At every major historical checkpoint since the 2001 commencement of the end times, some clueless but well-meaning media outlet, desperately trying to rise above the vulgar fracas of immediacy, has attempted to ask the eternal questions. What do novelists think of the crisis? How should literature respond? Do writers owe fealty to art or country, or both?
The debate bandies about among the dozen or so people who care and it generally concludes with something like this: Our literature is self-absorbed, insular, and narrow. Things must change. We need "an army of Zolas" to call public attention to the vast injustices that are being committed in the American name.
Every time I read something like that, I want to puke into my 14-year-old sophomore seminar copy of Germinal. What, exactly, would an "army of Zolas" look like? Aren't enough people running around saying "J'accuse" already? For god's sake, people, these are novelists you're talking about. American novelists in the 21st century. Consider yourselves lucky that Kurt Vonnegut is still alive. The rest of us are just chattel with a word count and a loose deadline.
Nonetheless, the day after the most recent Tuesday the Earth Stood Still, Salon.com treated us to a "What Now?" roundtable featuring the comments of several young writers who are easy to reach via e-mail. Heidi Julavits, a very nice person, was among them, having qualified because her magazine, the Believer, endorsed John Kerry, thereby clinching him the "people who think graphic novels are art" vote. Julavits, after informing us that her "Italian friend" believes America is now "medieval"—as opposed to Italy? The personal fiefdom of an unscrupulous media baron? The country that enjoys a rail strike every 15 minutes?—told Salon:
"I realize that we have to treat our own country as a foreign country, a country with whom our relations are strained beyond the point of communication. Do we compose for that 51 percent, our alienated brethren, novels or poems to mend this rift and sway their minds? My cynical guess is that Roth's The Plot Against America, for example, didn't experience soaring sales in Mississippi—which is not to discount the importance of writing politically engaged and evocative fiction."
Yes, it is to discount the importance of writing politically engaged and evocative fiction. She's right that if you believe a Philip Roth book is going to change people's politics in 2004, then you might as well believe that Saul Bellow can melt metal with his mind. Any novel that doesn't feature a conspiracy theory involving the Knights Templar and a Renaissance cultural figure, a fat girl finding love, a pubescent male wizard, the apocalypse, or some combination of the above won't find an audience among the residents of that "foreign country" in the American center.
The most amusing comment that Salon force-fed us was from Indian writer Abha Dawesar, who said that, as a prescription for post-election blues, publishers should "wheel out every writer about to flee Bush-i-stan on a book tour to the swing states so that next time around the moral vote swings in favor of peace and public liberty."
Ms. Dawesar, do you have any clue as to the monumental public indifference that awaits the average author on the American road? Writers get less respect in this country than people who eat live bugs on television for money! I just got off three-plus weeks on tour, and I was lucky to get an audience of 15 people—in blue states. It took everything I had just to get someone to buy a copy of my stupid book, much less bring about a permanent transformation of American politics.
Novelists cannot deliver the "moral vote." Most novelists can't even match their fucking socks. Unless they're Arundahti Roy and they're willing to stand in front of a nuclear weapon about to be fired, they should just stop wringing their hands and go back to what they do best: attending cocktail parties.
When future literary historians, both of them, try to find evidence that American novelists were intellectually irrelevant eunuchs in the first decade of the 21st century, they'll have to look no further than the book tour I just completed. I was on the road, ostensibly, to promote the paperback edition of Never Mind the Pollacks, a 256-page satire of the history of rock and roll. To pay for expenses, the publisher gave me a corporate American Express card with no limit.
So while everyone else in this country will either remember October 2004 as the last month before fascism settled in for a long stay or, conversely, as the month before God fulfilled his promise to deliver a leader who would bring about the Rapture, I'll always remember it as the preeminent gustatory month of my life. My book tour took me to some of the finest restaurants in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles, as long as they accepted American Express. There was that piece of focaccia in New York topped with a fried egg, some generous shavings of bottarga, and about a gallon of truffle oil. I also really enjoyed the homemade fettuccine with pheasant sauce that I consumed at a restaurant in the West Village and the $2 pork and pâté Vietnamese sandwich I had at a takeout place in the Tenderloin. By the way, you really must try the burger and the crispy-rabbit salad at the Zuni Cafe. I'd also like to thank the various preparations of monkfish, the mind- numbing tower of yellowtail sashimi, and all the cheese courses.
Man, did I eat well on my book tour. The rest of it went something like this. Bookstore owner: "I think we're in for a modest crowd tonight."
Me: "What's a modest crowd?"
Bookstore owner: "Single digits."
I write about politics all the time; I wanted to get the word out, whatever that word might have been. But the word doesn't get out easily when the only interviews you do on a promotional tour are with a high-school newspaper in Connecticut, a German magazine, a public-radio station in Southern Minnesota, and a pirate Internet radio station in Los Angeles that reaches, according to the host, "between 5 and 50 people at a time." I was an invisible man, albeit one who drove a rented Mustang convertible and lived in a hotel room with a private deck and a hot tub.
On Election Day, I sealed my ritual humiliation by participating in Stephen Elliott's "Operation Ohio," a noble experiment in novelistic citizenship wherein rabble-rousers such as Tobias Wolff called college students to remind them to vote. I woke a couple of kids up and left messages for others. One called me back almost immediately.
"Is this Neal Pollack?" he said.
"Yes," I said.
"Aren't you really Dave Eggers?"
"No," I said.
"That's too bad," he said. "Because I really wanted to talk to Dave about something."