If you can trust the word of a publisher in promotion mode, then Living History is making money: Simon & Schuster reported on Tuesday, June 10, that 200,000 Americans had celebrated the first two days of publication of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir by paying $28 and taking it home. Here at The Observer (which Senator Clinton calls a “limited-circulation publication” on page 346), we asked some American novelists–John Updike, Erica Jong, David Gates, Vince Passaro, Jennifer Egan, Louis Begley, Francine Prose and the contemporary romance writer Laura Moore–to assess the book: the already classic telling of the scene in which the hang-dog President wakes his wife and confesses to the stunned and seething First Lady, as well as the section in which the two prepare for the cumbersome machinery of impeachment to be wheeled into place. Of course Living History is about politics, and of course its publication is a political act, but in this case the political is personal as well as fictional, at least in technique. Her opening line, “I wasn’t born a First Lady or a Senator,” surely could have opened any book by Fannie Hurst. And Senator Clinton’s story is well wadded–“I wanted to wring Bill’s neck,” “I wore a glorious burgundy Oscar de la Renta creation,” “If Mandela could forgive, I would try”–with the stuff of pulp fiction. James M. Cain, however, is not listed in the acknowledgments.
How does our panel of professionals rate her performance?
Senator Clinton is an excellent and thoroughgoing politician and not a novelist; her description of “the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience” of her life is nowhere as moving or human as the legalistic vignettes of furtive partial pleasures in the Starr Report. Her surprise at her husband’s belated confession is indeed surprising, as if they had never quite met before. But I loved the sentence, “I hadn’t decided whether to fight for my husband and my marriage, but I was resolved to fight for my President.” Her citizenship is ardent.
John Updike’s most recent novel is Seek My Face (Knopf).
In any campaign biography, the writer–or her ghost–solicits sympathy for the campaigner while pretending to be telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Living History is no different. Hillary Clinton’s moment of maximum public sympathy arrived when she became the woman scorned, and she has no intention of letting us forget it. “This was the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience of my life,” she writes. “I was furious and getting more so by the second,” she writes. “[H]is eyes filled with tears. He had betrayed the trust in our marriage and we both knew it might be an irreparable breach.” With these soapy sentences, Hillary reminds us relentlessly of her instant of greatest P.R. glory, the moment she stopped being too brainy, too brilliant, too adamantine and became, in the tabloids, just another betrayed wife. How pathetic that she has to twang our heartstrings in this cheesy way. Hillary Clinton has changed the role of First Lady for all time. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, her mentor, she has proved that the First Lady can be more compelling and empathic than the President. The woman is stronger than Queen Elizabeth I of England, a greater strategist than Catherine the Great of Russia, braver than Boadicea or the Amazons of old. And yet the demands of fame in America are such that she has to grovel to the appalling level of reality TV to get our undivided attention. The fault, dear readers, is not in Hillary, but in our ghastly mass media, which only applauds brainy women when we are reduced to tears.
Erica Jong’s most recent novel is Sappho’s Leap (W.W. Norton & Company).
Dear Senator Clinton,
In my line of fiction, we call it the “black moment”: the moment of crisis between the heroine and hero, when they discover that their love and trust are in jeopardy. You’ve done a great job, in Living History, of setting the scene for the key confession/confrontation, but if I may, I’d like to make a few suggestions to turn your story into a real “keeper” for your fans.
We need to feel your pain. The best romance novels wring every last drop of emotion as they expose the heartache of betrayal. Simply crying, yelling and saying you’re furious won’t make those pages turn and those readers’ eyes moisten with tears of understanding and connection. You have to make us identify with you as a wife and lover. Let’s see whether we can’t open up this scene in the bedroom (terrific choice of setting, by the way) and let the reader share more fully in your thoughts, emotions and reactions when Bill drops the bomb.
My mind reeled from the blow of his softly stammered words. Stunned, I stared uncomprehending. A wave of dizziness assailed me and I thought I might be sick. Fighting against the sudden nausea, my fingers clutched at the bed sheets. A distant region of my brain registered the fact that here I was in our bed, the one Bill and I had shared countless nights, his warm, wonderfully familiar body pressed against mine. It had been a place of joy and refuge where we had lain and whispered dreams in the dark. Now it was horribly transformed into an icy field of lies. As though of their own accord, my hands released their hold to wrap themselves protectively about me as I shivered from the tears coursing down my cheeks, from the awful chill invading my heart. A scream of pain rose up inside me, and yet all I managed was a broken whisper. “Why, Bill, why? Why did you lie to me?”
