Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 3, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

DOG DAYS....In the November issue of the Washington Monthly, Christopher Lehmann explained why he thinks American political fiction sucks:

From The Gilded Age on, Washington was to be the premier setting of a strikingly continuous American political fable of innocence at risk. This sturdy tale typically pitches a political naif's fateful interest in the machinery of reform against the backdrop of irredeemably fallen, endlessly seductive relations of power in the nation's capital.

....This stubborn moralizing impulse is what makes American political fiction, even today, such watery and unsatisfying literature: It deprives writers of the best material.

Hmmm. Here is Janet Maslin of the New York Times describing Ana Marie Cox's Dog Days:

The BlackBerry in "Dog Days" is more than just a shamelessly promoted product. It is a symbol, too. It represents the glib, facile, cynical, artificial and calculating values amid which Melanie finds herself as she wags the dog in Washington as a 28-year-old minor political operative working on the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.

...."Dog Days" really does resort to what [Cox] herself calls "the Hallmark Channel ending." So it's bye-bye BlackBerry and hello Iowa for Melanie at the story's end. Any smart Web site would mock her final gesture: turning on her laptop and writing the opening lines of this book.

Help me out here. Lehmann and Cox are married, which means that Lehmann must have read Dog Days before he wrote his essay. Right? And the book's own website, which describes Melanie as sacrificing "all of her long-held ideals," combined with Maslin's review, sure makes it sound as if Dog Days follows nearly the precise moralizing arc that Lehmann disparages as "watery and unsatisfying." So does that mean he thinks his wife's book is just another predictable piece of political pap? That would make for some interesting dinner table conversation, wouldn't it?

UPDATE: That's Christopher Lehmann, not Nicholas. I knew that.

Kevin Drum 8:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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Better make money than worry about your husband's high-brow reviews. Its what Oprah thinks that counts.

Posted by: paulo on January 3, 2006 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK


Maybe it's a cunningly-timed ploy for publicity?

Posted by: Mike on January 3, 2006 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps Nicholas Lehmann wrote what he wrote in the hope that someone much like Kevin Drum, but with a wider audience, would note the marital conflict and thereby draw more attention to Ana Marie Cox's novel?

Oh wait, is that what Mike was saying? Never mind then.

Perhaps Nicholas Lehmann secretly resents his wife?

Yeah, that's my new theory. Now I gotta go buy the book...

Posted by: The Dad on January 3, 2006 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

Wonkette wrote a book?

Something else not to read.

Anyways, you're assuming that he read her book (if he has) with the same attitude as he read other works of political fiction.

What if I assumed that he's laying the groundwork for the idea that the book is BETTER than the average American book of political fiction...and he's just mistaken.

['Love is blind and shit, you know.']

Posted by: ash on January 3, 2006 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

[after having read the NYT review] Is it just me or is the process of Becoming An Author mutating Cox into a chipmunk?

['There's always Playboy.']

Posted by: ash on January 3, 2006 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

Chris Lehman, not Nicholas Lehmann.

Posted by: Josh on January 3, 2006 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK

"Chris Lehman, not Nicholas Lehmann."

Well. Hunh. Then... never mind.

Posted by: The Dad on January 3, 2006 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Byline: Christopher Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult. His wife, Ana Marie Cox, has a political novel coming out in January in which no one's innocence is redeemed.

I think both of my theories are in play here. If my bylines mentioned my much more famous wife's writing achievements [which is actually true in my particular case], I might feel a bit of resentment too. [I do, I do.]

Posted by: The Dad on January 3, 2006 at 8:53 PM | PERMALINK

But surely Lehmann is the one who wrote the byline?

Posted by: John on January 3, 2006 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

Chris Lehman is married to Ana Marie Cox. Nicholas Lehmann, presumably, is not.

In any case, it appears to me, from Maslin's review, that Cox's novel, pace its blurb, actually follows the inverse of Lehmann's arc. The heroine starts out precociously cynical and preciously jaded in Washington, and ends up deliberately naif and sincere in Iowa.

