November 2, 2006

Fiction and politics.

In the Virginia Senate race, George Allen wanted us to see his opponent Jim Webb as some sort of deviant because of some images and characters he'd put in his novels. This inspires Victor Davis Hanson to muse about fiction and politics:
In this age of global, instant and technologically sophisticated communications, we are often left bewildered over what is true and what is made up. Cute postmodern sophistries asserting that ''there are no facts'' only make our confusion worse.

When Reuters published doctored photos from the recent war in Lebanon, unknowingly or not, they were disseminating computer-enhanced graphic art. That dark smoky sky over Beirut was not real photography. Recent journalistic exposés of the Iraqi war, such as Bob Woodward's State of Denial, might have been mistaken for histories. They aren't, since their footnotes reference the reader to anonymous sources that can't be verified.

And the problem isn't just that we are led to believe a film or book must be ''true'' when it is sometimes not. It's also that we often deliberately want to make something real that was never intended to be. Fury arose recently over the fictionalized docudrama ''The Path to 9/11.'' The charge was that it was not an accurate rendition of history, even though ABC issued multiple warnings of its fictionalized nature across our television screens.

And now we are supposed to believe that an imaginary story - and that is what a novel is - must be an accurate moral litmus test of its creator?
Hanson raises the question only to drop it. And he frames the question to make it more likely that we'll drop it too.

I wouldn't ask whether a novel is "an accurate moral litmus test" of its author, but whether it is useful evidence relevant to a question we want to think about. In the case of a political candidate who has written a novel, it might give us something to take into account even though it's not a specific and accurate test.

George Allen had an idea about the way to use his opponent's novels, but it wasn't a very good idea. The material wasn't strong enough to persuade us to think ill of Webb. In fact, it improved my opinion of Webb to learn that he'd written respectable novels and to see that he was an intelligent and thoughtful person who'd taken the time to think through his military experiences in the artist's mode. It also made me notice his military experience. And Allen ended up looking bad for extracting the sexy parts and making arguments that those passages did not support.

But we might imagine another case where a political candidate wrote novels that were quite bad and revealed shallow thinking and morbid obsessions and the opponent made crisp, fair arguments that helped us think about what kind of a person the author is.

We need to become adept at dealing with different kinds of materials, none of which are entirely true. Even an undoctored photograph frames a shot and represents the photographer's decision about what to include and exclude. Even a fully professional history or journalistic report structures the presentation and imposes editorial choice. We have wake up and think actively about how the creator of any image or text is trying to influence us, whether it's presented as fact, fiction, or something in between. And anything anyone makes says something about the person who made it. The trick is to get good at evaluating what it means and to become equally sensitive at detecting the distortions and manipulations of those who try to tell you how to evaluate it.

19 comments:

Edward said...

His name is Victor DAVIS HANSON.

Jake said...

To write about something, you must first fantasize about it.

We now know that Webb has pedophile fantasizes. The big question is when did the Democrats know about his pedophile fantasizes and what have they done to protect the children from him.

Simon said...

"We have wake up and think actively about how the creator of any image or text is trying to influence us..."

And not just the intentional manipulation, either. I doubt that NYT journalists get up in the morning and say to themselves "how can I distort the news today" - the distortion more often comes in subconsciously in choices of what to cover, and what language to use to describe it. So, for example, your note about framing the shot - even if a photojournalist doesn't deliberately frame the shot narrowly, the decision to frame it in a way that does or does not include certain context reflects how interesting or important they think that the surrounding context is.

Remember, Dan Rather never believed that he was biased. Still was. And he believed that the New York Times threw straight pitches. They don't. I heard someone on NPR the other day say how marvelous it is that NPR throws straight pitches; don't get me wrong, I listen to and love NPR, but when it does news and current events, it's liberal talk radio. The exercise isn't to "gotcha" biased reporting, it's to filter out the bias and leave the underlying truth, to the extent that's possible.

George said...

"It improved my opinion of Webb to learn that he'd written respectable novels and to see that he was an intelligent and thoughtful person who'd taken the time to think through his military experiences in the artist's mode. It also made me notice his military experience."