He just stood there, his head lowered, unable to meet my eye, his shoulders slumped, looking like a sullen, naughty child. Perhaps I should thank Bill for that, for at that moment as I stared at him, rage hot and pure began coursing through my veins, spreading until it consumed every atom of my being. Bill must have sensed it, for he raised his head, his red-rimmed eyes finally meeting mine. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was trying to protect you and Chelsea.”
Now, obviously we can’t have Bill explaining too much here. That would take away from your story–and besides, your book can be a great marketing teaser so that next year we’ll all rush out and buy Bill’s take on the bedroom scene–but there’s one more thing I feel could really enrich the emotional impact of the scene: forgiveness. Even the merest hint of it allows your reader to hope that maybe there’s some way to get past this darkest moment of your marriage and your love. As you know, this is a challenging bit of writing, because you’ll have to convince us that you found something redeemable in Bill, something worth saving in your relationship. But let’s give it a shot. Let’s try and open the door of your heart a crack, because, after all, that’s what you did manage to do.
“I believed in you, Bill. We all believed in you.” My throat, raw from pain, closed tight and I was unable to continue. I shut my eyes in despair. I couldn’t bear to look at him. Not now, maybe never.
I heard the sound of his feet moving closer, the heavy muffled thud of his knees hitting the carpet as he dropped down next to the bed. “Hill …. ” His whisper was an agonized plea. “Please, please, I need you. Now more than ever.” I felt his head drop, its weight resting heavy against my thigh. I opened my eyes, and involuntarily my hand reached out, a feather brushing against his graying hair.
Unchecked tears flowed down his cheeks as he gazed at me. “You’ve always been strong where I was weak. Be strong for me now, Hillary …. If not for me, then for Chelsea …. ”
Chelsea. The one truly wonderful thing our marriage had given us. Chelsea, our pride and joy. How this sordid affair would hurt her, a pain a thousand times greater than my own. “I don’t know, Bill. I don’t know if I can be that strong …. ”
From outside the bedroom door, our dog, Buddy, gave a plaintive whine of distress.
I think we’ll leave the suggestions at that. I’m sure you’ve got the gist. In closing, please let me add that I hope we’ll have you and President Clinton back in the White House in 2008. The material W. is providing is far too scary to contemplate.
With warmest regards,
Laura Moore’s latest contemporary romance novel, Night Swimming (Ballantine), was published in May.
This doesn’t feel to me like the time to be making sport of Hillary Clinton–not when the far right, having essentially engineered a coup d’état, is busily reinventing America as a theocratic cloud-cuckooland, with suicidal economic, social and environmental policies and a mean streak so wide it would take a B-52 hours to fly across it, and with the mouth-breathing millions cheering them on. I’m a lot less dainty than I used to be when I couldn’t bring myself to vote for a sellout like her husband. So I’m not the guy to give her book the ridicule it might deserve in better days.
Living History isn’t an X-ray self-portrait, but a belated–or a be-earlied–campaign autobiography, as well as a moneymaking product calculated to save her hours and hours of paid speechifying. Since one recurring theme is her tendency to put her supposedly innocent foot in her mouth—”tea and cookies,” “Tammy Wynette,” “vast right-wing conspiracy”–it’s understandable, maybe even commendable, that the book has been thoroughly gaffe-proofed, apparently with the help of the speechwriters, editors and friends whom she thanks in her copious acknowledgments. If her goal was to include nothing that might come back to bite her in the ass, she’s done just fine. For instance, she doesn’t come right out and say that if Ken Starr hadn’t distracted the White House and Congress with the Monica Lewinsky nonsense, the Sept. 11 attacks would never have happened. But she sure lets you know it, by constantly juxtaposing President Clinton’s prescient worries about Osama bin Laden with the Republican right’s jihad against Mr. Clinton. It sounds a little sketchy, but I’m not dead sure she’s wrong.
