Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Click to follow

As she moves on from her comeback coups in Texas and Ohio, Hillary Clinton has also won a more cerebral sort of victory. While writing about Obama still belongs to some medieval age of faith, and the fear of losing it, the New York Senator has spawned a literary sub-genre full of very modern nuances and ambiguities: not Kremlinology, but Hillarography. If not always a pretty sight, the Hillary debate – often focused on the contender's makeovers in role, style, dress and even voice – at least nods in the direction of human complexity. "For she contains multitudes," as Leslie Bennetts writes in the collection Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary (edited by Susan Morrison; HarperCollins, £12.99): "The larger truth is, so do we all".

Not all of this book, made up of mostly supportive "reflections by women writers", crosses the Atlantic with ease. In fact, some pieces – with their navel-gazing focus on big-city, upper-middle-class issues of elite career progression, public image, insider political intrigue, and academic or media feminism – might not mean much to the blue-collar voters, female and male, who turned out for its heroine in Ohio factory towns or Texas barrios.

Inevitably, the rest of the planet gets extremely short shrift – though that's hardly a form of myopia confined to the Hillarographers. Susan Morrison dubs her subject "probably the most famous woman in the world". As it happens , I think that I would lay a few rupees on Aishwarya Rai on many patches east of Manhattan, and west of Seattle.

Too many writers slip from critique into cheer-leading, which makes the odd downright sceptic feel like a blast of fresh air. That reliably abrasive expat, Lionel Shriver, comments that, if Hillary prevails, "I will have no choice but to bite the bullet and to vote for her. But it will hurt my teeth". Lauren Collins is rightly tart about the cringe-worthy PR bids to "soften" the candidate's ironclad reputation with titbits of domestic trivia. "Her worst habit is chocolate. (Jeezus, Hillary.)"

Unlike the cheer-leaders, Collins notices the flies in the cosmetic ointment, such as the somewhat sinister role in the Clinton campaign of marketing guru Mark Penn ("her worst liability"). And, for all its slight tendency to gush, the book corrals a fine spread of pithy and lively arguments – from social analysts such as Katie Roiphe and Katha Pollitt, or novelists like Kathyrn Harrison and Lorrie Moore. With bracing candour, Roiphe concludes that "Hillary's 'phoniness' may be so irritating, so unforgiveable, to so many smart, driven women in part because it is our own".

Could we, since Thatcher's heyday, even imagine a parallel volume here – about Harriet Harman, or Margaret Hodge, or Hazel Blears? On the other side of the gender divide, how many readers would crave an anthology by 30 leading male writers chewing over the quandaries and conundrums presented by the styles of David Miliband or David Cameron? I know – but consider why you sneer.

More than one contributor to Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary points out that cheering – or cursing – the Senator's progress (and the mysteries of her marriage) allows Americans to indulge in fantasy projections. Citizens may find in her, and the couple, an imaginary focus – or even an imaginary solution – for actual problems. Obama, of course, does just the same. But to fantasise effectively, you have to care. As British political writing – in books as much as journalism – swings between its dreary poles of tabernacle indignation and giggly anecdotage, it takes for granted that civilians won't care. Given the intellectual and emotional sterility of our public discourse now, no wonder so many envious Britons seek a little borrowed fire.