Novelist E.L. Doctorow says it was gratifying to read recently that President-elect Barack Obama has mentioned him as a favorite writer.
"I would have voted for him in any event, but . . ." he says with a wry shrug.
Doctorow, who has written about racial divides in American culture in many of his novels, from Ragtime (1975) to The March (2005), calls Obama's election "beautiful" but draws the line at another much-used term.
"The popular word now is 'transformative,' but I'm not using that word," he says. Rather, he thinks over time the nation has been "inching forward to a kind of consensual reality. I think we've made that inch."
Obama himself, Doctorow says, "understands this; he called himself part of a Joshua generation, standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other civil rights warriors."
Doctorow, 77, made appearances this week at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the Clearwater Main Library to talk about his novels and about writing. He lives in New York, where he is a professor at New York University.
The author of Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel and more than a dozen other books has received the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner award and many other literary prizes. His richly complex novels have been praised for their sharp insight into American culture, and the innovative melding of history and fiction in many of his works redefined the historical novel.
Doctorow, though, resists the label of historical novelist as well as just about any other confining tag, "no matter how positive."
"My books have been called political, and they've been called historical novels. Some people talk about my use of postmodern techniques, and some have said they're New York novels. So I guess that makes me a political-historical-postmodern-New York novelist."
Reaching back into the past for material, he says, is really a way of talking about the present. "What did Faulkner say about the past — it's not even past? When we look at this economic disaster, for example, this enormous disaster brought about by free unregulated markets, it sounds like Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression."
When he has set books in past eras, Doctorow says, it's often been because of what is happening in the present. "When I started writing The March (set during the Civil War) in 2003, why did that idea stand out from the other books I might have written? If we weren't at war in Iraq, I might not have chosen it."
He welcomes the end of the administration that began that war: "If we owe George Bush any thanks, it's for being a reverse example. He showed us what a good president should be by not being one."
Bush also provided plenty of fodder for writers of all kinds. "You assume that art is predisposed to dissidence," Doctorow says. "Fiction is essentially a means of deconstructing the aggregate fictions of the society."
Not that he thinks a change in administration will mean a dearth of material. "The only community that does not need criticism is heaven."
Given his long and acclaimed career, Doctorow is now one of America's literary eminences, along with such writers as Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and John Updike. There are many fine writers in the generations that follow them, he says, mentioning British writer Zadie Smith and regretting the "terrible loss" of David Foster Wallace's recent suicide.
Doctorow shares his knowledge and craft with young writers at New York University, where he teaches a graduate class called "The Craft of Fiction," a reading course for writers. Sometimes his students' reading list is made up of the first novels of major writers, "because so many of them wrote really bad first novels, and it's a kind of encouragement for his students."
William Faulkner's first novel, Soldiers' Pay, "was unreadable. Saul Bellow's (Dangling Man) was a dyspeptic little piece, very mean.
"Then, just when they're feeling confident, I hit them with the greatest first novel by any American author, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie."
Doctorow is at work on another novel himself, but he won't talk about its subject matter. "Every book is a kind of serious affair, and you don't talk about that.
"Hemingway said you're not even supposed to think about what you're writing when you're not at your desk. He had a great sense of the psychology of writing."
But Doctorow expects to be talking about his next novel sometime next year. "I've promised it to my publishers by the end of this year, and they believe me."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.