The shelves of American bookstores do not accurately represent the inner life of their customers. Where are the Tea Parties who dream of libertarian utopias? Where do the poets who scream for the rights of the unborn child come from? Mormon missionary comedies of manners? American literature seems to lack Republican-leaning authors.
by Ayn Rand Atlas shrugged., published in 1957, is often the first overtly political text that a young right-winger takes up. The book presents a nightmare: the socialists have taken over and they are keeping anyone the least bit creative paralyzed by regulations. America is falling into disrepair, so the world’s brightest industrialists are going underground in protest. Plutocrat lovers Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden join the movement as the masses demand revolution. Will the natural aristocracy take its rightful place? The message is simple: the world is full of jealous mediocrities. Be selfish and ignore them.
Rand’s sentiment is one that many, including the US president, find adolescent. Barack Obama dismissed Paul Ryan’s stated affection for Rand, calling it “one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and felt misunderstood, picked it up.” The consensus among scholars and writers is that Rand’s novel is too much of a vehicle for his ideas to be worthy of serious literary success. But his contentious ideology has an alluring contrarian energy.
Republicans, of course, love to read and write as much as anyone else. But they seem to have a preference for journalism and not for fiction. They found in Tom Wolfe a champion of the first and not the second, someone capable of showing the ridiculousness of the left. Perhaps Republicans who are drawn to the juicy arguments of an essayist like Paul Fussell might be drawn to a novel with a rhetorical wink.
They could think of Louis-Ferdinand Céline journey to the Edge of the Night, published in 1932. John Banville declared it “the finest novel ever written by an extreme right-wing sympathizer”, and he also wrote the foreword to his new edition. In the book, a certain Ferdinand Bardamu volunteers to go to war. But he’s not really a soldier, let alone a patriot, and he leaves horrified. His impression of the French colonial empire is no better, nor is he fond of Detroit, then a flourishing center of industrial capitalism. (Do you remember those days?) He doesn’t like Paris. He doesn’t like being a doctor. Bardamu doesn’t like much. Although there is nothing particularly political about this book, reading it is like having an allergic reaction to modernity. journey to the Edge of the Night doesn’t offer readers much more than nihilism as an answer to a hateful world. It sounds like the caffeinated grunt of a shocked veteran whose ideas are bankrupt but who still has the power of style, the weapon of language and rhetoric. It’s hard not to be carried away by the intensity of Bardamu’s feelings.
There are plenty of elegant conservatives in the canon. Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The lame shall enter first” uses the idea of an all-knowing, judging God to justify complex shifts in perspective and imbue the atmosphere with religious dread. An atheist father invites a troubled teenager into his home to antagonize his grieving son, and he’s punished for it. O’Connor doesn’t wave Catholicism in her readers’ faces, but she seems to be saying, “Believe what you want, but don’t say I never warned you.”
The belief in an immortal soul is important for both fictional suspense and conservative fear, because it’s a hell of a thing to lose. James Ellroy, an outspoken friend of the police, a practicing Lutheran, and a serial supporter of the Republican Party, writes fiction that draws on a stark contrast between good and evil. His books are incredibly fast and innovative. It takes for granted that the wicked bleed to death, and isolates a slice of American history – Los Angeles after World War II – and fills it with sinners as lust-ridden and doomed as Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. Freed from motive, Ellroy experiments with how he deploys information. American tabloid is the start of an epic trilogy that imagines the assassination of John F. Kennedy from the perspective of his shady associates. The book delivers a torrent of detail, in a form as precisely machined as the innards of a Swiss watch.
Ellroy interweaves his later texts with newspaper clippings, some truncated in headlines, police reports, and transcripts of surreptitious surveillance. It is a method of drawing history in broad strokes, a technique developed by Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, whose American Trilogy is a distant but direct ancestor of Ellroy’s Underworld USA Trilogy. Republicans can also enjoy Dos Passos, as they watch 12 characters journey through history, each ultimately wanting to settle down.
These novelists trace the outlines of what a republican literary canon might look like. But one thing is missing from this list: the writers themselves. With the exception of Ellroy, whose fiction is limited to a specific moment in American history, the authors mentioned are all dead. The Republican Party is in crisis, and there’s a difference between being conservative and being a right-winger today. The right has been radicalized by a ridiculous ideology that would be outrageous if expressed in literature. By comparison, the liberal left is in elegiac mode and mourns an America that at least tried to include everyone. The Democrats are perhaps the real conservatives, the nostalgic ones. In 2012, Republican writers are not publishing much notable literary fiction, the right having traded sentimentality for fantasy, spirituality for fanaticism.
The Telegraph reports that Moby-Dick is Barack Obama’s favorite novel. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, says he likes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnwhich is a children’s book, although it’s a much more political choice than what he admitted to reading in 2007: L. Ron Hubbard’s battlefield land. Paul Ryan, meanwhile, remained true to his adoration of Atlas shrugged.. George Orwell, writing on the boundaries of art and propaganda, suggested that the literary dark ages served an important aesthetic purpose. They remind the authors that when “his pattern of life is constantly threatened; in such circumstances, detachment is impossible. You cannot be purely aesthetically interested in a disease of which you are dying; you cannot dispassionately feel a man who is about to slit your throat. Without being detached from its subject, art for art’s sake becomes impossible. Maybe Republicans (and, increasingly, Democrats for that matter) don’t read serious literary fiction because they’re so convinced that the values they stand for are being trampled on by the plutocrats Rand ripped off to the society.
Republicans could call on their literature to defend them, because the stakes are so high: Obamacare socialism! The gay marriage apocalypse! But nobody likes to spend eight hours being harassed by a boring politician. Unless, of course, you’re a boring politician yourself. In that case, it’s still easy to find some propaganda mush to fill your shelves with. can i suggest Atlas shrugged.?