The Irish author Rowan Somerville won this year's "Bad Sex in Fiction" award, an annual celebration of prose that fails to, er , inspire confidence. The award winner's most failed purple passage was this one: "Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her."
In my humble opinion the award, which had several other notable nominees ranging from Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom to Tony Blair's memoirs, missed an opportunity by not nominating the core political narrative of Barack Obama in the 2010 election campaign. That core narrative was: "Things would be a lot worse without us."
So lame was his message and so often was it repeated in conjunction with the "car in the ditch" metaphor that most Americans turned away from Democrats and gave a Bronx cheer to his presidency. Even those of us who support him--and still support him, God bless us every one--have, as the Righteous Brothers' put it, "lost that lovin' feelin'."
The criteria for the "Bad Sex in Fiction" award is not available in a published document, although the judges seem to apply Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's pornography test of "I know it when I see it" to the books they are asked to evaluate. In this case, they know bad sex writing when they read it. And in my case, I know a bad political core narrative strategy when I hear it. My guess is, so do you.
A bad political core narrative strategy, like bad sex writing, conforms to the following three criteria:
- The narrative reduces a peak human experience to the mechanical connection of parts while using a bad metaphor to suggest that a rare truth is being suddenly revealed. For example: Our car, which is the U.S. economy, is driven into the ditch, which is the present Near-Great Depression.
- The narrative obscures emotional connection, passion, and intimacy by replacing its appeal with a rational exercise of linguistic good judgment in the form of a truncated syllogism suitable only for the procreation of an obvious conclusion . For example: We need to get the car back on the road. The Republican who drove us into the ditch obviously can't drive. It's our turn.
- It is neither memorable nor does it inspire confidence that its author "gets it." For example: Things would be worse without us.
In either case--whether the narrative is a bedroom scene or a campaign slogan--the author's prior reputation for narrative prowess, or even for a skilled performance, is now viewed differently, called into serious question, and perhaps even thought of as having been oversold. The result is predictable: A "Bad Sex" award for fiction, a negative election outcome for the president.
So what to do?
There are a number of us who recognize that Obama's problems with the public cannot be solved by putting together a new economic team, or a foreign policy team, any more than lighting the White House Christmas tree can solve the energy crisis. Our president's problem is not one of policies but of communication about those policies with the American people. And furthermore, it is communication problem amplified by his stubborn insistence on a calm presentation of facts done up as good reasons over this most basic of narrative best-practices: story drives information because they appeal to our imagination. And, as the 18th century rhetorician George Campbell knew, "enlivening the imagination " better moves the will."
Obama's communication team has it wrong. They have confused metaphor for story, and reasoning for governing. A metaphor can be an element in a good story, just as good reasons can and should be elements in governing. But until they figure out that America loves nothing so much as a better story than the one we have now , they will never win the hearts or the minds of the electorate.