These au­thors would rather write best­sellers than be pres­i­dent.

The Post’s Steven Lev­ingston asks writ­ers: Would you rather be the U.S. pres­i­dent or a No. 1 best­selling au­thor?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Steven Lev­ingston is the non­fic­tion editor of The Washington Post and the au­thor of “Kennedy and King: The Pres­i­dent, the Pastor, and the Bat­tle Over Civil Rights.”

Hil­lary Clin­ton wanted more than any­thing to be the leader of the free world. Now all she’s got is a crummy con­so­la­tion prize: a No. 1 best-sell­ing book. For days be­fore its Tues­day re­lease, her mem­oir of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, “What Hap­pened,” was first in the rank­ings among all books on Ama­zon (whose founder, Jeff Be­zos, owns The Washington Post). And it looks headed to rule over other best­seller lists, too. But if Clin­ton had her druthers, she most cer­tainly would not be sit­ting at the top of any best­seller list right now: She’d be seated in the Oval Of­fice be­hind the or­nate Res­o­lute desk.

Clin­ton’s mis­er­able fate — best­seller­dom in­stead of the pres­i­dency — raises a cu­ri­ous ques­tion for the rest of the toil­ing, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated and al­ways en­vi­ous lit­er­ary com­mu­nity. I put this ques­tion — per­haps a pre­pos­ter­ous one, but hey, we live in pre­pos­ter­ous times — to a sam­pling of writ­ers via email: Would you rather be pres­i­dent of the United States or a No. 1 best-sell­ing au­thor?

Sev­eral au­thors chose the pres­i­dency, not be­cause they han­kered to bring peace and san­ity to the world, or to use the bully pul­pit to en­cour­age tol­er­ance and com­pas­sion among their fel­low Amer­i­cans, but rather for the perks of the of­fice. Gar­ri­son Keillor, cre­ator and for­mer host of “A Prairie Home Com­pan­ion,” re­minded me that he once had a No. 1 best-sell­ing book, “Lake Wobe­gon Days,” in 1985. Still, a White House life seems far more agree­able to him. “You get a whole staff with that, and you have trans­porta­tion, ac­cess to peo­ple much smarter than your­self, and you have the power to is­sue in­vi­ta­tions to the White House, which ev­ery­one wants. A lot of charisma comes with the job.” By con­trast, a No. 1 best­seller poses a host of hard­ships. “With a No. 1 book,” Keillor re­mem­bers, “you get to sign your name thou­sands and thou­sands of times, you’re in­ter­viewed by peo­ple who ask what in­spired you to write the book, and you en­dure the bit­ter envy of other au­thors. And your neigh­bors watch you closely for signs of ar­ro­gance, so you have to work hard to mow your own lawn and take out the garbage. I’d take the White House any day.”

Sam Quinones, whose “Dream­land: The True Tale of Amer­ica’s Opi­ate Epi­demic” won the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for gen­eral non­fic­tion and is a peren­nial best­seller these days, ad­mits he’d be a lousy pres­i­dent; he’s tem­per­a­men­tally un­fit and would prob­a­bly become un­bal­anced while in of­fice. But he’d still take it over the writ­ing life. “I’d get to go to a lot of sport­ing events for free,” he says, “and hoard a lot of swag, and have White House cooks make me ice cream sun­daes with ex­tra wal­nuts and whipped cream at 2 a.m. while I lis­tened to the Ra­mones.”

Ch­eryl Strayed knows all about the joys of best­seller­dom. Her book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pa­cific Crest Trail” spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times best­seller list. “I can at­test to this: it’s SU­PER FUN to have a book at the top of the best­seller lists,” she writes. “There is not one thing not fun about it.” Be­ing pres­i­dent, on the other hand, isn’t ter­ri­bly al­lur­ing. “I don’t imag­ine it’s much fun at all, though there would be a few perks (mostly that you’d get to meet Bey­oncé — though I’d guess the cur­rent man in of­fice is out of luck on that front).”

Erik Lar­son, whose “The Devil in the White City” is a per­pet­ual-mo­tion best­seller, wor­ries that be­ing pres­i­dent would crimp his style: wear­ing jeans and open shirts ev­ery day. And how could he drink a cou­ple of bot­tles of wine with friends with the nu­clear codes al­ways hov­er­ing nearby? “Also,” he con­fesses, “I’m not good at pre­tend­ing to be nice, a trait that would make diplo­matic din­ners po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic and likely to cause un­nec­es­sary wars and make Kim Jong-un even more cranky than he al­ready is.” But a mo­tor­cade, he says — now that’s tempt­ing: “I do love a good mo­tor­cade.”