It improved my opinion of a man named Norman Mailer when I read his WWII novel, but a man's talent as an artist doesn't necessarily have anything to with his ability to be a good politician and leader.

Has a prominent American novelist ever won a major elected office? Actors, yes, but a writer or even a painter?

Vote for me! I'm Jack Pollock, and I understand how messed up today's world is!

knoxgirl said...

Isn't George Allen supposed to be a hopeful in '08? I certainly hope not....

MadisonMan said...

Isn't George Allen supposed to be a hopeful in '08?

He was -- until this election. Maybe he is still a hopeful. It would be great for the Democratic Party if he were the Republican standard bearer in '08!

knoxgirl said...

I'll say...

Internet Ronin said...

Edward: What are you saying, that he should be referred to as "Davis Hanson," not "Hanson?"

If so, why don't you email him at author@victorhanson.com and tell him to get with the program and correct his website?

Ann Althouse said...

Ronin: I had two typos before and edward pointed it out. I've corrected them.

Internet Ronin said...

My bad. (Can anyone please tell me where that horrible phrase comes from????)

Apologies to Edward.

johnstodderinexile said...

To write about something, you must first fantasize about it.

That is a highly misleading, and factually bogus statement.

First of all, in Webb's case, he claims to have witnessed the pedophiliac scene he described in the novel. Going back to the very beginning of the literary form, many novels are disguised memoirs based on facts, or have elements of such. The imagination is not even deployed -- it's reportage in the guise of fiction.

Secondly...this is so infuriating I can barely type...what kind of psychobabble is it to equate the labors of an imaginative artist, such as a novelist, with the concept of "fantasies" as the word is used now, an involuntary fetishistic obsession with certain acts. When a novelist (or screenwriter) sits down to his or her work, their job is to create characters, plots, scenes, dialogues, etc. Their job is to get into the mind of, or imagine the experience of, someone other than themselves! How do they do that? Lots of ways: Research. Drawing on the experience of family and friends. Reading the newspaper. And, yes, "fantasizing," but not in the smarmy sense to which you've reduced it. It's an active deployment of the imagination to discover what a character might be thinking or doing. To make it a story, some of those characters must be villains!

The idea of reducing writers ranging from Edgar Allen Poe to Thomas Harris to Anne Rice to anyone you can name is "having xxxxx fantasies" is appallingly ignorant.

I'm glad a serious person like James Webb, whose past experiences include writing novels, would dare to run for office -- especially knowing that yahoos like George Allen would deploy this kind of biased psychobabble pseudo-analysis to his work. I wish I lived in Virginia so I could vote for Webb twice.

John Kindley said...

Jake said "to write about something, you must first fantasize about it." I don't agree that the widely publicized passage featuring the boy and his father suggests pedophilia, as Jake then concludes, because the context and explanation that followed satisfies me that Webb was recounting something weird and exotic that actually happens in certain backwaters of the world and that he witnessed in the military, and there was nothing sexual about it.

On the other hand, in line with Ann's basic point that making anything reveals something about the maker, I would think that the other lurid parts of Webb's novels would be more embarrassing to him. Is Captain Lenahan -- strutting around the Naval Academy, watching toughly yet benevolently over his midshipman wards, harboring guilt about his ongoing affair with his buddy's wife, recalling last night's romp with his nurse, quoting poetry to himself -- a projection of Webb's fantasies about himself? One suspects.

One factor that can dilute or complicate the inferences made about a maker from what he makes are the expectations or demands of the artist's patron. The two or three paragraphs on the back cover of the original Bantam paperback edition of a "Sense of Honor" were truly ludicrous -- after introducing the central character, a senior midshipman, and his militaristic concerns, it then goes on "But there was one woman who was always there for him, offering her body to serve his every need . . ." or something very close to that. (Oddly enough, this was a reference to the midshipman's fiancee, and there were zero descriptions of any sexual encounters between the two in the novel.) Perhaps, if Webb wanted to write and publish a popular war novel, he had to conform to certain demands of the genre, which apparently required a spattering of sex scenes. Because I've always liked James Webb and liked this novel, I prefer to believe that he was forced to write the stupid parts of the novel (particularly Lenahan's dishonorable affair with his buddy's wife) against his better judgment by his publisher.

johnstodderinexile said...

