Bush and Books

Allow me to get something off my chest and then pose a question. I wasn’t really planning on reading this Cristina Nehring “Books Make You a Boring Person” article as so many had panned it (see Dan Green’s evisceration of it in particular). But then I decided to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out it is cliché and obviousness dressed up as sophistication. Apparently books are not an uncorrupted moral good but rather inanimate objects or tools that can be used for good or ill. Amazing no?!

But that is not what I wanted to get into, but rather one sentence in the piece that pissed me off. In the course of discussing how books can be bad or good Nehring offers this sentence:

You can learn to be a suicide bomber, a religious fanatic or, indeed, a Bush supporter as easily as you can learn to be tolerant, peace-loving and wise.

Please excuse my hyper-sensitivity but why must the author include a Bush supporter along side suicide bombers and religious fanatics and then compare them to tolerant, peace-loving and wise people? Why the gratuitous dig? Forgive me if I assume that Nehring is a snobby, leftist, pinhead who assumes she is morally superior to our current president. Was she really trying to get in a dig at Bush or was she just saying something she took for granted was true? Has the sort of idiotic moral equivalency now become par for the course on the left? Is it just me? That line seems like a slimy slam to me.

Indeed, I must admit that (as I have mentioned here before, probably to your annoyance) these kind of digs and worse are scattered across the left leaning literary blogosphere (if that is not redundant) and they occasionally get on my nerves. Notice the recent spat of posts on the forthcoming Nicholson Baker novella that includes discussion of assassinating President Bush (see here, here, here). Do you think the reaction would be the same if say a conservative evangelical wrote a book about assassinating Bill Clinton? Interesting that lefty favorite Gerhard Schroeder had a book that involved assassination of the German leader quashed and nobody seems to think he is evil reincarnated. Does anyone really think Bush will attempt to prevent the book from being published? Does anyone think Bush will attempt to arrest or in some way intimidate the author? I don’t think so, but there are plenty on the left who seem to think that John Ashcroft and George Bush are book burners out to destroy freedom as we know it.

Okay enough of that, here is the question: Do you think authors and journalists covering books risk alienating a large group of people with their politics? It seems to me that much of popular culture is dominated by people on the left (admitted large generalization). In particular, do literary fiction authors risk alienating people by becoming politically active (see here or here)? Or is the culture such that the authors and their intended audience are coming from the same perspective and therefore there is a synergy rather than a risk?

Obviously, I am more conservative than most of the literary bloggers I read and equally obviously, I hope, I don’t make literary choices on politics. I am just wondering if anyone thinks this has an impact.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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18 Comments

  • Kevin, Kevin, Kevin …

    This post starts off well enough. With respect to Nehring’s remark, I can offer this, as (by your telling) one who’s representative of the literary left. Nehring’s an idiot, and her statement is little more than a stupid cheap shot. It’s deeply idiotic on numerous levels – there’s nothing particularly easy, I suspect, in the journey to suicide bomber, nor to tolerance. So I’m with you on that.

    Then you get into dicier ground. I can’t imagine why the coverage of the Baker book should annoy you – he’s a major figure in contemporary literary fiction, and this is obviously an attention worthy move. I’ve reviewed all the posts you linked to, and not one suggests that the poster favors the assassination of the president. Further, one needn’t be left-leaning to suggest – as these posts do – the possibility of reprisals of some form. If you think that’s unlikely, we need only revisit the Valerie Plame smear. And as a piece in Sunday’s NYT will show, harassment of writers at border crossings has now become commonplace. Either way, there’s no earthly reason for a blogger left or right to not cover the story. And if, as you suggested, an evangelical had written a book about assassinating Clinton, I PROMISE you ever blog would have run it and run it prominently.

    As for your final question, I’m sorry if I find it a bit jejune, and the most troubling of all your positions. I’ll just point out that if conservative politics haven’t hurt Arnold, Bruce Willis or Kevin Costner at the box office, I don’t see why left-leaning politics will hurt literary figures, particularly given that the audience for serious literary fiction tilts predominantly left. Instead, I offer a counter-question – are you suggesting that artists should not have political leaning/concerns and that they should not express them? Do you imagine that a world of “neutral” artists would produce any art that’s remotely interesting?

    Finally, I don’t think any blogger out there makes literary choices based on politics. If someone of conservative leanings writes a brilliant novel, we’ll get behind it as quickly as if they were liberal.

    Anyway, a longer reply than I intended but, for what it’s worth, Nehring is a fucking moron.

  • Mark,
    Thanks for the response. I didn’t really mean to imply that bloggers were approving of the assasination of the president. Nor did I mean to imply that anyone should choose their literature based on their politics. I was simply wondering if there is a political dimension to the disconnect between literary authors and the general public, especially those of a convervative bent.

    Arnold, Bruce, and Kevin may have experienced success but being known as a political conservative before being famous doesn’t neccesarily boost you chances in Hollywood.

    Anyway, I wasn’t stating a normative position just asking a question.

  • Bush isn’t any different than suicide bombers, and he pretends to be a religious fanatics when it suits his interest. Just because he’s not personally pulling the trigger but instead has others do the job for him doesn’t make him any less guilty. The man’s a crook. Funny how Conservatives and republicans had a field day and staid anything they wanted about Clinton, but when some one talks about bush or Ronald Reagan you all cry like babies and do what you can to censor it. Until recently no public figure could say a world about Bush without having their character assassinated.

    Point is, what goes around comes around and Republicans are the biggest hypocrites. Case of the pot calling the kettle black.

  • Hey Kevin,

    I think that wondering about ‘a political dimension to the disconnect between literary authors and the general public, especially those of a convervative bent’ is to bark up the wrong tree somewhat.

    First off, I do not think – nor do I hope do you – that the general public’s disconnect from literary fiction has to do with the politics of writers. It has to do with the state of literary fiction itself, and with a public increasingly seeking a rather decadent cheap and easy gratification. I think any person who chooses not to read a book because of an author’s political beliefs is a bit of a fool.

    Further, I think that the disconnect between these authors and conservatives, such as it exists, is the same disconnect between liberals and conservatives everywhere, whatever the field. (Let’s not forget that conseratives excel at calling for boycotts of things they haven’t actually read or watched.)

    My bigger issue is this (and it’s something I think I needled you about early on): I don’t think there’s much to be gained by stuffing literature through the prism of one’s politics, whatever your stripe. That’s why the contretemps of uptight academics who can’t assess a piece of fiction without a recourse to, for example, gender politics, do literature a disservice. And that’s what I’ve felt you do in a way (at times) which is bring an unnecessary political prism to bear on this stuff. As I said, whatever your politics, Baker merits the column inches.

    Right, left, who cares? Gimme good books and let me figure out the rest. If someone chooses to read (or not to read) my site because of my politics (which I generally do try to keep to a minimum), that’s their choice, but they’ll miss out on all sorts of interesting literary news. But I do have the faith in my readers to pick and choose, take what they find useful and ignore my less lucid moments (of which there are all too many).

    And by the way, you didn’t address my counter-question.

    Thanks for indulging me here in your backblog. I won’t bother addressing the rant above.

  • Kevin,

    It’s unfortunate for those of us less conservative than you that “donnie” couldn’t resist making a fool of himself. I agree with you and Mark that Nehring’s statement linking Bush with suicide bombers was inane, but then so was much of her essay.

    Mark has said quite well a lot of what I would say, but I would like a crack at your question. I do thinks some journalists and writers risk alienating potential readers by
    engaging in political rhetoric, but usually these are writers known to be political writers. If, however, a writer has written a nonpolitical book–a novel, let’s say–but expresses his/her political opinions separate from a discussion of that novel, we ought to have enough trust in this writer’s artistic integrity to keep them separate. There are those who have trouble maintaining this separation, both from the right and the left. Honestly, I think there are some conservatives (not you) who have concluded that all “literary” writers are by definition leftists because they so often deal with disturbing or disquieting material. They ought not to draw this conclusion, just as radical-left readers and critics ought not to assume that writers who don’t adopt the appropriately correct political posturings are reactionaries.

  • Dan and Mark:

    Thanks for addresing my question in a mature and intelligent way. I wouldn’t read your sites or engage in debate if I didn’t appreciate your viewpoints.

    Mark:
    As to your counter-question:
    are you suggesting that artists should not have political leaning/concerns and that they should not express them? Do you imagine that a world of “neutral” artists would produce any art that’s remotely interesting?”
    No I was not suggesting that artists not engage in politics or keep their opinion to themselves. I was just wondering if those activities impinged on their work in any way. In today’s often polarized debates I wonder if taking a vocal and strong stand on either side has consequences. If an author anounced he was a big fan of Rush Limbaugh, or if Rush had gushing blurb on the cover, would you be likely to pick up his work? I may be guilty of falling back to political issues as that is my background but t seems to me the arts community is,at least in part, voraciously anti-Bush and I just wondered about its impact.

    I am of two minds on the issue myself. On one hand I don’t choose my fiction based on politics. As I noted I read Paul Auster before and after I came to know that he was raising funds for organizations I don’t support and opposing the president. I think he is an interesting and talented writer so I will continue to read his work.

    On the other hand, political comments and leanings can effect choices in an information overload world. If I saw a book that was blurbed by Tim Robbins, Michael Moore and George Sorros I am afraid I would be unlikely to pick it up. If I was unaware that these folks liked the book I might read it if it seemed worth it. Is that fair? Probably not but it is reality given the number of books I want to read.

    Relatedly, if I saw an author spouting off inane political ramblings I confess I am less likely to read their work unless I have reason to beleive their work rises above their political opinions.

    I have gon on too long, perhaps another post . . . Or perhaps I will just move on (little political humor there).

  • Dan and Mark:

    Thanks for addresing my question in a mature and intelligent way. I wouldn’t read your sites or engage in debate if I didn’t appreciate your viewpoints.

    Mark:
    As to your counter-question:
    are you suggesting that artists should not have political leaning/concerns and that they should not express them? Do you imagine that a world of “neutral” artists would produce any art that’s remotely interesting?”
    No I was not suggesting that artists not engage in politics or keep their opinion to themselves. I was just wondering if those activities impinged on their work in any way. In today’s often polarized debates I wonder if taking a vocal and strong stand on either side has consequences. If an author anounced he was a big fan of Rush Limbaugh, or if Rush had gushing blurb on the cover, would you be likely to pick up his work? I may be guilty of falling back to political issues as that is my background but t seems to me the arts community is,at least in part, voraciously anti-Bush and I just wondered about its impact.

    I am of two minds on the issue myself. On one hand I don’t choose my fiction based on politics. As I noted I read Paul Auster before and after I came to know that he was raising funds for organizations I don’t support and opposing the president. I think he is an interesting and talented writer so I will continue to read his work.

    On the other hand, political comments and leanings can effect choices in an information overload world. If I saw a book that was blurbed by Tim Robbins, Michael Moore and George Sorros I am afraid I would be unlikely to pick it up. If I was unaware that these folks liked the book I might read it if it seemed worth it. Is that fair? Probably not but it is reality given the number of books I want to read.

    Relatedly, if I saw an author spouting off inane political ramblings I confess I am less likely to read their work unless I have reason to beleive their work rises above their political opinions.

    I have gon on too long, perhaps another post . . . Or perhaps I will just move on (little political humor there).

  • Unsurprisingly, I agree entirely with Dan. The points he makes were bouncing around my brain as well but once tends to pick and choose for backblog comments.

    So that said, one more addition – Would I pick up a novel (and for me, the books I am interest in are novels) blurbed by Rush? Surely not, but not because of his politics – rather, he has no bonafides as a novel reviewer. Similarly, an endorsement by a Clinton or a Moore would not move me in any way to purchase a novel either. Which goes back to Dan’s point about separation.

    I judge the novel – there’s no shortage of great novels out there written by fairly repugnant types of all stripes – and I only judge the political leaning in a political arena. Obviously, I’m pleased to see people oppose Bush (as you are disheartened to see same) but it has no literary weight. (And I can be pretty myopic on literary questions.)

    Anyway, thanks for the stimulating chat. How dull would the world be if everyone agreed all the time?

  • Unsurprisingly, I agree entirely with Dan. The points he makes were bouncing around my brain as well but once tends to pick and choose for backblog comments.

    So that said, one more addition – Would I pick up a novel (and for me, the books I am interest in are novels) blurbed by Rush? Surely not, but not because of his politics – rather, he has no bonafides as a novel reviewer. Similarly, an endorsement by a Clinton or a Moore would not move me in any way to purchase a novel either. Which goes back to Dan’s point about separation.

