Let me run an idea for a novel past you. Tell me what you think. What if a reality star became president? And he could be a Russian mole.
Wait. Thereâ€™s more. Iâ€™m going to throw in subplots about money laundering and the Ku Klux Klan. Did I mention the Kennedy assassination conspiracy angle? And the Congress member addicted to sexting who gets catfished and turns the presidential election?
No. Youâ€™re right. Overstuffed. Incoherent. Hard to believe, sure. Iâ€™ll take a knife to it.
As fiction, this is all way over the top, yet these are the real-world storylines that have been consuming our attention for the past year.
I write political thrillers, which means spinning fantastic stories out of everyday headlines. But when reality becomes utterly implausible, whatâ€™s left for an author to do?
Why bother with thrillers when the daily news has more shocking twists than you could sensibly fit into a work of fiction? The New York Times and Washington Post have posed the question, and it was a standard joke during small talk as I went through Washington doing research for my latest book.
When truth is stranger than fiction, fiction becomes more than entertainment. In the age of Trump, and other moments of crisis, the stories we watch and read become far more vital than simple genre diversions. Thatâ€™s a lot of pressure to put on an airport paperback or summer movie, I know. Political fictions offer escape, of course, but at their best, they help us to make sense of the senseless, to order and draw lessons from chaos, to reaffirm what we stand for when itâ€™s most at risk.
Why the news reads like a maddening, incoherent novel
It may seem like politics is so over-the-top that thereâ€™s no need to make up plots, but when considering the role of fiction, the overall senselessness of the Trump chaos is far more important than the outlandishness of any one element. Itâ€™s the incoherence that so frustrates and demoralizes us. Rather than crowd out novels, the madness surrounding our president creates a need that well-told stories are perfectly suited to meet, a yearning for order and meaning and consequences.
Imagine Trump as a central character in a thriller. Letâ€™s go to a writer-agent coffee meet-up, pitching ideas.
Author: â€œSo a married presidential candidate is caught on tape admitting to groping women in the most graphic terms.â€
â€œGreat,â€ the agent says. â€œThe plot revolves around the recording. The hero chases it down while the candidate does everything he can to cover it up. Someone gets killedâ€”â€
â€œNo. Get this. The tape comes out on page five. And then â€¦ nothing really happens. Ultimately, there are no consequences at all.â€
Nope. Doesnâ€™t work. If I read that in a book, Iâ€™d throw the book across the room.
In our strange real-life timeline, the secrets come out in the prologue, with few â€” if any â€” real repercussions so far. The narrative has no logic. The president just blurts to Lester Holt on NBC that, yeah, he fired James Comey because of the Russia thing. He invites the Russians to hack his opponent on national TV. He confesses at the top of act one that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Usually you save the villainâ€™s monologue for the end.
The best characters have clear and urgent goals and motivations. So what is the point of all this, Trumpâ€™s great hollowing out of our government, the gleeful shredding of democratic norms, the trashing of our highest office? Is there some satisfying revenge plot? Some world-arcing aim? No.
Trumpâ€™s darkest turns â€” the defense of white nationalists, the tossed-off nuclear brinkmanship â€” are profoundly disturbing. But he has shown over the years that he will take up and drop the most loathsome beliefs at a momentâ€™s notice. The man has no core beyond needy narcissism. He will do anything if he thinks it will enrich him, make him look tough, win him praise, or get him on TV.
We long for order, and equal and opposite reactions, which is why the Trump administration is so maddening. There is no method to his lunacy. It’s pure fidgety caprice. For Democrats, heâ€™s trampled the highest hopes and been cruel to the weakest people in our society as much out of petulance and ignorance as out of any deeply held principle. And an increasing number of Republicans are done putting up with his behavior as his agenda flounders and, out of spite, he spurns his own party leaders and makes deals with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. (Of course, to his remaining supporters, this is all an immensely satisfying Bad News Bears-style yarn about Trump sticking it to the establishment.)
So often, his world just makes you cringe: â€œthe Moochâ€ and the leering stag stories told to impress a crowd of 12-year-old Boy Scouts. This presidency certainly gets your attention, day after insane day. A rash does too. But that doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s a good story.
Fiction matters at times like these. It helps us to draw lessons and inspiration from what otherwise would just be a demoralizing mess. The best stories are more than plots: Themes drive them. The characters draw us in with the values they represent, values we long to see tested and confirmed through the crucible of conflict. They make sense of the chaos.
Fiction provides meaning and spurs us to action
Plotting realistic novels in a surreal world is tough. It forced me to relearn many of these lessons about the uses of fiction while drafting the book Iâ€™m finishing now. Itâ€™s called The Night Agent. I started it last summer, drawing on some real-life Russian spycraft. The subject matter was relatively under the radar at the time, and I thought it would make for a gripping conspiracy thriller. But as I wrote it, I had the bizarrely Charlie Kaufman-esque experience of watching the news chase the story I was writing in a way that was more outrageous, but far less satisfying, both as fiction and as reality.