Is Captain Lenahan -- strutting around the Naval Academy, watching toughly yet benevolently over his midshipman wards, harboring guilt about his ongoing affair with his buddy's wife, recalling last night's romp with his nurse, quoting poetry to himself -- a projection of Webb's fantasies about himself? One suspects.

This is a more intelligently articulated version of the same psychobabble fallacy, articulated by Jake, that is wrongly applied to literary works. "One" may "suspect" all you want, but "one" doesn't know. This could just as easily be a portrait of someone else Webb knew--his father, his superior officer, a figure from history. Or maybe he just made the guy up.

In Shakespeare's plays, which character is Shakespeare? Is he Macbeth? Is he Hamlet? Who is Scott Fitzgerald in the Great Gatsby? Gatsby? Or Nick Carraway? Do you know? The horrible acts of Hannibal Lecter -- did Thomas Harris commit these acts? Does he "fantasize" about them? Should we, therefore, lock him up? This line of inquiry goes absolutely nowhere. The imaginative arts are not like diaries.

I'll allow this: If Webb was interviewed about the novel and said of the character, "This is a guy just like me," the political flacks who want to make political use of these novels might be on more solid ground. But otherwise, this is just completely inappropriate, and worthless, speculation.

After this absurd campaign, I'm sure it'll be a long time before anyone with a literary bent runs for office again. I hope America feels safer with pea-brained bigots like George Allen running the country -- at least he isn't a novelist!

John Kindley said...

I agree for the most part with johnstodderinexile's point in the last post -- that a novelist deploys his imagination to imagine the experience of a character other than himself, and his portrayals do not necessarily say anything about the novelist's own fantasies, obsessions, or values. However, this is not absolutely or always true. A nuanced consideration of the art (which I think Ann is proposing as sometimes potentially valuable) can glean information or evidence about the author, which can be important when you're looking at politician-novelists running for public office. For example, if someone is writing erotica that only a certain segment of people would find erotic (featuring mustachiod men in shorts, for example), that tells you something specific about what turns that novelist on. If a novelist creates a character who is clearly intended to be admirable, that can provide evidence of what kind of things the author believes is admirable, or compatible with being admirable and honorable. I don't mean to harp on what to many may seem par for the course in an adult novel about complex characters, but if you would find it jarring to have a war hero character shoplift some socks from Target (and naturally raising the question of what the author was thinking), it should seem similarly jarring if that same character conducted an affair with a colleague's wife.

SteveS said...

One of the things that differentiates good fiction from bad is the complexity of the characters. An admirable and honorable character may have an affair with a colleague's wife. That doesn't in any way provide evidence that the author thinks having affairs is consistent with being admirable. (The author may indeed think that, but the point is what can we conclude about the author from reading the work.) Maybe the author thinks instead that willingness to have an affair is a specifically dishonorable characteristic, and gave it to his honorable protagonist to illustrate something about the human condition: we are all imperfect, even those of us who are generally honorable and admirable.

Generally speaking, the attempt to divine an author's nature from his/her fiction is fraught with difficulty and best avoided. And, besides, with political candidates, there is almost always enough factual information about the candidate, their stands on issues, voting records, position papers, etc. to permit voters to draw a conclusion about their character that is more likely to be correct.

johnstodderinexile said...

Sure, JohnKindley, I think you can develop informed theories about an author by closely reading his writings and seeing patterns and so on. Clearly a writer who writes mostly historical fictions about war is interested in the subject, and that's meaningful. Some writers are obviously pushing a political agenda or, like in "To Kill a Mockingbird," want to call attention to injustice. And any reader enjoys speculating about what their favorite novel really means, and why the writer made certain choices.

