Sunday, November 6, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Is American political fiction really so bad?

Via Kevin Drum, I see that Christopher Lehman has a long essay in the Washington Monthly asserting the poverty of American political fiction:

To gauge the arrested development of American political novels, one need look no further than the pallid state of our own literary satire. Christopher Buckley now passes for the high-water mark of political satire in the nation's literature. In 1994, Buckley drew upon his experience as a speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush to produce Thank You for Smoking, an engaging send-up of the grimly farcical rounds of advocacy for the tobacco industry, as well as of the excesses of its opponents. Since then, however, Buckley's novels have acquired a one-note tetchiness in both tone and subject. They read less like gimlet-eyed parody than gussied-up "O'Reilly Factor" transcripts....

[F]or all the impact of novels of advocacy, we have consistently failed Whitman's prophecy in one crucial respect. America has almost never produced a serious novel addressing the workings of national politics as its main subject. Indeed, it's hard not to read Whitman's own rueful characterization of his own literary generation—a “parcel of dandies and ennuyées” usually just “whimpering and crying about something, chasing one aborted conceit after another, and forever occupied in dyspeptic amours with dyspeptic women”—and not remember many of the scribes churning out the modern American political novel. The genre is as distressingly flat and uninvolving as it was when “Democratic Vistas” was published.

Well, surely those who have seen the belly of the beast -- politicians themselves -- could produce a good political novel. Oh, wait... [Well, what about political scientists?--ed. Don't go there.]

This particular subgenre of fiction is the topic of Rachel Donadio's NYT Book Review essay for today. Curiously, Christopher Buckley makes a cameo appearance there as well:

Novels by politicians are generally regarded as vanity projects or curiosities, written out of egomania, boredom or a drive to "get out the message." Often culled by reporters looking to leaven political profiles, most have fairly tepid sales before being quickly forgotten....

For the most part, novels by politicians quickly fade from the conversation - and the bookshelf. Christopher Buckley, the novelist and Washington gadabout, recalled how he unloaded a lot of books in a house move. Years later, he ran into William S. Cohen, an acquaintance and the author of several novels of international intrigue, some written in the 80's with former Senator Gary Hart. Cohen, who was then President Clinton's first secretary of defense, invited him to lunch.

"I went to the Pentagon for lunch in his office, which is a very formidable office, and he greeted me at the door and handed me a piece of paper," Buckley recounted. It was a printout from the online bookseller Alibris, with the listing for one of Cohen's books. "It said, 'Very fine first edition, excellent condition, inscribed to a fellow author, Christopher Buckley.' The price listed was $3,500. I said, 'Well, Bill, this is most embarrassing.' " Besides, Buckley added, "I thought it likely there had been a decimal error in the price."

Is the state of American political fiction really so parlous perilous? At first I was skeptical, but after perusing my bookshelf, maybe Lehman has a point. He missed a few greats in his conversation. I liked Buckley's Little Green Men better than Lehman, in part because the premise is so delightfully loopy. I'd also include Tom Perrotta's Election and Ward Just's Echo House. Lehman's biggest oversight is Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, but that might be because this small masterpiece is as much about Vietnam as it is about what it means to be a politician. Still, that's not such a big list.

What's the explanation? Lehman thinks it's because the overarching theme in American political fiction is the loss of innocence -- which doesn't jibe with how politics actually works:

The American political system has never really staked anything on the preservation of innocence. Indeed, its structural genius is very much the reverse—using the self-interested agendas of political players to cancel each other out, interlacing the powers of government in order to limit the damage that one branch can do, and making ambition at least address, if not fulfill, the public good in spite of itself. Our federal government, as any good reader of “Federalist 10” can report, is an instrument of cynicism erected on the open acknowledgment that human nature is flawed. It has unfailingly survived (and thrived) despite the vices novelists suggest have brought it to its knees. Expecting anyone to journey to the seat of national power and deliver a Mr. Smith-like blow for the sanctity of scouting and motherhood is a bit like wanting the final act of a musical to be all gun battles and explosions: It's what the critics call a genre error.

