EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is adapted from an article that ran in the July 7, 2014 issue of National Review.
In 1976, the summer after my freshman year in college, I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop on the bucolic grounds of Michigan State University. It was a six-week program, chaired each week by a different published author. The two dozen or so attendees came from all over the country, most of them beginners like me.
At the opening cocktail party I met a hip but very serious young man named Paul who looked like he had just walked off a commune (which I’m pretty sure he had): macrobiotically starved, with stringy hair, what looked like tree moss growing on his neck, and faded purple corduroys, their tattered ends exposing narrow feet. This was actually his second time at Clarion, he told me, and he confided that some of his earlier work had been considered controversial.
Really? How so? I asked. His eyes glowed with a weird fanatical light as he explained that he was interested in using language as a transformative interface between gender and society.
I had never heard the word “interface” used in a statement about literature before or thought of fiction as a vehicle for social change. Only later would I recognize in Paul an early product of the gender-studies revolution that would soon sweep the humanities, transforming the study of literature (and everything else) into a form of political activism.
Like others of my generation I’d grown up on the classic science-fiction novels of the post-war era — writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury. These writers sometimes engaged political themes but it was easy to regard them as secondary. What mattered were the imaginative worlds they created and the marvelous stories they told. Recently, however, a new group of writers had emerged who grappled openly with social and political issues. I admired these New Wave authors, who were considered more “literary” than their pulp-fiction forebears. Two of these — Joanna Russ, a radical feminist whose 1975 novel The Female Man had received wide acclaim, and Thomas M. Disch, who specialized in moody psychological thrillers and dark comedy — were to appear at the Clarion workshop. I eagerly looked forward to meeting them.
Russ turned out to be an angry ideological bore. Instead of teaching the craft of fiction she went off on tangents such as denouncing the “misogynist” Jonathan Swift. She was also an aggressive language cop, as I discovered when I remarked to one of the women in the group, in what was meant to be a compliment, that she had “balls” for tackling a particularly difficult subject in one of her stories. Joanna, who had caught a bad cold and was sunk in her chair, groaning and blowing her nose, suddenly roused herself to rebuke me for using this paternalistic epithet.
I kind of saw her point. I had used a phrase that unconsciously valorized courage as a masculine trait. But I didn’t see why I should be called out in front of the group and angrily chastised as though I were merely an embodiment of the white male heterosexual power structure. I stood my ground as best I could, protesting that my intentions had been good and that I was not responsible for 50,000 years of patriarchy. The other members of the group sat silently, embarrassed and clearly intimidated. I think we were all relieved to see her go at the end of the week.
Tom Disch, by contrast, was a hugely entertaining character, good-natured, warm, and humorous. We later became friends, and after I gave up trying to write fiction and started a career as an editor, I published his lively history of science fiction, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. Tom’s politics were liberal — openly gay, he wrote opera reviews for the left-wing Nation magazine — but as a writer he eschewed all forms of identity politics and what was later called political correctness.
During the week he spent at Clarion, Tom distributed a story of his own called “Planet of the Rapes,” a delightfully contrarian fable about a dystopian order where sex partners are assigned by the state and young women are methodically raped upon reaching maturity. Our old friend Paul, the resident male feminist, pulled him aside, his face a mask of befuddled frustration.
“How can you do this?” he sputtered. “I mean . . . you have them enjoying these rapes . . . !”
“But don’t you see?” Tom exclaimed with an exasperated sigh. “If you’re outraged that means you’re on the side of virtue!”
But Paul already knew that. What he wanted was not to be assured of his own virtue, of which he had no doubt, but to ensure that other people weren’t tempted not to be virtuous. To make light of rape in any way seemed not only immoral but dangerous, a threat to the revolution in social relations he was trying to effect.
Here in a nutshell were the ideas and methods of the contemporary Left, including its reactionary humorlessness, its bullying tone, and its impulse to dictate what people may and may not say. The Left has always understood the importance of language to its transformational project. If you can control the use and even the meaning of words, as Orwell showed in 1984, they cannot be used to express dissenting views, or even to formulate the thoughts that might inform such intellectual resistance. And if you cannot actually dictate people’s thoughts, you can force them into silence by making it too costly to express them.
At the time, I regarded Joanna and Paul as marginal kooks who belonged to a radical fringe. Let them write their transformative fictions and push wide-eyed undergraduates around. How much harm could they do?