In spring 2004 I published an extremely strange book called Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, which I described to my publisher (and the publisher described to readers) as "half candy porn, half candy polemic." The book is a memoir of my own lifelong sweets fetish, as well as an account of my cross-country journey to various small, independent candy bar manufacturers.
It got reviewed in a lot of unexpected venues, none, to my mind, more so than the right-wing magazine the National Review. The Review review was a kind assessment most of the way. But then, perhaps inevitably, the reviewer expressed disapproval of my decision to include my political views in the book.
She was hardly alone.
Over the next couple of weeks a number of similar reader reviews popped up on Amazon.com:
"I have read this pablum [sic] and feel I am owed the four hours it took to read. Mr. Almond please send me a refund. . . . Your paranoia about the Republican party and politics in general were as distastful [sic] as an Almond Joy candy bar."
"The parts about candy are fun but I can't believe the author became political and stupidly at that. . . . A shame."
"I literally threw the book across the room (where it still sits at this moment) after his progressive tantrum on page 204."
It was a truly bizarre chain of events. I was pretty sure there was some relationship between The National Review and the Amazon .com reviews. Like, maybe a bunch of conservatives only read the first half of the National Review piece and raced out to get Candyfreak, only to discover that I was, in fact, a commie.
Either that or the vast right-wing conspiracy was a lot vaster than any of us realized. Whatever the case, I am happy to cop to the basic complaint of these readers, though I will not provide any refunds.
Candyfreak does include a few lefty diatribes. Here's the main one:
What an embarrassment it was. The Bush tax cut had sopped the rich and wiped out the federal surplus. The economy was in the crapper. Dubya was doing everything in his power to hand the planet to Exxon.
Two years earlier, I'd sat in front of another TV and watched him steal the presidency in broad daylight. Then a bunch of vicious airborne murderers had come along and scared the common sense out of everyone. In one morning, they'd managed to bestow upon this evangelical simpleton an air of presidential dignity. He saw his chance and bounced the rubble in Afghanistan and kept the bellows of war going (Iraq was next) and now the Democrats were too chickenhearted to oppose him. It was the poor who were going to pay, as they always do, and who gave a damn about them?
This outburst -- and I think that's a fair word -- takes place toward the end of Candyfreak. My intent was not to piss off those 59 million Americans who voted for Bush, but to express anguish over the net loss of humanity in this country. That's actually what the book is about, beneath all the confectionary mishegoss.
Still, I was well aware that including such passages was going to ruffle feathers. My editor asked me, more than once, to consider the risks of "alienating Republican readers." To which I responded: "Republican readers -- isn't that an oxymoron?"
Obviously, I'm kidding.
My point here isn't to bash Republicans, but to suggest the sad disjunction that now exists between the arenas of art and politics. Because what really bummed me out about the Amazon haters wasn't that they disagreed with my politics, but that they immediately summoned such genuine outrage at me for deigning to express a political opinion at all. They regarded Candyfreak as entertainment, which meant that I was supposed to serve as a candy monkey for them: swinging from my zany licorice ropes and making funny gibbering noises.
By including my political views, I was in direct violation of the First Law of Social Apathy, which holds that popular culture should be divorced from the moral questions and concerns of current political circumstances. What folks want from the pop culture is a nice soothing mind bath. A few chuckles. A nice melodrama in which to park our emotions for a couple of hours. In a word: opium.
But one of the functions of art (yes, even popular art) is to call people out of their narcotized stupors, to raise people's consciousness, to awaken their capacities for compassion. William Faulkner probably put this best in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man; it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
It seems to me that the time has come to answer this call. I don't mean to suggest that writers should begin cranking out polemics. Art resides in an argument with the self, not with others.
What I am suggesting is that artists need not regard their political identities as wholly separate from their artistic ones -- especially given our unique historical circumstance. Look at what's happening: Our country is being led down a path of almost unprecedented moral negligence, a kind of suicidal selfishness in which the civic discourse has been reduced to bumper stickers. Those in power stand ready to vilify anyone who threatens their power.
My question is simple: When are we going to allow grief to inform our art? Will it take another war? The loss of a woman's right to control her body? The conversion of Social Security into a Wall Street boondoggle? To what extent is our polite silence a form of collaboration?
As I think about all this, I'm reminded of two anecdotes. The first stars Pablo Picasso. After the Nazis invaded Paris, they visited his studio. The officer in charge spotted Guernica and gazed at the canvas in dismay. "Did you do this?" he asked finally.
"No," Picasso said. "You did."
The second anecdote is of a more recent vintage. A famous author went to Boston just before the 2004 presidential election to do a fancy reading. He was introducing a story that dealt with an alcoholic when he made this comment: "As the last four years have shown, there are some people who are better off never drying out." (I am paraphrasing.)
After the reading, a woman approached the author and scolded him for making such an inappropriate comment. "But my dear woman," the author said. "Don't you realize? That's my job."