For the past few years, I’ve used these essays to reflect somberly on the events of the year, and how they have shaped me as a reader and a person. Unfortunately, I have a selective memory, and can generally only recall the events of the year that have been horribly depressing. I blame this on my Catholic upbringing, and the fact that many of the first books I ever read were about boys who loved dogs who then die. (Either the boy or the dog. It doesn’t matter.) So the end result has been a series of essays more dismal than a Leonard Cohen concept album about children who have burned to death in chemical factory explosions.
But this year has been different! I mean, a lot of depressing things have happened, but thanks to my therapist (by which I mean my dog, because I have shitty health insurance), I’ve learned to deal with it with a mixture of denial and gleeful resignation. I also started reading funnier books, because life is short — too short for books where dogs die at an alarming frequency. (Except for The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams, which does have more than one dead dog, but which owns.)
One of the funniest books I read this year was also one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is chiefly about racism and slavery, neither of which, of course, are traditionally fodder for light humor, unless you are Donald Trump. The book opens with the African-American narrator sitting before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he’s landed after trying to reinstate slavery in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.
The court’s sole African-American justice, who is not named but who is clearly Clarence Thomas, is not amused. “Racial segregation? Slavery? Why you bitch-made motherfucker, I know goddamn well your parents raised you better than that! So let’s get this hanging party started!” The thought of Justice Thomas saying anything from the bench is funny enough; imagining him calling someone a “bitch-made motherfucker” is genuinely inspired comedy. The Sellout is a serious book, but it’s also a masterpiece of inspired humor.
Politics is also at the center of the debut book The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. The author worked as a writer in the press office of Mark Sanford, the then-governor of South Carolina who later inspired the (still hilarious!) euphemism “hiking the Appalachian trail.” Swaim’s portrait of Sanford is scathing but funny, particularly when he discusses Sanford’s tenuous grasp on language. In one passage, Swaim warns his co-worker that Sanford hates sentences that begin with conjunctions, urging him to change a sentence that begins with “Yet.” “He doesn’t know ‘yet’ is a conjunction,” his co-worker responds, correctly. It’s a great, frequently hilarious political memoir by one of America’s smartest young writers.
Another great debut is Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut and Other People. Holmes deals with serious subjects — broken families, AIDS, slut-shaming — but she has a brilliant sense of humor that shines through nearly all of her stories. Particularly great is “I Will Crawl to Raleigh If I Have To,” about a young woman’s abortive attempt to break up with her boyfriend while on the way to a vacation with her family and their friends. Her description of a pre-teen boy that the protagonist loathes is especially funny: “Dylan was twelve and seemed like he was two or three years away from realizing that he hated his parents. For now, though, he liked to sit as close to his mom as possible, and other than that his only hobbies were whining and watching anime.”
It’s no secret that the author Mat Johnson is hilarious; he has one of the funniest Twitter accounts of any writer. Johnson mixes humor and pathos in Loving Day, a novel about a biracial comic book artist who discovers he has a teenage daughter. The book is both sweet and funny, with some of the sharpest, most amusing writing of the year. On a comic book-obsessed man who has invited the narrator to sign his work at a convention: “Travis is so happy. He smiles the width of his wire-framed glasses. He looks like he just received an official letter that says he is not a juvenilia-obsessed dork. The letter is wrong.”
Finally, there’s the absurd and anarchic The Mark and the Void, by Irish author Paul Murray. This one is special to me — on a recent episode of The Book Report, Janet Potter and I discussed the novel, Murray’s follow-up to his amazing Skippy Dies. (If it weren’t for Murray, The Book Report might never have happened; Janet and I first met when I edited her review of Skippy Dies for Bookslut.) The Mark and the Void is one of the few books that made me laugh out loud multiple times, especially this passage, where the French protagonist and his Australian co-worker are talking to a mysterious writer who has entered their lives:
‘I’m Claude’s best mate in this dump,’ Ish volunteers. ‘Which is funny, because people say that Frogs and Ozzies don’t get on. ‘Cos the Frogs are all, you know, Shmuhh-shmuhh-shmuhh, and the Ozzies are all, Wa-hey! But we get on like a house fire, don’t we, Claude?’
I picture the flames, the screaming. ‘Yes,’ I say.
Murray’s novel brings back great memories for me — talking about books that made me laugh with one of my best friends, as opposed to, say, talking about books that chronicle the Armenian genocide with my therapist (read: dog). And while I’m never going to give up on depressing literature — it is in my genes — I’m going to keep making myself follow up every soul-crushing war novel with one that’s more light-hearted. Unless Donald Trump gets elected president next year. Then it’s all books about dead dogs, and I’ll be writing my next Year in Reading essay from my tar-paper shack in rural Canada.
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Talk is cheap; speech is luxe. Speech is sheltered by sacred authorities, like the United States Constitution and Justice John G. Roberts. Speech comes with the sexy modifiers, like “hate” and “free.” You can never have too much of it, since as Louis Brandeis said, the remedy for bad speech “is more speech.” Speech — for lack of a better word — is good.
Speechwriting is more ambivalent: speech filtered through the counterfeit instincts of American politics, through the undignified pressure of the news cycle, through the mind, throat, and ego of another human being. Psychologically, it’s a kind of Munchausen by proxy. Culturally, it’s glamorous and dishonest in the same way art forgery is. And like most things, most of it is neither good nor important. The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim’s new memoir, is a deeply humane study in both the romance and the dissonance.
