Why I’m Superversive

In my previous post, I relayed all of the reasons I was did not consider myself superversive.

Since then, I’ve changed my mind. My reasoning is actually a lot more straightforward than you might think: Mrs. Wright’s criteria for superversive fiction is incorrect, or at least, it is far too detailed and specific.
“But wait!” says reader, “Did she not coin the term? Isn’t her concept of superversion simply what we mean when we say something superversive?”

(In my head my readers are all very well-spoken.)

I’ll address the claims in order. In point of fact, Mrs. Wright was not the person who originally coined the term superversive. That person was the brilliant essay and novelist Tom Simon, who wrote a superb essay titled “Superversive” almost twelve years ago. I highly recommend it (if you click on the link you can read the entire thing free), and would go so far as to make the argument that it is the first real reference to anything like a superversive fiction movement (And thus, we should all venerate Mr. Simon as our founder. Hail to Bondwine!). The essay is a response to a different writer who opines that J.R.R. Tolkien was, in fact, a subversive writer. The claim is, as Mr. Simon points out, flatly ridiculous on the face of it. He demolishes it in some detail, then lays out a proper method for describing whether or not a particular work is subversive or not:

To subvert a thing is to undermine it, to cut away its foundations so that it can be overthrown. Nowadays the word is always used figuratively; one may subvert a government or a religion, but no one would talk of subverting a rock face or a building. Nevertheless it is helpful to remember the literal meaning of the word, because that will make the figure of speech more fresh and vivid to the understanding. What a subversive does is to dig away at the ground under something too great and powerful to be attacked directly, until that great and powerful thing topples over and breaks of its own unsupported weight.

Mr. Simon then opines that arguably the most famous enduring image of subversion is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”. The implication of the poem, made clearer in an inferior version written by poet Horace Smith (written, in fact, as part of a contest with Shelley. Smith lost), is that the British Empire is Ozymandias, a cruel and powerful tyrant smug and powerful now but that will ultimately crumble under its own corruption. The comparison with the almost insanely narcissistic words of the tyrant makes it clear that if and when England falls Shelley will not be among its mourners.

The other major subversives of the era were George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde. Here, Mr. Simon touches on an interesting point that Daniel, blogger of the publishing house Castalia House, will hit on separately much later: Even if subversive fiction is good, like Wilde’s, it will tend not to age well if it is successful, because what it is tearing down will no longer exist. He says this about Oscar Wilde:

Wilde attacked the manners, and still more the sententious ethics, of Victorian England in his plays and novels, and above all in the pungent epigrams strewn through them like sequins sewn to an evening gown…These lines, and scores of others like them, have not worn well, because the attitudes they were meant to subvert hardly exist any longer.

And Daniel of Castalia says this:

Of course, there is no new ground to break, and that is the first mistake of subversion. Subversion is entirely dependent on an original target. It is a parasite on a host. If the host is killed in the act of subversion, the subversion dies with it. Subversion only works as a creative contribution when its target remains intact.

Something Mr. Simon indirectly noted over 11 years earlier! Interesting indeed.

So what, then, is superversive fiction? Mr. Simon explains:

In such a state [where subversive fiction has become the norm], there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young.

He elaborates on it a little bit later:

So in the wake of the rockbound conservative Tolkien, along came first half a dozen other writers, then scores and hundreds, with doses of the same drug. Mr Grant and his cronies, such as Michael Moorcock, John Clute, and Claude Lalumière, think that drug a placebo at best, at worst a poison; but in fact it is a medicine, a specific for the spiritual malady from which they all suffer [living in a society with eroded values]. In its own way and degree, fantasy supplies, though it does not wholly fulfill, ‘the need for something to believe in’. Even though much of it is inferior literature, derivative, repetitive, and even phatic, it will still sell to an avid audience as long as it provides the necessary dose.

Using Mr. Simon’s criteria, then, we can define superversive literature as literature that upholds traditional moral values (specifically morality as is found through the natural law, but almost any moral system works in theory so long as it’s consistent, considering how amoral modern society is), strengthens institutions, and tries to extols the values of creation, structure, and discipline.

Less specifically – superversive fiction is fiction designed to build up society, whereas subversive fiction is designed to tear it down.

THAT is something I can get behind. There is nothing inherently wrong with subversive fiction, but in a subversive culture there is something inherently right about being superversive. So count me into the movement.

After 1041 words, onto the second hypothetical reader objection: That we meant what Mrs. Wright meant when she used the term “superversive”.

I think that the spirit of Mrs. Wright’s list of superversive requirements – what she was trying to “Get at” – is preserved if we use Mr. Simon’s definition. Mrs. Wright says that superversive fiction should have heroic characters, should evoke a sense of awe, and should have a story that makes good sense and ends with the good guys winning.

All of these things are almost always in opposition to subversive fiction, which will try to deconstruct concepts of awe at the wonder of the universe, will end with the good guys failing miserably or realizing that their quest was for nothing anyway, and that has antiheroes as protagonists.

When you try to write superversive fiction, you tend towards these sorts of elements anyway: I would simply argue that these are not the only ways to be superversive.

Let’s take one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Othello”. Is it superversive?

The answer is a pretty firm “no” under Mrs. Wright’s standards, if for no other reason then that everybody we like dies.

But from the broader standard of Mr. Simon, I would argue that it is superversive. “Othello” has heroes. Othello himself is a heroic character. Othello is, of course, flawed as well, and this is what leads to his downfall (though I was struck, when reading the play, with the logic of Othello’s conclusions about Desdemona – I think the “green eyed monster” angle is overblown, though that’s a story for another time). But being flawed implies defects in character, and the fact that there’s a villain who is clearly a villain and other characters who are clearly the heroes, even if flawed, reinforces the idea that this is, indeed, a moral universe.

It certainly is not anti-institution. Iago is a constant agent of chaos. Were the institution left to work properly the whole play could be avoided. Iago does his best to inflame tempers, and institutions are torn down out of jealousy or lust for power, but the tearing down of the institutions in place is very clearly a BAD thing. And certainly if the military men were as structured and disciplined as they ought to be we wouldn’t see the extreme level of mutiny that we do in the story – so lack of structure and discipline is portrayed as a clear problem as well. Creativity is, alas, uncommented on.

By that criteria, “Othello” is quite clearly a superversive play, and at any rate I highly doubt Mrs. Wright would object to seeing more “Othello” style works floating around (for an example of a SF tragedy that happens to be superversive, read Michael Flynn’s “The Wreck of the River of Stars”). I think it holds true to the spirit of Mrs. Wright’s guidelines, which are an attempt to provide a framework for authors to instill traditional values into their works.

I suppose one could say they’re more guidelines than rules: You can write a superversive tragedy, assuming you’re a writer the caliber of Shakespeare. But for us mere mortals, here’s a clear set of rules to follow. And I have no problem with that at all.

So why am I superversive?

Because I believe the truth matters.