Taylor Marsh is the “de facto leader” of “legions of Hillary Clinton fans” according to the Washington Post, and The Hillary Effect is described in the disclaimer as resulting from “reading, watching and admiring Hillary Clinton”. It’s a good blurb for the book, rather better than its subtitle: Politics, Sexism and the Destiny of Loss. I asked for a review copy, rather hoping Marsh would provide the book a lot of us have been waiting for: a rigorous account of the way the sexist discourse of politics affected Hillary Clinton’s career, and the way which she in turn affected that discourse for the future. This is not that book. If anyone is writing that book, give us a heads-up, would you? The Hillary Effect is, however, an immediate account of what it felt like to be involved in commenting on her career and has some interesting notes from the online front line of political journalism.
It’s a difficult book to like, in some ways. A lot of it feels rather too close to the front line: I was fifty pages in before Marsh had stopped settling scores with people who had been rude about Clinton, or her, and started to produce a more coherent narrative. The style also has more than a smack of the political arena about it: the argument jumps around, characters appear and disappear swiftly after being used to make a point, and the reader feels that every page is trying to convince them entirely before they turn over. After a while of this, I realized what it reminded me of: an entire book of blog posts. That page isn’t worried you’ll turn over before you agree with it, it’s afraid you’ll simply scroll to the comments or navigate away completely. Once you accept that’s how Marsh is writing, it’s easier to enjoy. Though that style does have its problems, notably her need to beat the reader to the punch each time, or even to their own reaction. When Christopher Buckley described Sally Quinn’s novels as “cliterature”, Marsh helpfully tells us that he was “hilariously acerbic”, which is either unnecessary if you agree or irritating if you don’t. The books is littered with quotations from other writers, followed by “No shit…” or “Oh yeah?…” or “Oh, the irony, because…”. There may not be space in a blog post to let the reader weigh the words and come to their own conclusion, guided by your discreet commentary, but this habit of GLOSSING EVERYTHING IN ALL CAPS grates across two hundred and fifty pages. There’s little rhetorical virtue in having the last word in your own paragraph.
In another sense, it seems very far from the front line. There aren’t lots of stories about off-the-record briefings from unnamed campaign insiders, or hurried photo opportunities with the candidate, or even much analysis of what Clinton said. Instead we get references to articles, emails, comment-pieces and blogs. This is politics as discourse, not as biography or psephology. I don’t mean that as a criticism – as a political nerd, it’s fun to be told who went upside whose head with which column, even if Marsh is still fighting the battle as she’s recounting it. Fans of the scene will recognise some favourite starts as they make their entrance: Dave Weigel, Salon.com, Hanna Rosin, Dalia Lithwick, that splendidy mouthy bunch at Slate. It’s a bit difficult to make out some of the manoeuvres through the fog of war, but the book does give a tremendous sense of what it’s like to be involved in the strife. On a more sombre note, the discussion of abortion rights also includes some material which must have been very difficult for Marsh to write, but which makes its point by embodying, not describing, the conflict. Her switch into an intensely personal story and a reflection on a passage from the Bhagavad Gita underline very strongly her basic contention: that such decisions are part of an incommensurable moral experience.
Ultimately, though, The Hillary Effect fails to live up to its billing. Apart from anything else, it’s never made entirely clear what the effect is and how it works. There are plenty of examples of it manifesting itself: the success of Republican women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann; the Nobel Peace Prize shared between three women, or the appointment of Melanne Verveer as ambassador-at-large for women’s issues. But these are very rarely followed through and explained: Marsh tends to assume that juxtaposing an observed fact with the concept of “the Hillary Effect” will make her point. Not always: in one case, she quotes Amelia Matos Sumbana, ambassador from Mozambique, to the effect that Clinton’s visibility on the world stage makes it easier for other governments to select female representatives in Washington. All too often, though, Marsh simply asserts it, which is frustrating for any reader who feels at home in the verbal company she keeps (Rosin, Lithwick, Steinem) but can’t agree with her if she never makes her point clearly enough. I assume that there’s a coherent system in there somewhere, but The Hillary Effect just gives you odd bits sticking out at angles.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, December 2011.