By Alexander Wallace
Alternate history as a genre oftentimes has a skeptical attitude towards those outsiders who decide to engage in the act of counterfactual speculation; we fear that they will do it wrong, or will not take the genre seriously, or what have you. Certainly, the amount of big name authors who have done Nazi victory stories that may be new to them but are cliche to us speaks to that particular issue.
The ‘prestige’ literati were abuzz when Curtis Sittenfeld published her novel Rodham in 2020. This novel is narrated by Hillary Rodham and details her journey through a world in which she never marries Bill Clinton and so she never becomes Hillary Clinton as we know her. Instead, she charts her own path through the halls of power not connected to the man with whom she has lived with and contended with for decades.
One of the things that will stand out about Rodham to any of us who regularly read alternate history fiction is that it is a very rare creature: it is an alternate history novel that does not come from either a science fiction tradition or a historical fiction tradition. Most authors first dipping their toes into alternate history are either science fiction writers, like Philip K. Dick, or historical fiction writers, like C. J. Sansom or Robert Harris. Sittenfeld, on the other hand, is the sort of ‘mainstream’ writer whose work would be found in the ‘fiction and literature’ section at a Barnes & Noble.
To her credit, Sittenfeld’s background in such writing makes for what are undoubtedly the book’s strengths. In terms of the way she structures sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, she is better than most of the writers currently working in the alternate history genre. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about Sittenfeld’s prose that makes you want to keep turning the page, to stop at the next section break or the next chapter (and her chapters are long). You will certainly want to see how the story ends, even as you slowly get the impression that the ending has been telegraphed from a mile away.
Another strength of the book is enacted unevenly, but when it is good it shines. That is her characterization of her two most prominent characters: Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton. The focus on these two, to the exclusion of anything broader, will somewhat perplex the alternate history reader. Both science fiction and historical fiction have some fascination with the broader social context in which their characters live; for both, the setting is part of the draw. Not so in Rodham; historical details are generally for the most bare scene-setting purpose and do not seem to be making a comment on any particular historical era.
Hillary Rodham, your narrator, and Sittenfeld’s portrayal of her, can be divided into two rather different parts. The first part is in the first hundred and fifty or so pages of the book, where she is a law student at Yale. Much of that section is dedicated to the courtship between the two that in our world resulted in marriage but in this world fails. Beyond the occasional literary license that is common in straight historical fiction, the real point of divergence does not occur until well into the book. This is entirely at odds with standard alternate history practice, where the point of divergence is either before the story starts, or occurs very early on in the text.
This student courtship is a very strange thing, narratively speaking. It honestly reads like a bad romance novel where the female lead has no personality so that a reader could insert herself into the character, and the male lead is alluring and suave to an almost comical degree. What makes it stranger is that this romance involves real people. It is a phenomenally odd experience to read Hillary Rodham as a fawning law student and Bill Clinton as Casanova in a romance that can get rather steamy, and physically detailed to boot. It was weird when Harry Turtledove put real historical figures in sex scenes in his novels, and it is weirder when Sittenfeld uses two real people, as of writing both alive and well, and of great political importance, in her novel. Sittenfeld has argued that there is a point to all these scenes; I concede that there is a narrative point being made with them, but that does not make it less offputting.
After the history finally diverges in a noticeable way with the breakup of Hillary and Bill, the book improves substantially. The narrative skips to 1991, where Hillary is living in Chicago contemplating her political future. The Hillary Rodham of 1991 onward is a much more interesting character than she was in law school. She is more confident in herself and her convictions. She has ambition. And she is conflicted by the meteoric rise of an outsider populist candidate by the name of Bill Clinton.
For the electoral history buffs among us, the second half or so of Rodham is your dream come true. You get an inside look at not one, but multiple campaigns for high office at different points in time. There are strategy meetings and image consultants and quick modifications to plans brought about by news shows and tweets. There are awkward podcasts and laudatory cooking shows. There are campaign rallies that go well or poorly. There are bewildering endorsements. In terms of the process of getting somebody elected, it is the best depiction thereof I have ever read.