If I’d been her editor, I would have cut the sentence where she says: “My own approval rating was nearing an all-time high and would eventually peak somewhere around 70 percent, proving that the American people are fundamentally fair and sympathetic.” And I might have urged her to lose the namedroppy stuff, where Stevie Wonder comes and sings her a song he just wrote about forgiveness, and Walter Cronkite takes Bill and Hill for a sail, and the Dalai Lama puts in his two cents. At Davos, she runs into Elie Wiesel and the missus, and he asks her, “What is wrong with America? Why are they doing this?” She says, “I don’t know, Elie.” Icky as this is, though, she undoubtedly was on a first-name basis with Elie and Stevie and Walt and Dalai. And they undoubtedly were nice to her. So what’s she supposed to do, not say so?
About Mr. Clinton’s sexual betrayals–the plural is mine, not hers–she’s as forthcoming as you could reasonably expect. Her only comment on Gennifer Flowers’ allegation that she’d had a long affair with Mr. Clinton is: “He told me it wasn’t true.” (End of sentence. End of paragraph. No halfway intelligent reader could miss the implication.) Similarly, she says a couple of times that her husband will have to give us his own explanation for what the hell he was thinking when he got involved with Ms. Lewinsky. And while Bill and Hillary went into marriage counseling after the affair became public, Hillary never tells us specifically what the upshot was–if there was a specific upshot–or even if they started sleeping in the same room again. Well, it’s none of our business, really, and left to herself–to the extent any politician has a self–she might have told us so. But without at least dipping a toe into this swamp, she wouldn’t have had a promotable book or, perhaps, a political career beyond the Senate. Which, I have to say, I hope she’s got her beady eye on. Since she had to deal with the mess somehow, she’s done a reasonably deft job of giving away not much of anything we didn’t know. Did anybody, for instance, think she wasn’t angry with Mr. Clinton? Would anyone have respect for her if she hadn’t been? As rawly confessional as Living History is designed to seem, it’s an artifact crafted by a politician and her team, and she doesn’t give up a damn thing she didn’t have to. Would you?
David Gates is the author of two novels and, most recently, The Wonders of the Invisible World: Stories (Vintage Books).
It’s a decent bet that almost every day that Monica Lewinsky went down on Bill Clinton, bombs dropped somewhere in Iraq–and while he hardly ever got to climax, the bombs frequently did. Now that Hillary has spilled “all,” that’s one of many facts you won’t see discussed in the stupefying reporting about her book. Nor, it occurred to me today while looking over “August 1998,” the curiously affectless chapter on her “personal agony” that was much reported on after it was leaked to the Associated Press last week, are we going to be enlightened as to why Hillary voted in favor of our spectacularly mendacious little war in the Fertile Crescent, either.
All we get are her tears over the casual infidelities of a man who, by most credible accounts, hasn’t kept it in his pants since the diapers came off.
Here’s a news item for the media, for Simon & Schuster, and for whatever bizarre, salacious readership leads the publisher to believe this book needed a first print run of a million copies: It wasn’t the Clintons’ genitals that were so troubling, it was their brains.
But, of course, there’s a lot of political cover in pointing our attention groin-ward. Perhaps that’s why her book reads so much like the establishing scenes in a bad porn video.
August 1998 is when Bill Clinton testified to a grand jury via video what he then had to announce to the nation: He’d had a little action in the Oval Office. Hillary kindly reminds us that (just by coincidence, mind), “within hours of his statement about his personal transgression, the United States would launch a missile strike against one of Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan, at a time when our intelligence indicated bin Laden and his top lieutenants would be there.”
This little arrangement, in which dire national-security requirements dovetail so perfectly with the political needs of a desperately underclad emperor, feels kind of familiar, doesn’t it? But then, that’s not an aspect of Hillary’s now-famous chapter–the “personal revelation” of her “agony” (as opposed to the agony of so many others)–that we care to discuss much.
Vince Passaro’s first novel was Violence, Nudity, Adult Content (Simon & Schuster).
Reading Hillary Clinton reminds me of how hard it is to pull off climactic, emotionally charged scenes without lapsing into cliché. Of course, there is frisson in the very idea of being secreted past the bedroom door to witness the moment when her husband, the President, admitted to her that he had fooled around with Monica L. after months of denying it. But the language Senator Clinton uses to render this encounter veers between legalese (“there had been an inappropriate intimacy”) to familiar prose shorthand for heightened emotional states (“Gulping for air”; “I was furious and getting more so by the second”; “I was dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged … ”).
