Hopes for a happy ending: Literary voices on the American Election

Appalled spectators of political life for the past eight years, many of America's major writers dream of better times – but fear disappointment. John Freeman hears literary voices of a nation on the brink of change

Friday 31 October 2008 01:00

Presidents and novelists are storytellers both, but it is a rare day in America when their narratives collide. It nearly happened in 1963, the year Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy hired (at the recommendation of William Styron) 37-year-old novelist Richard Yates as a speechwriter. The hard-drinking, chain-smoking author of Revolutionary Road did well in his first weeks, so well he was given a shot at drafting JFK's first major civil rights speech.

Yates's words may not be read verbatim, he was warned, but the President would use some. The night Kennedy was to deliver the speech, Yates tuned in to watch with friends. As Blake Bailey's biography describes, "It was clear each line struck him with a fresh disappointment. At one point he suddenly came alive – 'There! I wrote that!' – but it was a false alarm, and when it was over Yates seemed embarrassed."

For the past eight years, with George W Bush at the podium, America's novelists and poets and historians have at least been spared such false alarms. These were not their words. But they have experienced Yates's embarrassment. Bush's super-narrative of the US as a vengeful, all-powerful nation beyond treaties or conventions recycled the old tropes of a nation founded on frontier "justice", and unleashed them upon the world. Backed by a multi-billion dollar publicity campaign, the so-called war on terror was like the worst kind of bestseller. It received endless newspaper coverage; its syntax was absorbed into speech; it marched across the globe like a Dan Brown novel in translation.

So it is with an enormous sense of relief that writers face an election which might bring to power a President who has a very different story to tell about America. But will his election have some impact on literary culture? The bare-bone facts bode well. Barack Obama, who now leads all national polls, does not just respect language: he is an accomplished writer. His two memoirs are remarkable for their craft and complexity. More importantly, if Obama is elected his story – the bi-racial son of an immigrant raised partly in Indonesia, educated at Harvard, proposing social reform – will, briefly, but triumphantly, become the nation's own. He could radically return the country's narrative back to possibility and promise, and away from punishment and division.

"I've been thinking daily about the significance of an Obama presidency," says Charles Johnson, author of the National Book Award-winning novel, The Middle Passage. "If he wins (and I hope he will), he will be the most powerful black person in human history." He adds: "I think American writers... will want to join so many in the world as they celebrate a Camelot moment for the early 21st century, and pray he will succeed at addressing the staggering economic and international dilemmas he will inherit."

If literary culture can be said to include the stories people tell one another about America, this blurring of private and public narratives – and the hullaballoo over this election – is not a new thing. "It is difficult to describe the place political concerns occupy in the life of an American," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840. "To have a hand in the government of society, and to talk about it, is the most important business, and so to speak, the only pleasure an American knows."

This has been doubly so since the Bush administration, often at the expense of fiction. Since the 2000 election, the fastest-growing areas of book sales have been politics and current affairs, tome after tome dissecting, praising, debunking and chronicling the Bush administration. Our political culture nearly became our literary culture.

Novelists from Paul Auster to Philip Roth and John Updike have hewed ever closer to the zeitgeist to capture a nation adrift. The Plot Against America brought Roth back onto bestseller lists, as did Terrorist for Updike. For many other novelists, especially those who have climbed into the cockpit of op-ed pieces and blog postings, breaking away from this watchful resistance to life under Bush will be a relief. "Many of us have expended a lot of energy on resisting Bush and his policies," said Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ten Days in the Hills, "and it has been exhausting, at least for me."

George Saunders, the New Yorker magazine's resident satirist of the tortured logic and language of right-wing triumphalism, hopes he can go back to dreaming in fiction. "I know it's always more satisfying for me to write a story about completely invented people, who I kind of love, than to nail something or somebody in an essay. Only sometimes, like with the recent Palin piece... it just feels like it has to be said or my head will pop off."