Despite the grand playing field, the second part of the book remains very personal. Hillary's relationship with Bill takes center stage as she has to compromise who she is at her core with the demands of running for president as a woman. Sittenfeld’s view of politics is very much something that happens to the people who do it for a living, and that has its drawbacks and its benefits.
There is one massive drawback in that approach that undermines much of the book: those who read it will notice that there is much depiction of procedure, but little discussion of policy and the real effects thereof. I am not the first person to notice this; Andrea Long Chu discussed it in depth in a piece for JewishCurrents. In response to this general sentiment, Sittenfeld said in an interview on Vox:
“People will say, ‘Twitter is not representative of the country.’ I respect Vox, but I think Vox is probably not reflective of novel readers. To say there wasn’t enough about her policies is a sort of endearingly hilarious criticism to me. I feel like if you walk down the street, most streets in America, including streets where people are liberal and including streets where people are educated, and you said, ‘Let’s talk about Hillary’s 2016 platform, let’s talk about her education policies, let’s talk about health care, let’s talk about anything,’ I think that you’d have a very challenging time finding Americans who could talk with any degree of specificity. I mean, again, I realize in the Vox office, you probably wouldn’t at all. Do you do [sic] disagree?”
One of the things that has irritated me in the commentary on this novel is that barely anyone discusses it as an alternate history work in the way that the Sea Lion Press community, among other communities, does. These are reviewers from the literary establishment, oftentimes with advanced degrees in English, reflecting a certain mostly progressive way of thinking. For them, Rodham is about their preferred candidate, and they allow that to sway them. What they lack is a systematized manner of thinking about how alternate history is done.
Alternate history as a genre is fundamentally about making arguments. In writing alternate history, you take something in the real world’s past and decide to change it. As you write your piece, you are making an argument about something regarding that choice of divergence. The most common argument is one of plausibility; others simply argue that contemplating such a divergence is interesting or entertaining. In any case, any work of alternate history is arguing that speculating about a specific change in history is in some way worthwhile, and therefore worth pursuing in some detail.
In writing about a world where Hillary Rodham did not marry Bill Clinton, Sittenfeld writes an alternate history story. Therefore, she is arguing that a world without that marriage is in some way worth writing about. Whether Sittenfeld likes it or not, in writing an alternate history, she is now one of us. I shall therefore critique her like one of us.
Going forward I shall do something I don’t usually do in my reviews and discuss the plot in detail in such a manner that I am usually reluctant to do. Those of you who care about spoilers to this book should tread carefully.
Policy, when mentioned at all, is only ever used as a way of advancing or frustrating the career of Hillary Rodham. She does pro bono work as a lawyer and she does a variety of other things. All of these, however, take second stage to her development as a person. As I have said, Sittenfeld does this very well, and it makes for an interesting character study.
However, one will note if one reads carefully that in this alternate history, there is no discussion of how this version of Hillary Rodham votes on Iraq, for example. Indeed, she is out of the halls of power for most of the book, and most of her time in the Senate is glossed over in a time skip. Furthermore, she is not in the Obama administration and as such does not participate in anything resembling the catastrophe that was the intervention in Libya. Bernie Sanders does not even bear mentioning. You’ll notice that this book is not at all interested in Hillary’s record, only her character.
This is most galling at the ending, in which Hillary wins the 2016 presidential election against Bill with the help of Donald Trump (like many writers dipping their toes into alternate history, she has found the the joy in that particular sort of irony). The last scene is about her inauguration, how she feels about being the first woman president, and the symbolism thereof. There is a very brief laundry list of progressive policies that she says she later passed, as well as some setbacks. Tellingly, she never specifies what those setbacks are.