Swaim worked for a term for Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, the one with the Argentine mistress. Swaim didn’t find out any sooner than anyone else — he didn’t write Sanford’s public apology — but The Speechwriter’s heart is in the way it processes that humiliation. After all, for every politician who falls, a dozen staff fall in microcosm. After Sanford offered his aides a muddled “I’m sorry,” one rants, “If you do say anything, it should be more like, ‘Sorry I flushed all your work down the toilet, people. Sorry I made you all a joke. Sorry about your next job interview, the one where you’re going to be brought in as a curiosity and then laughed at.’” But the book, if a little melancholic and at times a little cruel, isn’t bitter. The Speechwriter is Swaim’s graceful way of resolving what four years of mediocre writing, written for a mediocre man, meant. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin,” his epigraph reads — Proverbs 10:19.
Swaim’s political career started with a very American impulse. Reading one of Sanford’s op-eds, it occurred to him: I can do better than that. He dashed off a cover letter that was “deferential but terse, and said something like ‘I don’t know that much about state politics, but I know how to write, and you need a writer.’” Sanford agreed. He was “very interested in this larger idea of a brand,” he said (Sanford, Swaim reports, could never resist referencing a “larger notion”). He wanted the slick stylings he saw in the work of other politicians, since — it’s a truth widely acknowledged — no one writes their own stuff. “Every speech he gives,” the governor muses about another big name, “every op-ed or whatever, sounds the same. Not the same, like boring the same. From the same source, consistent. I like that. It’s about consistency. You always know what you’re getting.”
Sanford, you’ll notice, couldn’t word his way out of a paper bag. Still, the governor’s writings and remarks are the best parts of the book. Swaim has an uncanny instinct for writing poorly on purpose, an indispensable talent for any speechwriter. Reading Sanford’s old op-eds, Swaim says, “It worried me that I didn’t hear much of a voice. What I heard was more like a cough. Or the humming of a bad melody, with most of the notes sharp. One sentence stands out in my memory: ‘This is important not only because I think it ought to be a first order of business, but because it makes common sense.’”
And no, this isn’t a training montage type of book where Swaim will push the governor to new rhetorical heights. “I wasn’t hired to come up with brilliant phrases,” he realizes. “I was hired to write what the governor would have written if he had had the time.”
For what it’s worth, Swaim is plainly a gifted writer. His professional experience shows in a firm, easy command of language; with disciplined consistency, his sentences do what they’ve been ordered to do. There’s a smooth economy to his prose, which rarely staggers or overheats. If it isn’t always lyrical, it still has a lean charm that more writing should.
Talent lends him credibility while he chips affectionately away at his profession’s ego. Speechwriting is culturally celebrated for both its influence and its secrecy. In an episode of The West Wing, Joshua Malina asks Rob Lowe, “You’ve ghosted for Senators, movie stars, I think the King of Belgium one time. Do you say anything?” Lowe answers, honorably, “Speechwriters don’t do that.” Because of omerta maybe. But here in reality, flattering profiles of speechwriters are a booming genre in political journalism: cf. “State of the Union Speechwriter for Obama Draws on Various Inspirations,” “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice,” “Meet the ghost hunter and horror novelist who writes Sen. Rob Portman’s speeches,” “Meet Matthew Scully, Paul Ryan’s vegan speechwriter.”
Swaim doesn’t deny the sex appeal. After Sanford delivers the first speech he’s written, he fantasizes, “I would soon be indispensable. I would study the questions faced by this great, graceful statesman, and I would suggest to him what he would say.” But the grace notes are mostly smothered by the indignities. “Sometimes he’d forget which products had been drafted for him and which he’d written himself,” Swaim says of the governor. Sanford had a ritual way of shooting down drafts, and “didn’t like to accept a document without first dismissing it as worthless. Provoking a fight with the staffers who’d written it was his way of figuring out whether or not it was what he wanted.” In short, he misused his staff casually, not that Swaim blamed him: “It was as if you were one of those pieces of cork placed in the mouths of wounded soldiers during an amputation. The soldier didn’t chew the cork because he hated it but because it was therapeutic to bite hard.”
But to a gratifying extent, The Speechwriter isn’t interested in settling scores. Swaim clearly feels affection for Sanford and his fellow staff. The book’s care and sympathy, often, cuts deeper than its criticism. He extends the governor every credit, even after his decline and fall: “He was everything a politician should be — a politician in the best sense of that word, if it has a best sense.” In other words, if writing for him was a long, deepening disappointment, that wasn’t Sanford’s personal failure. The book’s indictment is broader. “Why,” Swaim asks, “do we trust the men who make careers of persuading us of their goodness and greatness?” With soft despair, he resolves, “They may be lauded when they’re right and venerated when they’re dead, but they should never be trusted.”
Where does that leave speechwriters? Fundamentally, speechwriters work to short-circuit the great safeguard of American democracy: our aversion to professional politicians. It would be a little ignoble if we didn’t invite exactly this kind of suasion. We want, desperately, to be convinced we’re wrong about our leaders, and it’s our democratic irrationality that we open ourselves up for persuasion every election cycle. Citizens stoke the national appetite for speech, and speechwriters ensure there’s enough to go around.
That makes The Speechwriter urgent reading, for both its literary and civic merits. If you ask to be fooled, it teaches, don’t claim to be shocked, shocked when you invariably are.