When evil is also stupid, what are we left to work with?
There’s been a great deal of concern about what it means to create in Trump’s America, from shock at the impending de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to a recent piece in New Republic, “Is Trump Ruining Book Sales?” which ominously intones, “in a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling.” Many books, they add, that were “released in the wake of the Trump election were written with a very different understanding of the world than the one we have now.”
To this discussion, though he beat New Republic to the punch by three months or so, I would add Glenn David Gold’s “Writing (and not writing) during a political maelstrom” (LA-Times), who writes about the difficulties the thriller author Ross Thomas had writing during an earlier era. Thomas wasn’t sucked into Facebook or Twitter (this was the ‘eighties), but by the radio, which despite his best efforts stole his focus and attention.
Thomas’s lament, however, will sound familiar to any writer today: “He said that every morning he sat down at the typewriter and he told himself he wasn’t going to listen to [the Iran-Contra hearings], but the radio beckoned, and he turned it on, and he fell into them so completely he couldn’t work. Every. Single. Day.” Worse, Thomas went on to say, “if [my] characters had conspired like this, they would have had a sense of wit about them that none of the clowns in Iran-Contra actually had. The actual level of deceit, venality, self-righteousness, collusion, the real-world consequences of doctrinaire actions, and the deep, unaware stupidity of it all were so far beyond anything [I] could make up.”
As I stare at the bleak landscape that stretches before us for (perhaps) another three and a half years, I’ve lamented this very thing. My two thrillers (a third is on the way) are about a conspiracy to steal the presidency. The conspirators in Faithless Elector and the upcoming Dark Network deal in deceit, machiavellian deals and murder to achieve their goal. I have also felt “knee-capped” by reality, to use Thomas’s vivid expression–so much so I almost feel like I should apologize to readers for the deadly efficiency and lean plausibility of my conspiracy.
Despite this dreary outlook, I stand in hope. Tom Clancy famously said that “the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.” And even in the depths of his writerly depression, Thomas seems to know this, and offers us all hope when he touches on the notion of fictional wit and elan. A writer today, like Thomas before us, looks aghast at the bungling intrigue of the past six months and laments the lack of vision. When evil is also stupid, what are we left with?
Gold hints at the ability of stories to make meaning, but I disagree with his final thoughts on the subject when he says, “Fiction has to be our consolation prize. Inherently lesser than reality, always behind the times.” I would say fiction and reality are not in competition. Fiction is not well-crafted journalism; nor is it history. I would stop short of saying fiction should strive to be prophetic, but it can and should weave meaning about where we are and where we’re going, even if the precise things we write about don’t come to pass.
And we’re left exactly where we’ve always been, striving to make sense and trying “to write–intelligently, creatively, evocatively–about what it’s like living in the world at this time” (Oliver Sachs). That’s the meaning good stories offer, and those will rise to the top.
Here is an LA Review of Books retrospective on Ross Thomas, by Woody Haut (August, 2013) “Are the Fools in Town Still on Our Side“. Excellent reading. My nightstand stack just got a lot bigger.
James McCrone is the author of the suspense-thrillers, Faithless Elector, Dark Network and the forthcoming Consent of the Governed. Publishers Weekly calls Faithless Elector a “fast-moving topical thriller.” Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”
Dark Network, is on-sale October 20.