, the tangle of tensions and contradictions, of desires and principles, that is the permanent condition of human choice. 

Sanctimony literature errs, then, not because it ventures into moral territory, but because it displays no genuine curiosity about what it really means to be good, and is blind to the distinction between morality and moralism, and exhibits no doubt about its own probity. Isn’t it funny that a good person, as envisioned by Lerner and Rooney, is exactly like Lerner and Rooney and all of their readers? And isn’t it striking that all these Lerner-clones and Rooney-clones are depicted as irreproachably upstanding, while all of their enemies are represented as one-dimensionally irredeemable? The heroes and heroines of sanctimony literature are so steeped in self-satisfaction that they provide an inadvertent moral lesson. It turns out that someone can have all the de rigueur political opinions without thereby achieving any measure of meaningful ethical success. A novel’s goodness is bound up with its beauty, but there is more to goodness than boilerplate leftist fervor.


If I think a little rhetorical ribbing about the “politics of everything” crowd is in order, it is because I wish to combat sanctimony literature’s resistance to self-examination and its accompanying humorlessness, even stylistically. But I would hardly deny the obvious, namely that the way in which a society is organized has some bearing on the art that its denizens produce. Nor would I deny that there may be something fruitful about analyses that delve into an artwork’s political context. Patently, it is profitable to read the black novelist Nella Larsen with reference to the history of American racism, or to read the Jewish poet Paul Celan with the Holocaust in mind. Indeed, it is hard for me to think of any book that would not be illuminated by a discussion of the conditions of its production. Even books that are about the chilly detachment of the aesthetic domain are the artifacts of a particular time, place, and worldview. Readers and writers are also people, which is to say that they are always members of political communities and are therefore always situated at what Trilling once called “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” Authors who attempt to withdraw from political and social life, like Thoreau, are defined indirectly by the political affiliations they reject; writers who oppose the regimes in power, like Victor Serge, are members of political communities of resisters.

But everything that I have just described about the historical circumstances of the imagination is truistic. The question is not whether aesthetics is political in this anodyne sense but rather whether political value is the supreme value, the only sort of value — and, by extension, whether every analysis of every artwork must always advert to political factors, on pain of moral and evaluative failure. Is it permissible to write anything about Celan that emphasizes his choice of imagery rather than his heritage? Is he only a Holocaust survivor? Is there anything to be gained by praising his work’s formal qualities without delving into his traumatic past? A related question is whether an artwork that is politically suspect could nonetheless show a degree of aesthetic promise. Portnoy’s Complaint is manically sexist: must its locker-room lechery vitiate its sense of humor? And, really, are there no great conservative novels?

I am not sure whether anyone is enough of an avowed zealot of politicization to insist outright that there is no point in discussing the formal features of Celan’s poetry, or that Portnoy’s Complaint cannot be funny because it is sometimes misogynist. The novelist Viet Than Nguyen came closest to recommending the omnipotence of politics in an absurd New York Times column in which he urged his fellow writers to write exclusively political fiction in the wake of the Trump presidency. “What will writers do when the outrage is over? Will they go back to writing about flowers and moons?” he asks, as if flowers, wilting in warming temperatures, were not an appropriate object of political regard — and as if flowers and moons could only ever matter for political reasons.

In practice, many writers who do not go so far as to explicitly endorse such a cartoonishly extreme position nonetheless behave as if they regarded political virtue as the only or most important kind. Why else would they so often act as if criticizing a book’s politics were tantamount to issuing a wholesale aesthetic indictment? Why else would they so often intimate that literature can only matter if it has salutary political effects? Why else, for instance, would the novelist Lauren Groff take to Twitter to assert that the political turmoil of the Trump era could have been averted if “a small percentage of Republicans read up to two books a year?” If Tweets such as Groff’s are a perennial scourge — if literary people are often compelled to shout from the rooftops that books can spark revolution and save the world — it is because many of them are unable to conceive of something mattering for apolitical reasons. Expostulations such as Groff’s are the logical endpoint of a culture in which we desperately want to regard literature as a worthy pursuit but cannot admit that aesthetic and ethical worth count as such. If books have to make a political difference in order to make any difference at all, then dedicated readers are left to stake out a losing position, for it is simply not plausible that literature will ever tank capitalism or keep the ice caps from melting.

This is not to say that works of literature have never had any tangible political effects. On the contrary, a handful of books — often the worst ones, aesthetically speaking — have had outsize influence: for all its flaws and immaturities, Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignited a nation-wide debate about the horrors of slavery. But if political utility on the ground were the only measure of a book’s value, we would be hard-pressed to defend the vast majority of masterpieces, among them Moby Dick, The Wings of the Dove, A Remembrance of Things Past, and so on. Did Proust change the world? I think he did, but not in the way the activists want to change it. Even more obviously political fictions, such as Invisible Man and The Yellow Wallpaper, did not yield many immediate or concrete reforms. Admittedly, books that do not directly launch social movements can raise political awareness, which may qualify as a virtue whether or not it ultimately precipitates action. But do we really want to say that this is the only way a work of literature can succeed? Do we really want to conclude that the merits of Days of Abandonment and Beloved are limited to their rather obvious political implications?