Two-time Booker winner and New York resident Peter Carey points out that these activities – dreaming up a better future for the nation and creating new works of art that can stand within and outside it – proceed from similar impulses. In the nearly two decades he has lived in America, he has noticed the country becoming ever more enthralled with statistical determinism. He comments that "you turn on the news and hear, 'No one has ever won the Presidency who didn't win Pennsylvania.' That was then!" The fact is, he adds: "Ideally, what you want to do as an artist is to do something that's never been done before. And so, if this comes to pass – this thing we shall not name – it's going to be of enormous importance."

Dave Eggers adds: "We're about to elect a guy who pretty much arrived 30 or 40 years sooner than most people expected. So maybe we're being catapulted forward into the future in a way that our imaginations will need to catch up with."

One can already feel Obama's shoulders heaving. For if he gets into office, he will have a host of issues to deal with immediately. "We have never seen a time like this," Amy Tan writes, "an African-American president, republics crossing partisan borders like refugees, rampant racial hatred, contagious religious hatred, economic panic spreading like the bird flu pandemic that never arrived, not to mention so many possibilities vying for first in destroying the earth."

Obama, if elected, is going to need more than a good story. Saunders believes now might be the time to bring novelists back into the fold. "Although a few old lions like Vidal and Vonnegut and Mailer had their (very valiant) say, generally artists were treated by the Bush administration like... Sub-jester treatment, I guess you could say. This was stupid and costly, because any novelist could have imagined the invasion of Iraq and the aftermath better than Bush et al did."

Obama's promise, then, holds out a golden bough to writers and literary culture: language may be respected again at the highest level; writers might be brought back into the fold; our President may read EL Doctorow! It will be safe again, as Geraldine Brooks jokingly puts it, to raise one's head at overseas literary festival as an American. But by breaking down barriers, Obama may highlight one that remains. At least some writers feel the call to return to the centre of literary culture a questioning of America's capitalist project – as during the stock-market crash of the early 20th century, when John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Katherine Anne Porter were publishing.

The gap between the rich and the poor, for instance, is greater than ever. It has often fallen to outsiders, like Man Booker winner Kiran Desai, or emigrants, like Junot Díaz, to point it out in the literary culture. "The horrific violence of our current economic system, which kills more people daily than our wars," says Díaz, who won a Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, "will not change one jot under an Obama administration. Right now these elections are all about who plays the music at the party. Doesn't change the fact that there's a massacre going on. No US election is going to change that. And any writer worth a damn might be in the party but what he's really listening to, bearing witness to, in small ways, in elliptical ways or flat-out head on, is the violence and terror and inhumanity that reign beyond the party's walls."

John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of email

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FD Roosevelt

For the first time, Roosevelt's New Deal after 1933 gave significant federal funding to writers and artists via bodies such as the Works Progress Administration. Key voices of the period, such as John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos, chronicled the bad old days of hardship, and looked forward to a fairer country. In contrast, rugged individualists such as Ernest Hemingway and Southern romantics such as William Faulkner kept their distance from state-run populism.

John F Kennedy

When Robert Frost read his poetry at JFK's inauguration in 1961, he both signalled that literature would matter to the enchanted White House of the "Camelot" years – and that it would mostly take a fairly traditional form. The Beats' counter-cultural explosions took place far from Camelot, although literary insiders such as Kennedy's friend Gore Vidal had access to precious raw material. Meanwhile, novelists such as John Updike and Richard Yates (briefly a JFK speechwriter) explored the sad lands of suburbia.

Ronald Reagan

Although many US writers looked askance at Reagan's "morning in America" folksiness, his election in 1980 did fortify a conservative backlash that saw senior novelists such as Saul Bellow repudiate the permissive age. His anti-communism also stirred a generation of literary ex-radicals, moving hard to the right. But his most enduring legacy in fiction came from boom years of "yuppie" lifestyles and crazy money, as Jay McInerny, Tom Wolfe, Bret Easton Ellis and others found inspiration in a heady Manhattan cocktail of wealth, fame and fear.

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