Late on January 9, The Washington Post published a list of what it called the best books about Washington, D.C. Wait, scratch that: Not “best.” As Post fiction editor and reviewer Ron Charles explained on Twitter, the article is “meant to be [an] eclectic list of subjects & genres to introduce the many facets of DC,” not (NOT, he all-capped) a best-of list. By the time coffee had kicked in for most District residents, the article’s online headline had been changed from “Best books about Washington” to “A literary introduction to Washington.” (Disclosure: I’ve worked with Charles as an occasional book-review contributor to the Post.)
That public display of internal confusion was a window into D.C.’s fraught feelings about its literary credibility. Underlying the headline shuffle—and the list itself—was a conflicted sensibility: to make the claim for a city’s literary heft, one has to argue that it transcends geographic specificity. What makes a city distinct should not limit the impact of its literary influence. But what makes a city distinct is what gives it literary interest. And around we go.
The urge to defend a city’s singular bookish honor isn’t unique to D.C.: Literary boosters everywhere do this, from San Francisco (Dave Eggers is based here!) to Saint Paul (F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up here!) to Miami (Tom Wolfe satirized us here!). The District’s literary insecurity is of a peculiar strain, though: Those who suffer from it feel compelled to argue not just for the city’s literary worth, but for as its status as a city in the first place. As the headline to Jonathan Yardley’s article put it: “Washington: A real city that has produced real literature.” “Dammit!” isn’t appended to the end, but it might as well be.
Yardley’s insistence that D.C. is “not an artificial Brasilia” spotlights this anxiety. The District is inescapably a company town—and bureaucracy is not usually fodder for fascinating literature (with few exceptions: Bartleby, Then We Came to the End, The Pale King). So Yardley makes the banal claim that Washington is a place “where real people live and work”—a particularly dull iteration of the argument that D.C. is a city just like any other.
Yardley would have done better to express what the editors of the list seem—to a certain extent—to have intuited; the city’s literary heft comes from authors who tap into the complex interactions that stitch together the region. With federal employees and subcontracted largesse woven deep into Washington's neighborhoods, the borders between the District, Virginia, and Maryland are porous in ways that those between Manhattan and the Bronx or between Chicago’s North and South sides are not. The class and race dynamic is different here, something the Post writers and editors seemed to intuit by including fine works by Dinaw Mengestu and Edward P. Jones.
But the overall project has the ungainly feel of trying too hard and protesting too much. Five of the 20 selections on the list have 2012 publication dates, projecting a need to emphasize currency and civic diversity—or the sense that editors are making use of what’s fresh in their minds. D.C. has its own homegrown music, the list proclaims! It has its own creepy folklore! It has restaurants! It has children! (It also, of course, has daily newspaper publishers and editors.) Were there books available that prove that the District possesses a power grid, waterways, and air, one imagines the Post would likely at least considered them for the longlist.
Like the political candidate who puts on a pair of jeans for any event within spitting distance of a forklift or haybale, the list’s jus’ folks posture has a manufactured and deliberate aspect. Which, in a way, actually says something specific about D.C.’s character, though one suspects more by accident than intention: By trying to promote the notion that the District is a place like any other, the Post ends up revealing the city’s special brand of hypercompetitiveness. As it happens, there’s a book about that: The quintessential story of the D.C. outsider getting caught up in the city’s unique whirlwind of strivers and manipulators remains Democracy, Henry Adams’s still-potent survey of politicians, socialites, and hangers-on. The book captures the gnawing need for attention that’s both universal and an occupational hazard of D.C. professional life—circle squared. Nobody at the Post recommended it, Yardley reports.
The literature of Chicago tells a story about ethnic enclaves and working-class ambition in a metropolis riven by political corruption and racial division. New York’s story is a similar one, with more money and more media. San Francisco’s story is about technology and the fragile environment that captains of industry conquered. None of these cities try to make their case by denying those attributes and claiming they’re just like everywhere else. But D.C.’s story, to hear the Post tell it, is frustratingly modest: It’s the one about the capital city where everyday people live. This is why we’re supposed to care about D.C. literature? In his introduction to the short-story anthology D.C. Noir, George Pelecanos lobbied for some broader thinking about the District. “Nowhere in this country is the race, class, and culture divide more obvious than it is in Washington, D.C.” That’s debatable, of course. But there’s a list to be made that would inspire the debate.
Mark Athitakis is a writer and editor in Washington, D,.C. He blogs at markathitakis.com.