Washington, D.C., is a perilous place about which to write fiction. In more than a few of the guides to D.C. fiction, a major premise is that the Great Washington Novel has yet to be written or has already been written. Uh-oh. And no pleasing everyone. One student of the genre holds up Allen Drury, of all people, as the best Washington novelist of the past several decades.
I’ll let others judge the worth of The Solomon Scandals, which actually is both a D.C. novel and a Northern Virginia Jewish one. But meanwhile I’ll find a little solace in a Sean O’Casey‘s verdict on P.G. Wodehouse, whatever O’Casey’s intent: “English literature’s performing flea.”
Washington itself is a flea circus in various respects, a place full of fungible drones, often lorded over by Hollywoodish egomaniacs. Some of the back-bench pols and scribes may not even be up to pulling miniature carts, whether hitched solo or in groups. With luck, maybe I can budge mine at least a few inches.
Founding Fathers of the genre
Henry Adams (photo), author of Democracy, published in 1880, is often depicted as the George Washington of D.C. novelists, the Founding Father, the first one who counted, even though an obscure New England writer named John W. De Forest and a not-so-obscure Missourian with the pen name of Mark Twain were working D.C. turf in the previous decade. I have no doubt that others came before these three and will welcome names from readers.
Adams himself was a descendant of the Adams family and writes with accompanying snobbery and antisemitism, complete with a depiction of an Evil Jew from Europe, the leering Baron Jacobi.
In Democracy, Adams’ real protagonist is Madeline Lee, a neurotic socialite, relocated from New York and caught between a worthy and not-so-worthy suitor. But along the way we meet many D.C. archetypes, including a provincial Bush-like president. Of course, distinctions abound even among the archetypes. George W. Bush is dumb-pseudo-provincial despite his Yale degree, for example, while LBJ was smart-genuine-provincial even though he had graduated from only a small teachers-college.
Who are the stars of D.C. fiction today? Many would place Christopher Buckley (photo) in the top tier of popular novelists. I myself have enjoyed such works as Boomsday regardless of our different political beliefs. For what it’s worth, Buckley did not begin publishing his D.C. satires until the 1986, years after I completed the first draft of The Solomon Scandals, originally titled The Cover-Up.
Many insiders would rate Ward Just as the pre-eminent author of contemporary D.C. fiction, in terms of both the quality and quantity of his production. You supposedly can’t find his novels in Baltimore, but perhaps people outside The Beltway will catch up.
The detective writer George Pelecanos is also riding high right now with many critics because of the skill with which he is said to write about D.C. as a series of neighborhoods. His Washington isn’t simply an inconsequential backdrop for the maneuverings of—well, the kinds of characters you’d find in Allen Drury’s books.
The reputation of Gore Vidal, author of Washington, D.C. and other books in his Empire series, lives on. Some critics would point out, he is far more interested in the elite than in the city as a whole, but Vidal is more interested in writing for Vidal than in fitting anyone else’s criteria for D.C. literary greatness.
Susan Richards Shreve, in Children of Power, set in the McCarthy era, made an impression on me years ago, but apparently on not enough others—the Amazon rank is in the millions. Too bad. Haven’t I read somewhere that politics is like the Mafia? You can’t separate job from Family.
The guide to the guides
So what do specific guides to Washington fiction say—either standalone guides or those buried within reviews? Here is a quick sampler:
- Intrigue for Wonks, a National Review essay by Andrew Ferguson, dated Jan. 23, 1995. He takes the obligatory digs at fellow journalists and says real-life D.C. is duller than the sexier fictionalized kind. Yawn.
- Allen Drury and the Washington Novel, by Roger Kaplan, in Policy Review, October-November 1999, published by the conservative Hoover Institution. Watch those “devious liberals”! Drury shows ‘em up. “Forty years on,” Kaplan writes, “Advise and Consent is the only book of this genre that a literary-minded person really ought to read. Indeed, as Saturday Review noted in August 1959, ‘It may be a long time before a better one comes along.’ Forty years so far.”
- Collapsing of the National and Individual in the Washington Novels of the Gilded Age, a PDF-format paper by Jeffrey Charis-Carlson at the University of Iowa, written in or after 2002. He praises The Gilded Age (1873) for showing how Washington scandals affected the rest of the country—a still-timely approach, I might add, given the damage that a compromised SEC, EPA and other agencies have inflicted on America. Twain coauthored the book with Charles Dudley Warner. Charis-Carlson also shares reflections on De Forest, author of Honest John Vane (1875) and Playing the Mischief (1875), both of which fictionalized “one of the U.S. government’s worst federal scandals of the late nineteenth century.” DeForest, by the way, is said to have been the first writer to use the expression Great American Novel (in a Nation article). Additional trivia: Charlis-Carlson writes that the genre of “Washington novel” didn’t even receive a name until the 1950s.”
- Why Americans can’t write political fiction, by Christopher Lehmann, in the Washington Monthly of October-November 2005. In a nutshell, Lehmann wants Washington novelists not to be “besotted with its fashionable gestures of despair, reflexive irony, and terminal purism.” Wow. I wonder what unfashionable “gestures of despair” and the rest are like. Lehmann is a fan of a nuanced book about LBJ, Billy Lee Brammer‘s The Gay Place (gay in the old fashioned sense), which even contains a novella titled The Flea Circus. It’s really set in Texas, not D.C., thereby either complicating or simplifying the “Who’s the greatest?” question for students of Washington fiction.
- Building the Great D.C. Novel, by Mark Athitakis, in the D.C. City Paper, April 2, 2008. According to Athitakis, “it may simply be harder to write a great D.C. novel than it is to write a great Chicago novel or a great San Francisco novel. After all, any District novel that claims to cover the whole city needs to tell a story about bureaucracy, and, as Charis-Carlson says, ‘It takes a great novel to make bureaucracy interesting.’” But wait! Isn’t bureaucracy composed of bureaucrats, who can be humans at times? In Scandal, my reporter protagonist falls in love with one and watches another, his foe during a corruption investigation, get drunk at the Watergate. Along the way we read of the significance of Form 2-A at the General Services Administration. Ideally Scandals has broken a few square inches of new ground in its depictions of federal contracting officers as well as of the real estate tycoons who vie for their favor.
- Destination: Washington, D.C., by Lorin Stein, in Salon, Aug. 14, 2008. As Stein sees it, Democracy is “still the great Washington novel,” though he is respectful toward other writers such as Vidal, Pelecanos, and Christina Stead, author of The Man Who Loved Children—about the family of a minor bureaucrat. Now that’s a neglected group in D.C. fiction: the people who get paid to carry out the bosses’ orders. “Most so-called Washington novels,” Stein observes, “are short on local history or geography.” He also observes: “There has never been a Washington novel of ideas. These are books about careers, money and sex—usually in that order.” Hmm. Scandals actually has several ideas embedded within the plot and the satire—including a portrayal of Washington as a hierarchical white-collar factory town, an impression reinforced by my old experiences in a blue-collar one. A related concept revolves around the conflict at times between life and property rights. Yet another is the belief that politicians and corporate executives use personal morality issues as a way to reign in troublemakers and also deflect criticism of political and financial morality (details in the book).
Note: This is a living document and contains informal impressions, as opposed to being a scholarly work. I may be making changes later on, and meanwhile I’ll welcome constructive feedback.
(The above item originally appeared on February 20, 2009, and is revived for the benefit of latecomers. Here’s one more link–to Washington, D.C. Fiction: A Bibliography of the Holdings of the Special Collections in the Gelman Library, a PDF from George Washington University. - D.R.)