What's more, this stubborn moralizing impulse is what makes American political fiction, even today, such watery and unsatisfying literature: It deprives writers of the best material. Don't the intrigues sprouting from our well-known human flaws and excesses ultimately make for more engaging plots and character studies than the falls from grace of a thousand or so Washington ingénus?

This echoes the complaint voiced by Slate's David Edelstein a few years ago about how politics is portrayed in film and television:

The real party line in campaign movies turns out to lead straight to the Big Speech (let's call it the BS)—the one in which the candidate either bravely affirms principles over politics and is transfigured, or cravenly yields to expediency and is damned. Compromise, the core of the political process, is regarded not as an art but as a black art.

The transfiguring BS happens like this: The crowd is primed to cheer. The candidate (a man, generally) begins a speech that has been worked on by his handlers, the one designed to please the fat cats and ward heelers—i.e., the "special interests." But at the last second, he cannot bring himself to read what's in front of him. He eyeballs the eager crowd, then lays aside that accursed speech and begins to extemporize. I have met the devil, he says, and nearly sold my soul to get elected. This country, he goes on, deserves better. The people deserve better. The candidate's spouse, who has only recently discovered that he wasn't the Superman of integrity she thought she'd married, regards him again with Lois Lane eyes. The crowd goes wild: Balloons and confetti and soaring music signal the politician's apotheosis.

I'm not sure I have a better answer than Lehman or Edelstein, except to say that I'm not at all sure the problem is peculiarly American. Good fiction set in an democratic political milieu just might be a difficult feat to execute.

Readers are warmly encouraged to suggest their favorite political novels.

posted by Dan on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM



posted by: Aaron on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

We need more alternate history novels about the Civil War.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

'The Last Hurrah' should be obvious _ significantly, it's not a Washington novel and it's about a dying type of politics. And what about Trollope's Parliamentary novels?

posted by: greeneyeshade on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

The folks over at The Valve had a good discussion of this a while ago, too. Check it out.

posted by: foo on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Right or wrong I like what you said. It could be used to declare the current Administration as doing exactly the right thing. Which is conforting in times of uncertainty.

posted by: Huggy on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

All the Kings Men

Though, admittedly, not at the national level, and not a satire (I'm not sure if those were prerequisites or not). And its all about loss of innocence.


posted by: Steve on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Gore Vidal, Burr

posted by: Steve on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Before your time, The Gay Place (think LBJ) 1961 by Billy Lee Brammer

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

I liekd that episode of "Stella" where the guys are running for appt. co-op board and the leader gives his Big Speech: "I was going to start by reading my prepared speech, and then stopping to speak from the heart instead. But I'm not going to do that tonight! I'm just going to read from my prepared speech!"

I won't be watching "The West Wing" fake debate tonight. I'm too busy following the taut political drama happening in real life. Who has time (and preference) for fiction?

posted by: brent on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

If I may be so bold as to suggest Tom Clancy as my political fiction author of choice (admittedly drawn from a pool of one.) While his stuff may focus on idealized politics, I find the detailed descriptions of political manuvering to be what I read him for. Specifically, Executive Orders and The Bear and the Dragon, both books that spend a lot more time talking than shooting.

Of course, there is always that sub book that he wrote.

posted by: DemEnTEd on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

The Last Hurrah, All the King's Men, The Gay Place, and I'd add William Kennedy's Albany novels -- the problem isn't lack of good American political novels, it's lack of good Washington novels. I could quote Thomas Holley Chivers, but I won't.

posted by: Andre Mayer on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Not exactly sure if this counts, but Charlie Wilson's War is one of the best books I've ever read. Great characters, good evolving story. Even the despicable characters are interesting, fun and insightful.

Supposedly Aaron Sorkin is writing the movie version with Tom Hanks as Wilson (Hanks's production company picked it up). I'd very seriously recommend this book to anyone who wants a good political thriller and/or history of 1980s US involvement in Afghanistan.

posted by: Russ on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

The Columnist, by Jeffrey Frank, is about a political columnist rather than a politician, but it's hilarious.