Posted by: brooksfoe on January 3, 2006 at 9:07 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, but I'll bet the story gets told with all sorts of giggles over buttfucking, making it, like, SO cool and all.

So what happens doesn't matter, when all that funny hip shit gets said, again and again, just when you might have thought it was boring. It's not going to go all Einstein on you, OK? That's the important thing.

You know, it'll be just a blast from a fun dirty hole, like Wonkette, the blog.

Posted by: frankly0 on January 3, 2006 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

Nick Lemann, currently the Dean of the Journalism School at Columbia, used to be on the staff at the Washington Monthly. His wife, the writer Judith Shulevitz, may be saying to him about now, "Nick, you got some 'splaining to do."

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 3, 2006 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

" That would make for some interesting dinner table conversation, wouldn't it?"

"Ana, hon, who is this stranger at the table reading your manuscript?"

Posted by: Jon H on January 3, 2006 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

A political novel worth reading and discussing, see Andre Vltchek's Point of No Return:

Posted by: Tony Christini on January 3, 2006 at 10:48 PM | PERMALINK

Now THAT'S a trivial post.

Posted by: bluebird on January 3, 2006 at 10:57 PM | PERMALINK


Grasping this is difficult for me. Is American political fiction bad as opposed to, say, European political fiction? Or is political fiction just bad in general?

Something to do with the subject matter? How can you have tragedy when all is farce?

Posted by: bobbyp on January 3, 2006 at 11:00 PM | PERMALINK

Political fiction is almost impossible to handle in an interesting fashion. The representation of ideologies in fiction almost always overwhelms the perspective of the fiction itself.

"War and Peace" does a pretty good job, but the politics it treats were 50 years old by the time it was written; it was really historical fiction. Andrei Bely's "Petersburg" is pretty great, but its politics are fantastic and spectral, symbolist, not realist. Dostoevsky's "The Devils" is also great, but again, its politics are a caricature of the revolutionary cell, atheist anarchism filtered through the sensationalist vision of a brilliant Christian psychologist.

Graham Greene's third-world stuff is pretty good, in the sense of conjuring an appropriate mood of knowingness and pragmatic cynicism; but while his mood and character portraits are knowing and sophisticated, the actual content of the politics is usually pretty simpleminded and generalized, full of figures who command things and are in leage with each other. The things which are supposed to lie beneath the surface are too often confident plots, rather than the ambiguous muddle of real politics. And ultimately there usually is some "innocent" who dies there as well.

I really can't think of a good political novel I've read, one that gives a believable look, feel and interiority to the activity of politics. Strange.

Posted by: brooksfoe on January 3, 2006 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK

If you get the chance turn on letterman now. He is tearing up O'Reilly.

Posted by: patrick on January 4, 2006 at 12:14 AM | PERMALINK

What's the age difference between Nicholas Lehmann and Ana Marie Cox? I'm thinking it must be immense.

Posted by: Kyle on January 4, 2006 at 12:33 AM | PERMALINK

Just throwing this in: 12 of the 13 trapped coal miners in WV have apparently been found alive, which is the best news I've heard all day.

Posted by: tbrosz on January 4, 2006 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

I think we need a post just about Wonkette. I both adore and lament her, and would like subject all of you to my opinions on her.

Posted by: Alexander Wolfe on January 4, 2006 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

Off Topic:
I hope you realize that after tonight's Orange Bowl, if tomorrow's game is a blowout, it will be quite anticlimactic. Of course, if it is a blowout, I trust USC will be the winners.

Posted by: Mazurka on January 4, 2006 at 1:07 AM | PERMALINK

brooksfoe, try Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent." It's a great book about the Senate and confirmation of a Secretary of State. Don't bother with the sequels, they get progressively worse over a period of about five more books. The first one, though, was excellent.

Posted by: Linkmeister on January 4, 2006 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

Gosh, she's awfully pretty, isn't she?

I look forward to reading it and hope to god it's good.

