The Superversive Literary Movement
Good storytelling. Great ideas.
As a new feature, we will be reposting the original Superversive Blog posts from 2014, starting with the post that started it all: Tom Simon’s opening essay:
The Art of Courage
by Tom Simon
Behold the Underminer! I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!
For about a hundred years now, ever since the First World War broke the confidence of Western civilization, it has been fashionable to praise subversion. Art, music, and literature, as many of the critics tell us, are not supposed to go chasing after obsolete values like truth or beauty; they are supposed to shock, to wound, to épater les bourgeois – to subvert the values of society. Here is a fairly typical example, from the literary critic, John Grant:
It must meddle with our thinking, it must delight in being controversial, it must hope to be condemned by authority (whatever authority one chooses to identify), it must be at the cutting edge of the imagination, it must flirt with madness, it must surprise.
Grant is prescribing goals for fantasy, but the same demand has been heard in every genre and every art form, much to the harm of the arts. Most people don’t share Grant’s ideological preoccupations; they see the arts not as vehicles of propaganda, but as entertainment. Trying to get yourself condemned by authority may be good sophomoric fun while you are doing it, but it makes a dull spectator sport. Considered as entertainment, it has no virtue except novelty; and it has not been novel since about the 1920s. This is one reason why the ‘serious’ arts see their audiences shrinking year after year, until they are only maintained in precarious existence by public subsidy.
Part of the trouble comes from that apparently blank cheque, ‘whatever authority one chooses to identify’. In practice, this always means the same authority: the ghost of Mrs. Grundy, the narrow-minded, puritanical, bourgeois authority that lost most of its power in 1914, and does not exist at all anymore. If you rebel against a different authority – the Chinese Communist Party, or the rulers of militant Islam – you will not find the critics so approving. They will call you reactionary or even neocon, and the hand of Buzzfeed will be raised against you.
For the world of art and literature is largely dominated by the Left, and the Left is dominated by people whose world-view is inherited from their great-grandfathers. In this view, we need labour unions to defend us against the peril of child labour, Big Government to defend us against Standard Oil. America is one false move away from theocracy and Jim Crow; Europe is one false move away from another World War. Nothing can save us except a wonderful new panacea called Socialism, which has never been tried before, and with which nothing can possibly go wrong. These, in the main, are the ideas of the Left even today; and the people who believe these things have the nerve to call themselves Progressives. They call for progress; but they are still trying to progress from 1914 into 1915. They call for subversion; but the thing they are trying to subvert no longer exists.
To subvert a thing literally means ‘to turn from below’: to undermine. In olden days, men built their forts and castles on high ground, because high ground is easier to defend. A hilltop fortress can be made almost impregnable. But only almost: for a fortress can be undermined. The attacking army digs tunnels underneath the fortifications, scooping out the earth and rock until the walls cave in from their own unsupported weight. This is the original kind of subversion.
Nobody uses the word subversion in that literal sense anymore, but it is helpful to keep it in mind, because it applies metaphorically to every other kind of subversion. Our brave Progressive rebels have been subverting the walls of nineteenth-century capitalism and imperialism for a hundred years, and the walls fell down long ago. All that remains now is a hole in the ground, under which armies of activists like crazed moles are busily undermining each other’s mines. One mole calls another mole’s mine sexist, and digs a tunnel to make it collapse; the second mole calls the first mole racist, and digs a tunnel under that. They have lost the power to create; all they have left is the mere reflex of criticism.
At this point, subversives can do nothing but dig the hole deeper, or at best, rearrange some of the rubble on the surface. Further subversion achieves nothing; it creates nothing; but they go on doing it from sheer force of habit – the habit of feeding the ego. If they fought effectively, they might win, and then they would not feel needed anymore. As long as they fight by useless methods, the war can continue, and they can take pride in being on the right side.
