Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Essays

Books and Ballots

When Writers Run for Office

Steven G. Kellman

Leader of the Velvet Revolution, playwright, poet, and political dissident Václav Havel (1936–2011) became the first noncommunist leader of Czechoslovakia since 1948. Havel served as president from 1989–1992 and then as president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003); © Peter Turnley/Corbis.

If only Russia had been founded
by Anna Akhmatova, if only
Mandelstam had made the laws….
—Adam Zagajewski, “If Only Russia,” 1985

Two hundred and eleven members of the 113th Congress listed law as their occupation. The 113th also included numerous entrepreneurs, physicians, engineers, clergy, teachers, farmers, and accountants, as well as a rodeo announcer, a vintner, a comedian, a firefighter, a welder, a fruit picker, a football player, a fisherman, and a mortician. Not a single member claimed a literary calling. Many members of the Senate and the House of Representatives—as well as presidents, governors, and mayors—have written books, or at least pretended to have written them. Ghostwritten memoirs published to coincide with campaigns are the tribute ambitious yahoos pay to literate houyhnhnms. But the office a professional writer seeks is most often merely a space in which to write.

Despite the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were 129,100 writers in the United States in 2012 (a number easily exceeding the populations of rodeo announcers and vintners), it is an extraordinary event when a writer becomes a candidate, and it is almost apocalyptic when one succeeds. Especially in the United States, where Adlai Stevenson was mocked as an “egghead” for being seen with a book and Sarah Palin’s apparent indifference to reading embellished her credentials as a populist foe of “elitism,” bookishness is usually a liability. So alien are books and reading to American notions of political power that Henry Kissinger, an intellectual courtier who himself never ran for office, was astonished to find books not only bursting out of the shelves of Mao Zedong’s study but piled on a table and the floor as well. “It looked more the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous nation,” Kissinger recalled. According to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, a mere 50.2 percent of Americans of voting age read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in a year, and they apparently do not like to read the names of writers on their ballots.

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