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A Conservative Novel of Conservative Lineage

Review elides author’s famed legacy

Marc Tracy
July 01, 2010

“As with most first novels, The November Criminals contains some repurposing of life experience,” explains the Wall Street Journal in its generally positive review of Sam Munson’s debut. The book seems to be essentially a long—one can’t resist saying Caulfield-esque—monologue from a particularly cynical high-school senior growing up upper-middle-class in Washington, D.C., which, you see, is also where Munson grew up.

Additionally, the reviewer says, the novel might be considered a politically conservative one—it “takes aim at a lot of liberal pieties”—which presumably reflects Munson’s own beliefs: “The most interesting bit of Mr. Munson’s background is that the author worked as a researcher for CNBC host and devoted supply-sider Larry Kudlow and as an editor at Commentary magazine.”

Everyone ought to be judged on the basis of who he is and his own work. That said, given the novel’s politics, might “the most interesting bit of Mr. Munson’s background” not be that he worked for Commentary, but that he is, um, Norman Podhoretz’s grandson?

This is especially relevant because the description of Munson’s novel—which I have not read, but which frankly sounds pretty charming and like something I’d want to read—reminded me of a wonderful essay in which Franklin Foer, now the editor of The New Republic, argued that a conservative school of art and art criticism had cropped up, which, resembling nothing so much as 1930s-era Communist thinking, insisted on subsuming aesthetics into politics. Of The Weekly Standard, Foer wrote, “the magazine preaches aesthetic independence but often practices conservative political correctness of a remarkably crude sort.” That magazine’s deputy editor then, and Foer’s Exhibit A, was John Podhoretz—presumably, Munson’s uncle.

Which is not at all to say that The November Criminals deploys art in the service of politics! For all I know, the protagonist’s rants against “Diversity Outreach (‘just as horrifyingly inept as its name suggests’) [and] a history teacher who worships Wilson, Kennedy and FDR (‘that’s verbatim; she actually said holy trinity’)” are objective correlatives that gives us a fuller view of this character. No matter who his grandfather is, it is entirely possible that Munson has little but the highest aesthetic goals in mind (if I get around to reading the thing, I’ll get back to you).

The Journal’s reviewer certainly believes that to be the case: “Munson does this as a novelist and not as a pundit—he dramatizes his debates, keeps them entertaining and leaves them unresolved.” Okay. But if you’re gonna go there, then please at least mention what “the most interesting bit of Mr. Munson’s background” really is!

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.