The opening scene, in which the protagonist is in a restaurant with George H.W. Bush and suspects that people are trying to eavesdrop on what _he_ (rather than the former President) is saying, covers the character as well.

posted by: mschrist on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

For political fiction try the novels of Charles McCary; especially Lucky Bastard (a satire on the Clintons), Shelly's Heart, The Tears of Autumn (the Kennedy Assassination) and The Old Boys. He is a former CIA agent and they are good spy novels too.

posted by: whitney on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Hands down for me, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury.

One of the better political movies too although Preminger took out the harsh characterization of liberals (Leffingwell was Hiss after all) that was in the book.


posted by: SteveMG on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

The Stainless Steel Rat for President, by Harry Harrison.

To quote my own review on Amazon:
The Stainless Steel Rat stories are generally entertaining , sometimes amusing, written with a sense of the ridiculous and a touch of political comment.

"The Stainless Steel Rat For President" is my favourite of them all. Jim Di Griz (alias the Stainless Steel Rat) takes his beautiful but deadly wife Angelina to the delightful holiday world of Paraiso-Aqui, which bears a strong resemblance to the Latin American countries of our Earth - Hispanic and full of gorgeous women, brave men and excellent rum.

Unfortunately Paraiso-Aqui suffers from the worst of Latin American politics. The whole planet is ruled by the sadistic and evil tyrant General-President Julio Zapolote. He has stayed in power by winning 41 consecutive rigged elections (and by regular use of longevity drugs!) Jim decides that Zapolote is going to be unlucky the 42nd time...

From this point on the plot involves a car full of hidden technology, unpredictable political rallies, desperate chases , short skirts , spacecraft rustling and sabotaging of election broadcasts.

I've taken part in about 25 elections and never seen spacecraft rustling once, but this book actually conveys the EXCITEMENT of a close election better than any other book I've read. Every decent politician would love to take part in a contest like this one.

On a more serious note, this book serves as a warning to those who would like to get rid of old-fashioned paper ballots and rely on computers!

posted by: Chris Black on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Re: Whitney's recommendation of Charles McCarry. McCarry's later, more political, novels such as Shelley's Heart are entertaining, but feel forced. (However, the basic joke of Lucky Bastard is so good that it makes up for severe weaknesses in the book.)

By contrast, McCarry's middle-period, more purely spy oriented, novels, including Tears of Autumn, The Secret Lovers, and The Last Supper are among the very best spy stories ever written.

One of the least known, but most interesting political novels I have ever read, albeit French, is Stendhal's unfinished but still readable Lucien Lieuwen. If I recall correctly, the book takes place under the constitutional monarchy of Louis Phillipe in the 1830s or 40s. In Book II, sometimes published separately as "The Telegraph," the young hero (who in Book I was kicked out of college for not very seriously participating in a political demonstration and later quit the army following a failed romance) is placed by his rich and influential father in a position as assistant to a cabinet minister, where he finds that his major role is to act as a conduit for inside information to support his father's speculations (with kickbacks to the minister, of course). In the second half of book II, he is sent to a provincial area (maybe Brittany or Normandy) to support pro-administration candidates in parliamentary elections. He finds himself frantically trying to convince the out-of-touch party leaders back in Paris, via the newly constructed national semaphore telegraph system, that their local candidates are in trouble and that drastic changes in strategy are needed. There is a very good, and exciting, sense of an electoral clock running out as well as some interesting reflections on the possibilites and limits of new communications technologies for politics.

(Stendhals better known masterpiece, the Charterhouse of Parma, also has a lot of interesting politics in it, particularly the relation between politics, culture and personality, albeit in a less obviously modern context -- primarily the court of the autocratic ruler of an Italian city-state, but also some treatment of the impact of Napoleon and the Hapsburghs.)

posted by: Martin on 11.06.05 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?