Morris Dickstein

  • Fiction and Political Fact

    The political novel has always been an odd hybrid of fact and fiction. One of the genre’s originators, Benjamin Disraeli, the author of Coningsby (1844), was also one of the few writers who had genuine inside knowledge of the political world. But political novels usually deal with more than the intrigues of cabinet ministers and young men on the make. The boundaries of this genre are very hard to delimit. For some critics, the political novel is precisely the kind of book Disraeli, Trollope, and Henry Adams passed on to a few modern writers like Gore Vidal in Washington, D.C., Burr, Lincoln,

  • All Made Up

    “Write what you know” has been an axiom of fiction writing since the ’20s, when Sherwood Anderson urged it on the young Faulkner; Edmund White took it to heart in his third novel, still his best-known work, A Boy’s Own Story (1982). White’s coming-of-age tale led to a series of autobiographical fictions, including The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), Skinned Alive (stories, 1995), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000), that broke out of the ghetto of gay writing and gained a wide readership. As the social world of the closet was being turned on its head, first by gay liberation,


    In his 1940 essay, “The Cult of Experience in American Writing,” Philip Rahv remarks that “the intellectual is the only character missing in the American novel, He may appear in it in his professional capacity—as artist, teacher, or scientist—but very rarely as a person who thinks with his entire being, that is to say, as a person who transforms ideas into actual dramatic motives. . . . Everything is contained in the American novel except ideas.”

    If this is true, it appears paradoxical. As a product of the Enlightenment, the United States was founded by a remarkable group of secular thinkers.