A person is allowed to have many priorities. In fact, she must have many priorities. She can — and she should — care about both beauty and justice. Problems arise not because writers are doing their best to balance a range of sometimes conflicting commitments, but because they seek to resolve the tensions by convincing themselves that there are no conflicts to speak of. If essays about madeleines and memories are to be shrunk to political gestures, then the Proustian does not have to deviate from the dogmas of the day or admit that she is failing by her own professed standards. But her delusion is as self-serving as it is dangerous. The fact is, you have not discharged your political duties by writing a Marxist analysis of Henry James, and even if you routinely criticize poetry with “bad politics,” you have no excuse to skip the protest. If your primary goal is to become as politically righteous as possible, you would do better to become an organizer, a labor lawyer, an investigative journalist, or a politician — all dignified careers that double as admirable expressions of citizenship.

So should you fling these critical observations to the floor and rush out onto the streets, pounding your chest and shrieking? Not necessarily. Organizers, labor lawyers, investigative journalists, and (some) politicians are commendable, but there are many ways to strive for different iterations of the good. The Grand Canyon is majestic, but it didn’t vote for Sanders (given its location, it more likely would have voted for Trump); Babette’s Feast is a compositionally perfect film about the euphoric maximalism proper to both religious revelation and artistic creation, but it has absolutely nothing to do with #believingwomen. Maybe we could coax a political lesson out of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ racked sonnets, but why on earth should we try? Nor do political merit and moral merit always overlap. Political virtue may be a species of ethical virtue, but there are ethical qualities that cannot be construed as merely political boons. The authorial voice that declaims loudly in The Topeka School opposes racism, sexism, and xenophobia, but it is still objectionably self-congratulatory. At times it is even patronizing, and its condescension betrays a lack of respect for — or even a lack of belief in — its readers’ moral agency. Rooney’s characters are communists, but they are also insufferably hubristic (so much so that they often seem more like caricatures than like real human beings.) Plenty of people advocate for universal healthcare while inflicting interpersonal injury; there are any number of political paragons who fail as parents, lovers, teachers, and friends. (In a better literature than the sanctimonists’, the frequent distance between our ideals and our practices would itself be the subject of interesting novels.)

Materialists often scoff at calls for compassion, as if the injunction to cultivate private kindness amounts to an alibi for public inaction. But if we abandon the fiction that all value is political, we can see that it is possible to recommend compassion without recommending it as a political strategy. Philanthropy is not a replacement for material redistribution, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be said for being generous to the people around you. Even progressives are reprehensible when they are narcissistic, sadistic, rectitudinous, dogmatic, patronizing, hectoring, and dismissive. Sanctimony literature may champion admirable political aims, but it does so at too high an ethical cost: it flattens complicated moral landscapes into children’s jungle gyms and addresses its readers as if they were prepubescent. And these ethical failings, it turns out, are not irrelevant to the genre’s enormous aesthetic deficiencies.

As long as we are wedded to a narrow conception of the ethical as inseparable from the political, it will be hard for us to trace much of a link between the ethical and the aesthetic: as sanctimony literature demonstrates, books with politically upstanding characters and politically saintly sensibilities are often pat and pappy. But once we renovate our notion of the ethical, we can see how it might come to stand in a more intimate relation to the aesthetic — and how a novel lacking a certain sort of moral complexity might therefore suffer artistically. Lionel Trilling knew this.

In his early examination (and commendation) of E.M. Forster, the critic wisely insisted that rich writing must display what he called “moral realism.” This, he clarifies, “is not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes, and dangers of living the moral life.” In a later essay he added that “to act against social injustice is right and noble” but “to choose to act so does not settle all moral problems but on the contrary generates new ones of an especially difficult sort.” “Moral realism” becomes important precisely when people are most committed to “moral righteousness”: at such times, among them the era in which the anti-Stalinist Trilling lived, we will drown in “books that point out the bad conditions, that praise us for taking progressive attitudes,” but we will lack “books that raise questions in our minds not only about the conditions but about ourselves, that lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses.” He continues, in a passage worth quoting, as it were, liberally, “Moral indignation, which has been said to be the favorite emotion of the middle class, may be in itself an exquisite pleasure. To understand this does not invalidate moral indignation but only sets up the conditions on which it ought to be entertained.” In other words, we should be suspicious of artifacts that serve primarily to assure us of our own heroism.

Trilling’s awareness of the pratfalls of moral self-congratulation drove him to criticize his own political allies more harshly and incisively than he criticized his opponents. Though he famously wrote, in 1950, that conservatives propound neither thoughts nor theories but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” he is far more frequently critical of liberals than he is of their — and his own — rivals. He admires Forster precisely because the novelist “is at war with the liberal imagination,” and this despite the writer’s “long commitment to the doctrines of liberalism.” Trilling, too, was a champion of liberal causes, but he was also a lifelong adversary of the sententiousness to which liberalism often gives rise. He praises Forster for dashing the kind of liberal imagination according to which “good is good and bad is bad” and balks at dappled articles like “good-and-evil,” for which reason its representatives “have always moved in an aura of self-congratulation. They sustain themselves by flattering themselves with intentions and they dismiss as reactionary whoever questions them.” The liberals whom Trilling made a career of targeting “play the old intellectual game of antagonistic principles. It is an attractive game because it gives us the sensation of thinking, and its first rule is that if one of the two opposed principles is wrong, the other is necessarily right.”

