The Politics of Fiction

Daniel Nester
From the January/February 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Nowadays, the intersection of literature and politics yields primarily memoirs and nonfiction, as evidenced by books that have ruled the best-seller lists, such as What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Al Franken’s The Truth (With Jokes). For some fiction writers, it’s a sorry state of affairs that begs the question: Can political fiction matter? Stephen Elliott, the editor of Politically Inspired, an anthology published by MacAdam/Cage in 2003, and its follow-up, Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction, published by MacAdam/Cage this month, casts his vote in the “definitely yes” column.

What makes the anthologies stand out isn’t the star quotient of the tables of contents or the left-leaning politics. It’s the mix of writing styles, which includes satire and humor as well as realism.

Books of fiction, particularly character-driven literary fiction, can express more “emotional truth” than nonfiction books, says Elliott, the author of four novels and the political memoir Looking Forward to It (Picador, 2004). And that is precisely what he is hoping the short fiction in Stumbling and Raging will convey to readers. One of the contributions to the anthology that certainly attempts this is the short story “Pull!” by David Amsden. To research the story, which is written from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq, the author says he interviewed his cousin, Stephen Amsden, a Specialist in the U.S. Army, on leave from his duty in Iraq, so that he could “get all the emotions right.”

“I don’t know enough about the issues to write op-ed pieces,” David Amsden says. “But the role of fiction is to make you stare at something small, so it’s not so small anymore.” Amsden describes the anthology as “an active document of writers trying to process things that are impossible to process.”

In addition to Amsden’s story, Stumbling and Raging features work by Chris Abani, Aimee Bender, Ron Carlson, Sandra Cisneros, Dave Eggers, Adam Johnson, Audrey Niffenegger, Neal Pollack, Jim Shepard, and others. The list of contributors to Politically Inspired includes Charles Baxter, Ben Greenman, Stewart O’Nan, ZZ Packer, and Anthony Swofford.

A portion of the proceeds from the sales of Politically Inspired—around ten thousand dollars, according to Elliot—was given to Oxfam America, the Boston-based affiliate of Oxfam International, to support its humanitarian work in Iraq, which includes the delivery of clean water and safe sanitation, as well as help for displaced children. Proceeds from Stumbling and Raging will go to “progressive candidates” in the 2006 midterm elections, the first of whom is Texas Democrat Nick Lampson, a former congressman, who is running against Republican Tom DeLay.

While the views espoused by Elliott—and, indeed, all of the writers in the anthologies—are left-leaning to liberal, Elliot says it was not his intention for the books to be politically homogeneous—he tried, but was unable, to find conservative contributors. “We really wanted a story from an extreme conservative,” says Elliott, who specifically asked for Republican or right-wing writers in a call for submissions that he sent to editors and writers. “The truth is, Republicans aren’t writing good literary fiction,” he says.

What makes the anthologies stand out, however, isn’t the star quotient of the tables of contents or the left-leaning politics. It’s the mix of writing styles, which includes satire and humor as well as realism. Neal Pollack, whose humorous story “Jewy Jew” appears in Stumbling and Raging, says writers would be “naïve to think that they can ‘do something’ about the current political situation” through fiction. “No one cares what I think about the path to war in Iraq or the rise of the Christian right. But in the end, all I can do is tell stories, and my stories tend toward the comic.”

Stumbling and Raging enters a publishing landscape largely inhabited by romans à clef and insider accounts of political scandal. A few examples include California senator Barbara Boxer’s A Time to Run (Chronicle Books, 2005), a novel, cowritten by Mary-Rose Hayes, about a Blue State senator who takes on the powers-that-be; Sammy’s Hill (Miramax Books, 2005), a novel by Kristin Gore, daughter of Al Gore; Jessica Cutler’s The Washingtonienne (Hyperion, 2005), a fictional version of her salacious Weblog account of working in Washington as a senate intern; and The Scorpion’s Gate, a novel by Richard A. Clarke, a retired U.S. government official and the author of the best-selling memoir Against All Enemies (Free Press, 2004). The marketing copy on the front of Clarke’s novel reads, “Sometimes you can tell more truth with fiction.”

Elliott says he is not worried about competition from these commercial titles, because Stumbling and Raging is “so much better written than all that!” He likens the anthology to a group of recent novels, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) and Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity (Vintage, 2003), both of which, he says, represent the growing number of politically inspired books of fiction.

Not everyone agrees that such a trend exists, however. In his essay “Why Americans Can’t Write Political Fiction,” which appeared in Washington Monthly, Chris Lehmann, an editor at Congressional Quarterly, writes of “longstanding distemper” and “fashionable gestures of despair, reflexive irony, and terminal purism” in American political fiction. “I do think that, often, American writers take pride in their identity as public intellectuals, above the political fray,” Lehmann says from his office in Washington, D.C. “Writers can’t seem to say what’s obvious in the news—that politics is an acute force in this country.”

Maud Newton, a literary blogger at work on a novel about religious extremism, agrees with Lehmann—to a point. American writers, she says, “reduce the few literary attempts at [politics] to propaganda with a narrative arc.” Other writers—James Baldwin and Junot Diaz, for example—have “excavated some of our society’s greatest injustices in fiction that is not strictly ‘political.’”

Aimee Bender, whose story “Even Steven” appears in Stumbling and Raging, admits she feels a resistance to writing fiction about political topics and, at the same time, recognizes the necessity to do so.

“I believe Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, talks of the danger of fiction with an agenda—how it can muddy the waters of the fictional narrative. I often agree with that,” Bender says. “But I also agree with a former teacher of mine, writer Jane Vandenburgh, who said that all fiction is political, and that, no matter what, you are either agreeing with the status quo or questioning it. And certainly there’s a lot right now that needs to be questioned, and storytelling is a way of digesting complex ideas.”

Not all readers will agree with the ideas contained in the anthologies, of course. But Bender says there is another reason to read them. “What I like about the fiction in Elliott’s anthology is that the stories stand alone as stories,” she says, “and the political edge sneaks up on you.”

Daniel Nester is the author of God Save My Queen and God Save My Queen II, both published by Soft Skull Press. He also edits Unpleasant Event Schedule.