Novelists searching for clues on tackling the US president should revisit the preening strongmen of Latin American literatureby Miranda France / April 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is still a point of pride among some clever people never to read novels, as if they were an indulgence for soft minds. But if we ever needed proof that fiction has a place in public discourse, it’s in the current rush to read novels about authoritarianism. In the week after Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to President Donald Trump, coined the phrase “alternative facts,” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were back in the bestseller lists. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), both of which imagine a fascist America, are also selling briskly. The window of Waterstone’s flagship store in Piccadilly has been given over to a display of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which follows a right-wing populist taking charge of the US in the 1930s. In a world where images threaten to eclipse print as the dominant medium, the thirst for novels is heartening. News alone is not enough: it can’t jump into the future or go behind the scenes. In fiction every perspective can be considered, and every consequence explored.
So what will fiction be like in the Trump era? The new regime demands interpretation. Never in living memory has a US president lied so brazenly or declared war on the media so openly. Never has one boasted of assaulting women or bragged about the size of his penis. Not for a long time has one felt no need to disguise his racism. Satirists complain that Trump is not an easy target: you can’t lampoon a guy who already seems to be making a joke of himself. So how will novelists tackle him? Huxley and Lewis were writing in the 1930s and Orwell in 1948. Roth has promised us he won’t write any more novels. We need something current—but novels take a long time to write and events are moving so fast that keeping up means either writing very quickly or taking a longer view.
On this side of the Atlantic, Howard Jacobson has already opted for the first approach. His novella, Pussy, was written in two months after the November election, in a “fury of disbelief,” and has just been published. “I wanted to get over Trump’s moral bankruptcy but also the sheer bankruptcy of a culture that could produce him,” Jacobson told the Guardian. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Golden House, due in September and set during the Obama administration, charts the rise of the ultra-Conservative Tea Party and “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair.”