Why I Write Novels - Max Cossack
What is the Point of a Novel?
Delivered at ComCon February 22, 2022
We all remember that in May, 2020, after the death of George Floyd, a mob burned down the Minneapolis Third Precinct police station.
A few days later, a man named Don Blyly was awakened at 3:30 AM. It was his private security company. According to their motion detectors, someone had broken into his two Minneapolis bookstores.
Blyly had founded Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore on Chicago Avenue forty-six years earlier, in 1974. In 1980, he added Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore next door. I shopped at both many times.
By the time Blyly reached his two bookstores, the mob had smashed every window and poured accelerants onto the very flammable books inside.
Blyly ran for his fire extinguisher at the back entrance, but toxic smoke blocked his path. He tried to save his neighbor’s dental clinic, but that burned down as well.
On the street outside, high flames illuminated the ecstatic faces of the dancing and cheering all-white mob of arsonists.
Which brings me to my first of several texts, all of them familiar. The first is from Henrich Heine, the great 19th century Jewish poet of the German language, who wrote, prophetically, "Where they burn books, they also wind up burning human beings."
If Heinrich Heine was right—and history proves he was—we know where our American arsonist mob is headed.
The mobs are out there right now, dancing all around us, and some of our most powerful leaders are doing their best to shepherd the mob along the inexorable path from buildings to books to human beings.
We see it every day. That’s why so many PowerLine posts report on the latest trespasses against reason and human decency.
In the USA, we’re having occasional success slowing down the arsonists, but in long-respected sanctuaries of freedom, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as our own Universities, HR departments and social media, the arsonist mob runs things.
And like the minority of sane, decent Germans in the 1930’s, we wonder, what is the matter with these people?
My second text: as John Adams famously wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Andrew Breitbart said pretty much the same thing. “Politics is downstream from culture.”
By “politics,” I take Breitbart to mean not only how people vote, but every manifestation of political behavior, including court decisions, executive orders, politically motivated prosecutions and refusals to prosecute, lockdowns, vaccine mandates, government spying, sewer repair, selecting which bribes to honor, looting the treasury, and everything else government does for us and to us.
And if this “politics” is downstream from “culture,” what is “culture”? For that, I go to our ultimate authority—the Internet—where I learn that culture is “The set of predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize a group.”
I think of culture as information, including words, pictures, music—all the information previous generations passed on to us and we pass on to our children, as well as to and from one another, about among other things, the right way to live.
Whatever culture is or isn’t, it includes science fiction and mystery novels. Just ask the Minneapolis arsonists. Knowing that culture is upstream from their nihilist fantasy of a totalitarian politics devoid of facts, reason, and freedom, the first chance they got, they headed for the handiest source of culture and burned it to the ground.
On that particular morning, it happened to be a building full of books. On campuses and in social media, it’s every art, from theater to music to ballet and of course to books as well, and to every leader and idea which obstructs the mob’s path to power.
This word power brings me to my final and favorite text: “All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
People tend to focus more on the “All men are created equal” part and to overlook the second part, but these are in fact two inseparable assertions: first, we are all created equal, and second, that there’s a Creator, a Being who created us and endowed us with our unalienable rights.
The Twentieth Century proves that without taking into account that Creator, our rights turn out all too alienable. Once in power, the arsonists simply alienate them.
We tend to think of that twin assertion “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator” as a downstream political idea. There is truth in that.
But when we think only that, we miss the point.
The twin assertion is also itself culture. It is the cultural foundation of America.
It is the predominating attitude and behavior which has characterized us as a people.
It is John Adams’ principle of a moral and religious people capable of ruling ourselves.
It is the proposition Abraham Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address.
It is our upstream.
The twin ideas have guided not only our work in continuing to expand America’s available rights, for example to women and African Americans, but in American music, painting, movies, literature, the subset of things some people mean when they say “culture.”
I’ll take as an example music, because I have some experience with it.
In 18th and 19th Century Europe, all men were not created equal. Composers like Bach and Beethoven and Chopin composed wonderful music. But when I play Beethoven’s music on the piano in my fumble-fingered way, I play only what he wrote down. His ideas determine mine. My role is to interpret his thoughts.
But if I play American music, like jazz and blues or rock, from a culture in which all men are created equal, I don’t simply play what’s written.
In performance, American music is a conversation among equals. In jazz, musicians are expected to communicate their own musical thoughts in a collective conversation among equals. I’m required to make my own contribution. If I just parrot what someone else plays, I’m not carrying my share of the load.
Now it’s also true that in order for the collective conversation to be coherent, my fellow players and I must follow constraints of harmony, rhythm and tempo. But within those constraints, I’m expected to play what I think.
I’m expected to step up and act as a free and moral person endowed by my Creator with my own unalienable right and obligation to express myself.
So, how do we defend and extend our culture—our upstream—from the arsonists?
For me, one way is to write novels.
A novel is not a political tract. It is not a hilarious column. It is not an incisive comment. It is just a story told a certain way.
We already have tens of thousands of stories. Movies tell stories. Comic books tell stories. Who needs more stories?
We do, I think.
A story always concerns people in struggle, and we are people facing new struggles as the world continues to change.
In a novel, these people in struggle must ask themselves tough questions.
(Warning: I’m about to oversimplify. None of these great works can be stripped down to one question.)
Sometimes the question is, what is the morally right thing to do? Mark Twain understood this when he wrote Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck makes the decision to recognize his friend, the escaping black slave, as a fellow human being, endowed by our Creator with his own unalienable rights.