Now dissolve for a moment to the digitized present. The comfortable antinomies for which Trilling arraigned liberals have recently been given a new and frighteningly powerful technological foundation. As Christian Lorentzen pointed out in Harper’s a few years ago, the intellectual and aesthetic horizons of contemporary liberals and liberal-analogs are exhausted by the limited options afforded by social media — like or dislike, upvote or downvote. It is all Rotten Tomatoes. The contemporary liberal — and just as often, the contemporary progressive — is uncomfortable in that necessary wilderness called “the middle,” which Trilling once described as “the only honest place to be.”

All this may come as a surprise to those anxious to cast Trilling as the liberal par excellence, or even as an early neoliberal, which is of course the ultimate smear. But when Trilling states at the beginning of The Liberal Imagination that liberalism “is not only the dominant but the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States, he does not regard this as grounds for celebration so much as an occasion for vigilance: “a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.” That was one of the most renowned sentences of its era, and deservedly so. Far from endorsing neoliberalism, Trilling does not understand “liberalism” to pick out any particular economic arrangement: instead, he sees it as “a large tendency rather than a concrete body of doctrine.” It must always be on guard against complacency, self-assurance, and the pre-reflective acceptance of a self-aggrandizing ideology that takes the place of a modest and discomfiting idea.

That certain contemporary critics think of Trilling as something approaching a reactionary is further evidence of their mental poverty. For them, anyone who rejects any aspect of the standard leftist package must therefore be a reactionary. Dislike! Downvote! Own the Libs! “To the simple mind,” Trilling wrote premonitorily, “the mention of complication looks like a kind of malice, and to the mind under great stress the suggestion of something ‘behind’ the apparent fact looks like a call to quietism, like mere shilly-shallying.” But in reality uncertainty is not spinelessness, it is the first step on the bumpy path towards responsible conviction. It is not enough to want morality, “not even enough to work for it — we must want it and work for it with intelligence.” We are lost when a “‘cherished goal’ forbids that we stop to consider how we reach it, or if we may not destroy it in trying to reach it the wrong way.” To wit: Might the relentless production of hyper-commercialized novels that practically adapt themselves to the screen undermine a laudable anti-corporate agenda? Might inciting moral panics about the tech overlords on social media line the same coffers that we purport to want to empty? Might a novel that aspires to fight sexism fail if it is crammed with women who look for all the world like nothing more than blobs of doughy victimhood?

Moral realism helps us see how our methods conflict with our motives. It is a vital antidote to the progressive who “thinks chiefly of his own good will and prefers not to know that the goodwill generated its own problems, that the love of humanity has its own vices and the love of truth own sensibilities. There is a morality of morality.” Moral realism is the morality of morality and is therefore a specifically ethical virtue, though a contemporary sensibility may struggle to recognize it as such, for it does not convey many readily legible principles, much less does it urge us to reduce our meat consumption or stop writing about the moon. Trilling’s New York Times obituary reported, in 1975, with a twinge of disappointment, that “as a critic he founded no school and left no group of disciples closely associated with his name.” But that is the measure of his accomplishment: instead of instructing us in which propositions to believe, Trilling’s criticism models the art of thinking without a mold and without a foregone conclusion. This is what makes him so invigorating to read: he was sympathetic to Marx, but he was not a Marxist; he was fascinated by Freud, but he was not a Freudian; he delighted in form, but he was not a formalist; he was a liberal, but he was suspicious of liberalism; he was a close student of society, but he was not convinced that the human element could be wholly reduced to its circumstances.

“On the one hand,” he wrote, “class is character, soul, and destiny, and…on the other hand class is not finally determining.” In our unfortunate intellectual situation, such a pronouncement sounds almost incomprehensible. It is unlike “all the great absolutes,” which are “dull when discussed in themselves.” It does not fit neatly into the upvote/downvote dichotomy: we are genuinely unsure what will follow. And the very reason that Trilling is so interesting is also the reason that sanctimony literature is so boring: because absolutes are dead ends. We know at the outset of a sanctimony novel that good (the skinny leftists) will triumph over evil (the balding libertarians). We know what the canvas tote bags will look like and that the characters will all eat seitan. We know that a certain style of intellectual and emotional conformity will trouble neither the characters nor their creators.

And worst of all, we also know exactly what goodness, in the circumscribed world of the novels in question, boils down to. What we are denied is the intellectual excitement of trying to answer the exceedingly complicated question of what a morally serious person should be like. It is because sanctimony literature eschews moral realism that it foregoes the sort of style that might at last confer substance. We already have enough politics; now it is time for us to find an ethics; and if we are demanding of our skills and our sensibilities, an aesthetics may follow. If we cannot have enough good people, we may still aspire to more good books.