This Month in Books: ‘When Will I Be a Winner?’ or, ‘Mr. President, I Have a Headache’

A bunch of men. Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

“We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please Mr. President, I have a headache. Please, don’t win so much. This is getting terrible.’ And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.’ You’re gonna say, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope. We’re gonna keep winning.’”

—Donald Trump


“There are many victories worse than a defeat.”

—George Eliot


Dear Reader,

In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s short story “The Hospital Where,” the narrator, when he is young and living in poverty, sells his soul to the Twelve-tongued God in exchange for literary achievement. But years later, he still doesn’t know what winning feels like, and wonders when it will happen to him:

I wanted to ask, When will I be a winner? And though the thought never reached my throat, the Twelve-tongued God turned to me just before disappearing through the double doors, and said, “When you win something.”

His triumph, it turns out — over life, death, other writers in a short story contest, whatever — is tautological. That is, it is not assured until his has written it down. Writing become a fantastical act, reflecting back on real life, healing wounds, curing the sick and floating the… well, also floating the sick. (Honestly, you just have to read it….)

History, the saying goes, is written by the victors. Or, more to the point, writing a battle is an easy way to win it. Howard Hughes, the playboy, director and billionaire, paid gossip columnists to spin or kill stories about him, as billionaire playboys are wont to do. Karina Longworth, author of a new book on the women of Hollywood’s Golden Age, tells Rae Nudson that women had to watch powerlessly as even their attempts to tell the truth were used against them:

If you don’t have a lot of power, then you probably don’t have access to getting the gossip columnists to spin things the way you want them to. And so your version of the story doesn’t get told, or the story that you don’t want told gets told… And I mean you see Faith Domergue is an example — where you see her picking up the phone and calling these gossip columnists and being like, “That thing you’ve heard about Howard being involved with Lana Turner is not correct.” And the gossip columnists who were being paid off by Howard Hughes will report this, but in this completely mocking way where it’s like, “poor little Faith.”

Longworth scoured Hollywood’s archives for the truth behind the “history,” discovering what seems almost like a demon at work in the history books:

There’s one man who’s pulling a lot of these strings, and he starts pulling strings in 1925, and then he just pulls more and more and more strings over time.

Which is not to say I’m promoting some sort of a “great man” theory of messing with the truth — for instance, sometimes it can be a bunch of men! As historian Colin G. Calloway writes in The Indian World of George Washington,

Historians of the early Republic… often treat Indian affairs as tangential or even irrelevant. In fact, federal officials devoted much time, attention, and ink to conducting diplomatic relations with Indian politicians…

Probably more books have been written about Washington than about any other American, but few of them pay much attention to Indians, let alone consider the role they played in his life. Certainly none of Washington’s biographers have shown any particular interest or expertise in Indian history…

Washington’s life, like the lives of so many of his contemporaries, was inextricably linked to Native America, a reality we have forgotten as our historical hindsight has separated Indians and early Americans so sharply, and prematurely, into winners and losers.

Or, as Karina Longworth put it: “I think that certainly these are tools that the powerful can use against the powerless.”


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Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All is a book about people who hold just such a power, though they seem almost oblivious to it. Reviewer Will Meyer tells us the book’s origin story: in the heart of the Disneyfied world of Ted Talks, “thought leaders” and philanthropy as self-help for rich people — that is, at the Aspen Institute “ideas conference” — Giridiharadas stood in front of all those “philanthropists” and gave a talk that “took aim at what he dubbed the ‘Aspen Consensus,’ an ideological paradigm in which elites ‘talk a lot about giving more’ and not ‘about taking less.’” Through storytelling and live-action philanthropist-role-playing, the wealthy elite have built “a culture of privatized change-making, where un-elected elites…. try to tinker with problems they likely had a hand in causing.” And yet, even as they pat each other on the back for ‘doing good,’ “there is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned in history… But it is also, by the cold logic of the numbers, among the more predatory in history.” In his review, Meyer points out that if the rich really want to ‘do good,’ they should become class traitors FDR, and raise their own taxes, a history which Giridharadas’ subjects seem completely unaware of and which even Giridharadas himself seems shy of bringing to their attention — he clearly thinks it will not convince them, even though, truthfully, it is the only thing for them to do.

Class problems need to be written before they can be solved, is sort of the idea. When it comes to bookstores unionizing for better pay and working conditions, you’d think booksellers, at the very least, wouldn’t have trouble getting their side of the story written down — and their battles won — given their extreme adjacence to the literary world. But not so, Rebecca McCarthy discovers during her investigation of bookstore unionizations, because “embarrassingly absent from conversations surrounding bookstore labor have been the voices of authors” and publishers. Telling the history of a flurry of bookstore unionizations in the ‘90s and early 2000s, she writes:

“Despite a huge community of poets and writers in the Twin Cities, the struggle of booksellers and bookstore workers at one of the largest bookstores in town seemed to be off the radar of 99% of the local writers,” Mark Nowak wrote for the Poetry Foundation, years later. “I was even the chair of the Political Issues Committee of the National Writers Union local at the time and the most I could muster from them was a resolution of support (which I had to write myself) — not a single NWU member would show up at the Borders pickets, either.”….

“The relationship of the literary community and the working class is a pretty problematic one in general I think,” Nowak told me over the phone. “So it really wasn’t surprising, but it was disheartening…. we had pictured forming some kind of umbrella organization for bookstore workers who were trying to organize and we wanted to produce a book that was a history of those organizing drives, but unfortunately we never found a publisher for it.”

Film critic W. Scott Poole, in his book about World War I and the origins of the horror genre, also has something to say about writers and reality and winning — although there weren’t really any winners in World War I, just a generation preoccupied with the lifeless, unmourned bodies of their friends. He describes at length the post-WWI movie Waxworks, which is about a carnival, “a nightmare dimension in which a young poet in this age of disillusioned poets takes a job from a showman.” Poole explains that this writer, too, is able to write things to life, but instead of a misguided effort to cure the sick, he just falls right in to one of capitalism’s most workaday pointless activities: spending too much time and energy on enacting his boss’s fantasies:

The poet will work in service of the dark carnival, writing narratives for each of the empty-eyed figures in the showman’s wax museum. In the cavernous tent the waxworks begin to move and act out the dreamlike tales of horror the poet imagines. These dark imaginings revolve around tyrants inflicting torture…

Which reminds me of what Sarah Perry said during a discussion with Bridey Heing about her new novel Melmoth:

So many of the great atrocities in the world are carried out by perfectly ordinary people who think of themselves as being good people, but who sign the paperwork or don’t speak up when they should speak up.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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