The book on Obama

Will the new president help revive American literature?

John Freeman

It may not be a question for America’s front pages, but it is one for its dwindling number of book pages: Will the election of Barack Obama, a skilled writer himself, have some impact on American literary culture? The bare-bones facts bode well. His two memoirs, Dreams From My Father, the story of dealing with the legacy of his absent Kenyan father, and the more recent The Audacity of Hope, are remarkable for their craft and complexity. And his election changes the story America tells about itself—from President Bush’s post-9/11 narrative of America as a vengeful superpower to, well, whatever story Obama decides to tell in the years to come.

America’s readers are listening. Since the disputed 2000 election, the fastest-growing areas in chain-store book sales have been politics and current interest, tome after tome dissecting, praising, debunking and chronicling the Bush administration. For several years these books crowded out fiction in book-review sections; they dominated guest spots on talk shows. Our political culture has nearly become our literary culture.

Novelists from Paul Auster to Philip Roth and John Updike have hewed ever closer to the zeitgeist to capture a nation adrift. “Many of us have expended a lot of energy on resisting Bush and his policies,” says Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ten Days in the Hills, “and it has been exhausting, at least for me.” Satirist George Saunders hopes he can go back to dreaming in fiction. “It’s always more satisfying for me to write a story about completely invented people, who I kind of love, than to nail something or somebody in an essay; only sometimes—like with the recent [Sarah] Palin piece in The New Yorker—it just feels like it has to be said or my head will pop off.”

Just before the election, Dave Eggers, author of the award-winning What Is the What, said an Obama victory would be such a huge shift it might put Americans into a kind of time warp: “We’re about to elect a guy who pretty much arrived 30 or 40 years sooner than most people expected. So maybe we’re being catapulted forward into the future in a way that our imaginations will need to catch up with.”

“We have never seen a time like this,” Amy Tan writes, “an African-American president, republics crossing partisan borders like refugees, rampant racial hatred, contagious religious hatred, economic panic spreading like the bird flu pandemic that never arrived, not to mention so many possibilities vying for first in destroying Earth.” In other words, Obama is going to need more than a good story to manage all of these things.

Indeed, American writers are already worried America’s biggest problems go far deeper than any one leader can fix. The gap between the rich and the poor, for instance, is greater than it’s ever been, and it has often fallen to outsiders, like Booker Prize-winner Kiran Desai, or immigrants, like Junot Díaz, to point it out in the literary culture. “The horrific violence of our current economic system, which kills more people daily than our wars,” says Díaz, who won a Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, “will not change one jot under an Obama administration.

“Right now these elections are all about who plays the music at the party. Doesn’t change the fact that there’s a massacre going on. No U.S. election is going to change that. And any writer worth a damn might be in the party, but what he’s really listening to, bearing witness to, in small ways, in elliptical ways or flat-out head-on, is the violence and terror and inhumanity that reign beyond the party’s walls.”

Obama’s promise holds out a golden bough to writers and the nation’s literary culture—the possibility that language may be respected again at the highest level; that writers might be listened to; that our president may actually read E.L. Doctorow! Perhaps it will be safe again, as Geraldine Brooks jokingly puts it, to raise one’s head at overseas literary festivals as an American.


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