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Making It Up

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Political campaign consigliores know: "It's about the narrative."

Doesn't matter if your horse is a Dem or GOP or which wing of crazy he comes from: getting an intoxicating narrative to the voters gives you a chance to get what they got.

Narrative is used in politics to shape populations' perceptions, yet narrative is at its most powerful not in electoral battles but in the cultural force from which it came: storytelling, more specifically fiction, and in a genre that's as misunderstood as both words in its name: "political fiction."

Our vapid screaming campaigns have mutilated "politics" until it's a word that now means nothing and anything.

"Politics" was a Greek idea to describe certain activities that occur in "public" space. But Hiroshima, TV and Google-viewing the last remote mountain jungle patch destroyed "private space" so that "public" covers everything we do: how we brush our teeth becomes evidence in our involuntary commitment trial.

"Fiction" is sneered at by TV talking heads and court jesters all over D.C. -- but not in Baghdad, Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang. Few commentators in any democracy appreciate the power of "entertainments" until there's a censorship clash, yet the freedom and rebellious drive to create fiction is one heartbeat of a healthy democracy.

True, most of what is marketed as "political fiction" isn't -- the handsome Senator with a secret and the busty blond reporter with a hunger for blah blah blah. Politics and government are props in such stories, some of which I treasure, but the unintended consequences of such marketed works is the numbing of American political savvy: too many readers feel that such dazzle is the sum total of how and what politics is.


A handsome President has an affair with the blond Hollywood sexual bombshell and they both get killed.

A labor leader actor becomes a right wing President who's shot by a fame-hungry loser to impress a movie actress who played a child prostitute.

One President confesses to lust in his heart while another almost gets thrown out of office by conflating lust and cigars.

Nineteen foreign terrorists waltz through America's bazillion-dollar defense system, create flying missiles with box cutters and plane tickets, kill almost 3,000 Americans and 300 foreigners, and one American response is a bi-partisan vote to invade a country that had nothing to do with the attack.

Who could make that up?

Me and several thousand other wordslingers, but prior to such events, we couldn't have sold them as credible fictions to the marketing machine.

Political fiction at its best is narrative that shows truths about how people live with power.

Not coincidentally, the more political fiction tries to serve partisan ambitions, the worse it is. Scores of terrible novels and clunker movies run on the partisan rage of their creators and most of them run smack into - as the great Richard Thompson says -- the wall of death: boring. Most propaganda fictions have little effect, with the loathsome exception of The Turner Diaries that's squats like a terrorist toad on bookshelves of domestic neo-Nazis and foreign Islamic extremists.

Good political fiction entertains across the ages: America's three best political novels - Huckleberry Finn, All The King's Men, and To Kill A Mockingbird -- are page-turners in our world where their creators have long since gone to coffins.

Those novels force their characters and readers to confront a matrix of moral, intellectual, and emotional decisions that culminates in the true definition of politics: Politics is who you choose to be.

Everything else is just the doing.

Fictions that excel in the quest to glimpse truth in an entertaining fashion are shotgunned through our culture. Uncle Tom's Cabin shot the cause of freedom forward like a cannonball. Even though it's long past 1984, George Orwell and his colleague Aldous Huxley are better flashlights for the future than anything a President has said. Our Two Johns -- Steinbeck and Dos Passos -- wrote cautionary tales about the fall and rise of America through the Depression without the benefit of one Oh So Important position paper from a D.C. think tank. Even though they appear to disagree on an identity, The Quiet American and The Ugly American introduced Why Vietnam? to us while novels like Darkness At Noon and Man's Fate work with Solzhenitsyn to illuminate politics back in the, back in the, back in the U.S.S.R.

While Advise and Consent is more of a pathology report on how Washington insiders perceived themselves before the Beatles, Seven Days In May from that same era echoed President Eisenhower's political fears.

Much to academia's horror, two thriller writers had more impact on the modern presidencies than anything coming out of illustrious university creative writing centers. JFK loved Bond, James Bond, made him famous and embraced the "license to kill" as a viable political tool in foreign relations. JFK's rapt fan Bill Clinton read a thriller about chemical warfare that so disturbed that Commander In Chief he pushed the Pentagon to do more than talk about such Machiavellian catastrophes.

Political fiction does not work as an instruction manual.

Political fiction works when it makes its consumers feel like they are not alone out here in the dark heart of the murderous maniacal mob.

Political fiction makes you feel like you can do something even though we're all trapped by history and our humanity.

That's why Kurt Vonnegut's fantasies, MASH, and Catch-22 were "political" for Sixties' rebels.

And that's why - more than any of his cash, endorsements and rally appearances for Obama - the greatest, most significant political effect the best American writer my age (Bruce Springsteen) has had comes from perhaps a thousand lines he's penned that rock like: "(a man's) own dreams gunned him down."

But as Jon Stewart said, taking your shot might just work and -- say I -- is better than just taking what gets shot at you.

That's politics - fact and fiction.

For nine days straight days starting Sept. 21, Politics Daily is running James Grady's new political novella What's Going On. Winner of France's Grand Prix du Roman Noir and Italy's Raymond Chandler medal, Grady is best known for his Robert-Redford-adapted first novel, Six Days Of The Condor.

Around the Web

All the King's Men - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Catch-22 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

All the King's Men - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

To Kill a Mockingbird - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nineteen Eighty-Four - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Brave New World - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Ugly American - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Quiet American - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Turner Diaries - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Darkness at Noon - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Man's Fate - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia