Who're The Novelists Voting For? (Veiled Subscription Pitch!)

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Earlier this week, Slate asked a bunch of novelists who they plan to vote for in the presidential election. Among other things, the responses should make you glad that poets, rather than novelists, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. More on that in a second.

Subscribers to the print edition of Reason will notice a resemblance to our November issue cover story, which is a presidential poll of folks in our universe, ranging from P.J. O'Rourke to Camille Paglia to Drew Carey. Our story isn't online yet, but you can get a taste from this Chicago Tribune story about it. You can get a look at the cover of the November issue and my Editor's Note (which also includes a bit on the cover story) by going here. The point, humble reader, is to subscribe to the print edition of Reason. You'll get the print edition a whole month before it's posted here in full. You'll get a year's worth of issues (11 in all). And if you act now, you'll get a free paperback of our brand new anthology Choice: The Best of Reason. All for just $19.95. If you want to renew your subscription, the same deal is available, too. Just go here and scroll down to the section titled "Three Great Ways To Get Choice."

Back to the novelists' votes: One interesting subtext to the whole thing is how it underscores the low status of novelists as cultural players (I've written about that here). I suspect that even pretty literate Americans will recognize no more than half the names in the list and that far fewer will have read anything by anyone on the list (and no, as someone who spent a good chunk of my 20s studying literature, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing; rather, it reflects a massive increase in our cultural options).

Out of 31 participants, 24 are voting for Kerry, four for Bush, and three for something else. But it's less who anyone is voting for than the reasoning behind the votes that is remarkable. Many of the responses strike me as unironic variations on Pauline Kael's surprise at McGovern getting creamed by Nixon: She famously wondered how that could have happened, as she didn't know anyone who had voted for Tricky Dick.

"Like virtually everyone I know, I'm voting for Kerry," says Joyce Carol Oates. Amy Tan inveighs, "I'm voting for Kerry, because I have a brain and so does he." "Kerry, of course," sez Jonathan Franzen, who adds, without explanation, "He's the candidate whose defeat Osama Bin Laden (if he's alive) is praying for." Asks Lorrie Moore, "Are there really any novelists voting for Bush?" Russell Banks will pull the switch, punch the hole, whatever for Kerry, but he'll do it glumly, knowing goddamned full well that the Bay State Blowhard's "election won't reverse our nation's rush to establish a fascist plutocracy, it's too late for that."

To be sure, some of the responses are interesting and well-argued. A few even show flashes of humor, or at least mordant wit. But the overall tone is one of smug, self-satisfied people who long ago stopped talking to anyone with a divergent viewpoint (in short, too many of the respondents sound just like the intolerant, right-wing, Christian jag-offs they say Bush represents). This poll, of course, tells us nothing about the election, but it may explain why novels are fading in terms of cultural hegemony.

Whole thing here.

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  1. Would the results have been any different if they’d talked to novelists who actually sell books? Stephen King? John Grisham? Jackie Collins?

  2. Oh, Charles, you don’t get it. Selling books? How common of you …

  3. This would-be novelist is voting for neither.

    But Nick. “intolerant, right-wing, Christian jag-offs”? Surely a new low in political rhetoric, even for Reason.

  4. Nick Gillespie,

    …but it may explain why novels are fading in terms of cultural hegemony.

    I doubt that it explains that either.

    Indeed, you admit that yourself in your earlier column, where you fashion – perhaps – a soft technological determinism:

    If their descendants aren’t reading as many novels anymore, it is only because they are able to gratify their cultural and aesthetic needs from so many more sources.

    Anyway, particular novels do sell quite well, even if the novel as a literary device has lost some of its overall charm. I certainly read my fair share to realize that many great novelists still exist, take Javier Cercas or Jean-Christophe Rufin or Umberto Eco for example.

  5. I was particularly impressed with Orson Scott Card “I’m a Democrat voting for Bush” schtick. You know, Orson “Lock up the Gays” Scott Card, who is such a good fit for the Democratic party.

    If he’s a Democrat, I’m a Martian.

  6. Eric,

    The description is accurate.

    Charles Oliver,

    Amy Tan’s novels have sold quite well. And implying that John Updike’s novels haven’t done well is just nuts.

  7. Eric, Nick is speaking in the voice of the arrogant and self-important leftists when he says that; “…too many of the respondents sound just like the intolerant, right-wing, Christian jag-offs they *say* Bush represents.”

  8. Morat –

    Card is a social conservative and economic liberal. Worst of both worlds, in my opinion, but his novels and essays show a real distaste for capitalism and businessmen.

