What Is A Conservative Novel?
What Is a Conservative Novel?
(Delivered at ComCon2 in Mesa, Arizona, April 25, 2023)
Our text for today is the headline from a recent Federalist article: “If You Don’t Buy Conservative Art, Ruthless Leftists Will Ensure Nobody Can.”
The author complains that leftists have succeeded in driving out of business the heretic artists who support the Canadian truckers or freedom of speech or Donald Trump. He asks, “[W]hat is to be done? Are we to lie down and accept a fate of utter decimation in a world of inane, woke art?”
No, we aren’t. But the headline stumped me. It’s the reference to “conservative” art. You see, I don’t know what that is.
The headline writer seems to assume that any art made by an artist with conservative politics qualifies as conservative art. But how does he know that?
And how does he know the art he’s defending is any good?
In the old Soviet Union, the Communist leaders knew which art was good. By “good,” they meant paintings or movies or novels which made communists like themselves look good.
Early on, the dictator Stalin mandated what he called Proletarian Art, whatever that was, which he replaced with Socialist Realism. Socialist realism exploited the techniques of realism and its capacity to misrepresent reality in order to sell the official Communist version of life, the universe and everything.
Stalin also labeled as good art a few pre-revolutionary Russian authors and composers like Tolstoy and Chekhov and Tchaikovsky. He touted his favored new communist hacks not as their replacements but as their successors.
Mao outdid Stalin. In his Cultural Revolution, Mao aimed to destroy all which came before. He focused on what he called the "four olds": old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture. His followers spearheaded the interrogation, humiliation and beatings of teachers and intellectuals, and swarmed the country destroying China’s cultural heritage.
Nowadays, the standard bearers of our own American Fascist Left go two better than Stalin and one better than Mao. They condemn and cancel past artists even if they only happened to live in societies guilty of colonialism or patriarchy or whatever else they object to.
To them, everything from the past must be eradicated.
What’s going on?
Well, whatever it is, it’s been going on for a long time.
Even seventy years ago, back in the nineteen fifties, the American writer Robert Warshaw slammed what he called “The Legacy of the Thirties,” the era of the Communist-led Popular Front, in which the Communist Party controlled most American intellectual discourse. Warshaw called the nineteen thirties,
“an era of organized mass disingenuousness, when every act and every idea had behind it some ‘larger consideration’ which destroyed its honesty and its meaning. Everybody became a professional politician, acting within a framework that tended to make political activity an end in itself.”
From the 1930’s through Warshaw’s 1950’s and beyond, the “larger consideration” was the wellbeing of the thugs who operated the racket known as the Soviet Union.
“Larger considerations” live on today, only under new names.
Nowadays, anyone who creates a painting or novel or movie will have to contend with harassers who impose their contemporary larger considerations like antiracism, sexism, cultural appropriation, homophobia and transphobia, coinages which didn’t exist until ten minutes ago, and, when halfway examined, make no sense.
Fiction writers who want to get their stories published at the few big houses—where the money is—must deal with a plague of sensitivity readers and editors whose job it is to ambush them, in part because those parasites lack useful skills from which to make a living.
Because Hollywood screenwriters know ahead of time that any movie which might offend Chinese Communist censors will never get made, they no longer bother to write the forbidden scripts in the first place. They edit themselves in advance to save the communist censors the trouble.
Self-censorship is the most destructive censorship there is.
I saw a new word a few weeks ago: “culturati.” It seems to mean people like museum curators and college administrators. It’s their duty to protect the vast and irreplaceable artistic heritage of the West, but many now engage in a self-destructive crusade to destroy it.
Like the stock market, what drives these phenomena are greed and fear.
The greed is for power, or maybe for status, or for money and sex, or for the sex that money and status bring. Or for all of the above.
It doesn’t take all that much to buy one of these people. As Susan has remarked to me many times, what’s surprising is not that people sell out, but that they sell out for so little.
The fear which goes along with the greed also makes sense, once you know what’s out there. It’s justifiable fear of the of the censorious ideologues, who in this historical moment happen to come from our Fascist Left.
These zealots crouch downwind in their hunting blinds and sniff out anyone who manifests creative freedom. If they smell a heretic, they hunt him down and shoot him and hang his carcass across the hood as a trophy. (Of course, this process is only metaphorical—for now.)
Like others here, I have had personal experience with the phenomena I’m talking about.
I used to write for the theater. I had four plays produced. My minor success gave me the connections to get more produced. I wrote a play which featured a young woman raised as the daughter of a famous leftist lawyer. Among other things which happen, she comes to realize that few of the leftist pieties she was raised to believe are true.
Of course, my play was rejected, and with a hysteria which bordered on TDS.
In conversation with a young theater friend who had already read and liked my play, I commented that I could have written a very similar story about a young Christian who comes to question the beliefs of the Christian world in which she was raised, and it would have been just as good.
He answered, “And then it would be produced.”
Of course, I have no interest in writing a play like that, but what he said is true. The secular left has generated an entire industry of mediocre movies about Orthodox Jewish women who rebel against their supposedly suffocating upbringing in order to seek freedom, usually by having liberating sex with a forbidden person, maybe an Arab or a black man or a Puerto Rican lesbian.
