The reviews of Fire and Fury are in, and they are pretty furious themselves. Michael Wolff, author of the best-selling expose of the Trump White House, has been accused of every kind of journalistic malfeasance: reconstructing scenes he couldn’t have witnessed, retelling gossip as if it were gospel, letting his sources’ agendas drive his portrayals. President Trump himself has attacked the book as “a work of fiction,” and many of the journalists who have weighed in on it basically agree. At least, they complain, there’s no way to tell if the stories Wolff retails are true.
To anyone who pays attention to actual American fiction, such attacks have a familiar ring. For the last 15 years—ever since the publication of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a book sold as a memoir that turned out to be heavily fictionalized—American literature has been obsessed with the blurriness of the line separating fact and fiction. When it comes to genre, most book-buyers are literalists: If it says memoir or nonfiction on the dust jacket, everything inside is supposed to be 100 percent accurate. If it turns out not to be, they feel defrauded. Frey’s publisher had to offer refunds to disgruntled readers who thought they were getting a transcript, but had to make do with a story.
Partly in response to this genre puritanism, literary writers have developed a much more playful and ambiguous relationship with truthfulness. One of the most influential recent books of literary criticism was David Shields’s 2010 Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which encouraged writers, and readers, to skip over the line between fiction and nonfiction with good conscience. “Reality,” for Shields, was not a holy grail but a stage effect, which writers ought to deploy playfully, in full awareness of its artificiality. Shields’s book itself took the form of a collage of unattributed quotations, as if to give a poke in the eye to conventions about plagiarism and originality.
And writers were ready for this message. One of the most vital and interesting schools of literary writing today has been called “auto-fiction”: stories that straddle the border between memoir and fiction, claiming to represent the life of the author but shaping that life in ways that are clearly fictional. Such books often incorporate “evidence,” such as transcripts of phone calls or texts of emails and letters, whose authenticity is impossible to verify, adding to the vertiginous sense that we could be reading fiction or nonfiction. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, a 1997 novel that became a cult classic in the 2000s, was one of the originators of this form. More recent examples include books by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and—most famously—the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose massive, six-volume My Struggle records in minute detail the life of a writer called Karl Ove.
If Michael Wolff is writing fiction in Fire and Fury, this is the kind of fiction he is writing. Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, in an author’s note, Wolff declares himself an unreliable narrator: “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book,” he writes. The traditional promise of the journalist is to find the single, fundamental truth obscured by all the partial, biased accounts he elicits. But Wolff explicitly declines to make that promise; he offers not the story but a whole chorus of stories.
In doing so, Wolff sees himself as performing the essential postmodern gesture of pulling back the curtain, revealing how the story itself gets made. After all, the way everyone in Washington reads Washington books like Bob Woodward’s is in precisely this deconstructive way. They know full well that such books are not detached from the political combat they portray; they are arenas for that combat, where different players try to put across their own version of events. The fun of reading Woodward is to figure out who told Woodward what. In Wolff, this kind of artifice is winkingly foregrounded. When he writes that Trump called up “a passing New York media acquaintance” and poured out a stream of self-pitying complaints, it’s impossible not to think that this acquaintance was Michael Wolff. It’s the like the moment where Hitchcock makes a cameo in a Hitchcock movie.
Fire and Fury, then, is at its core a book about how to write a book like Fire and Fury. In one of the most rhetorically important sections of the book, Wolff takes aim at an earlier volume that helped to define serious political nonfiction, The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Steve Bannon, Wolff writes, encouraged Trump staffers to read Halberstam: “It makes the world clear, amazing characters and all true,” Bannon enthused. Wolff himself goes on to describe The Best and the Brightest as “Tolstoyan,” signaling not just its scope and seriousness, but the way it embraces traditional canons of realism, the genre of which Tolstoy is the acknowledged master.
But Trump, Wolff argues, simply cannot be written about as if he were a character in a Tolstoy novel, or a Halberstam tome. Realism is a convention, an illusion, that Trump simply barges through, like the Kool Aid man tearing through a brick wall. “If Halberstam defined the presidential mien, Trump defied it—and defiled it,” Wolff writes. Ironically, Trump is impossible to write about because he is, as Wolff puts it, “a real-life fictional character.” That is why he was so successful on The Apprentice: Long before reality TV was invented, Trump was living in a reality TV show, playing a cartoon version of himself.
In this way, the political and moral problem of Trump—his nullity as a human being— turns into a literary problem: How do you write about a character that has no consistency, complexity, or mystery? It is a problem that has bedeviled journalists since Trump first announced for President: you can never get to the bottom of Trump because he is all surface. Wolff’s solution is not even to try. Instead, he writes around Trump, focusing on the staffers who surround him. It is not just because Steve Bannon offered Wolff such great quotes that Wolff makes him the effective center of the narrative. It is because Bannon, unlike Trump, is fun to write about. Indeed, Wolff repeatedly wonders what other writers would make of him, describing him as “a character for Richard Ford, or John Updike, or Harry Crews”—a middle-aged American everyman, struggling to find his place in the world. Or perhaps, he suggests later on, Bannon comes out of Elmore Leonard—a garish con man, part of the pageant of the American grotesque.
But Bannon, too, finally comes across in Fire and Fury as a “real-life fictional character.” Indeed, all of the major players in the Trump White House seem to be engaged primarily in telling stories about themselves. The problem is that each of them thinks they are in a different kind of book. Bannon thinks he is in a Dostoevsky novel, full of ideological fury and violent intrigue. Jared Kushner thinks he is a Balzac hero, a young man from the provinces who comes to make his name in the big city. And Trump himself, a mental and emotional child, seems to treat the White House more or less like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where he presses a button and gets exactly the treat he wants: a Diet Coke, fulsome flattery, a glowing orb from the King of Saudi Arabia.
No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew? Of course, that is not the only possible answer. You can resist the culture as well as embracing it, and the majority of journalists—and of Trump’s critics and opponents—have done exactly that, continuing to insist on standards of factuality and decency that Trump blithely ignores. What makes Fire and Fury important is that it is not just about Trump, but a product of the same culture that produced Trump: It is “reality” journalism, in the same way that Trump is a “reality” character. And the vast success of the book may be a sign that, in journalism as in literature and politics, “reality,” rather than old-fashioned truth, is the wave of the future.