Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of The Washington Post and author of “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.”
Hillary Clinton wanted more than anything to be the leader of the free world. Now all she’s got is a crummy consolation prize: a No. 1 best-selling book. For days before its Tuesday release, her memoir of the 2016 presidential campaign, “What Happened,” was first in the rankings among all books on Amazon (whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post). And it looks headed to rule over other bestseller lists, too. But if Clinton had her druthers, she most certainly would not be sitting at the top of any bestseller list right now: She’d be seated in the Oval Office behind the ornate Resolute desk.
Clinton’s miserable fate — bestsellerdom instead of the presidency — raises a curious question for the rest of the toiling, underappreciated and always envious literary community. I put this question — perhaps a preposterous one, but hey, we live in preposterous times — to a sampling of writers via email: Would you rather be president of the United States or a No. 1 best-selling author?
Several authors chose the presidency, not because they hankered to bring peace and sanity to the world, or to use the bully pulpit to encourage tolerance and compassion among their fellow Americans, but rather for the perks of the office. Garrison Keillor, creator and former host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” reminded me that he once had a No. 1 best-selling book, “Lake Wobegon Days,” in 1985. Still, a White House life seems far more agreeable to him. “You get a whole staff with that, and you have transportation, access to people much smarter than yourself, and you have the power to issue invitations to the White House, which everyone wants. A lot of charisma comes with the job.” By contrast, a No. 1 bestseller poses a host of hardships. “With a No. 1 book,” Keillor remembers, “you get to sign your name thousands and thousands of times, you’re interviewed by people who ask what inspired you to write the book, and you endure the bitter envy of other authors. And your neighbors watch you closely for signs of arrogance, so you have to work hard to mow your own lawn and take out the garbage. I’d take the White House any day.”
Sam Quinones, whose “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction and is a perennial bestseller these days, admits he’d be a lousy president; he’s temperamentally unfit and would probably become unbalanced while in office. But he’d still take it over the writing life. “I’d get to go to a lot of sporting events for free,” he says, “and hoard a lot of swag, and have White House cooks make me ice cream sundaes with extra walnuts and whipped cream at 2 a.m. while I listened to the Ramones.”
Cheryl Strayed knows all about the joys of bestsellerdom. Her book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. “I can attest to this: it’s SUPER FUN to have a book at the top of the bestseller lists,” she writes. “There is not one thing not fun about it.” Being president, on the other hand, isn’t terribly alluring. “I don’t imagine it’s much fun at all, though there would be a few perks (mostly that you’d get to meet Beyoncé — though I’d guess the current man in office is out of luck on that front).”
Erik Larson, whose “The Devil in the White City” is a perpetual-motion bestseller, worries that being president would crimp his style: wearing jeans and open shirts every day. And how could he drink a couple of bottles of wine with friends with the nuclear codes always hovering nearby? “Also,” he confesses, “I’m not good at pretending to be nice, a trait that would make diplomatic dinners potentially problematic and likely to cause unnecessary wars and make Kim Jong-un even more cranky than he already is.” But a motorcade, he says — now that’s tempting: “I do love a good motorcade.”
If she were to be elected president, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates predicts that her term would be short-lived. “Since as the first POTUS to ban all guns for civilians, and to curtail the militarized U.S. police, I would be assassinated within 48 hours, I would much prefer a No. 1 bestselling book, or indeed a No. 10 or No. 100 bestselling book to such a fate.”
P.J. O’Rourke, author and satirist, points out that it’s much safer being a writer. “Few people bother trying to assassinate bestselling authors,” he notes. “I believe Julius Caesar, after ‘The Conquest of Gaul,’ was one of the few exceptions. (Had to read it in high school Latin and fully sympathize with Brutus who probably did too.)” Furthermore, leading the free world is far too time-consuming. “Being president takes four years,” O’Rourke cautions. “ ‘Goodnight Moon’ was written in 15 minutes.”
Mary Roach, author of humorous popular-science books such as “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” and “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” at first said she’d do anything to avoid being president. But then she reconsidered. “Are we talking about this term? Right now? Magically, instantly, in place of the incumbent? This I would do. I would do it for you.”
Several authors expressed little taste for the less-seemly requirements of the office. Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, novelist and nonfiction author, says he has “absolutely no interest in being president of the United States. I’m generally disinclined to lie, pivot, or obfuscate. . . . Give me the top of the bestsellers list any day of the week.”
Yet, the art of manipulation plays amply in both presidential politics and writing, according to Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “Confederates in the Attic” and other nonfiction works. “To be president, you must fund-raise, make phony promises to millions of people, and campaign in winter in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Horwitz explains. “To write a book, you only need to con one publisher and endure the private agony of your own prose. Seducing readers, in large numbers, requires much greater luck and magic. Number one bestsellerdom, for me, would be like shooting the moon at Hearts.”
Some authors took a grave view of the revolving door that takes Washington outcasts to literary mega-sales. “Has running for president become the best way to build buzz for your book, win or lose?” asks David O. Stewart, author of several books on America’s formative years in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Actually, is it better to lose, so you can cash in four years sooner? Have we found a ‘platform’ for the nonfiction writer that is even more effective than being the host of a Fox News Channel misinformation show? Wait, I’m still scratching the itch. There’s more. Why should anyone pay for a book by someone who lost an election to . . . Donald Trump? How could any patriotic American stand to relive the appalling train wreck of the 2016 election?”
Journalist and author Caitlin Flanagan echoes Stewart’s apprehension: “Why would anyone read a book like that?” She wonders if Clinton’s memoir, like other huge sellers, may be purchased in great numbers then sit unthumbed in many homes. “The number of people who bought her last book versus the number of them who actually read it approaches ‘Satanic Verses’ dimensions,” Flanagan offers. “Snooze.”
Christopher Buckley, memoirist and comic novelist, wonders whether my original preposterous proposition was a trick question. If not, then his answer is he’d want to be president. “Because then I’d write a memoir guaranteed to hit No. 1 on the list, unless it really, really sucked,” he says. “Better still, I’d hire someone — a hack like, say, me — and have him write it. A win-win proposition. Or as our current president, and erstwhile No. 1 bestseller, would say: a no-loser proposition.”