Boring. Not to mention contrary to all human experience. Does anyone out there still believe that sex with the wrong person will make a person happier?
So what’s the positive alternative? Surely not to replace tendentious leftwing art with tendentious rightwing art, with novels and movies, paintings and songs which exist merely to promote what the Federalist headline called “conservative” art, by which its author seems to have meant conservative politics.
How can we define good fiction, for example? From here on, I’ll be talking about fiction, because these days I’m writing mostly novels, and like most people, I like to talk about me.
Maybe I should settle for copying the Rambam, Moshe ben Maimon, known to Christians as Maimonides. According to our great twelfth century rabbi and philosopher, one cannot describe God in positive terms, but only negative. God’s unity is beyond our conception or expression. We cannot say what God is, but only what God is not. For example, we can say that God is not corporeal, does not occupy space, is not finite in time or space, and so on.
Can I define a conservative novel by what it is not?
Among other nots, a conservative novel will:
- Not be subordinated to post-modernism or even modernism or any other ism or any political or social or economic theory;
- Not offend basic narrative logic;
- Not brutalize grammar, syntax and diction;
- Not contain any extraneous appeal to some fad or faction. Recently we saw the Grammy for best song go to an amazingly mediocre song—even by Grammy standards—because its singers claim to be “nonbinary” and presented the song in as pornographic a way as they could get away with.
That’s just a starting list of nots. They are all valid, and there are hundreds more. But knowing what to avoid doesn’t help me as a writer all that much, does it?
Can I do better than the Rambam and come up with a positive definition of a conservative novel?
In 1885, Henry James wrote an essay called “The Art of Fiction.” James was responding to a now-forgotten writer named Besant who set out specific rules for writing novels.
Besant wrote that “the laws of fiction may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective and proportion.”
I very recently published a novelette called “Naima’s Fire.” It tells the story of a woman who’s trying to get her novel published. Her agent insists she follow the five “Marvel Rules,” which control how comic books and superhero movies depict women. For example, a woman can never lose a fight to a man, a woman can never seek help from man, and a woman can never lose an argument to a man.
Just in the two weeks since I published “Naima’s Fire,” at least five readers have asked me whether those Marvel rules are for real.
Yes, they are.
Henry James disagreed with Besant about rules for writing fiction. He wrote, “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it competes with life.”
What did he mean by that? I suppose something like, “I could be out there experiencing life, but instead, I’m reading this book or watching this movie or listening to this music.”
James added that the only obligation of a novel is to be interesting.
James explained, “The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result strike me as innumerable and such as can only suffer from being marked out or fenced in by prescription.”
Instead of Besant’s or any external rules, James insisted upon what he called “freedom to feel and say.”
James identified as a positive example the children’s novel Treasure Island, which he called “delightful.”
James’ praise gave the author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, the excuse to write his own essay, which he called “A Humble Remonstrance.”
Stevenson denied that any art can successfully compete with life.
“Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant. A work of art is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate.”
According to Stevenson, the novel exists not as a competitor to life but by its immeasurable difference from life. The novel is “not a transcript of life, to be judged by its exactitude; but a simplification of some side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant simplicity.”
The writer most often accused of success in representing life in words is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare didn’t confine himself to the rules which governed drama before him. He filled his plays with credible characters doing and saying amazing things. In his own phrase, he was “holding a mirror up to nature.”
The extent to which Shakespeare succeeded in competing with life is demonstrated by the fact that the world’s founding psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, wrote a paper in which he psychoanalyzed Shakespeare’s famous character Hamlet. Freud ignored the obvious fact that Hamlet was not a living human being but imaginary, progeny not of God’s imagination but of Shakespeare’s.
Now, returning to my original question, is there something we can call a “conservative” novel?
If we mean by that, a novel in which the hero extolls the wonderfulness of balanced budgets, reduced taxation, and a strong military, I’m sure the answer is no. It will be just as tendentious as the leftist movies we hate and fashionable novels we never bother to read.
But if we mean a novel which is interesting, maybe in part because it avoids the “nots” I listed and their consequent defects, but instead brings the reader an immediate experience of life, maybe the answer is yes, even if it happens to be written by a political liberal.
The America we knew and grew up in is not the historic norm. It’s a little window of light in a long and dark history. It is the two-hundred-year-old exception to thousands of years of exploitation, victimization, and suppression.
Those who seek to control our art do nothing new. Although they may have invented new terminology, they are running the same tired act all previous generations of oppressors ran, not just back in the 1950’s or 1930’s, but all the way back to the beginnings of civilization.
They reserve for themselves the power to decide what stories to tell, and how. Our role is to assent to and to comply with their version of reality and otherwise to shut up.
The only sense in which writing a good novel or creating any good art might qualify as “conservative” is that it conserves our freedom of expression. It is an exercise of the freedom to feel and say Henry James wrote about.
Through mighty exertions, previous generations have handed us this freedom to feel and say.
If we exercise it, we thereby vindicate it and keep it alive for future generations.
Put another way, use it or lose it. Let’s keep using it.