Writing About Real People: A Discussion About Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Do you ever finish a book and wonder, “Why did I want to read this again?”

That’s how I felt after reading Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. I think that the main influence behind wanting to read it was my childhood reading taste. See, when I was younger every time my mom would take my sister and I to the library I would check out stacks of books like the Dear America ones which, in short, are fictional journals from historical figures. I think it also stemmed from my love of American Girl books and I still love reading this style of first person historical story. So when I first saw a post about Rodham on Twitter I was intrigued and ended up requesting it from NetGalley. It took me a while to get to reading it and I ended up finishing it right before the election this past November so while I’m not sure how my feelings may have differed had I read it when I was first approved but I will say it was definitely a Choice.

Letting those reading this post now that it will contain spoilers.

Rodham is a fictionalized memoir type novel about an alternative timeline in which Hillary Rodham Clinton had not married Bill. It was a fascinating read albeit very long and tedious. Overall I could say I enjoyed the story but it did take me a while to actually finish reading it because I would set it aside to read or do other things. It never quite caught my attention enough to want to finish in one go. The book read like a self written memoir told from the perspective of a future Hillary looking back on her life and path to the presidency since in this alternative timeline Hillary won the 2016 election. That being said, there were enough aspects of the story that made me feel unsure about the ethics of a book like this so I decided not to rate it outside of my NetGalley account.

I do enjoy stories that follow alternate historical timelines so I was intrigued by the concept of Rodham but was almost immediately put off by the very sexual nature of this novel. It is an adult literary fiction novel so I’m not knocking it for that reason alone but for the fact that I found this sexual and relationship focus to detract heavily from the story overall. I was honestly hoping for a hard hitting story about female success and the struggle to break the glass ceiling but what I got instead was a heavy reflection on relationships and a surface level look at women in politics with a lackluster ending.

The way that Rodham was written ended up leaving me heavily questioning the ethics behind writing about living people. The writing was quite graphic in regards to the sexual nature of the relationship between Hillary and Bill and if it read more like a novel and less like a fictionalized memoir I may have been able to let this slide more than I already was. As I’ve reflected on these parts of the story more, I almost want to compare it to fanfiction. Like the author was pandering towards people who may find Bill Clinton attractive. I’m not sure I was meant to be part of the target audience. In the end I really couldn’t imagine Hillary writing so freely about her sex life, especially not graphically in a memoir. There were a lot of scenes in this book that made me highly uncomfortable and I had to make myself pretend that the characters were not real people because I couldn’t handle it if I thought of the real life Clintons.

Rodham had so much potential to go in depth about the experiences of a single woman in politics. It could have focused on sexism and personal growth as Hillary pursued higher offices. There were a few moments where we saw glimpses of this but most of her journey was glossed over instead to focus on how Bill Clinton continued to be a part of her life even after their breakup. His influence on the story heavily detracted from the quality. I also found myself at times wondering why the story seemed to almost depend upon Hillary eventually finding a partner. Did I understand aspects of why this was? I mean, yeah. And with that, fuck the patriarchy, but at the same time this left many of the political themes at surface level while relationships continually got explored more.

There were a number of heavier topics that were briefly mentioned, such as racism and Anita Hill’s story but these were ultimately brushed over in order to fill more pages with romance and relationship issues. Then the ending not only felt rushed but was also incredibly painful to read. It gave an influential and, dare I say it, positive voice to our most recent former president. I found it a very questionable choice especially considering this book was published in 2020 and while I will say my emotional response may have been heightened because I read it right before the election I do think this book was written in poor taste.

While working on this post I read an article from Vox which I’m linking here because I highly recommend checking it out after reading this post. The article added a lot of insight to the timeline within Rodham along with a lot of interesting commentary. The quote below was one passage that really stood out to me:

This book is enchanted that by the idea of tweaking one thing in the recent past, you can fundamentally alter the present. You can save brilliant, ambitious Hillary Rodham from her marriage to Bill Clinton; you can unleash all that frustrated potential on the world and then sit back and watch what happens next. And that idea is, especially to those who appreciate Hillary Clinton’s fierce and undeniable ambition as an attractive quality in and of itself, a heady one. But because Rodham is so narrowly focused on Hillary herself, it is never able to examine all of the other possibilities for the world it’s created.

Constance Grady, Fact-checking the alternate history and politics of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham

2016 and beyond have been tumultuous and the alternative timeline within Rodham felt like it was a surface level way to right some wrongs and play into fantasies about a real life person. I began to question whether there was a way to write stories about real people who are still living and the main example I thought of was the Netflix show The Crown. I actually marathoned all released episodes around the same time I read Rodham. I’m aware of the fact that members of the Royal Family have spoken against the show but I thought that it did a good job of fictionalizing historical events. The creators of the show have also made it clear that they are only going to follow the events up to *year*. This choice allows the family members who are currently heavily in the public eye to avoid having to endure this show “fantasizing” about the things they are going through in present day. I spent a lot of time while watching the show Googling the events and the people portrayed and I enjoyed reading about the differences between the show and real life.

Now, is The Crown perfect? No, I still think it’s a bit odd to portray real people who are still living. At the same time I had to consider how many other pieces of media portray real people and real events. The Royal Family is somewhat elusive and they do a lot to cover things up and overall the show didn’t seem wildly speculative nor did it stray too far off from what is already public knowledge. Sure actual dialogue and everything taking place behind closed doors had to be fabricated but considering Prince Harry doesn’t mind it, I think I’ll side with him.

Now in terms of the alternative timeline/world I thought a lot about Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. RWRB takes place in an alternative timeline in which a woman won the 2016 election but instead of playing with real people McQuiston created a new cast of characters to take the place of both the First and Royal families. Reading this book always feels cathartic and overall I enjoy it immensely each time I reread it. It separates itself enough from the real world that it doesn’t feel distasteful but the author themselves has noted that this was a bit of escapism and optimism from the political turmoil, paraphrasing from an answer they provided in the linked interview. I think this is where RWRB really differs from Rodham in that it was escapism in an entirely different world. I’ve read reviews of RWRB where people didn’t like the book because of the escapist nature of a different 2016/2020 election cycle but it’s also not a story for everyone.

When I’ve read and reread RWRB I focus more on the characters than the underlying political plot though I don’t really have an issue with those either. The criticisms people have with this narrative feel like they land more on their own non-enjoyment over the choices made by the author. Now in Rodham, there were portions of the plot that featured a now former president. I genuinely couldn’t understand the motivation behind the choice to feature this person in the story and because he ended up endorsing Hillary which ultimately lead to her getting elected it took everything in me to control my rage. Sittenfeld actively gave a positive voice to a person who absolutely does not deserve one. Considering the book came out in 2020 I will say I understand that she could not have predicted the horrors that our country has experienced but that is absolutely no excuse as to why this person was included in Rodham.

In an interview with Refinery29, Sittenfeld said that there will be a “big wave of Tr*mp-influenced novels” coming our way and all I have to say in response to that is, why did yours have to be one of them? If you are so fascinated by the life of Hillary Clinton write about her. But the choice to give this person a positive voice in a novel published in 2020 was absolutely disappointing and I don’t care if you wanted to try and be accurate about who might have been in her social circle or whatever your excuse might be this was the final nail in the coffin for my utter regret behind ever picking up Rodham.

Overall, I think that fictionalized media about real people is something that is a case by case opinion by those that pick it up. Some may enjoy it, some may not. Same with alternative timelines that might lean towards escapism. In the end I just don’t think that Rodham was done well. The story was fine but it wasn’t anything amazing and it made me uncomfortable for numerous reasons. If you’ve read Rodham what did you think of it? I only mentioned one other example of a piece of media created about people who are still alive but if you’ve got other examples let me know what they are and what you thought of them!

You can also find me on Twitter @/nihilisticactus or add me on Goodreads here. If you’d like to support the blog my ko-fi is here.

I’ll talk to you all in my next post!

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