But to get beyond surface characteristics, guesswork and psychobabble -- which I think you'd need to do if you were going to make a political allegation based on a writer's fiction -- requires a fairly detailed analysis of all the documentary evidence about an author, including letters, unpublished early writings, reminiscences of people who knew him or her -- in other words, a scholarly approach. And even then, two different scholars will come up with two completely different theories about the inner life of an author.

And, of course, what happened to Webb was just plain old opposition research run amok. It wasn't meant to be fair, accurate or anything else. It was pure demagoguery. It's like publishing what a candidate rents from Netflix and drawing conclusions from that, or suggesting a candidate is a Nazi sympathizer because they drive a German car. It should have been dismissed out of hand.

Richard Dolan said...

Ann is constructing a complicated argument here, but I don't see where it is going.

She says: "In the case of a political candidate who has written a novel, it might give us something to take into account even though it's not a specific and accurate test. ... [Unlike Webb's novels], we might imagine another case where a political candidate wrote novels that were quite bad and revealed shallow thinking and morbid obsessions and the opponent made crisp, fair arguments that helped us think about what kind of a person the author is."

Like SteveS, I think this exercise is "best avoided." Politics really isn't a form of Kabuki. It's not that complex, and the candidates are not that opaque that you have to ferret about in whatever fictional writing they may have generated for hidden clues as to their character. All you can say confidently about a candidate who writes a bad novel is that he's a bad novelist. To say that the author identified with a particular character in a novel, or has an obsession about some practice depicted in a novel, you would need a lot of direct biographical information about the author that the work of fiction, by definition, will never provide. And, if you have that level of information about the author/candidate, you aren't going to need to waste time with an analysis of his fiction.

No one really thinks that any of the novels by Webb, or for that matter by the many lawyers (and occasional lawprofs) who churn out "true crime" potboilers, is worth the effort to analyze them closely. The Allen campaign's silly use of snippets from Webb's novels wasn't intended to get at anything real or significant about Webb. It was just payback time for the equally silly "macaca" nonsense. Nor could such formula-driven fiction sustain an effort at close analysis. At their best, these novels are just a diverting "good read," soon to be forgotten when next year's version of the same thing by someone else comes out. It's best not to overanalyze such stuff.

John Kindley said...

I would finally just concede that this Captain Lenahan character and his dishonorable affair probably isn't really strong enough evidence to conclude anything about Webb's own personal character. In this particular case, the speculation is probably useless and Allen was wrong to bring it up. One can imagine other cases however where evidence calling into question the author's character and fitness would be stronger, though usually not definitive (Suspicion does not equal knowledge, as noted). It's not a witch hunt we should habitually embark on unless the evidence really is damning. (On the other hand, how solid in comparison is other evidence we typically rely on to get a feel for a candidate's character?) My objection goes not to Webb's character but more to central qualities of the novel itself -- the whole novel is centered on honorable characters and those learning to be honorable, with a few civilian professors thrown in as well-intentioned "villains." Serious art often has a purpose, and clearly a primary purpose of this novel was to paint pictures of honor, that could be taken to heart by members of the military. To the extent that the picture presented was flawed, misleading, or needlessly ambiguous, the novel failed in its purpose and incidentally perpetuated certain misconceptions about honor and honorable behavior. That's not a minor criticism (particularly of a novel written by a would-be politician whose novels are seen by many as part of his credentials), especially given the problems with honor and conduct that have often bedeviled the military (some might say, from time immemorial).

All that said, I'd vote for Webb if I lived in Virginia. I also still recall "A Sense of Honor" as a good novel, though with serious flaws.

Wade_Garrett said...

Ann, I agree with your take on this issue, and I plan to track down Jim Webb's novels about the Vietnam War. If he loses his race to that utter chump George Allen, it will be a sad day for American politics.

As for other politician/novelists, I still think that the Cheneys should have had their feel held to the fire regarding the lesbian love scenes in Mrs. Cheney's western novels. For them to have a lesbian daughter, write fiction about lesbian heroines, and then use their influence to help set back the gay rights movement is hypocritical. When novels are further proof that a person holds one set of beliefs, but preaches another set in public for the sake of political expediency and cowtowing to the religious right, they deserve to be called out on it.