Public Figures Are Not Characters, Either

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(Technically yesterday was our last day of guestblogging, but I wheedled Alyssa into letting me keep the blog open for one more post. Thanks so much for having me, y’all, and to my awesome fellow guestbloggers. Alyssa’ll be back on Monday.)

Over at the Atlantic’s culture channel, Sady Doyle has a fascinating column on “The Secret Inner Life of Laura Bush” — something which she notes liberal women have often speculated about as a way to justify their “otherwise unaccountable sympathy” for a rather regressively boring First Lady. But when she compares Laura to her fictional counterpart Alice Blackwell from Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, she writes something that really gives me pause:

American Wife is a great book for several reasons, but most crucially, it allows liberal readers to like Laura Bush without guilt.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Sittenfeld — I didn’t read American Wife because I found her first novel, Prep, to be uninsightful and overrated. (I’m still a little alarmed that coastal-elite reviewers praised its insights about their social milieu, since it didn’t say anything I hadn’t already figured out as a Midwestern high schooler — before going coastal.) But my feelings toward the work aside, I don’t like the notion that a novel written to satisfy liberal fantasies about the “subversive” inner life of a conservative political figure justifies real sympathy for the political figure herself. You’d have to assume that Laura Bush’s own behavior is less representative of her than a work of fiction written by someone who shares your political convictions and sympathies, not hers. In fiction, this is a form of hermeneutics; in politics it’s called false consciousness. In either case it’s dangerous if taken too far.

I had a discussion the other day with American Scene co-blogger Peter Suderman about Aaron Sorkin. Peter compared Sorkin to Bertolt Brecht, because both treat drama as a vehicle for the clash of ideas. But the way Sorkin forces his audience to think about the ideas under discussion is by making sure that (most of the time) both sides are being presented by sympathetic characters. He writes characters worth listening to, so we listen to them, even if most of us aren’t ultimately persuaded by the other side. Brecht did the opposite: he tried to create characters who were so completely unsympathetic that audiences wouldn’t get invested in the human drama of his plays at all. They’d be forced to think about the ideas because they’d be alienated from the characters. (It didn’t work for Brecht, but it’s an interesting theory.)

But both of these techniques are at least impartial. They understand that an audience’s sympathy is a powerful thing, and resist manipulating it to advance the author’s agenda. Of course, there’s a long and illustrious tradition in fiction of playing with sympathies for politics’ sake, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Upton Sinclair to Ayn Rand. But even in those cases, the fictional characters are designed to represent ideological ideas, not ideological figures.

To use an author’s power of sympathy to give the audience a different read on a human being they actually see on television fairly regularly is a different thing entirely. While Sorkin and Brecht both tried to get audiences to take ideas seriously, Sittenfeld (at least as Doyle reads her) used Laura Bush’s silence to assume she disagreed with what her husband said, despite the lack of any evidence as such. Under the guise of giving her the credit she deserves (i.e. inner sympathy to “enlightened” ideas), it belittled her. And just because she turned out to be somewhat right, in this case, doesn’t make it a good idea.

Of course, novelists aren’t the only ones who can create sympathetic “inner lives” for political figures. Just look at the political journalists who are shocked and wounded by John McCain’s recent turn to the right in his primary campaign: they’d bought so completely into the idea that McCain was a “maverick” that they forgave everything he’d done from 2006-2008 to pander to the base, assuming he’d changed costumes but the character was the same. But with journalism as with fiction, trusting speculation over reality doesn’t actually lead you to a richer understanding of a public figure. It substitutes the political protagonist you see for the novelistic protagonist you’d rather imagine.