11.03.2020

What Matters

In this fervid season of American politics, the temptation for a novelist is to capture that lightning in a bottle. Yet when I try to remember any political novel that matters, only a stray few, such as All the King’s Men, come to mind. Given all the Covid-laden shouting everywhere, how can that possibly be? 

The first, gigantic obstacle facing a writer is freshness. In our 24-hour news cycle, any American who would read a book already knows the issues. Nor do new wrinkles in these long-standing causes tend to develop. How long ago was Roe v. Wade? When characters spout off the arguments of the religious right, say, a novel reader’s interest immediately dims. Oh, right, that stuff. Aren’t I reading a novel to get away from that stuff? 

The second is politics’ inherent immorality. If a novel has to make sense of our world, how can that be reconciled with a group of individuals whose worth is measured by the opinions of others? Good luck creating a character whose moral fiber waxes and wanes with the circumstances. How much do you think the reader is going to care about that character? 

The third is the problem that fiction in general has in aping real life. The right to an abortion, to use that example, really matters to women. The course of their life may depend on it. Yet when that issue is raised in a novel, the plot inevitably depends on the personal nature of the decision. That’s because fiction is terrific at laying bare what is in our hearts. What a pregnant character tells her mother will impact me more deeply than what she argues, for all women, on a soapbox. 

In that observation lies the crux of the matter. Why does Robert Penn Warren’s novel succeed? One reason is the venality of Huey Long, to be sure. Far more energy is directed, however, in uncovering what makes him venal. That suggests that politics succeeds in novels only when it is made personal. You do have commercial outliers, such as The Manchurian Candidate, which succeed because the premise is so outrageous. The idea that a Soviet spy could become president actually is so wicked that a reader might care. For the great majority of novelists, though, the plotting tends to be more ordinary. My advice? Don’t go there. Turn on the TV and shout to your heart’s content.

Exercise: The core of a good political novel, as with any novel, is formed of a small cast of characters whose actions impinge on each other personally. If the president and his wife have a long-running battle that is featured every fifth scene, the reader will be moved because of the personal acrimony. When laying out a plot, start there: who really matters to whom?

“If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal.”  —Emma Goldman

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.