Why Americans Can't Write Political Fiction

By Lehmann, Christopher | The Washington Monthly, October-November 2005 | Go to article overview

Why Americans Can't Write Political Fiction


Lehmann, Christopher, The Washington Monthly


Whatever its many other deficiencies, American political reality has often seemed tailor-made for fictionalizing. Just consider the rich welter of issues and personalities that hover around our present-day national politics: Congress' special session on the Terri Schiavo case; the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans ads; the ongoing agons of the Valerie Plame case and the 9/11 commissions. We have a born-again dauphin commander-in-chief striving in countless ways to surpass his father's wan patrician legacy and usually failing. We have Justice Sundays, the Cindy Sheehan vigil, and the America Supports You Freedom Walk--events that beg for adaptation as low farce or high satire.

Or, dare one say it, literature. There is a broader point to American political fiction, easy to miss amid the familiar sound and fury of the nation's political and cultural life: Democratic politics is the country's national epic--with such key matters as the franchise, political representation and America's role in world affairs all adapting themselves over time to encompass the republic's preoccupations, for better or worse. Consider, just for starters, the genuine literary questions raised by our own political eras leading issue--the war in Iraq and the peculiarly American errand of coercing the Middle East into a state of political self-reinvention. The confident projection of American power into an alien political culture, rent by tribal divisions, mirrors back to us unexamined assumptions about our own national identity and purpose. Many of the same questions can be raised about the shoddy federal response to the collapse of New Orleans' physical infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation--a ghastly reverse-image of the confident projection of U.S. power abroad.

In the ever-accelerating information age, journalism has taken on the role of chronicling both the march of political events and the shifting character of the nation's political imagination. But technology and programming demands have made much political journalism far more shrill, instantaneous, and unreflective, and thus brought into still higher relief the literary virtues--reflection and depth of character chief among them--that our political fiction should be delivering.

In considering how literature might grapple with the moral issues at the heart of today's politics, one could do worse than ask, what would George Orwell do? In 1984, the political novel's most famous modern exemplar, Orwell reckoned with the most decisive forces loose in the modern world: not merely the rise of totalitarian political regimes, but also the triumph of a depersonalized mass culture, the humorless bureaucratized workplace, and the abolition of historical memory. Long after the Stalinist nightmare dissolved, 1984 has survived as literature--conjuring the vivid stink of Victory gin, the grim footage of mass carnage played for laughs, and the furtive state-forbidden sex of Winston Smith's Oceania. The novel's continued relevance was more than a function of Orwell's imaginative genius; it flowed at least in part from his service as a British propagandist during World War II, which awakened in him both a reverence for the democratic culture he had worked to save, as well as a nuanced understanding of the corruptions of politics and spirit that occur under totalitarian regimes shoring themselves up with propaganda campaigns.

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Why Americans Can't Write Political Fiction
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.