Excellent article by Declan Finn. This article first appeared at A Pius Geek blog.
CS Lewis’ demon, Screwtape, once had to advise his nephew Wormwood about a moment when the junior demon could not influence his targeted human. Screwtape patiently explained that Wormwood made the mistake of allowing the targeted human to read a good book. Any demon worth his sulfur should know that they must make certain that the humans they tempt must only be made to read important books. When people read good books that warm the soul, it cloaks them in a fog that a demon can’t penetrate.
“Important” books like that have been why the term “literature” has always had a bad rap – especially 19ths and 20th century literature. Because, you will notice, that Lord of the Rings is rarely put in the literature section of a bookstore – if ever. I know of no English Literature program that will include Lord of the Rings as part of the curriculum. No. For “literature,” people are subjected to Steinbeck, or Lord of the Flies, or half of Russian literature, which makes you want to slit your wrists by the time you’re done. To heck with being subversive, I would submit that much of the drivel labeled as “literature” is in fact corrosive to the human spirit, if not the human soul.
Much of the science fiction during the Cold War has the same problem. Ellison’s I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, may indeed be great literature, or may even be brilliant, but I do come away from it wondering why I cared, or why I read it. It’s a good example of Cold War science fiction, filled with the despair for the future. Heck, one of the reasons Star Trek worked so well is that it was perhaps the first Cold War sci-fi that showed a world after World War 3 that didn’t look like a variation on Mad Max or The Terminator.
So, that’s why Superversive fiction has always been a mystery to me – not because I didn’t understand the concept, but because I didn’t see the need for the term. Growing up, I always understood the difference between fiction that edifies and fiction that doesn’t. Which was my original problem with the concept of Superversive fiction. Shouldn’t all fiction be Superversive? Why does it need a moment, or coinage of a new term?
Obviously, the deeper one looks at some of the fiction being shoved into the face of the general population, the more it becomes apparent that we need a Superversive movement, mostly because of all the works being labeled “important” and then thrust into the face of the general reading public, insisting that we should read it. Too much fiction tries to be “important” fiction, and in being “important,” goes for “reality” … only their reality is grim, dismal, and becomes amazingly Unreal in the process. If you’re trying for literature, and making it a matter of despair, you’re doing it wrong. Because, sorry, I’ve met people whose lives have been misery, and hope is quite abundant in them. To be Jean Paul Sartre about life is to invite suicide. Indeed, when Sartre was asked about why he never killed himself if life was so absurd, he never had an answer.
Michael Straczynski, in his comic The Book of Lost Souls, has one tale of a street artist who recently lost her boyfriend to drug abuse. Soon after, the mural she made of him has come alive, and is talking to her … and telling her to come and join him, offering her a needle. And it is not the voice of a demon, or a monster, but, as our hero explains,
“It is the voice of reason and resentment .… The voice of madness is the voice that Believes, despite all of the evidence to the contrary … that sustains us when logic demands that we surrender to the louder voice – the voice of reason, and resentment. And it always comes in the guise of those who love us most, who want only the best for us …. Someimes their motives are pure, wishing only to save us from pain. And sometimes the pain they wish to spare is their own, because if you can be convinced to set aside your own dreams, they can remain comfortable with their decision to do the same. The Voice of reason is the voice that tells us that our dreams are foolish ….[it sometimes becomes] a genius loci, the spirit of the place. And the spirit of this place is despair.”
And that’s the problem with those “literary” souls who want to sacrifice their characters, and their audience, on an altar of “reality.” Sometimes, just because something is “rational,” doesn’t necessarily make it true.
This concept of “the real” is as unreal as Tolstoy’s lie, that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” an idea that probably requires being Russian to believe. Is there any more Russian concept than to believe that being happy is bland and uniform, but being miserable is unique? Perhaps even special? It is a lie, but perhaps Tolstoy didn’t know that at the time. If those of the self proclaimed literati truly see the world as miserable as they write it, it does make me wonder why the authors in question just don’t do away with themselves and leave the rest of us alone.
Unless, perhaps, they don’t believe the lie, and know that they peddle falsehoods. In which case, there is a place for those people who make others despair. Dante described it vividly.
I would argue that most true literature is written by those who aren’t trying. There is more truth in the hope of John Ringo’s Black Tide series, than in the shallow materialism of Wagner’s Ring cycle (his Twilight of the Gods has the hero die, the villain die, the king die and his sister die, the heroine die, and her horse die, and the mermaids of the Rhine get their ring back and they live happily ever after … and why did we care?). Then you have the epic scope of John C. Wright’s Iron Chamber of Memory and the magic around us, and the wonder and majesty of the world and the universe.
And if you doubt me that there’s wonder and majesty in the universe, go Google some Hubble photos.
If you’re writing a novel, and no one in it laughs, or has a reason to hope, or live … or if you write sci-fi and fantasy without a sense of wonder … or you write about space without the terrifying beauty of what’s in the dark … you might just be doing it wrong.
In fact, I’m almost certain you’re doing it wrong.
Just consider, for a moment, Captain America. The traditional story of Steve Rogers is about a psychically perfect human – not an ubermench, not a superman, or even a supernatural man, but essentially a preternatural man – and that says and suggests more about the dignity and ability of the human person than anything in that Thomas Hobbes knockoff, Lord of the Flies. (Yes, I have problems with a whole book based upon one line by a philosopher who has no real concept about how human beings, or society, works.) It suggests that, at the height of human nature, we are essentially good.
For those who claim to write “literature” and “true to life” fiction, being ignoble is real, and being noble is the fiction – mankind are merely meat machines that are no different than the animals on the nature channel. When the people of “literature” kill characters, it’s because “life is full of chance, anarchy, people die randomly and for not reason” … they ignore instances where people do die for reasons – God, country, honor, their fellow man. Because that might mean that one’s fellow man is worth dying for. There is no agape and phileo, there is usually only sex.
To write well is to write Superversive. To write fun, entertaining books is Superversive. To acknowledge the nobility and spirit of the human being is Superversive. Because to entertain well is to edify, to build up the reader. I would put more faith in Die Hard than in Lord of the Flies. I would put more faith in John Ringo, Larry Correia and Wright than all of the art films in all the world. I’d rather read CS Forester and David Weber than Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. I’d rather read any Ringo novel with a 90% casualty rate than anything by Stephen King or George RR Martin with a similar body count. When John Ringo kills off someone, it’s for a dang good reason.
At the end of the day, Superversive fiction – any fiction worth its salt – could be summed up by GK Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Which makes them a thousand times more real than anything most recent “literature” has to offer.
Why Superversive fiction? Because it might not be “real,” but it’s true.