If she were to be elected pres­i­dent, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates pre­dicts that her term would be short-lived. “Since as the first POTUS to ban all guns for civil­ians, and to cur­tail the mil­i­ta­rized U.S. po­lice, I would be as­sas­si­nated within 48 hours, I would much pre­fer a No. 1 best­selling book, or in­deed a No. 10 or No. 100 best­selling book to such a fate.”

P.J. O’Rourke, au­thor and satirist, points out that it’s much safer be­ing a writer. “Few peo­ple bother try­ing to as­sas­si­nate best­selling au­thors,” he notes. “I be­lieve Julius Cae­sar, af­ter ‘The Con­quest of Gaul,’ was one of the few ex­cep­tions. (Had to read it in high school Latin and fully sym­pa­thize with Bru­tus who prob­a­bly did too.)” Fur­ther­more, lead­ing the free world is far too time-con­sum­ing. “Be­ing pres­i­dent takes four years,” O’Rourke cau­tions. “‘Good­night Moon’ was writ­ten in 15 min­utes.”

Mary Roach, au­thor of hu­mor­ous pop­u­lar­science books such as “Pack­ing for Mars: The Cu­ri­ous Science of Life in the Void” and “Gulp: Ad­ven­tures on the Ali­men­tary Canal,” at first said she’d do any­thing to avoid be­ing pres­i­dent. But then she re­con­sid­ered. “Are we talk­ing about this term? Right now? Mag­i­cally, in­stantly, in place of the in­cum­bent? This I would do. I would do it for you.”

Sev­eral au­thors ex­pressed lit­tle taste for the less-seemly re­quire­ments of the of­fice. Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning colum­nist, nov­el­ist and non­fic­tion au­thor, says he has “ab­so­lutely no in­ter­est in be­ing pres­i­dent of the United States. I’m gen­er­ally dis­in­clined to lie, pivot, or ob­fus­cate . . . . Give me the top of the best­sellers list any day of the week.”

Yet, the art of ma­nip­u­la­tion plays am­ply in both pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics and writ­ing, ac­cord­ing to Tony Hor­witz, a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist and the au­thor of “Con­fed­er­ates in the At­tic” and other non­fic­tion works. “To be pres­i­dent, you must fund-raise, make phony prom­ises to mil­lions of peo­ple, and cam­paign in win­ter in Iowa and New Hamp­shire,” Hor­witz ex­plains. “To write a book, you only need to con one pub­lisher and en­dure the pri­vate agony of your own prose. Se­duc­ing read­ers, in large num­bers, re­quires much greater luck and magic. Num­ber one best­seller­dom, for me, would be like shoot­ing the moon at Hearts.”

Some au­thors took a grave view of the re­volv­ing door that takes Washington out­casts to lit­er­ary mega-sales. “Has run­ning for pres­i­dent become the best way to build buzz for your book, win or lose?” asks David O. Ste­wart, au­thor of sev­eral books on Amer­ica’s for­ma­tive years in the 18th and 19th cen­turies. “Ac­tu­ally, is it bet­ter to lose, so you can cash in four years sooner? Have we found a ‘plat­form’ for the non­fic­tion writer that is even more ef­fec­tive than be­ing the host of a Fox News Chan­nel mis­in­for­ma­tion show? Wait, I’m still scratch­ing the itch. There’s more. Why should any­one pay for a book by some­one who lost an elec­tion to . . . Don­ald Trump? How could any pa­tri­otic Amer­i­can stand to re­live the ap­palling train wreck of the 2016 elec­tion?”

Jour­nal­ist and au­thor Caitlin Flana­gan echoes Ste­wart’s ap­pre­hen­sion: “Why would any­one read a book like that?” She won­ders if Clin­ton’s mem­oir, like other huge sellers, may be pur­chased in great num­bers then sit un­thumbed in many homes. “The num­ber of peo­ple who bought her last book ver­sus the num­ber of them who ac­tu­ally read it ap­proaches ‘Satanic Verses’ di­men­sions,” Flana­gan of­fers. “Snooze.”

Christo­pher Buck­ley, mem­oirist and comic nov­el­ist, won­ders whether my orig­i­nal pre­pos­ter­ous propo­si­tion was a trick ques­tion. If not, then his an­swer is he’d want to be pres­i­dent. “Be­cause then I’d write a mem­oir guar­an­teed to hit No. 1 on the list, un­less it re­ally, re­ally sucked,” he says. “Bet­ter still, I’d hire some­one — a hack like, say, me — and have him write it. A win-win propo­si­tion. Or as our cur­rent pres­i­dent, and erst­while No. 1 best­seller, would say: a no-loser propo­si­tion.”


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