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Literary Blog

The Political Value of Novelists

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.