Don't be fooled by the ass-fucking; she really can write when she wants to.

Posted by: Tilli (Mojave Desert) on January 4, 2006 at 1:35 AM | PERMALINK

Great political novel: "Lincoln" by Gore Vidal. Yes, all the characters are real; yes, the plot is driven by historic events with a minimum of embroidering. Nonetheless it is a great novel, particularly for those of us who expected waspish Menckenesque naysaying and got a thoughtful, almost reverent portrait of Lincoln at home. Like Seward, Vidal fell under his spell, and so did I.

On the other hand, I could never get more than twenty pages into "Burr" or "1876." Some day I'll try again.

Posted by: Henry on January 4, 2006 at 2:45 AM | PERMALINK

Anyways, you're assuming that he read her book (if he has) with the same attitude as he read other works of political fiction.

Posted by: Miky on January 4, 2006 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

Just throwing this in: 12 of the 13 trapped coal miners in WV have apparently been found alive, which is the best news I've heard all day.

Posted by: tbrosz on January 4, 2006 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

Alas, a tragically false report, 'brosz.

Posted by: bobbyp on January 4, 2006 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

Has no one read _All the King's Men_, or is it just not considered a work of political fiction?

Posted by: Tucker on January 4, 2006 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, are you talking about American political fiction or American political fiction set in Washington?
All the Kings Men wasn't set in Washington -- maybe that's the trick!
Otherwise, DC is a much better setting for horror novels (the Exorcist and Waking the Moon leaping to mind).

PS Christopher Lehmann spells his last name differently than Nick Lemann, as someone pointed out.

Posted by: lou on January 4, 2006 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

"The Last Hurrah" is certainly political fiction; a roman a clef about Boston boss-mayor James Michael Curley and the beginning of the end of the machine era. Forget who wrote it, but I read it for an American Studies class. Surprisingly good.

Political fictions -- as in fictions all about politics the way Scott Turow is all about the legal system? Certainly not that many, and way less if you exclude historical novels.

Certainly not a single one I can think of where the dramatis personae consists of congresscritters, lobbyists 'n' talking heads ...

Thinking about this, and Mc. Cox's novel, it really doesn't sound very exciting novelistically. I mean, a supremely self-obsessed person writing about a bunch of supremely self-obsessed people on the periphery of national power?

Eww. I think I'd rather read fiction about hunting alligators in the NY sewer system.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Waitaminute ... didn't Karenna Gore write one of these one or two years ago?

Obviously, the book vanished without a trace.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Certainly, though, there's a category called "political thriller" that includes politicos or ar least shadowy government figures usually involved in some kind of nefarious plot. You could stick most of the spy novel genre in there. And there are dystopias that speculate about a future political system.

I guess my favorite in the latter category is David Foster Wallace's immense, immensely flawed and Pynchonianly ambitious '95 novel Infinite Jest. His send-up of an anal-retentive president, the Reganesque former Las Vegas crooner Johnny Gentle, had some pretty farcical moments of political dialogue. Terrorism is also a big part of the plot, but instead of Islamists, you have secessionist Quebecois amputees in wheelchairs. Wallace clearly missed the boat on that one.

If we're stretching the boundaries here, you might even include Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, considered by Pynchophiles to be his most disappointing book, but still an amazing picture of mid-80s northern California in the midst of a Reagan war-on-drugs military operation.
The shadowy, plexus-of-evil, rogue FBI agent and his 15-year erotic obsession with 60s radical and filmmaker Frenesei Gates -- and her sexual submission to him despite her hardcore politics -- is a fascinating commentary on the amoral dynamics of power.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

Sheesh, how could I forget the guy's name? It's quintessentially Pynchonian.

The shadowy, plexus-of-evil rogue FBI agent BROCK VOND.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

"The Librarian" by Larry Beinhart.

More dated but surprisingly fresh: "Interface" and "The Cobweb" by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George.

Who says there's no good American political novels?

Posted by: Susan on January 4, 2006 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK


Neal Steaphenson, isn't he the guy who wrote Snowcrash?