  9. Talk about smug and self-satisfied.

  10. Richard Drooling’s comments were interesting:

    More than any other election in recent memory, this one reminds me of Henry Adams’ observation that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds.

    The left-wing political road rage directed at George W. Bush for being dumb and lying about the war reminds me of nothing so much as the right-wing obsessive invective directed at Bill Clinton for being smart and lying about sex. Rush Limbaugh versus Michael Moore, and let the man nursing the most unrequited rage win. The DRAMA and spectacle of the election will be fascinating to watch, but novelists, even more than actors, should be political agnostics.

  11. The left is such a collosal bore these days, and the right, well, y’know.

    Only the libertarians are fun…god help us!

  12. I am increasingly incapable of reading any modern fiction. While reading the works of the aforementioned authors I am often left wondering how I am contributing to furthering my education and understanding of the world. That feeling is noticeably absent when I read Greek and Roman literature as well as many of the great literary works of the past three centuries. It is even less present when I am reading what I enjoy most; economics. What are modern novelists contributing to our understanding of humanity and its future? Nothing! They are nothing but well-educated entertainers.

  13. Nick Dubaz,

    You aren’t reading the right authors. Interested in the Spanish Civil War? Read Javier Cercas’ “The Soldiers of Salamis.” Want some information on the Reformation in microcosm? Read Rufin’s “Brazil Red,” where the Catholic Church and Calvin’s Reformed Protestants clash on a small (eventually defunct) French colony in what is today Brazil.

  14. You know, Orson “Lock up the Gays” Scott Card, who is such a good fit for the Democratic party.

    Neither party supports the recriminalization of homosexuality, so in that sense Card isn’t a good fit for either party. But you seem to be implying that vehement homophobia disqualifies Card from membership in the Democratic party, which is ridiculous. The Republican Party is certainly much more homophobic than the Democratic Party, but there are plenty of homophobic Democrats.

  15. I like Thomas Beller’s closing paragraph, wherein he claims that the dark heart of Republicanism is exposed in a comment he couldn’t hear, from a man who may not have been a Republican. This comment apparently should have upset an old woman, who he admits was not upset by it.

  16. I am increasingly incapable of reading any modern fiction.

    Ditto. My interest was waning steadily for years, but 9/11 nailed the coffin shut. Now when I rarely read fiction, it’s Harry Potter or 1930s pulp. Like reality TV vs. sitcoms and scripted dramas, at least the former is brazenly artificial whereas modern “literary” novel-writing is nothing but cotton candy masquerading as serious inquiry.

  17. Graham Greene anyone?

  18. Charles Oliver asks:
    Would the results have been any different if they’d talked to novelists who actually sell books? Stephen King? John Grisham? Jackie Collins?

    I have read enough Stephen King to know he is left of center, and likely a Democrat; John Grisham served as a Democrat in the Mississippi legislature. Don’t know about Jackie Collins, but she is no Christian Coalition type, if her novels are an indication.

    Maybe Dean Koontz would have a different answer. he lives in Orange County after all.

  19. “How can I not vote for a candidate like Kerry, who respects the Constitution, who respects the need for health care, …. ” (Amy Tan)

    That makes me wonder if she’s ever READ the Constitution.

  20. What is a “jag-off”, anyway? Is it some kind of crying contest?

    “Jag-off”. That’ll keep you out of the parental-control filters for sure. Very punk rock.

  21. “I have read enough Stephen King to know he is left of center, and likely a Democrat.”

    And I read somewhere that he was at one of Springsteen’s concerts, the one against Dubya.

    By the way, as anyone who has read Updike’s memoir “Self-consciousness” knows, he is a Christian & was pro-vietnam-war in the 60’s.

  22. “Jason Bourne”

    You said, “but novelists, even more than actors, should be political agnostics.”

    Please explain why.

    Thanks

  23. the most entertaining part of this all is the address of this comments page – “whore_the_novel”… now, that’s a book to revive the artform!

  24. Yo

    Jason Bourne was quoting Richard Drooling’s comments which I also found interesting. I don’t agree about the “political agnostics” thing though.

    IMO authors are perfectly entitled to their opinions. I’m just as entitled to not be overawed by their intellectual majesty.

