On The Novels Of Politicians


Roll Call has a list of novels written by members of Congress, and the excerpts they present are, as one might expect, not amazing. Here’s an excerpt from Hawaii Governor and former Congressman Neal Abercrombie’s The Blood of Patriots (via):

“Oscar shattered the skull of Speaker Jim Purdy at the Republican leadership table and picked off Representative Barbara Laine next to him. Holding the monster pistol with both hands and moving it in a smooth sweep, he then quickly picked off the guards just inside each door of the gallery. He squeezed off each shot with dispatch, yet each was deliberate and well aimed. Not once did he break his lethal rhythm with a miss.”

It’s a running joke that politicians tend to do a poor job of writing fiction, and for the most part, the joke holds true. But I think there may be something more to this failure than just the fact that many of them are trained in legalese or that they’re busy. I think it has to do with the fact that being a politician requires putting the human capacity for empathy on hold, or at least minimizing it. It requires putting an idea or a philosophy or a party above people in order not to go mad.

Now, I’ve never been a Member of Congress. I’ve never been elected to anything. But I did  live and breathe that world for three years as a staffer. And while I’m definitely still learning, I can definitely assure you that I’m a better writer now than I was when I had CNN blaring above my head eight hours a day. It took five years of reprogramming my mind to get to the point where I could write anything I could stand to read.

The thing is that the first question you’re trained to ask when you work in politics is, “Is this dangerous?” “Will this hurt my boss?” “Will this hurt the Party?” It took me two years to write a sex scene because I was afraid, even though I’d quit politics forever and had become a political nobody, that I would hurt the Congresswoman I’d worked for and the Democratic Party. Of course, I didn’t matter that much. But I thought I did.

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 (above). Or worse, they take no risks at all and write political propoganda (Peter King’s Vale of Tear’s.)

But this is all just a symptom of something much worse, of an inability to actually empathize with their characters. When I had even a little bit of power, and when people came to me night and day with the most horrendous stories imaginable, I had to learn how to shut off my capacity for empathy to avoid going mad. When I worked there, I had to learn how to say no, to not lose sleep over the veteran I just talked to who was missing half a head and would still not get enough disability. Or the fact that there was no way I could help that federal employee with cancer who was getting screwed out of her retirement on a technicality. I had to really believe that my political philosophy and my leaders would help fix all this in the end.   I only had so much political capital to spend, and I had to pick and choose what to do not only morally but strategically.  I not only had to do the right thing, but I had to get my boss reelected. I had to favor the businessman over the homeless man. Soon the people who came to see me became nothing more than ghosts to me, nothing more than nearly invisible categories who I either could help or couldn’t.

And I barely had any power.

It’s not a surprise that these members want to write a novel, to create a fictional world that supports their worldview, that shows how their philosophy can help change the world for the better despite all the terrible things that they are tacitly accepting. Like almost every writer, they want to justify their existence through their words. But for the most part, it appears that they are writing ghosts, or character outlines.   The characters in these books are ideas, not people, and I can’t blame them for making this mistake. 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.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →