Why conservative fiction is the next front in the culture war
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?
I had read books like Animal Farm and Doctor Zhivago, so I knew very well what could happen when petty ideological enforcers seized power in a totalitarian setting. But that was long ago and far away. You could never have convinced me then, in 1976, that from these tiny seeds of academic radicalism an ideological movement would grow that would one day come to dominate the American cultural landscape. Yet that is exactly what happened.
I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.
When I joined the culture war in 1988 as an editor of nonfiction books, conservatives had little to read. There were a handful of classics like Witness, God and Man at Yale, and The Road to Serfdom. But in order to become a serious movement capable of winning arguments (and converts) we needed a lot more: history, biography, investigative journalism, social and economic ideas, philosophical critiques of liberalism — you name it.
This copious agenda has kept conservative publishers busy for the past 30 years. Meanwhile the conservative media establishment has grown and flourished. We have our own TV and radio networks, our own newspapers and publishing houses, and dozens of highly trafficked websites. Conservative books today sell millions of copies. By all apparent measures, the culture war is going extremely well.
Except that in reality it isn’t.
Recently I was asked to comment on the state of conservative publishing for an article in BuzzFeed. My major focus was the difficulty of publishing the sort of serious, intellectually demanding books that used to be the staple of the movement. I ticked off relevant factors such as the rise of conservative mass media, the proliferation of publishing imprints, the decline of book reviewing, and the bifurcation of political media into spheres of left and right, leading to the disappearance of serious controversy.
What I didn’t say is this: The real problem isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.
Yes, conservative voices can now be heard throughout the land, and the GOP is poised for victory in the upcoming midterm elections. But even as we appear to be winning the political argument, for the moment anyway, we are losing on the cultural front. For proof, you need look no farther than the recent successful attacks on conservative spokesmen.
The Left has always demonized conservatives, and many of my authors have been subject to that kind of ugly treatment. Those who cannot win an argument often fall back on ad hominem attacks. In the past we could ignore such attacks — indeed, they often worked in our favor. But lately they have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Those who dissent from the prevailing liberal dogma are quickly branded as extremists and declared to be bad people. Do you support the traditional view of marriage? You’re a homophobe who wants to deny equal rights to gay Americans. Do you question the economic benefits of raising the minimum wage? You are a selfish Scrooge who hates the working class. Do you want America to establish control over its borders? You hate hard-working immigrants who just want to enjoy the American dream. Do you believe a human fetus has legal and natural rights? You are a misogynist who wants to control women’s bodies. Do you support the death penalty in certain cases? You’re a heartless savage no better than the killers themselves, according to Charles Blow of the New York Times. Do you oppose any aspect whatsoever of Barack Obama’s transformative agenda for America? You’re a racist. Racist, racist, racist!
This is a bare-knuckled attempt to enforce an ideological orthodoxy by policing the boundaries of acceptable speech. The methods used — anonymous accusers, public shaming, forced apologies, reeducation programs — come straight out of the Stalinist playbook, and they are not only shockingly illiberal. They are shockingly effective.
By harnessing the passions of offended minorities to the power of social media, the Left has created a hurricane of politicized indignation that can be directed wherever it likes and levels everything it touches. Meanwhile the general response is the same as it was for me at Clarion: embarrassed silence and the fear of being targeted yourself. This is a key point, for just as bad as outright censorship (which cannot be imposed to the extent the Left would like) is the censorship people impose on themselves in order to avoid being punished with the loss of their reputation and livelihood.
The Left has adopted this strategy for obvious reasons: They cannot win the argument on its merits, and unlike their counterparts elsewhere they can’t consistently win (or steal) elections. Political power eludes them. But like Mark Antony at Caesar’s funeral, they have become expert at using the media pulpit to turn the passions of the mob against their enemies.
Conservatives do seem to understand that this is a battle that must be engaged. But they don’t seem to know how to fight it. What they urgently need to realize is that this is not a battle that can be fought in the realm of ideas and politics. We can win every election for the next 50 years and it won’t matter, if conservatives are not allowed to speak. Nor can we debate and argue this incipient totalitarian movement out of existence. We can publish all the polemics and blog posts we want. But if that is all we’ve got, we are still going to lose the larger war.
Fear not, however — this is no doom-and-gloom scenario. I actually come bearing good news. A second front is opening in the oddly misnamed culture war (which has nothing to do with culture). The tools of our salvation are at hand. There’s a new posse in town. We just need to wake up and support them.
The late Andrew Breitbart understood the importance of popular culture and was determined not to neglect it. “Politics is downstream from culture,” he famously said, and he continually called upon conservatives to quit griping about liberal media bias and do something constructive instead. Write your own books, he exhorted. Record your own music. Make your own movies. Everyone agreed that this would be a great idea. But no one knew how to go about making it happen.
Well, guess what: Andrew was right. The conservative counterrevolution is coming. Indeed it is already here. It’s just that most conservatives haven’t noticed it yet. It came to my attention only because of the position I occupy in the New York publishing world.
As a nonfiction editor throughout my career I never missed publishing fiction. It just seemed a little bit beside the point. I figured we would win the battle of ideas first, and then the imbalance in the culture would correct itself. But that didn’t seem to be happening. If anything, liberal dominance of popular culture seemed more entrenched than ever.
Meanwhile, more and more, I started hearing from conservative authors asking if I would look at their novels. I read quite a few of these, and while some of them were awful, many others were entertaining and well done. But they didn’t rise to the level of proficiency required for mass-market publication, and no sectarian market existed for conservative-themed fiction. So I suggested they self-publish, making use of the new digital-distribution technologies.
At first I thought of this as an isolated phenomenon. But the queries continued and after a while I began to see it as a trend. I started poking around the Kindle store to see what was up and found dozens of self-published books by conservative authors bravely putting forth their work and hoping to be discovered. I already knew that science fiction had attracted many libertarians. But this phenomenon was clearly more extensive. Conservatives were writing books in every genre — thriller, mystery, historical, military, western, gothic, supernatural, romance, and young adult, not to mention numerous hybrids. Similar searches at iTunes and YouTube turned up dozens of conservative and libertarian pop songs and videos.
Andrew didn’t live to see it, but conservatives are making their own culture. They are writing and publishing their own books, recording their own music, and making their own videos and films. It is Breitbart’s Revolt.
This outpouring of creativity on the right doesn’t just represent the emergence of a new genre or market — though it is both in my opinion. Taken together, it amounts to nothing less than the rise of a new counterculture. Only this time it is coming from the right, and not, as in the Sixties, from the left.
This may sound counterintuitive but it actually makes perfect sense, because after its decades-long march through the institutions of government, academia, and popular culture, the Left has become the establishment. And like all establishments they are increasingly peremptory, high-handed, and sanctimonious.
How do we fight back against this liberal establishment with its politically correct regime of thought control? There is only one way that I know of and that is by turning their weapons against them and channeling the spirit of the Sixties counterculture.
The original counterculture — that is, before it was hijacked and turned into a vehicle for progressive politics — was actually libertarian in spirit, and what made it work was its antic humor and its willingness to flout the sacred cows of the conservative establishment. From Mad magazine to George Carlin, no traditional object of piety went unscathed. Nothing like that has been seen in this country for decades, precisely because the culture is now dominated by sanctimonious liberals who have lost the capacity to laugh at themselves.
The funniest thing I’ve seen in years was Ben Affleck’s 2008 Saturday Night Live parody of Keith Olbermann, the über-serious MSNBC pundit who was then at the height of his influence. Look it up on YouTube if you missed it. Affleck captured Olbermann to a “T,” and what made you literally suck in your breath as you watched was the skit’s transgressive nature. You just couldn’t believe a liberal actor was taking on a liberal journalistic icon in this way. Yet anyone could see that the target was ripe for a takedown.
The new conservative counterculture is a rebellion from below and from without. Fueled by the rise of digital self-publishing technologies, it is a simultaneous revolt against the hierarchical control of mass media and the ideological narrowing of acceptable discourse.
Even some liberals are beginning to push back — if only those who feel they can afford to. Recently Mel Brooks observed that one of his funniest movies, Blazing Saddles, couldn’t be made today. “Political correctness restricts and restrains humor,” he told radio host Tavis Smiley. Blogger Andrew Sullivan publicly protested the “gay mafia” campaign against Mozilla’s Brendan Eich. Even the normally insufferable Bill Maher went off on a lengthy rant against PC intolerance: “Who wants to live in a world where the only privacy you have is inside your head? That’s what life in East Germany was like. That’s why we fought the Cold War, remember? So we’d never have to live in some awful limbo, where you never knew who even among your friends was an informer. And now we’re doing it to ourselves.” As usual, Maher overstates the case. But he is right to be alarmed, because given half a chance, these kinds of people will shut you up in any way they can.