Sometimes the question is, what is to be done? George Orwell understood this when he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm, as well as his great essays on defending language.
Orwell stressed the necessity to protect language. He anticipated Dave Chappelle. Because Chappelle said out loud that gender is a biological fact, some haters called him a “TERF.” Chappelle had to look up the word TERF. It’s supposed to mean “Transgender Exclusive Radical Feminist.” Speaking of the haters, Chappelle pointed out, “They make up words to win arguments.”
Chappelle was right. The arsonists make up words. I personally have never been convinced there is any such thing as a “transgender” person. There is certainly no transgender “community.” The woke gibberish being smuggled into our schools and workplaces, like “decolonization” and “white privilege” and “anti-racism” and all the other jargon, those are just words made up to win arguments.
Sometimes the question in a novel is, what are the consequences of idolatry, of rejecting our Creator? Melville understood this when he wrote Moby Dick.
But why novels? Why not movies, for example?
As a way to tell a story, a movie enjoys spectacular advantages over a novel. Pictures—especially moving pictures—engage a visceral power to sway our emotions. And movies depict events in the grammatical tense most favored by our primitive brains—the present tense. The characters act here and now, in plain sight.
Technology adds to the thrill by giving movies the power to provide what Aristotle called an essential element of story—spectacle: fistfights, shoot outs, car chases and explosions, all set to powerful music. And the rhythm of a well-edited movie is like the rhythm of music.
But fiction also has its advantages.
In a movie, we get to see people only from the outside.
Novels take us inside.
The novelist can illuminate the observations and thoughts and feelings of his characters. We watch Huck go through the inner struggle as he comes to his decision to help Jim.
We experience the thoughts of Winston Smith from the inside as Big Brother grinds him down. We experience the feelings and thoughts of Ishmael and Starbuck and Ahab and the rest of the crew as Ahab’s obsession leads them all to destruction.
And there’s a practical plus: you need a lot of money and people and equipment to make a movie. To write a novel, all you need is a pencil and a few pads of paper.
Another plus for the novel: The author is free to follow not only the thoughts of his characters, but his own. There’s no budget. If I feel like digressing from the plot for a few pages, there’s nobody there to holler, “You’re going over budget,” no suit to butt in, and no one to censor my insensitive characterizations of members of protected classes.
Writing the novel is hard work, but sometimes the reader must work as hard as or even harder than the author, especially if like me, the author likes to hop from one character’s point of view to another, or if, like Dostoevsky, he populates his story with dozens of characters, each with four or five different names, all indistinguishable to an American.
Since I have total control over my novel, I can do my best to make it a good one.
Why does that matter? One of the goals of the arsonists is leveling. In their fantasy, all outcomes must be equal.
Quite logically (for once), they oppose the effort to do anything well. We see that all the time on campuses, as sour-grapes students whine out new excuses to avoid doing the hard work of learning anything tough to learn, which is pretty much anything worth learning.
European classical music is white supremacist because you have to play in tune, or because white people invented it, or, my favorite, because the functioning of tonality requires a hierarchy of pitch classes, and all hierarchy is white supremacist.
Ballet is white supremacist because it seeks perfection in movement. Math is white supremacist because you have to get the right answer, something only white people are interested in, unless you count every engineer in China or India or Japan or anywhere else where people want the bridges they’re building to stay upright or the planes they design to stay up in the sky.
The corollary idea is to imagine that black jazz musicians can’t read music, or that black blues musicians never have to practice their instruments, or that they don’t shoot for excellence.
Doing any worthwhile thing well becomes an act of resistance, or as I prefer, of insistence and persistence.
Writing a good novel is a significant act. So is humming up a new good tune, or drawing a good sketch, or strumming a good song on your ukulele, or hammering out a good drumbeat on Louie Louie.
One final point: why self-publish a novel? This used to be a mark of shame. It meant you couldn’t get a mainstream publisher.
Actually, self-publishing has a great history in America. Walt Whitman self-published Leave of Grass. A printer by trade, he even set the type. Mark Twain, who started out as a printer, self-published Huckleberry Finn.
These were two different situations. Walt Whitman had to self-publish; he had no chance of getting any reputable publisher for his outlandish poems, but Mark Twain didn’t have to. He was already America’s most famous author. Pre-publication, he sold 40,000 copies. And he got to keep the money himself—another great American tradition.
They both wanted total control over what they wrote.
Contemporary mainstream publishers employ parasites sometimes called “sensitivity readers.” Their job is to edit and cancel any deviations from the latest woke mania. Our commercial publishing is just another adjunct of the mainstream media, corrupt and stupid, like the old Soviet bureaucracy.
Under the heavy hand of Soviet communism, people invented samizdat, the Russian word for self-publishing. Having no Internet, Soviet writers snuck photocopies and printed. They even did the laborious one-at-a-time re-typing of secret manuscripts.
If people like Solzhenitsyn and Sharansky could self-publish under the threat of arrest, gulag and death, we can use contemporary technology against our own obnoxious but comparatively minor inconvenience of cancel culture.
But self-publishing is only a temporary solution. Going forward, we need to build our own alternate set of institutions which will continue to affirm our cultural inheritance, our freedom of expression, our upstream.
These include an alternate Internet infrastructure and alternate social media, publishing houses, movie companies, foundations, universities and the rest.
The participants and the audience are already here, eager for our chance at freedom and at our chance to affirm and enjoy and extend our upstream inheritance.