What Would the Community Think?

Whenever a story comes out about legislators who write fiction, it’s usually treated as comedy gold: The reporter cherry-picks a passage that’s representative of the novel’s awfulness (usually a sex scene), and everybody moves on. Because Roll Call has to cover senators and congresspersons on a daily basis, the criticism in an article about their novels is more muted, but the basic theme is the same.

Seth Fischer, a former congressional staffer, has a more thoughtful take on these books, and how their authors’ role as public servants compromise their writing:

In many of these works, I see the members overcorrecting, of taking risks so huge that they become ridiculous and are therefore not risks at all, like graphic depictions of two horses fucking (Barbara Boxer), or taking out an entire committee hearing. Or worse, they take no risks at all and write political propaganda (Peter King’s Vale of Tears.)

But this is all just a symptom of something much worse, of an inability to actually empathize with their characters…. The characters in these books are ideas, not people, and I can’t blame them. For a politician to relearn how to actually empathize with a character, and hence a person, the pain of the responsibility of their power would become unbearable.

In a 2005 New York Times article on the subject, former Massachusetts governor William Weld admitted that it’s all but impossible to run for office in this country and not write a compromised novel. “I don’t want to give people an incentive to vote against me,” he said. But a 1998 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece on Weld gets a little closer to Fischer’s conclusions about the roots of the politico-novelist’s detachment:

Weld describes his central character as being from the wrong side of the tracks. Weld himself probably didn’t even know where the tracks were when he was growing up: His ancestral estate on Long Island had a driveway a mile and a half long. He’s descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence on his mother’s side, and his grandfather and great-grandfather founded the Wall Street investment house of White, Weld & Co.

It’s not that the wealthy automatically suffer from a lowered capacity for empathy. But if political power is a function of wealth, and if that same political power requires an ability to wall off your ability to empathize, it’s a skill Weld (and many politicians) learned early, and one that runs counter to the novelist’s purpose.

2 thoughts on “What Would the Community Think?

  1. Maybe empathy can take different forms? As a writer, I’m only too glad to believe that successful politicians can’t be successful writers, too. But Barbara Boxer, for example, has stood by the working class in California in her voting, which I think is just as valid an affirmation of them as a Republican author who might sell a novel with believable working-class characters.

  2. Thank you for pointing out this interesting genre. As I reader I’ve come to find that mixed passions in writing, like the surgeon writer or the botanist writer, have such a different lens when it comes to literature. Have you read Better by Atul Gawande? It’s an excellent read that uses a narrative style to explain the why a doctor performs how he/she does. I’m very much intrigued to read the fiction you’ve mentioned above and understand how a legislator creates prose .

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