Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and political / governmental novels

Some problematic comments regarding political novels and governmental novels in “cultural critic” Julia Keller’s Chicago Tribune article, prompted by the recent movie release, about Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men:

We don’t have many top-flight novels about American politics, thus Warren’s tale, flawed as it may be about electoral realities, still is better than most.

Still, When it comes to American political novels, “All the King’s Men” is about as good as it gets, many say. “In this country, we don’t have a lot of great political novels,” Barilleaux says (Ryan Barilleaux, a political science professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who teaches courses on the political novel and the American presidency). “The people who have been deep in politics don’t write novels, and the writers are divorced from politics. They’re generally thrillers.” In Europe and other parts of the world, by contrast, many of the finest writers — France’s Andre Malraux, Latin America’s Carlos Fuentes — have turned out extraordinary political novels, he notes.

Reflecting reality?

Adds Lane, “In America, the novels people point to as political are pretty facile. They aren’t deep readings of political realities.”

My thoughts don’t address the main point of the article, “Politically Incorrect,” but it may be worth noting that when Keller and professor Barilleaux refer to “political” novels, they actually mean “governmental” novels, as is made clear by the list of American “political fiction” appended to the article – which turns out to be a list of novels focused primarily on governmental figures — which is something quite different from what political novelists Malraux and Fuentes mainly focus(ed) on. Great novelists abroad, these two figures included, often focus on the tides of power writ large — as acted out by military figures, revolutionaries, popular citizen leaders, business leaders, students, and so on, and yes some governmental figures, in some novels.

While it may be true that more and better high quality non-American governmental novels exist as well as more and better high quality non-American political novels, the fact is that many great American political novels exist, as does a substantial amount of high quality American governmental fiction, although the leading example of the latter is probably The West Wing — which of course is novelistic governmental fiction written for television.

Contrary to the seemingly endlessly regurgitated “conventional wisdom” that Americans do not write high quality political novels, a long list of such novels could be quickly drawn up — including world renowned novels by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, just for starters — and though few great American novels might be classifiable as governmental novels, it seems to me that there is far less disparity between governmental fiction to be found in the US and than that to be found abroad than “conventional wisdom” suggests, in part because of miscategorizations and misunderstandings involving “political” and “governmental” — as well as many critics’ ideological limitations, and other factors.

Professor Barilleaux has passed along the widely accepted view on the matter, but it’s possible to see that the claim is not borne out by the offered examples in the article and its appended list, which are a mix of apples and oranges. The claim about “political” novels especially, as well as any claim about “governmental” novels is not as easily demonstrated — if it is at all, nor is it as otherwise revealing — as is conventionally believed.

Much more could be said. What may well be far more likely is that — due to ideological blinders and ideological censorship in the US — it may be more difficult to conceive, publish, and/or even comprehend great political and governmental fiction in the US that is at all overt or evident than it is to do so abroad;  thus, fiction that is political, governmental, and otherwise often likely must take different forms (including an ostensibly  apolitical guise) in the US than fiction abroad, and may well receive biased or prejudiced treatment domestically, from critics and others.

Of course if the intellectual culture in the US is less progressive and more adherent to the status quo than it often is abroad, as has been observed, then US fiction is likely to reflect this. Perhaps it should be pointed out that fiction that functions wittingly or not to reflect and propagate status quo values is not less political than any progressive counterpart, though it may appear to be so due to any number of ideological factors of bias and prejudice, that is, due to both the unconscious and conscious cultural conditioning peculiar to the US in particular — a vital and ripe area for study for scholars and critics, and a key point of understanding for vital and compelling creation for novelists and other workers of the imagination.

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