Monday, August 11, 2008

The Writer-Politician

Nick Arvin, Denver based author of Articles of War and In the Electric Eden had an interesting Op-Ed piece in Friday's Rocky Mountain News about Obama as a writer.

"In 1995, Barack Obama published a book. He was 33 years old, a recent law school graduate, and the book, Dreams From My Father, received favorable reviews from The New York Times and others. It is a memoir, earnest, soul-searching and even-handed.

Reportedly, at the time that he was writing it, Obama had begun to speak to friends about the possibility of entering politics, but it's difficult to detect an aspirant to national office in the pages of Dreams From My Father. For one thing, the entire book revolves around issues of race - a topic that Obama spent this year avoiding until the Rev. Jeremiah Wright forced the matter. Dreams From My Father sold about 8,000 copies and then fell from sight, which may sound a little dismal but is pretty typical for a literary book.

After Illinois elected Obama to the Senate in 2004, he wrote a second book, The Audacity of Hope. Although politicians "write" books all the time, such books are almost always ghostwritten by others. Obama, however, is known for writing The Audacity of Hope himself. Moreover, he began Dreams From My Father years before he ran for office. In other words, he was a writer first, then a politician.

Most politicians have a simple reason for employing ghostwriters: Writing a good book is hard. In fact, I will tell you: Merely writing a halfway-decent, mostly readable book is hard. It requires a certain mind-set to pursue a single topic through hundreds of pages, and to do it well demands skills that are difficult to learn and require ongoing practice. It also takes a great deal of time.

I'd like to suggest that the fact that Obama is a writer - not just a typer of e-mails and compiler of legal briefs but a writer of literary quality with the ability to craft compelling narrative and interrogate his own feelings on the page - tells us some things about him that are worth considering as he competes for the presidency. These ideas flow from a few simple observations about writers generally."

Click here to read the whole piece. This is certainly food for thought. As a side note, do online newspaper readers actually read what they're commenting on?


Stephen Parrish said...

JFK wrote his own books too. Nice post.

P.S. I drove past Lindsey the other day (now the "Europa Viertel"). It's gorgeous. You gotta come back.

G√ľnter said...

I remember reading that Obama entertained the idea of being a short-story writer for some time. I'm glad he didn't go that route, but he did produce one excellent book and another one that's pretty good (DFMF and TAOH, respectively). I read both quickly, alternating between printed and audio formats as I went to and from work, and was enriched. I tend to agree with Nick Arvin that Obama the writer matters. We're in need of that kind of empathetic imagination.

Here's Tobias Wolff on the subject. ;)

Did you read the couple of Obama poems printed in the New Yorker a while back? And Harold Bloom's take on them? Heh.

Usman said...

This is such awesome information.
Tells you about the person Obama is. To have such drive, to write a couple of books and then to go for the presidency.
i am wonder struck.
If i were American, this would be enough to compel me to vote for him. I can almost sense he has a sensitive side to him.

Steve Malley said...

Now that I'm in NZ, online is the only way I get my newspaper.

I read, think deep thoughts, then type the most asinine comment I can think of! (Just kidding, I don't have the imagination to match that kind of native stupidity!)

Denis said...

i think some people are afraid of hoping for Obama because- what if if he gets elected and he can't get any traction? It will be the Hotel California for us all. We'll all be doomed to drinking Bud-Lite and watching NASCAR races and FOX news.

Denis said...

Jesus, thanks Gunter; I read Obama's poems. And although I didn't really understand the second one, his poem about him and his father, (Pop) hit me right between the eyes.

Shauna Roberts said...

The ability to reason logically and put thoughts into order and mentally try multiple options to see which will work best will serve him well as president.

It will also be a large and welcome change from the past eight years.

Patti said...

i will stay out of the politics and answer your question: maybe some of it. or just enough t leave a hopped-up comment to tick off the next reader so that they comment, not on the story, but on the last commenter.

Larramie said...


Stewart Sternberg said...

I read "Audacity" and my first thought was 'this guy can write'!!! I was impressed, and I agree, his writing has strong literary qualities.

Have you heard the right winger who has been making the rounds of right wing whacko radio hosts (Hannity, etc), arguing that Obama had a ghost writer. Talk about trying to manufacture something.

Lisa said...

Stephen, I would love to visit Wiesbaden again. Maybe I can justify it in the name of -- erm, research? My sister and her husband are living just outside of Amsterdam, so if I get over to visit them, I can always jump on the train and visit...maybe.

Gunter, I am SO glad you posted these links. I am blown away by the poems. Writing lyrical prose in a memoir is one thing -- poetry is quite another!

And -- does Tobias Wolff know you're cyber-stalking him? ;)

Usman, Thinking about Obama as a writer and a poet -- whether those are good reasons (I think they are) puts him in a whole new light for me -- and I was already crazy about him.

Denis, I'm so glad Gunter posted this stuff! He's got an uncanny knack for unearthing all kinds of gems. If you haven't visited I highly recommend his blog. I've bought books and subscribed to magazines and blogs after visiting. Great stuff! I hope you are feeling better.

Shauna, A welcome change -- perhaps the biggest understatement of the century!

Patti, You are a wise ass ;)

Larramie, Glad you stopped in!

Stewart, I'm so glad you stopped in. I love your blog. I was not aware that there were accusations about ghostwriting, although it's no surprise. Is that the best they can come up with?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Can I get another forgotten book from you over the next month? (

Vesper said...

Lisa, I'll come back to read your previous posts too.
Interesting what you're saying about Obama.

Lana Gramlich said...

Sounds interesting! I like him even more now...
(No, people don't really "read" online anything, I'm afraid. The best anyone can hope for, typically, is a quick scan.)

steve said...

Obama's poetic speeches attracted me to him in the first place. McCain has a commercial dismissing "beautiful words," as if they meant nothing. The last president to give us beautiful words was John F. Kennedy; before that, Franklin D. Roosevelt. And then there was that other Illinois guy who didn't even make it to the Senate, but managed some incredibly beautiful words during his presidency.

Your words about the difficulty of writing a book struck home.

Thanks for the post and the link.

Lisa said...

Patti A, I think I have come up with one -- I'll email you.

Vesper, I wish these were my words, but they are Nick Arvin's!

Lana, It made me like him even more too.

Steve, As I mentioned to Vesper -- this is from an op-ed piece that Nick Arvin did in the Rocky Mountain News -- but I'm flattered that you'd think me capable of such nice writing :)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf