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.