On the face of it, this is insane; but it is exactly the kind of insanity that you will always find among sane people. It is the insanity of the committee, where people who disagree about their destination have to agree which road to take. Those who want to go north reject the road that goes south, and those who want to go south reject the road that goes east; in the end they compromise and take a road that goes round in circles. Ritual subversion satisfies the craving for activity without ever risking achievement.
G. K. Chesterton described the process in Heretics:
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down…. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.
The subversives have pulled down their lamp-post, and they must go on pulling it down for ever, because they cannot agree on what to do next.
What, then, can we do, those of us who are not Progressives? We cannot fight subversion by its own methods; that only makes the hole deeper. But if subversion means ‘turning from below’, there can be such a thing as turning from above. We have nothing to gain by digging a bigger hole, but we can build right over it. It seems natural enough to me to invent a new word for this by changing part of the old one; so I call it superversion.
The job of the superversive is at once difficult and rewarding. We shall need to build on the high ground, as people used to do: not only for defence, but because the high ground is more solid. Before the subversives dug their mines under the churches, there was a parable that used to be widely known. The gist of it was that a house built on rock will stand firm, but a house built on sand will soon fall down. High ground is usually rocky ground, and from that perspective, ideal for us to build on.
For those of us who write stories, this chiefly means moral high ground. I am not speaking of sexual morality; that, nowadays, is a subject so difficult to approach, so fraught with ego and emotion, that we are liable to lose most of our readers if we begin there. Fortunately, there are other areas of morality where most people still have an instinctive preference for the good. Progressivism tells us that we are all pawns pushed about by socioeconomic forces (which only the great god Government can hope to alter). Our instincts and experience are all on the opposite side. We know, and feel that we know, that individuals can actually do things, and sometimes great and heroic things. And we know that the best things are often done against the odds; the socioeconomic forces do not inevitably win. Progressivism sneers at the idea of good and evil; but we persist in admiring qualities like honesty, unselfishness, and fair dealing, and most of us feel shame when we do the opposite things. Most people like the kind of story that can be called heroic, where the main character wants something and accomplishes it in spite of opposition. Very few people like stories where all the characters’ actions are doomed to futility, no matter how much they were taught to admire such stories at school.
It has been truly said that courage is not a virtue, but the form that every virtue takes at the testing point. In this sense, most good stories are about courage – the courage to make a sustained effort. It takes physical effort to climb a mountain or build a castle; it takes an effort of will to lift yourself above your worse impulses and climb up to the moral high ground. That is one reason why the metaphor refers to high ground. Temptation is as universal as gravity, and we spend most of our time and effort resisting them both. It is true that courage is not an unmixed blessing. It can take as much courage to commit a murder as to save a life. But it is fair to say that no good thing was ever accomplished without courage; that our whole civilization is built on the courage of men and women who would not surrender to their circumstances, but strove for something better.
I believe it follows, then, that courage is the essential quality of a superversive story: not the dumb, dull fortitude that passively endures in the face of suffering, but the courage that allows the character to take action – to risk becoming a hero. In a double sense, fiction is the art of courage. It is the art that teaches courage by example; it is also the art that is about courage. If the characters have no problem, there is no story; but if they do not have the courage to try and solve the problem, the story has no point, and the audience will not be entertained. There are plenty of non-stories and pointless stories already; plenty of literature, full of pretty language and therefore praised by the critics, in which nobody does anything, or even tries. I say we have had enough of those stories. Let us be superversive; let us build on mountains instead of making molehills. Let us make up stories about people with courage, and have the courage to tell them, as much as the critics and the Progressives wish us to be silent.
Tom Simon is an author and essayist. He has written many really fine and inspiring essays on a host of topics, including some excellent essays on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. To find out more about his work:
His author page:
http://www.amazon.com/Tom-Simon/e/B00AR3EN7G His novel, Lord Talon's Revenge Writing Down the Dragon ( and other Essays on the Tolkien Method and the Craft of Fantasy.)