There’s a scene in the latter half of the book where both Hillary and Bill are at a meeting for donors. Bill refers to the event as an “A+ elitist clusterfuck.” The astute reader will notice that that phrase could describe more or less all of the book. The plot goes between Yale and law offices and fancy apartments and the halls of Congress. The two major characters are both rather wealthy, at least by the end of the book, and can afford things like opera tickets and fancy restaurants without too much thought. Characters of a lower station exist to affect our two elite leads. They are either affected by personal cruelty or shower heaping praise on the two, and never more than that. It feels like that these characters, of various backgrounds and ethnicities and sexualities, are simply diverse toppings to go on the progressive sundae.
There is an undertone of class that runs through the book that is deeply unnerving once confronted. Rodham is essentially arguing that it is not worth caring about Hillary’s record, and that her personal life is what merits our attention. In doing so, she ultimately makes a more elaborate argument that many lackluster wikibox timelines and leader lists do: that people in power are interesting and that governing is not.
To me, this belies a particular sort of common mindset regarding politics that is unhealthy for the body politic as a whole. It is the view of someone who has only experienced politics through screens, be they a Twitter feed or a crowded election night party fuelled by alcohol. It is the view of someone for whom politics ends at the ballot box and never goes onward to the protest march or the union drive. It is the view of those whose livelihoods are not seriously affected by who is in the White House. It is politics not just as a spectator sport, but as a reality show.
For one, I’m reasonably certain that most Libyans care more about the civil war blazing in their country than about the personal lives of the people that lit the powder keg.
Why, ultimately, does anyone in our world, not in her immediate personal or professional circles, care about Hillary Rodham Clinton? It’s because she is a person who affects hundreds of thousands of lives. She had influence as the First Lady of Arkansas, then as the First Lady of the United States, then as Senator from New York, as Secretary of State, and then as a candidate for the most powerful office in the world. She is someone who is defined in the minds of the vast majority of people who know of her as one who can make or break lives and careers. This novel, essentially, says that those people are wrong.
Rodham ultimately makes its titular character into a symbol of what American liberals want to happen and wished had happened; the whole thing has a less-than-subtle undertone of “wouldn’t things be better if we were in charge?” But even with that undertone, the book refuses to show you how things would be better in any detail beyond the fact that ‘our’ candidate won. The end result feels like a masterfully decorated cake, but one that, when you bite into it, is made out of cardboard.
It has been the trend in alternate history discussion circles to emphasize more and more the on-the-ground effects of a point of divergence; both the science fiction and the historical fiction in alternate history’s DNA compel us to do so. When writers do so, they create the most human, and therefore the most interesting, alternate history stories. I can’t help but think of Colin Salt’s term ‘trinketization’ (a term, I will note, was derived from a piece that I myself wrote): the assemblage of irrelevant trivia to give off the impression of a coherent work of alternate history when the reality is anything but. Frankly, it feels like that this book was written about one trinket, leaving substance to the wind. Alternate history, as Gary Oswald argues, is about not taking the past for granted. In all but the smallest of scales, Rodham does not care about that at all. It takes the boundless potential of alternate history and squanders all of it.
Many books by authors who have only worked in the genre once have given so many things to alternate history, so I feel that I must ask: what does Rodham add to the alternate history genre? In terms of the actual act of allohistorical speculation, not much. However, I am reminded of what David Flin said: writing alternate history requires alternate history, yes, but it also requires writing, and that is where Rodham excels. Sittenfeld’s literary background makes a story you want to keep reading, and a character whose fate you want to find out. Sittenfeld shows what good prose and good characterization can do to an alternate history story. Wherever has the daring to combine Rodham’s prose and character work with Harry Turtledove’s historical breadth and depth will move mountains in the genre, and rightly so.
Is Rodham worth reading? Perhaps counterintuitive to my critiques, I’d say yes. It’s a very interesting look into how somebody who isn’t an ‘alternate history writer’ writes alternate history. It is a book that is, on the level of sheer craft, very well done, and the aspiring writer could learn much from it. Honestly, I’m now more inclined to read Sittenfeld’s other work, specifically in genres of which she has in-depth knowledge. My criticisms of this book remain but perhaps I am being too harsh; it was never really for us, was it?