Christopher Hitchens‘ essay on the lack of great Washington novels, mentioned here a couple weeks back, is now online at City Journal‘s website. Hitchens’ argument is similar to ones he’s made in previous articles about D.C. fiction: “[T]he fact is that Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process,” he writes this time. “And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose.” His touchstones are similar as well: Henry Adams‘ Democracy, Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, and various novels by his former mentor Gore Vidal. (The article’s tone is casual, but Hitchens still can’t resist throwing a couple of elbows Vidal’s way.)
Hitchens does move the story forward, though, by (rightfully) drawing attention to Thomas Mallon‘s very good novel about McCarthy-era attempts to cleanse the Federal government of homosexuals, Fellow Travellers, and Ward Just, who is “possibly chief among those who have depicted the nation’s capital as the bureaucratic and constipated place that it in fact is.” Which is to say that faint praise is obviously the fuel of any conversation about Washington novels. Proof? Hitchens mentions that none of the big male late-20th century American fiction writers (Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Bellow) bothered to write about the place. I can’t think of many examples to the contrary (aside from a memorable D.C. sequence early in Roth’s The Plot Against America), but Bellow did at least consider writing about the city in the early 70s. As he told a Life interviewer at the time, he was waffling between writing about the District or another much-maligned town:
His next book probably will concern either Washington, D.C. or, of all the gristly places, Gary, Ind. “On and off I’ve been writing a little something about Gary,” he says, “having to do with the way white workers are getting prosperous and going off into the dunes and farmlands, leaving the city a vast black slum. Will it explode? I don’t know. That’s prophecy, which isn’t my business.”
The Daily Caller brings word that Christopher Hitchens has an article in the latest issue of City Journal bemoaning the lack of a great novel set in Washington, D.C. (The Daily Caller piece recommends William Peter Blatty‘s The Exorcist as a candidate, due to its thread of noble humanism, before the author equates pro-choice advocates with angry demons that require exorcising. Writing a great Washington novel requires getting one’s head around that kind of logic, which may help explain why the job is so difficult.) The City Journal article isn’t online, but Hitchens has registered this complaint before. Writing in the Washington Post in 1989, he held his nose while reading Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent and damned the whole genre:
Verisimilitude…is probably not worth having. It is best to treat Washington as an idea rather than a place. In different ways, authors as various as Richard Condon and Christopher Buckley have written successful and enjoyable novels by getting this point and opting for the willing suspension of disbelief. Jeffrey Archer, who can’t write, has at least tried the same tactic, though he sets too much store by “researched” descriptions of situation rooms, Pentagon offices and other arcana. Paragraphs that tell you the exact time that so-and-so stepped out of a Foggy Bottom elevator belong in pulp journalism not pulp fiction.
In 1995 he was at it again, demolishing Charles McCarry‘s Shelley’s Heart by riffing on the Washington novel’s flaws: “Most ‘Washington novels’ still have the same cast: a President (inescapable), a British ambassador, a prominent hostess, a lobbyist or journalist, and a senator…. [S]enators have ‘manes,’ rooms are filled with smoke, party allegiances are strong and distinct, regional characteristics are heavily stressed among members of Congress, and newspapers are ruthlessly committed to breaking stories at any cost.”
Clearly Hitchens hasn’t found any worthy candidates in the 15 years since his New York Review of Books piece, and he’s not alone in his frustration, though a few candidates have cropped up. I’d be interested to see if he’s spent any time with Ward Just‘s Echo House, a George Pelecanos novel or two, or even Frederick Reuss‘ recent A Geography of Secrets. I’ll update once I get my hands on a copy of the City Journal article. Of course, I welcome recommendations in the comments of worthy D.C. novels, or thoughts about what such a book requires to be “great.”