  25. I think it would be interesting if they had interviewed some serial authors – TV scriptwriters, comic/manga authors. Not because I think their stars are on the rise (though I do), but because I think the nature of their writing might make them more attuned to political realities – the experience of having their great ideas worked over by committee and then filtered through the actions of a bunch of other people before it sees light, the experience of getting feedback on an initiative *while* you’re still working on it, and adjusting in response, the need not only to think of where you want to take things right now, but to remember to leave options open in case you change your mind or someone else needs to pick up where you left off, and correspondingly the experience of having to step in and fix something someone else handed to you in bits.

  26. I wonder what Neal Stephenson would say. His books often have liberal overtones, but fairly strong libertarian themes, too.

  27. What is a “jag-off”, anyway? Is it some kind of crying contest?

    It’s ‘Pittsburgh’ for jerk-off.

  28. Ikura,

    “but because I think the nature of their writing might make them more attuned to political realities”

    If you mean it makes them prone to vote Dubya then I’m afraid you are likely as mistaken as Charles Oliver/Jason Ligon in thier belief that John “Rainmaker” Grisham is a Republican just coz he sells more books.
    I doubt Spiegelman or any of the Drawn & Quarterly roster is a Dubya fan. But that’s OK coz they are french prima-donna’a who don’t really count etc. So what about the best-sellers AKA Alan Moore, Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Frank Miller ? Well, all of them have either disparaged Dubya or have caricatured him or stand-in conservatives as buffoons in their books.
    The blue/red state stereotypes don’t neccessarily work.

  29. Fifty years ago half of them would have been Commies. Politics seems to really bring out the goony bird as far as ‘artistic types’ are concerned.

  30. As an unabashed liberal reader of Reason, I have two points to make:

    First: I generally agree that people on the “left” are often out of touch with ideas outside their own personal orbit. But I can’t help but feel that conservatives and even libertarians often do the same thing…the comments on this website (which are generally intelligent and thoughtful) do the same thing.

    Second: If you don’t like the left-wing tendencies of many “literary” writers, read V.S. Naipaul, Ayn Rand, Ha Jin, J.M. Coetzee, Mark Helprin, Tom Wolfe, etc. Though I’m a fan, there’s more to the world than Stephen King and John Grisham.

  31. Re: Nick Dubaz

    Read something by J G Ballard you ignoramus.

  32. Uh, “humble reader”? The usual way for an author to address the reader is with the ol’ “Gentle Reader/Humble Author” shtick; the phrase “humble reader” comes across as a weird po-mo put-down.

    As a reader, I’m not all that humble.! But, anyway, I found most of the novelists’ reasons to be pretty straightforward. A few were risible.

    And surely expressing a distaste for Bush because he can’t speak well is wholly legitimate. Don’t you expect politicians to speak well? To be able to think on their feet? I’ve long thought that any candidate for the presidency should be much, much smarter than me, and that intelligence should be obvious. With the case of Bush, his canny abilities are pretty well hidden, and he’s even more annoying to watch speaking extemporaneously than his father was.

    That there is a whole, large class of Americans who DON’T feel this way – who think it just hunky-dory that the man in charge often comes off as a bufoonish, know-nothing lackwit – strikes me as good evidence for a general slackening of educational and cultural standards. A tolerance or liking for Bush strikes me as a good indication that partisanship has won over a citizen’s standards. Conservatives who have supported Bush strike me as extremely cynical and heedless of traditional standards of excellence.

    There certainly are a lot of cultural options out there. It’s possible to get your rocks off on comic books and TV sitcoms and video games and rock-n-roll. But that doesn’t mean that the aesthetic effects of these low-brow/no-brow art forms is up to the standards of a good novel.

    Fewer and fewer Americans much novelistic fiction these days – few even read old novels. But what of those who do? How many who delight in Nabokov’s “Despair” or Trollope’s “Eye for an Eye” or Beckford’s “Vathek” (to name three radically different works) would equate those pleasures and those books with the ready-at-hand candy of contemporary culture? And, if you enjoy great literature, and understand why well-written sentences are better than the merely servicable, how could you bear the presence and speech of George W. Bush?

    Of course, Kerry himself is hard to bear, for different reasons. I’d never vote for him. But I can understand why so many novelists hate Bush. I’m having some difficulty understanding why writers for Reason would tolerate the boob – or cast aspersions at those who hate him.

  33. I know Card is a Mormon; I have read several of his Ender books and some from another series before I realized that series was a retelling of the Mormon story and stopped reading. But yeah, Mormons are *highly* unlikely to be Democrats. But “Lock up the Gays”?! Where does that come from???

