Some months ago I appeared on a television program with a couple of writers whom I admire. Our assignment was to discuss "The Washington Novel." We hemmed and hawed and grinned for half an hour, and came up just about empty. The "Washington novel," we agreed, is more a dream than a reality.
So it was a surprise to pick up The New York Times last week and see a headline that read: "Capital Is Powerful Lure to Novelists." The story said that "countless Washingtonians . . . are writing, or have written, or plan to write a book." Among them are five congressional wives who meet periodically for lunch to discuss their projects and who call their little group "Scribbles." Among them, too, are such writers as Warren Rogers, Les Whitten, Warren Adler and Ron Nessen.
This is not intended as a pejorative comment but -- how else to say it? -- these are not exactly your basic giants of American literature. Rogers, Whitten, Adler, Nessen and "countless" others who write the characteristic "Washington novel" of the day do not have literary pretensions -- or at least I hope they do not. Their novels are commercial entertainments and are offered as such: spy and FBI thrillers, mysteries with political settings, romans a clef involving first families and other highly placed folk. Some of them are skillfully done, and some of their authors have profited quite handsomely from them.
More power to them; heaven knows this dreary world could use a bit of light entertainment. But their labors scarcely represent a literary flowering in the nation's capital. The fact of the matter is that the number of respected, certifiably "serious" novelists now at work within the District of Columbia is embarrassingly small -- and that number does not dramatically increase if you throw in the suburbs as well. A further fact of the matter is that the "Washington novel," venerable tradition though it may be, has yet to make a notable contribution to American literature; in fact, it hasn't made any contribution at all.
To be sure, Washington has in recent years attracted a number of novelists of proven talent: Larry McMurtry, Doris Grumbach, Susan Richards Shreve, Stephen Goodwin, Joyce Kornblatt, Patricia Browning Griffith, Richard Baush, Abigail McCarthy. If you add to that list the master of literate entertainment, Herman Wouk, you get a decent group -- one that compares favorably with similar groups assembled in, oh, Chapel Hill and Iowa City and Charlottesville. Like the groups in those places, it exists largely because of the teaching positions offered by departments of English and/or creative writing; take away the University of Maryland, American University and George Mason University, and you can say goodbye to our little literary community.
Almost all of the men and women who live in this area and write serious fiction came here for reasons having little to do with Washington itself; they came here for personal reasons or for jobs, not for the Pentagon or Capitol Hill or Mel Krupin's. When they got here they found no indigenous literary community -- not that there's anything especially desirable about one, as witness Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side. And if any of them except Shreve and McCarthy have written novels set in Washington and dealing with "Washington themes," I am unaware of it.
But they are hardly alone in avoiding Washington as a subject for serious fiction. People talk and talk about the terrific themes the city offers to the serious novelist -- power, ambition, hubris, failure -- but hardly anyone does anything about it. In my 1965 edition of "The Oxford Companion to American Literature," this is the best that the editor could come up with:
"The city has figured often in fiction, and novels that particularly emphasize the setting and the life include George W. Curtis' "Trumps" (1861), Henry Adams' "Democracy" (1880), Gertrude Atherton's "Senator North" (1900), "The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig" (1909), Harvey Fergusson's "Capitol Hill" (1923), Samuel Hopkins Adams' "Revelry" (1926), Jerome Weidman's "Too Early to Tell" (1946), and Dos Passos' "District of Columbia" (1952), a trilogy including "Adventures of a Young Man," "Number One" and "The Grand Design." "
That's it, folks: only one novel ("Democracy") that anybody still reads, and its readers are few and far between. Add to the list two more novels (Tom Wicker's "Facing the Lions" and Ward Just's "Nicholson at Large"), and there you have it. Fewer novels of enduring merit have been written about Washington than about any one of several streets in New York, Boston and Chicago -- not to mention Oxford, Miss. Washington can't even lay claim to the one subject it should have a monopoly on, politics; our two best political novels, Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and William Brammer's "The Gay Place," have nothing to do with Washington.
That this is so is conceded by all except the most ardent Washington chauvinists. But why it is so has been a matter of debate for ages. One school of thought was articulately summaried for The Times by Abigail McCarthy: "I find there is an appetite for a stereotypical Washington novel, but there is much of the human aspect of the Washington scene that goes largely unexplained. The problem is that most of the stories in Washington start someplace else. The story doesn't start here, people come at the apex. Washington is the place for the third or final act." Another was noted by Doris Grumbach, who pointed out that there are so many different Washingtons ("political Washington, social Washington, journalistic Washington") that it is difficult to get a "firm grasp" on them and to figure out the complex ways in which they relate to each other.
It's frequently pointed out that relatively few people have deep roots in Washington, roots that give them the kind of memories from which fiction so often springs. But that probably was more true in the past than it is now. The growth of the federal bureaucracy over the last half-century has created a permanent, educated community of Washingtonians that might be expected to produce some serious fiction; yet to the best of my knowledge the only novel dealing in a substantial way with life in the bureaucracy is Patricia Browning Griffith's "Tennessee Blue."
It's my sense that this bureaucracy and the people who have gone into business to provide it with services are now the "real" Washington, but you'd never guess that from the "Washington novel." Fiction written about the city, whether to entertain or to explore issues, focuses on the glitter and the glamor and the power. It makes the mistake of assuming that Georgetown is Washington, and vice versa, when, as Juan Williams pointed out in this newspaper the other day, Georgetown is off in another universe.
The myth that permeates the "Washington novel" is that this is an unreal city, existing at a level of influence and intrigue that ordinary folk can only marvel at. So we are given presidents pushing doomsday buttons and senators bedding Playmates and special interests stalking the corridors of power. This is all good fun and makes for diverting entertainment, but it has almost nothing to do with the routine and rather boring daily life of the city.
Washington is a unique place because it is the seat of the national government, but otherwise it is just another place in which ordinary people lead ordinary lives. This is what the novelists have failed to understand or to portray. Their eyes are fixed too firmly on the floor of the Senate; but the person who wrote the senator's speech, or the one who typed it, may in point of fact be far more interesting, and his or her story far more universal. These are the people we do not meet in the "Washington novel," which may help explain why it is not very good.