Sunday, April 17, 2011

Politics and Prose

This Rumpus piece posits an interesting reason why Washington politicians's fictions are less successful in literature than politics:

It’s a running joke that politicians tend to do a poor job of writing fiction, and for the most part, the joke holds true. But I think there may be something more to this failure than just the fact that many of them are trained in legalese or that they’re busy. I think it has to do with the fact that being a politician requires putting the human capacity for empathy on hold, or at least minimizing it. It requires putting an idea or a philosophy or a party above people in order not to go mad.

This isn't wrong, but it's not completely right either. I would add that literary writing requires a grasp of imagery that isn't present in political writing and speech except in usually the most hackneyed of forms (most of our representatives are unmemorable speakers; it was a speech, recall, that propelled Barack Obama to national prominence, some years after he had already turned some heads as a writer with the publication of his memoir). Compare one of the duds, Vale of Tears by Peter King...

The conversation in the bus was still solemn, very similar, it seemed, to the expressions of the New Yorkers walking the streets — somber but undaunted. But there was nothing at all somber about the scene along West Street as the bus — now going south — approached the vicinity of Ground Zero.

Hundreds of people lined the streets cheering, waving American flags and holding up signs, thanking and encouraging the rescue workers who’d come from all over the region and country to do what they could. The windows of the bus were shut tight, but its passengers could clearly hear the crowd’s defiant cheers of USA! USA!

...with the only real standout example, Jim Webb's A Sense of Honor.

He tried, just for a moment as he nodded off to sleep, to remember a time when he did not view the world as a chimera to be attacked, a progression of moments capable of violent destruction, a painful jungle designed to test his tenacity. He could not think that far back. He could get past first-class year and second-class year and youngster year. He could remember the incredible, unnerving scars of plebe year, as if his memory itself were falling into its own small sea and treading water there, trying to keep from drowning. He could identify each terror-filled event of plebe summer, those weeks that ripped his old self from him like someone reaching inside a plucked chicken and tearing out the guts, then packing in fear where they used to be.

Both of these excerpts deal with people in heightened states of emotion, but only Webb's really digs into its imaginative potential. Look at the creatures and concepts conjured forth: a 'chimera,' 'a painful jungle,' 'its own small sea,' 'reaching inside a plucked chicken and tearing out the guts;' all vivid and fantastical images used to complement the concrete events of the last several years of the character's life.

King's piece, by contrast, features no figurative language whatsoever, only passable description. We're told the conversation is 'somber,' the crowd 'defiant,' but we don't get any further than such surface detail to better understand these states of mind.

Politicians pride themselves on their ability to empathize with their constituents, but in reality, as the Rumpus article notes, their existence as politicians is dependent on being brutally practical in their thinking. It also involves endless consumption of political news bites that are almost by definition shallow and anathema to creative flourishes. It's no surprise that their creative writing should reflect this. Verbiage in, verbiage out.

No comments:

Post a Comment