  34. Berkman: I believe Koontz is a Libertarian. He was interviewed by Reason in 1996: https://reason.com/9611/int.koontz.shtml

  35. SM – “political realities” wasn’t supposed to be a codeword there, I didn’t even meant to talk about this election in particular. The idea I was trying to get across was that to the extent that a writing career prepares you to analyze politics, serial writing seems like it’d give more insight than novels.

    To be honest, I don’t really care what the names at the top of their answers are – it’s not something I’m gonna file for later use, come to think of it I’ve forgotten already. I just want to improve the quality of the paragraphs that follow.

    As for your list, those are just the kind of people I was thinking about. Of them all, only Miller’s a lifelong yank, so you’d have to discount some for unfamiliarity, but I’d love to hear from them all, maybe add folks like Joss Whedon (a Wesley Clark man, Fundrace tells me) and David Chase on the TV side. I’d especially love to hear from Warren Ellis – I’m sure the man behind Transmet has something to say about what to do when you’re faced with two bad choices.

  36. Totally forgot where I actually saw this, but I read a piece recently that pointed out that 9/11 had thrown the noveling world into chaos, because suddenly Tom Clancy books seemed more realistic that some “more realistic” novelist whose name I forget. Okay, I’ve just butchered the line by not remembering where it came from (and can’t locate it with Google), but I thought it got to the essence of the problem.

    Nick, I refer to the “But how could Y be true — everyone I know believes X!” as the Kaelian fallacy. I think of that whenever I see a column that starts with, “I know what the polls say, but everyone I talk to feels diffferently, so the polls must be wrong.” Mickey Kaus, I believe, has referred to Kael’s quote when discussing media cocooning as a phenomenon hurting the Democratic party, but I’ve certainly heard people on both sides of the political spectrum falling prey to it, as well as those talking about matters not related to politics (“But no one I know listens to Michael Bolton!”). I think the prevalence of the Internet actually makes it more, rather than less, likely, but I could be wrong about that.

  37. Totally forgot where I actually saw this, but I read a piece recently that pointed out that 9/11 had thrown the noveling world into chaos, because suddenly Tom Clancy books seemed more realistic that some “more realistic” novelist whose name I forget. Okay, I’ve just butchered the line by not remembering where it came from (and can’t locate it with Google), but I thought it got to the essence of the problem.

    Nick, I refer to the “But how could Y be true — everyone I know believes X!” as the Kaelian fallacy. I think of that whenever I see a column that starts with, “I know what the polls say, but everyone I talk to feels diffferently, so the polls must be wrong.” Mickey Kaus, I believe, has referred to Kael’s quote when discussing media cocooning as a phenomenon hurting the Democratic party, but I’ve certainly heard people on both sides of the political spectrum falling prey to it, as well as those talking about matters not related to politics (“But no one I know listens to Michael Bolton!”). I think the prevalence of the Internet actually makes it more, rather than less, likely, but I could be wrong about that.

  38. Yo,

    I was quoting Richard Drooling obviously. My use of italics apparent failed without me noticing it.

  39. Sarnath: I believe Neal Stephenson is too smart to admit to a preference; yes, his books express strong libertarian themes, but his politics have been described as “pragmatist”. Most probably, he would not vote at all, as voting is inherently ideological and non-pragmatic (after all, even living in Florida doesn’t mean that your solitary vote actually counts for anything). Stephenson’s novels and non-fiction (here I am thinking of _In the Beginning was the Command Line_) seem to show more hope in social change as a result of technological development, not political effort.

  40. Ikura,

    the experience of having their great ideas worked over by committee and then filtered through the actions of a bunch of other people before it sees light, the experience of getting feedback on an initiative *while* you’re still working on it, and adjusting in response

    If you actually take a cursory glance at what these authors have written, you’ll find that many of them have had experience with the collaborative art of films, which is pretty much the process you describe. Of course, it is also true that most film producers don’t want the author anywhere near the collaborative part of the process. But every novellist gets input from other people, even the ones who self-publish usually ask others to take a look and make suggestions.

    Of the shallow plunge I took into the works of the authors on the list, the only one who had a film made that I really enjoyed immensely was Dooling’s “Critical Care”. Not surprisingly he also gave the most interesting comment in the article.

  41. Thanks for the link to the Koontz interview. I always suspected he’s a pretty reasonable guy.

  42. Maybe some of these authors believe easy-speak, with jingoistic lingo as a base, is so cool that nothing more needs to be said. You know, like flashing a signal of recognition to someone in the same club – who needs to say hello after that?
    It’s pathetic, though.

  43. An interesting read! I’ll consider what you said over my christmas holidays. I want Epson PictureMate Photo Printer for Christmas!

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