The Liberal Imagination 2008

Write a bad novel that trashes George W. Bush, and you can be virtually guaranteed the promotional assistance of the New York Times. Take the case of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, a novel based on Laura Bush (the novel’s Alice Blackwell). The New York Times Book Review enlists Joyce Carol Oates to write a long review weighing the merits of Sittenfeld’s novel.

Oates quotes enough of the book for the attentive reader to tumble to the foul nature of the work under review, but of course finds it a more or less laudable exercise of the writer’s craft. While not a full-throated advocate of the novel, Oates admires the author’s portrayal of the “right-wing Republican’s [i.e., George Bush’s] chilling partisan-political strategy.”

Judging the novel “respectful of the first lady,” it nevertheless seems to earn Oate’s approval with its “cartoonish” portrait of the president, which is “chilling, too, in its combination of steely indifference to opposing political viewpoints and crude frat-boy humor.” The passage Oates quotes shows Charlie Blackwell (George Bush) degrading the Secret Service agents protecting him. Revealing less about George Bush than the author, the passage demonstrates the crudity of the author’s imagination (and Oates’s judgment).

But Oates’s review wasn’t all the Times had on Sittenfeld yesterday. Over in the Style section, Jan Hoffman ambivalently profiled Sittenfeld in “Imaginary first lady tells all.” Hoffman’s profile makes clear that Oates only touched on the crudity of Sittenfeld’s portraits of George and Laura Bush. The crudity runs deep.

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