As a reader of political blogs and a regular commenter on them, do you feel the work blogs and commenters are doing day in and day out is having any palpable impact on our political discourse, either on the way the big news organizations cover politics, or on the behavior of public officials and candidates? And related to that, do you see your fiction as an extension of your interest in politics? Are you commenting there as well?
—Greg Sargent, Washington, DC
Greg, I know that, as you’ve said, you’re “a huge fan and booster of what the blogs are doing” and that, as a blogger, you encourage responses and back and forth among your readers. I admire that a lot. In the past, a handful of pundits provided opinion nationally, and citizen opinion was confined to the dinner table and bars and to occasional work on campaigns and a once-every-ten-years appearance in the Letters to the Editor. I love the idea that the conversation about political matters that affect all our lives has been broadened even if the blogosphere is often an unruly and unmannered Wild West. I like hearing the new voices. In fact, one of the reasons I’m putting this interview section together is that I care about what interests people about the books and stories they read. Publishing is another area where the real stakeholders—in this case, readers—haven’t always had a lot of say about what should be put forward and valued. As good a job as the industry often does, there are really very few gatekeepers when you think how much creative work of high quality is produced in a country of this size and, for that matter, the world.
I don’t really know the answer to your main question about the impact of blogs on the coverage of politics and on political leaders, if it’s real or, as you’ve wondered, there’s “a kind of bubble effect where the comments sections and blogs seem to have more impact than they do simply because they are echoing each other or speaking to each other and creating an illusion of influence.”
Since I don’t have a definite answer, I’ll guess. Obviously, the structure of news organizations is changing markedly. All newspapers have hired bloggers, who attract commenters; a traditional magazine like Newsweek has merged with the Daily Beast. That represents a radical change, but I think it’s been forced more by technological advances and people’s wider access to alternate news sources than by the expectation that new voices will have an impact on our political dialogue. While stories from bloggers and comments from the people who read them do seem to enter the wider political conversation, I’m not sure if they’re a strong influence. Obviously they haven’t been a civilizing force, as nothing has been. I suspect politicians do feel the pressure from bloggers, which might affect their policy choices in a positive way though it could get their backs up.
I do believe that many blogs are doing a good job of getting facts on the record during a period when a lot of journalism has been lazy or nervous about doing that. If more actual facts get out there, it may dispel some misinformation and willful ignorance. You’ve reported on recent poll results on large issues that have shown far more consensus of opinion in the electorate than from the decision makers, so there may be an effect from bloggers digging on stories and doing hard fact checks. I also find it fascinating when commenters offer knowledge from their own work and avocations. Since they write their own comments, they can give a more complete picture than a reporter who might interview someone with expertise for a story and add a quote to buttress the story’s thesis. But in general, I think this is a time of foment, and there’s not a lot of clarity about how influential blog voices are, though if more and more people start to feel they have a political voice of whatever persuasion, and expect to have one, that will likely have a way of reshaping things.
As far as whether my interest in politics is reflected in my fiction, I think only in the broadest sense. I may be a political junkie, but politics interests me partly as story. It can be compelling. It can be fun. All you have to do is look at the 2008 election if you want a chronicle of amazing events and personalities. I also care a lot about what political decisions mean for people’s lives. Yet it’s not the job of a fiction writer to address political issues as an advocate. It would deaden the work. As a writer, I’m more interested in how and why people do things than in what I think they should do.
Still, there were two animating political issues of my youth—Vietnam and civil rights—that affected me in many ways, including as a writer. In telling John Given’s story in Suite Harmonic, I was looking at the impact of war and race in another era. Vietnam is part of the back story in both The Second Magician’s Tale and In the Land of the Dinosaur. And “American Snapshot:1993” in Watching Oksana is a sort of meta-story about race.
Of my books, Time Stamp is the most overtly political in terms of subject matter with both Vietnam and racial issues an integral part of the story. I wrote a lot of it during a period in which I’d become interested in political blogs. After I finished it, I realized that the political tension between Will Wheelock and his wife, Reeve, in some ways parallels the tension between ideologues and pragmatists who argue politics on a blog. Witnessing some of that verbal battle firsthand may have informed my writing at some level, though I did have the outlines and some of the passages from Will’s part of the story well before the blogosphere existed. My much earlier awareness of the warring views of Humphrey and McCarthy Democrats during the Vietnam period and the splits in families over the war among both Democrats and Republicans is a more likely influence. But there’s always this sort of tension in politics. In writing Time Stamp, I simply found it a conflict worth placing in the imaginative world of the novel and in the microcosm of a marriage. Even then, I was observing the characters, not commenting. I like it when readers take their own truths from a story.
Greg blogs on politics on the Washington Post’s Plum Line.