The Value of Novelists

The sign at the BF Goodrich on the corner of Turk and Larkin in Downtown San Francisco said it all. “The four saddest words in the English language,” the marquee read, “are Gore Vidal Is Dead.”

I have to admit—the fact that a tire store was mourning America’s last great intellectual surprised me.

As I stood there, staring up at the sign, scrambling for my iPhone to take a picture for Twitter, I was surprised to feel my mind wandering to something else, something seemingly unrelated—a development in Cairo, Egypt— the country where my father was born.

Only weeks earlier, in late June, the committee charged with drafting Egypt’s new constitution had invited a novelist—Alaa Al Aswany—to take part in the process. He’d turned the invitation down.

“I apologize for not accepting the nomination,” Al Aswany had written, “with appreciation to the confidence given to me.” 

Al Aswany’s invitation—and, somehow, Vidal’s death being mourned by a tire vendor— made me wonder something about the intersection of intellectual and public life in America: Why would it be so impossible to imagine a similar scenario happening here? Why shouldn’t a novelist be invited to sit on a constitutional committee in the United States?

It is almost a cliché that we are suffering, in this country, from a polarized populace, from political rifts that are both deep and intransigent. Since 1987, the Pew Research Center has conducted its American Values survey, asking over three thousand citizens about a range of issues—what they believe the role of government should be in environmental regulation, in the shaping of the social safety net, in the political affairs of the world, etc. This year, the results were disquieting. Never have our opinions been this divided. “As Americans head to the polls this November,” the Pew Center stated, “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”

Whatever our politicians are doing, they are certainly not bringing us together.  

So: What if the Egyptians had it right? What if we need to turn to our novelists? The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists—good novelists—are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

Novelists are also—by and large—willing to revise. To alter. To compromise. Our entire profession—as it exists in the 21st century—is predicated on the notion that we will be wrong with the first draft, and then fix it. What could be better, healthier, for our nation’s public debate than someone who admits, happily, that they won’t get it right the first time?

Furthermore, why is there no belief that artists—that writers, especially—belong in the mainstream of political discourse? Instead of American novelists being consulted to draft important laws, they are relegated to the farthest margins of society—to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs. How did this all get started? Is this, then, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction—when modernity has destroyed the value of art, and artists?

Obviously, I’m not advocating that President Obama immediately appoint Salman Rushdie to a cabinet-level post as a domestic advisor. But I am completely serious that the media could be less assiduous in its pursuit of “experts” when it consults people about the news of the day. When reporting on the government’s decision to require its citizens to purchase health insurance, Wolf Blitzer decided to ask his questions of whom? Two warring lobbyists, a lawyer, and Sanjay Gupta.

I couldn’t help but think, watching the debate over health care degenerate—on both sides—into petty name calling and intolerant vitriol: We need a novelist in here to calm things down. What about Joan Didion? What does she think? Why does she think it? I trust her assessment of the human character. Or Antoine Wilson? Or Abraham Verghese? Why aren’t we asking them? They are the ones—quite frankly—who should be on television.

Pauls Toutonghi is the author of the novels Red Weather and Evel Knievel Days. He teaches at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.