I couldn’t just extend the arc of a news story that the entire world was now following (novels take about a year to publish). And sensationalizing todayâ€™s news is nearly impossible. How can you out-caricature a self-caricature tabloid king like Trump?
It was scary at first, the threat of being overtaken by events, but it forced me to think on the particular virtues of fiction â€” of ordering and giving meaning â€” and come up with a far richer and unexpected way to approach these subjects. Instead of this pointless morass, I found a conclusion that offered a way to process what was happening, and to call out the values that would help us survive this presidency, basic things like standing up to abuses of power and demanding some moral backbone from our leaders.
The news didnâ€™t make the story superfluous. The headlines became another element to factor in and riff on as I wrote, like playing off a genre convention.
My news alerts and Twitter feed and daily papers brought fresh outrages, but sitting at my desk and disappearing into that book, even with its close calls and relentlessly ticking clock, brought me calm. In its pages was a recognizable world where things made sense. My hero had a goal. Actions had consequences. Values mattered.
At their best, stories help us, both authors and audiences, navigate moments of crisis. We remember history and its lessons through the lens of popular narratives. Take Watergate. Itâ€™s a depressing chapter in Americaâ€™s past, but like many, when I think of the scandal, I picture William Goldmanâ€™s romanticized film version of All the Presidentâ€™s Men. I see Robert Redford getting a tip in an underground garage to â€œfollow the moneyâ€ â€” a legendary and completely made-up line from the screenplay.
The movie glosses over some of the specifics in order to tell a more satisfying story. We forget that the Supreme Court sealed the presidentâ€™s fate by demanding the â€œsmoking gunâ€ tape, and the crucial role of the special prosecutor, the Senate hearings, the Department of Justice and the FBI, and congressional Republicans when they finally cut bait on Nixon. The Washington Post reporting was a critical early spotlight on the scandal, but even Woodward has said that the popular notion that he and Bernstein alone brought down the president is absurd.
But that film manages to turn a dismal scandal into something thrilling and uplifting. We remember the lessons of its myth: Impeachment was a result of two plucky young outsiders unraveling a conspiracy and challenging power at great personal risk (another invention for the screenplay) while forging an unbreakable bond. Itâ€™s the archetype of the classic thrillers of the 1970s, a trend that has carried on straight through to the Bourne movies. That makes for a better tale, a more inspiring message, than the strict truth. Itâ€™s the seam Iâ€™m mining with the new book.
The stories we read and watch have a profound impact on the real world. I saw it time and again in Washington. The people I worked with in journalism were still inspired by All the Presidentâ€™s Men, as was I. It may be part myth, but it still spurred people to become reporters and do incredible real-life work.
The young Democratic political staffers I knew had been raised on the moralizing banter of The West Wing as an escapist alternative to the disappointments of the Bush era. Ayn Randâ€™s novels have launched thousands of conservative careers. And the master of political fiction (and required reading) George Orwell teaches us to stand up against political propaganda and authoritarianism less by positive inspiration than by scaring us straight with the horrors of Room 101. It works. Orwellâ€™s language is so seamlessly woven into our real-life political understanding â€” Big Brother, doublethink, thought police â€” that often we forget these terms originated in novels.
Well-told stories can bridge partisan divisions
That doesnâ€™t mean we should turn novels into one-sided political screeds. At a time of extreme partisanship, the universal appeal of a well-told story is even more valuable. It can cut through the sectarian media bubbles where more and more of us get our information.
I used to write for the Atlantic and Iâ€™m generally a center-left guy, so it was a nice surprise to get notes from ex-cops, retired military, and Christian pastors in deep-red states who liked my books. We probably disagree on many political points, but we can happily spend five or six hours unspooling a story and sharing a point of view.
Itâ€™s hard to write a good partisan thriller. Story drives you to more universal themes, like standing up against corruption, or sacrificing yourself for another. Americans agree about more than they disagree on, as hard as that can be to believe when you look at the current political landscape. By drawing in readers through sympathetic characters, and rooting along with them for some great universal goal, fiction can get people back on the same page and carve out a deeper meaning from news that normally gets filtered through partisan points of view.
One of the through-the-looking-glass upsides of Trumpâ€™s behavior is that he is so outrageously awful that he is beginning to transcend partisan politics. Even some of the best-selling conservative military thriller authors I follow have bailed on him.
Suddenly basic values (like the separation of powers, or freedom from foreign influence in our politics) need defending and rallying around in a way that was impossible to imagine before this administration. That all makes for good political thrillers; much better material than the usual partisan fights. Itâ€™s a relief in these novels to be able to push back against the alarming trend in the other direction, where more and more people opt out of facts to live in an echo chamber of convenient partisan fictions masquerading as the truth.
This may seem too much to ask of entertainment, suspense films, and paperbacks, but stories matter. They offer escape, give meaning to a vexing reality, and at their best, inspire us and remind us of what we stand for. We need them now. Theyâ€™ll help us make it through this and return to a time when the high crimes play out on the pages of novels and movie screens, not the nightly news.