Governance and Literature
The Year in Trump Novel Pitches: An Agent’s Lament
The Truly Resonant Novels of the Trump Era Won’t Be About Trump
Literary Hub, March 30, 2018 By Erik Hane
[Excerpts; Editor’s text bolding]
Working as a literary agent means being privy to a full canon’s worth of submitted novels that the world will never see. Naturally, a good many of these pitches will always be chasing the news. Writers want their stories to seem timely, so if there’s a debate happening in real-world headlines that somehow mirrors the conflict in their book, I’ll hear about it in the query letter…
But if you want a window into the collective state of our writing lives, it’s not the successes that do the revealing—it’s the far larger, unseen body of attempts, false starts, and misshapen Trump novels that reveals that something inside us has been knocked off its axis…
So, what to make of an inbox full of novels promising fascist regimes, stolen elections, unhinged presidents, and the looming threat of nuclear war? Many of these manuscripts envisioned a post-apocalyptic America set in a future as near to us as 2025, and in more than one a reality-television host put the fate of the world up to a game show. In each story the country was in peril, waiting to be pulled back from the brink by the unlikely heroes uniquely capable of setting us back on stable ground.
I do not expect or want fiction to be an “escape” from real life, but the proliferation of these literal story elements cribbed from a CNN chyron still feels troubling. Clearly, writers are having the same problem everyone else is: an inability to look away, even during carefully carved-out Writing Time. These authors are not writing the political moment so much as the moment is writing them.
It is one of fascism’s goals to monopolize our attention. It would like to shrink our imagination; it would like for us to peer wide-eyed at its harsh restrictions and be able to think of nothing else. And it is tempting to stare like this, because fascism and its precursors are rife with contradictions that seem to beg to be pointed out by Reasonable People. But that’s one of its tricks. Fascism welcomes our attempts to play logical “gotcha” with its inconsistencies because it knows we will lose—not because we won’t find a fallacy but because the fallacy won’t matter.
Herein lies the problem with the shadow canon of novels meant only as cathartic takedowns of the right, the stories that exist for the sole purpose of showing the bad guys get hauled off in chains: the mere fact of writing it was an obstacle to writing something else. You didn’t write your story. You wrote fascism’s, and it was happy to receive your attention for so long.
When the circumstances of the world feel so pressing and immediate, it’s difficult to remember the simple truth that all writing is inherently political. Every authorial choice—conscious or not, significant or not, characters, plots, or settings—stems from the worldview of the author, as well as the shape of the world they’re viewing. Even if we wanted to, writers cannot divorce themselves from the politics of their societies, and neither can any invented character from theirs. I suspect that the same people writing these current-event novels know this, or can at least sense it, because my slush pile was absolutely political before the election—the difference was that far more of these writers trusted subtext. They felt comfortable with implication, with leaving things unsaid and letting that silent space do the talking. They knew, for instance, that you do not need to write a demagogue character to say something about demagoguery.
That confidence has eroded right along with our ability to invest ourselves in things other than The Discourse. Remember when we didn’t think about the news all the time? To be clear, I’m not talking here about an active engagement with the lived circumstances of the world—after all, a privileged person’s dismissible news story is a vulnerable person’s imminent danger. I mean specifically the news, as in media: the broadcasts and feeds, the motionless watching, the evisceration of whichever journalists are responsible for takes we hate, this hour…
I believe that the manuscript submissions ripped from the headlines will eventually subside; I’d be a bad agent if I didn’t have that faith. And we are certainly going to need politically infused stories, probably many of them, to survive these coming years. But I also believe that when they arrive, the truly resonant Trump Novels won’t actually be about Trump—they’ll be about characters we haven’t met yet who are just trying to make their way through a fraught world, like we all are. They’ll show us lives other than our own and demand empathy from us as readers, and maybe after enough practice we’ll be better able to give it.