Dave Brat’s shocking upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia Republican primary on Tuesday night left political writers struggling to define what would now be a race between Brat and his fellow member of the faculty at Randolph-Macon College: Jack Trammell. It is not particularly surprising that at least one media outlet seized on the fact that Trammell writes genre fiction to generate a catchy headline, and maybe more.
“Vampire writer stakes out Eric Cantor’s seat,” Politico wrote gleefully yesterday, before noting that:
He has written a range of books, including “Sarah’s Last Secret,” a novel about a complicated marriage, and a murder mystery titled “Gray.” He also has a vampire novel in the works, according to online biographies, and has written many poems and short stories as well.
His more academic works include “The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion” and “Conversations in History: Historical Events & the People Who Starred in Them.” He also has served as a regular contributor to The Washington Times, writing a military history column.
The characterization is telling politically as well as culturally. It is apparently fine for writers and political operatives to compare the race itself to HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” an epic fantasy series.
But as soon as a congressional candidate writes romance novels, supernatural stories or potboilers of any sort, they get listed above his academic writing as a sort of curiosity. This is not even to mention the furor if the candidate has a particularly geeky habit. Jake Rush, who is challenging Rep. Ted Yoho for the Republican nomination in Florida in a contest that will be decided in August, became a national spectacle when it was revealed that he likes to participate in role-playing games in his spare time.
To be fair, congressional candidates are not the only people who come under scrutiny for their interests. In recent months, we have seen a number of articles premised on the idea that if ordinary readers happen to like romance novels or young adult fiction, they are somehow unfit for more challenging books or more challenging ideas.
But part of the job description for a congressional seat is the ability to think about multiple issues in succession. It seems as though Trammell’s ability to knock out a romance novel while also researching the Richmond slave trade indicates the ability to consider more than one subject in some depth, rather than proof that his academic work is some sort of cover for his true, frivolous, novel-writing character.
There is something rather staid and stale about the idea that our leaders in Congress should have a laser-like focus on policy, rather than having cultural interests, be they high or low.
Congress’ work touches on culture, after all, through its funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, or its investigations of the CIA’s relationship with “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Culture provides references points that lawmakers can use to talk to their constituents, and it is part of debates about policy issues ranging from gun control and mental health to Internet access for young people. Ignorance of culture is no virtue.
And dealing with issues that we can all agree are significant, including health-care reform and the prisoner exchange that brought Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl back from Taliban captivity, is no protection from behaving in fundamentally unserious ways. Grandstanding on Sunday shows or treating your constituents’ needs like game pieces is not actually more mature and statesmanlike than writing fiction in your spare time.