    I judge the novel – there’s no shortage of great novels out there written by fairly repugnant types of all stripes – and I only judge the political leaning in a political arena. Obviously, I’m pleased to see people oppose Bush (as you are disheartened to see same) but it has no literary weight. (And I can be pretty myopic on literary questions.)

    Anyway, thanks for the stimulating chat. How dull would the world be if everyone agreed all the time?

  • I haven’t read the essay, but oddly enough, I was contemplating the other the use of books and whether they are as wonderful and necessary as I’d always thought.

    I’ve read thousands of books, fiction and non, generally by the best writers and a variety of subjects.

    I ate books often at the rate of 10 a week. Serious tomes, histories, philosophy, theology, etc.

    All in all, I’d have to say most of the fiction was an escape; a kind of procrastination from duty and work.

    I could probably reduce the number of important books a person should read to a single shelf. Same with movies.

    Most of what we read or watch we do out of boredom, a need to fill the time, or as an escape. Very few works of art are valueable.

  • I read the essay mentioned. It’s not as bad as many have averred.

    The basic point is that books don’t really give us life, or teach us about life.

    What I learned about people and life I learned from people and living (and God). And the best books are merely repositories of wisdom against which we can check our conclusions with, or get reminders of truth, and find solace or celebration of reality within them.

  • I read the essay mentioned. It’s not as bad as many have averred.

    The basic point is that books don’t really give us life, or teach us about life.

    What I learned about people and life I learned from people and living (and God). And the best books are merely repositories of wisdom against which we can check our conclusions with, or get reminders of truth, and find solace or celebration of reality within them.

  • Mark Butterworth: Nonsense. That you find that “very few works of art are valueable [sic]” and that books “are merely repositories of wisdom” suggest you haven’t gotten out and about as much you claim. Or that you have a pretty blinkered vision of “life.”

  • Dan,

    The fact is that I may be jaded by having thought about, practiced, and absorbed so much art in 50 years.

    But experience teaches me that 99.99% of what humanity produces is simply not that great. The sad fact is that we probably have to have all that 99.99% per cent to get that .01 %.

    Now, since you have challenged my sense, tell me what the heck you think books and art are for, and what they are exactly good for when it is not being entertainment, a distraction from life’s tedium?

    Try to think of the matter in this manner — what books or art could you live with forever? Would want to reference forever?

    If you’re wanting to carry comic books into heaven — think it through.

  • Dan,

    The fact is that I may be jaded by having thought about, practiced, and absorbed so much art in 50 years.

    But experience teaches me that 99.99% of what humanity produces is simply not that great. The sad fact is that we probably have to have all that 99.99% per cent to get that .01 %.

    Now, since you have challenged my sense, tell me what the heck you think books and art are for, and what they are exactly good for when it is not being entertainment, a distraction from life’s tedium?

    Try to think of the matter in this manner — what books or art could you live with forever? Would want to reference forever?

    If you’re wanting to carry comic books into heaven — think it through.

  • I’m not sure I know what it means to say that “99.9% of what humanity produces is not that great.” Do you mean 99.9% of art or books is not that great? Does it have to be great? How about merely good? And why do you insist so on separating “life” from reading or experience of art? Don’t they–can’t they–help life seem less tedious?

    I’m not sure I’d want to live with anything forever. (And just to let you know: I’ve had almost as much time to think about art as you. I’m sorry it hasn’t done more for you.)

  • I’m not sure I know what it means to say that “99.9% of what humanity produces is not that great.” Do you mean 99.9% of art or books is not that great? Does it have to be great? How about merely good? And why do you insist so on separating “life” from reading or experience of art? Don’t they–can’t they–help life seem less tedious?

    I’m not sure I’d want to live with anything forever. (And just to let you know: I’ve had almost as much time to think about art as you. I’m sorry it hasn’t done more for you.)

  • I found the “suicide bomber” sentence incredibly offensive as well. After having read the whole piece a few times in vain in an attempt to find the thread of a reasoned argument, I could only conclude that the sentence was some sort of gang hand sign to the effect of “Blue Staters: Represent!” As to the question you actually asked, though, I find it easy to compartmentalize an artist’s political views (and disregard them, if need be, with a “Don’t quit your day job” mutter), but journalists (along any point of the political spectrum) who descend into polemics if they’re supposed to be delivering reasoned expository prose have no credibility with me.