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Books Column: The Trump delirium will continue on our bookshelves

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

There's a bright future for Trump ... in the publishing world, at least. Corrupt politics, you see, is brilliant for the book business.

I write this column having endured the purifying fire of eight months of lockdown with two small children, all while turning on the spitroast of an endless election.

Covid-19’s jaws have closed on my small hideout in the United States: Santa Fe, New Mexico. The numbers are spiking; there’s no safety in them. Fortunately, the Republicans haven’t sniffed our location – and it’s too late for them. This state went decisively blue, even as the death cult’s constrictions choked out victories in other parts of the south and west, now red on the map as if stained by splotches of coughed-up blood.

As I am delirious from lack of sleep and sustained levels of the opposite of lack of anxiety, my thoughts turn to books, of course. With books there’s always a further retreat. That said, publishing has been Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in the US this year. Juggernaut political title after juggernaut political title has rolled off the production line – some going on to sell millions, others hitting the shelves like the Titanic striking its fateful iceberg, sinking rapidly under fresher waves of distraction and scandal. Presciently, a novel called The Book of Two Ways hit the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list shortly before voting day. It has nothing to do with current politics, of course, but how could one not count it as a sign of the times?

(It’s by Jodi Picoult, by the way, and will soon likely sit on the Daily Maverick’s own Top Ten list for SA best sellers)

Here are two predictions for the US publishing business in the years ahead. First, in the short term, if Donald Trump is eventually ousted from the White House – at the time of writing, this looks possible but far from certain – expect to hear stifled groans emanating from the swish Manhattan addresses that produce American bestsellers. Corrupt politics, you see, is brilliant for the book business. When a bad guy gets his mitts on the reins of power, publishing people perk up. To put it in South African terms, with a mobster in charge you’re more likely to strike a mother lode on the order of The President’s Keepers (by Jacques Pauw); but with a relatively crimeless leader at the helm you have to lower your sights a rung or two. Ace Magashule, though certainly worth writing about, simply isn’t as compelling a subject as a certain JZ.

Second, regardless of the election outcome, look for a mini-industry to form around Trump over the long term – one that will primarily centre on biographies. Watch out for books on young Trump, middle-aged Trump, senile Trump, Trump as Ivana’s consort, Trump as Ivanka’s father, Trump as Melania’s ex, Trump as Putin’s bag-carrier, Trump the immigrant’s son, Trump the chaos-maker, Trump the unmasker of America’s healthy regard for white supremacy-based authoritarianism… and so on.

The reason being, publishers adore history’s singular figures and have devised formulas for packaging a myriad angles on them to keep them intellectually and commercially relevant. The most written-about person ever, barring perhaps a few founders of religions, is Hitler. There’s always a new book in the works on Hitler. 

Likewise with other large-looming leaders: in America, it’s an unusual year that doesn’t see a big title about Lincoln appear; in England, it’s Churchill. These three – Hitler, Lincoln and Churchill – have more biographical staying power than most, but watch out: the likes of JFK, Margaret Thatcher and our own Nelson Mandela are nipping at their heels. 

For a surname to achieve the status of perpetually in print, the person attached to it has to have crossed some line, set arbitrarily by the gods, which no-one else has crossed before. Whether the many lines that Trump has crossed during the past four years (and possibly the next four) are enough to usher him to the front rank of biographical reification remains to be seen. 

My guess is that publishers will give it a go, though, and that he’ll haunt our bookshelves for some time after he’s stopped haunting a certain address on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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