Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Why novelists make bad politicians (and vice versa)

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In 1969, Norman Mailer ran for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York, with columnist Jimmy Breslin as his running mate. (This was actually Mailer’s second attempt at a run—his first, in 1960, was cut short when, after the presumptive launch party for his campaign, he stabbed his wife.) He ran on a platform of New York City seceding to form a fifty-first state, and while the press mostly treated the campaign as a joke, Mailer himself took it quite seriously. In Of a Fire on the Moon, he writes:

He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.

He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him…

Clearly, Mailer wouldn’t have made a great mayor, at least not in any city where I’d like to live. But neither would most novelists. With a few notable exceptions, like Michael Ignatieff, this isn’t a field that attracts electable politicians, for two big reasons. First, there isn’t an interesting novel in existence that couldn’t be quoted out of context to make the writer look like a psychopath, as Jim Webb discovered a few years ago. Good novels in any genre tend to focus on undesirable human behavior, and it’s easy to selectively cite a few sentences so that the author come off as ridiculous, or worse. (Slate has a nice piece on this from a while back.)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a novelist’s core skill set is markedly different from that of a politician. Novelists tend to be introverts, capable of working on a project for years with no obvious reward, and while their egos and ambitions are usually massive, they’re more interested in creating a world that doesn’t exist than influencing the world that does. (Novelists who want to change the real world usually end up writing bad novels or propaganda, or both.) This is why the track record of novels written by politicians, apart from Disraeli and a few others, is so dismal, and also why most novelists are so woefully ineffective at promoting themselves.

Obama, then, is an interesting case. He thought seriously about becoming a novelist at one point in his life, and he probably had the skills to pull it off. (If nothing else, judging from the book deal he got for his memoir, he almost certainly would have been published.) Based on his record so far, he’s contemplative, organized, and objective, all of which are useful traits for a writer, although he’s also been reluctant to reveal too much of himself, which has made him an unusual public figure. In the end, politicians and novelists have one thing in common: in both careers, the road to success is so painful and uncertain, and so full of compromise, that it’s a wonder that any  intelligent person is drawn to them in the first place. Obama, for one, clearly decided that his future lay in politics. Today, at least, I’m glad he did.

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