In short, the tide is turning. People are getting fed up with the humorless enforcers of the Left. This represents a golden opportunity for conservatives to reach people who otherwise couldn’t be reached, and even to make some converts for a change instead of simply talking to ourselves, which is basically what we’ve been doing since we hived ourselves off into our own politicized media bubble.
Meanwhile out at sea a wave is building. This cresting wave of right-wing creativity is raw and untamed. But what it lacks in polish it makes up for in invention and energy.
Now, many liberals believe (and many on the right privately agree) that conservatives can’t “do” culture. They can’t produce great music, they can’t be funny, and they can’t keep their political ideas out of the way of their stories and novels. Based on my own informal survey, I can report that we do have some good musicians and comics, but not enough to make an impact at this point. With due respect to Dennis Miller, we are unlikely to sweep the culture the way liberals did in music, comedy, and network television.
What about Hollywood? Many conservatives talk about the need to get into movie production. I agree this is very important, but it requires a massive investment of capital, and more to the point, I think people on the right are over-impressed with the power of film. To hear some conservatives talk you’d think movies were the Holy Grail, the golden passkey to the collective unconscious. This gets things precisely backwards. Sure, a successful Hollywood movie can have a major impact. But as a vehicle for political ideas and moral lessons, movies are simplistic and crude compared with the novels on which many are based.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis both produced big-budget movies that reached millions of people with what most of us would probably agree is a subtly conservative message. Yet both of these successful movie franchises ultimately pale in comparison with the impact of the books. Even at their best, movies are essentially cartoons and their effects are superficial and fleeting. Books engage the reader much more deeply, at a level of identification with the characters and plot that can instruct the soul and edify the mind. A hundred years from now, moreover, these classic books will still be read all over the world in dozens of languages when the films on which they are based are long forgotten or superseded by new forms of entertainment.
In short, conservatives should remember that mainstream popular culture is still largely driven by books. Fiction therefore is and will remain the beating heart of the new counterculture. This is not just my bias as a publisher. It is a practical reality — and a fortunate one for us, since there are hundreds if not thousands of conservative and libertarian writers out there today producing politically themed fiction. The conservative right brain has woken up from its enchanted sleep and it is thriving. Instead of banging on Hollywood’s front door, a better approach is to go in the back by publishing popular conservative fiction and then turning those books into films.
Now let me address a few objections. To begin with, we are not talking about what is sometimes called “cause fiction,” or, more bluntly, literary propaganda. That is simply a right-wing version of socialist realism — the demand that the arts advance a particular social and political agenda. Such works are indeed being written on the right, but that is not what most conservatives are doing.
As the founder of Liberty Island, a website that publishes fiction by conservative authors, I have read a great deal of this material and can attest that yes, their stories and novels do have political themes. But these themes are not presented for the most part in a way that is preachy or subordinates the story to the “message.” Instead the authors craft dramatic situations and pick heroes and villains that serve more subtly to advance their point of view.
These are the voices not of ideologues but of free individuals exercising their birthright as Americans to think and write with fearless independence. But they are up against tremendous odds. Scattered all over the country, they are isolated geographically and culturally. They feel embattled and excluded. Many are aware that they are taking a risk and prefer to publish pseudonymously. Their resistance and courage are deeply inspiring.
A more pragmatic objection might be that conservative writers shouldn’t ghettoize themselves. But this is how such things get off the ground. All literary and artistic movements begin among enthusiasts. The impressionists boldly displayed their own rejected works in a “salon of the refused.” The literary modernists had to publish their works through small journals and privately funded presses. Both movements needed a place to congregate in order to share ideas, debate one another’s work, hone an aesthetic, and work out new critical standards. Out of this creative ferment a number of talents arose whose appeal transcended the confines of this rarefied world.
The same applies in popular music: Chicago was the home of the blues, Nashville the capital of country-and-western, Seattle the progenitor of grunge. In each case, a passionate fan base provided early support to talented artists who eventually broke out and went mainstream.
The new conservative creators don’t have a Greenwich Village or Seattle grunge scene to nurture their journeyman efforts. They lack the patronage of wealthy individuals and must rely on passionate enthusiasts, especially now, while they are still developing their talent and building an audience. If we want conservative Steven Spielbergs or Stephen Kings — people who tell great stories but have a right-of-center sensibility and aren’t afraid to take on the liberal thought police — we have to identify them early and support them as they rise and learn their craft.
