Is Barack Obama Going to Improve the Washington Novel?

Among the galleys currently taunting me on my bookshelf is The Rules of the Game, the forthcoming novel by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. I don’t exactly have high hopes for it—if the book itself has as many groaning cliches as the promotional patter—“highest levels of Washington politics,” “ripped from today’s headlines,” “dark secrets,” “network of wrongdoing”—I’m tempted to say I’ve already read it. (Somebody in Knopf’s PR department really does need a talking-to here. There are about five people living in Crystal City who are gonna get excited about a promo blurb that includes the term “no-bid Pentagon contracts.” No-bid Pentagon contracts! Seatbelts fastened!)

The blurb also slyly points out that the novel features a woman president. The female-president-in-crisis has long been a hacky film device (probably in novels too, though I can’t think of an example at the moment), but it may prove to be even less interesting now that a black president-elect is preparing to take charge. Smartly, wire service the Canadian Press Associated Press’ deployed a reporter to find out if Obama’s election marks a change for the Washington novel. (Which has a few issues.) Christopher Buckley naturally gets a lot of the story’s real estate, but I’m glad the anonymous journalist Hillel Italie thought to give Ward Just a ring:

Ward Just, a former Washington Post reporter whose novels include “Jack Gance” and “The American Ambassador,” hopes Obama will inspire a couple of trends. Just looks forward to more stories about members of Washington’s black middle class and to a more serious approach to government.

“It’s so difficult to write about Washington without satire,” Just says. “Washington is a lot like Hollywood; the city has become so outsized and so preposterous in so many ways. If an Obama administration could bring some real statecraft and is seen as interesting and intelligent, that might prepare for a reader for a straight ahead novel that happened to be in Washington.”

Update: Thanks to Sarah Weinman for letting me know that the story was an AP piece by Hillel Italie, not an unbylined piece by the Canadian Press.


I’ll be out of pocket here through the Thanksgiving weekend, catching up on some reading and writing, though I may poke my head up on Twitter on occasion. Have a good holiday, and thanks for reading.

Remainders in Light

Writing in the Washington Post, Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp—no, Twelve doesn’t put out a lot of fiction, though it’s Christopher Buckley‘s home—indulges himself in a revenge fantasy held by editors worried about the coming tyranny of the commons. Most books are too junky, too designed to capitalize on short-term trends, and written all too quickly, he writes, but he has an idea for a fix:

The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively…. Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books — works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.

Arguments like this swirl around in journalism on occasion—once people recognize the inherent crappiness/unthoughtfulness/unjournalisticness of most blogs, the thinking goes, they’ll see the value of actual reported stories, and as a result newspapers will (somehow!) monetize the distinction. There are distinctions: The Post has people in Iraq, and most (all?) political/military/policy blogs don’t. But much of the small-press/POD culture that Karp speaks of is already happening, and the response from the larger publishing industry doesn’t appear to be a greater investment in quality; forced to choose between letting a pretty good book marinate for another year or two to become a great one or simply upping distribution and promotion, I suspect that most publishers will choose the latter. After all, book that’s not available for purchase makes no money, and more time on each individual book means few books for a house to work on. And when a company is mindful of the quarterly returns—very mindful if the owner is publicly traded—it knows that “we’re investing in quality” won’t cut it with creditors.

(Via Henry Kisor, who nicely weaves Karp’s story into a smirking commentary about what gas prices are doing to the road novel. Also, the print version of the story notes that a “Jessica” Crispin will respond to Karp’s piece on the Post‘s Web site later in the week.)

Update: Crispin’s response is now online.

Roundup: Looking Backward

At the Washington Post‘s Short Stack blog, Marie Arana goes hunting for books that expose unfamiliar corners of Washington D.C., “rather than grouse about how Washington has never produced a classic tome that truly nails the city the way Tom Wolfe did New York or Dashiell Hammett did San Francisco.” (Was it something I said?) Coming up empty, she calls on Christopher Buckley (Boomsday, Thank You for Smoking), who concludes his list with “any White House memoir”: “They all have two themes: 1.) It wasn’t my fault! and 2.) It would have been so much worse if I hadn’t been there. Now that really tells you something about this town.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Fuller lists her five favorite books about the modern American West.

Romance publisher Harlequin is getting big on Web 2.0 tools—readings on Second Life, short erotic novels readable on cellphones (“because size doesn’t matter”). Says the company’s internet guru, Brent Lewis: “We chunk down most stories [designed for cellphones] so you’re only getting about 500 words per day. I believe strongly that mobile will become an important delivery mechanism for publishers in North America.”

Attention Chicagoans: The Museum of Contemporary Art is exhibiting photos of Chicago from 1949 to 1968 by Art Shay, in conjunction with a new staging of Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day at Lookingglass Theatre (which has a preview video of the show).