And isn't Snowcrash every Libertarian's favorite novel since Ayn Rand -- or at least Robert Heinlein?

Once again, if we're stretching the boundaries I suppose we could call cyberpunk (William Gibson et al.) a kind of dystopian political thriller.

Many novels use political situations or dark conspiracies in the halls of power as a backdrop to set off their more proerly novelistic focus on plot and character development.

Hell, Don DeLillo's Mao II and Libra (an imagination of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald) clearly qualify as political fiction in the larger sense.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

proerly = properly

Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

Neal Steaphenson, isn't he the guy who wrote Snowcrash?

And isn't Snowcrash every Libertarian's favorite novel since Ayn Rand -- or at least Robert Heinlein?
Only the ones with good taste in science fiction. Although that rules out a good bit of Heinlein.

Posted by: Viserys on January 4, 2006 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

In the larger sense, 1984 and Brave New World are quintessential political novels. I'd argue for this broader definition against merely drawing characters from the DC party circuit.


Heh, I knew a poster on the NYT Iraq forum whose original handle was tanstaafl, and later snowcrash.

Took me about a year to put the first one together with Heinlein: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

I thought Stranger in a Strange Land was awful. Heinlein was the quintessential geek, imagining heroic character attributes in a transparent attempt to overcompensate.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

I think somebody used to post at one of the blogs I visit - maybe here, in the early Washington Monthly days, I'm not sure - as TANSTAAFL. It's a fun slogan.

I couldn't get through Stranger, myself. Heinlein had more compensation issues than just personality, if you get my drift; if you can stomach The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, it's pretty clear in that one.

Posted by: Viserys on January 4, 2006 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Help, someone slap me ... *hard*. I've been using variations on the word "quintessential" entirely too much in this thread. Not enough coffee when I started posting ...


Isn't that the way with Libertarians, though? :) Ayn Rand is the poster child for overcompensation. Heh, Alice Rosenbloom. Escapes from the Soviet Union and spends her days both berating her husband for "a flawed epistemology" and hibernating in the shelter of her acolytes because she was such a scared rabbit about everh little thing.

She was afraid of flying, she never learned how to drive, she never walked around alone in cities ...

All those heroic manly characters were just wish-fulfillment for her, it seems.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK


Yeah, I stopped reading Stranger about two-thirds of the way through, too. That novel needed an editor, big time.

There's nothing wrong with political novels or speculative fiction with a hardcore political point-of-view. Thomas Pynchon is a left anarchist who fears and loathes system-building of all stripes even as he demonstrates a fascination with science and technology. His philosophy of life comes through on nearly every page.

Some have commented on this negatively; I find it a great strength of his writing.

But in the hands of other writers -- even ones whose views I support -- it can be a horrible crutch. Literature isn't polemics.


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

Stupid question: why did her parents give her a first name en espanol and a middle name en francais to go with her WASPy last name? I can get with Ana Maria or Anne Marie, but....

And pretty, yes. Like Kirsten Dunst's smarter sister.

Posted by: Xboy on January 4, 2006 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

Jesus, who *cares* if she's pretty. Go cop a Stuff or a Maxim if you want pretty.

The question is, can she *write*?

Gods, somebody put a bullet in my head if I ever extrapolated from my marginal ability to write posts into the belief that I could write a novel ...


Posted by: rmck1 on January 4, 2006 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

Write A Political Novel? It seems you would have to be a fool or a masochist to write a political novel in the US, because to write one that bears anything like a close relation to reality, given the US political climate, would be like someone in a fundamentalist church congregation standing up in the middle of a religious service and suggesting that everyone discuss the merits of being a good atheist. You would be lucky if you were merely ignored rather than vilified or worse. Doubtless though, writing a political novel in the US that actually bears serious relation to reality is a hard and important thing to do.

Continued as a response to Christopher Lehmann's political novel article at http://www.politicalnovel.org/.

Posted by: Tony Christini on January 4, 2006 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK
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