It would be nice if all this could just take care of itself. But it won’t. Conservatives must beware of taking too literally their own free-market dogma. Just as funders and institution builders were needed to grow the conservative intellectual movement to the point where it could sustain a commercial entity like Fox News, the conservative counterculture also needs an institutional base and a means of delivering its products to market.
We rightly honor the 20th-century visionaries who created a network of think tanks, foundations, magazines, and publishing houses to provide crucial support to conservative thinkers who couldn’t get tenured jobs in academia. Upon this basis a powerful movement arose that went on to ramify and diversify itself in many ways. The result is a major accomplishment. But it represents, if you will, the left side of the conservative mind.
For years conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced — hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.
We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.
This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.
Currently there are a number of entrepreneurs working in the conservative cultural space, trying to build independent production and publishing companies and distribution platforms for music, film, and other forms of conservative-themed entertainment. This is major unreported news as far as I’m concerned. When we went to the Conservative Political Action Conference this year to get out the word about Liberty Island, we met a number of these people who were active at the fringes of the conference: selling their books, promoting new music, making film-production deals, and above all looking for investors.
We were impressed and inspired by the dedication and vision of these cultural entrepreneurs. But they all shared one complaint: Conservative leaders are more concerned with raising money for political campaigns than supporting the new cultural creators.
Maybe these conservative leaders need to be reminded of the role of fiction writers in helping to win the Cold War. Not for nothing did the CIA distribute copies of Doctor Zhivago — banned in Russia and circulated illegally in the crude typewritten form known as samizdat — at the 1958 Brussels world’s fair. Solzhenitsyn’s works, fiction and nonfiction alike, also circulated in samizdat, and vividly exposed the moral rot at the heart of the Communist system.
In 1966, the satirical novelists Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were respectively sentenced to seven and five years in a Soviet prison camp. The harsh verdict sparked an international furor and is credited with launching the Soviet dissident movement. But in a way it also marked the beginning of the end for the Communist regime. Its exaggerated fear of a few satirical books revealed its underlying weakness and implicitly acknowledged that the mighty totalitarian state could be effectively laughed out of existence.
I had the privilege of meeting Sinyavsky in 1984 at a writers’ conference organized by the late Allan Bloom in the green hills of southern Vermont. With his long yellowed beard, white hair, and tangled brows, he looked every inch the Tolstoyan man of letters. His splayed and ruined fingertips attested to the tortures he’d endured. Yet his blue eyes glittered with amusement as he expounded witty epigrams and told mordant political jokes of the kind that circulated widely in those days in the dissident underground. His was a hard, knowing laughter, born of repression and suffering. But it was also filled with humor, hope, and warmth.
Five years later the Berlin Wall came down, and two years after that the Soviet Union collapsed. Laughter alone hadn’t brought down the evil empire, but Sinyavsky and his colleagues surely deserved much of the credit.
Today’s conservative fiction writers are not in danger of having their fingers hammered in a labor camp. But their self-publishing efforts do represent a modern analogue to the dissident samizdat movement, and they are deploying the same weapons in defense of your freedom of conscience. Can we really afford to ignore them?
I know what Andrew Breitbart would say if he were here: Stop giving money to Karl Rove to spend on useless political ads. Instead, you should support the conservative literary wing, which has been producing great stuff against tremendous odds and urgently needs your help.
The question is, What are you personally going to do about it? Every conservative has a responsibility to support the rising counterculture. Buy their books and records. Share their videos with your friends. Join the crew at Liberty Island and support our authors with tip-jar contributions and donations to our crowd-funding efforts. Or become a creator yourself — write a story, record a song, make a video.
What good will it do to write a novel? May as well ask what good it did to show the revolutionary flag at Bunker Hill (a battle we lost, by the way). We need to hoist our flag and show the strength of our resolve in order to build morale and win recruits.
Remember, this is still a fight that can be lost. Will we as a society reject the new regime of liberal thought control or will we let it impose a politically correct orthodoxy on us that we will all have to live with for the rest of our lives? Win or lose, Sinyavsky’s example suggests that defiance is both a moral and a practical necessity.
As a friend of mine once put it: Resist! Surrender is futile.
– Mr. Bellow is the editorial director of Broadside Books at HarperCollins and the publisher and CEO of Liberty Island Media (www.LibertyIslandMag.com).