We reveal most about our culture, our fears and the truths we want to believe, the author Scott Turow has said, in the fiction we invent about ourselves. So what kind of stories will we invent about today, the Trump era in America, when the news itself often reads like dystopian fiction?
In trying to answer that, it’s useful to look back at the political fiction of the past. It reveals that we often dream of a mirror image of our politics, both darker and more idealized, depending on the time.
The apex of political storytelling in literature occurred in the 1960s. It was a time of split vision about the country: fear of nuclear annihilation competed with hopes, if not confidence, in those who ran the government.
The era began with the publication of two landmark novels in 1959: The Manchurian Candidate and Advise and Consent. McCarthyism had subsided, but the Cold War was becoming more frightening. And over the next nine years, from 1959 to 1968, one in five of the top-selling books annually in the United States was a political novel—a run not seen before or since.
Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate was about a foolish politician, his deranged wife and her brainwashed son, who were the tools of an international communist conspiracy. Made famous by a 1962 movie of the same name, it was a frightening Cold War tale that made our political system look vulnerable and saw American optimism as a little naive. Alan Drury’s Advise and Consent was about vicious Senate debate over a cabinet nominee who, it was feared, would be unwittingly manipulated by a ruthless and immoral Soviet regime.
Drury’s book was the true phenomenon. It spent 102 weeks on the best-seller list, gained momentum in its second year, was the best-selling novel of 1960 (a campaign year) and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction over Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.
The best explanation for this enormous popular and critical success, I think, is that Advise and Consent offered a view of politics that was just as sophisticated but less cynical than more familiar political literature. Books like Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946), tended to offer one-sided meditations on how power corrupts.
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