Clichés are a kind of literary Esperanto, recognizable to everyone in a vague, general way. Take out the names, and just about anyone could have written this stuff about anyone. That’s why Ms. Clinton’s answer to another much-pondered question back in 1998–how does Hillary feel about Bill now?–is so weirdly disappointing: “As a wife, I wanted to wring Bill’s neck.” The cliché blocks the gritty specificity of what went on between these two particular people; it actually obscures it. Which may be the point. Does she really want millions of readers to know how she felt when her husband confessed to yet another infidelity–one that might cost him his Presidency? I wouldn’t.
As a writer, I try to look at clichés as a starting point. Early drafts of my work are lousy with them, in the same way that they creep into (cliché) so much spoken language without our even noticing. In the end, I try to isolate each one and ask myself: What exactly is this standing in for? The answers are usually interesting. I’d love to know Hillary Clinton’s.
Jennifer Egan is the author of two novels and a collection of short stories.
We live in a decadent era that grows uglier by the minute. The spectacle of the media salivating in gluttonous anticipation of Senator Clinton’s telling how she learnt from her husband the “truth” about Monica has been one more painful and shaming lesson in the abasement of the American public’s taste as the media and publishers perceive it. Is it true that Hillary Clinton needed to let the entire world into her bedroom to justify an $8 million book contract? She had, after all, other useful and interesting information to impart, and she is an engaging and sometimes deeply moving figure. I readily imagine Kenneth Starr, Orrin Hatch, Tom DeLay and the other stalwarts of the great Presidential peep show in their viewing booths, shifting eagerly from foot to foot, ready to climax as Hillary and Bill undress. But are the rest of us just as depraved? If we are, I wonder whether Hillary Clinton shouldn’t have settled for less money and written a book that did not delve into matters normally reserved for fiction and the transcripts of divorce proceedings. Peep shows are hardly ever worth the price of admission–a quarter? Fifty cents? I honestly don’t know; the last one I attended–other than the Clinton impeachment proceedings, which came free on CNN–was in the early 50’s, in smelly premises near Boston’s Scollay Square. The price of the current one–$28, minus such discounts as Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other chains will grant–will seem like highway robbery to the prurient reader the media have postulated: Senator Clinton has, in fact, written with commendable restraint and modesty.
Louis Begley’s seventh novel, Shipwreck (Knopf), will be published in September.
Even those of us who have given up the losing battle against the misplaced modifier and the dangling participle still believe that certain rules of English grammar are not optional, and that their importance is not merely linguistic, but philosophical and moral. One of these is the rule that says that to put dialogue between quotation marks signifies (unless you’re writing fiction) that those words were spoken as written, and were transcribed directly from what we call real life. I’ve sometimes wondered if the increasingly common confusion about this simple relationship between truth and punctuation may be at the heart of some of the media’s current problems with journalistic ethics and accuracy.
It’s possible that, when Bill Clinton finally admitted to his affair with a White House intern, Hillary said, as she reports in Living History: “What do you mean? What are you saying? Why did you lie to me?” And it’s possible that Bill replied: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was trying to protect you and Chelsea.” It’s likely that they said something like that, but unlikely that they said that, exactly. For one thing, it’s very difficult to remember precisely what words we used in the past, unless we’ve uttered some fabulous bon mot. Which this is not. And it must be doubly hard to recreate the conversation that ensued when one’s husband, the President of the United States, suggested that Ken Starr might soon tell the world how Monica Lewinsky was encouraged to get acquainted with a cigar.
But someone felt that we needed to hear (not merely hear about) this historic exchange, and that to dramatize it–to borrow from the rhythms and speech patterns of the afternoon soaps–would help us to feel like a fly on the wall. Or, as Senator Clinton’s publishers must hope, one fly among millions on the wall. The result is that, reading the scene, you don’t have to be a writer to think that you could have written it yourself. Which can only add to the sense of déjà vu and anti-climax that (despite the advance publicity and the tantalizing promises of heartfelt, steamy, tell-all revelation) readers may wind up feeling about Living History.
Which is as it should be. Because now that we’re being routinely bombarded with so many big lies, it’s hard to get excited about the little lies and the little exposures. It’s just not as much fun as it used to be. Reading Living History feels like an exercise in a kind of bittersweet nostalgia that gets downright depressing as we try to imagine the equivalent we might get–but never will–from the current administration:
“I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at Donald and Dick and Condoleezza: ‘What are you saying? Why did you lie to me? What do you mean, there were no weapons of mass destruction?’”
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