Democracies have seen novelists who entered politics (Upton Sinclair and Mario Vargas Llosa). Sometimes politicians aspire to become novelists (Georges Clemenceau and Newt Gingrich). In almost every case, their fiction at one time or another was wrongly used against them in campaigns and political life — on the mistaken notion that whatever a novelist writes must reflect, even in some small way, his own views.
This autumn, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Virginia, James Webb, has been mercilessly attacked for once writing sexually explicit dialogue and some perverse detail in his critically acclaimed novels. His opponent, the Republican George Allen, has argued that candidate Webb must somehow be as deviant as the unsavory fictional characters in books such as "Lost Soldiers," "Fields of Fire" and "Something to Die For."
So Allen's staff cut a few shocking sentences from tens of thousands in Webb's novels, pasted them together, and, presto!, released them as running commentary on a morally unfit rival.
The Virginia race is a particularly nasty one in a season of out-of-control campaigns. Webb, for his part, has been almost as cruel as Allen in his personal attacks. Indeed, this latest nastiness, dubbed, of course, "Novelgate," would be laughable if it did not also serve as a valuable lesson about our confused times.
Let us first note that we are no longer living in the pre-Victorian Age of literature, when mannered and predictable characters voiced society's pieties and platitudes. Instead, since the late 19th century, novelists have sought to be "naturalistic" or "realistic." They craft characters who act and sound as depraved as people sometimes really are — rather than always as noble as they should be.
Early practitioners of such realism — an Émile Zola or Frank Norris — were slandered as being on par with their brutish heroes and villains, even though these authors themselves were moral people. Likewise, James Webb has lived an exemplary life, both as a soldier in Vietnam and while in government service (he was secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan). That some unsavory things he has seen or heard can find their way into his novels, when he thinks the plot requires it, says nothing about his own moral preferences, only his literary skill or ineptness.
All that said, this silly controversy reminds us to respect the boundaries between make-believe and reality. In this age of global, instant and technologically sophisticated communications, we are often left bewildered over what is true and what is made up. Cute postmodern sophistries asserting that "there are no facts" only make our confusion worse.
When Reuters published doctored photos from the recent war in Lebanon, unknowingly or not, they were disseminating computer-enhanced graphic art. That dark smoky sky over Beirut was not real photography. Recent journalistic exposes of the Iraqi war, such as Bob Woodward's "State of Denial," might have been mistaken for histories. They weren't, since their footnotes referenced the reader to anonymous sources that can't be verified.
And the problem isn't just that we are led to believe a film or book must be "true" when it is sometimes not. It's also that we often deliberately want to make something real that was never intended to be. Fury arose recently over the fictionalized docudrama "The Path to 9/11." The charge was that it was not an accurate rendition of history, even though ABC issued multiple warnings of its fictionalized nature across our television screens.
And now we are supposed to believe that an imaginary story — and that is what a novel is — must be an accurate moral litmus test of its creator?
Novelgate raises another issue: Rather than condemning candidates who are skilled in artistic and literary expression, we should welcome them. America needs more diverse politicians — people who are neither lawyers nor millionaires who so often win office through equivocation or through the power of money.
Colorless would-be politicians whose past legal and commercial training has taught them to raise money and say nothing of consequence cannot be expected to show courage and candor when they assume office. In the past, when flamboyant generals, inventors, builders, actors, teachers, pilots, doctors, farmers and, yes, novelists participated in democracy, the richer became our political ideas and oratory.
Whatever you think of James Webb, he at least brings a different background to politics. He wrote about human depravity because he had apparently seen a great deal of it and wished to warn his readers. Webb's past life proves that he is a far different, far better person than many of the warped characters he feels he must create. And we should know and appreciate such a distinction — while also restoring the critical fault line between art and reality.