Would You Read Conservative Fiction?

 

NR Cover 2014.07.07National Review’s current cover story makes for an interesting companion to our discussion last week about what makes for great fiction. In it, book publisher Adam Bellow suggests that conservatives open a new front in the culture war: prose fiction.

To hear some conservatives talk you’d think movies were the Holy Grail, the golden passkey to the collective unconscious. This gets things precisely backwards…

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis both produced big-budget movies that reached millions of people with what most of us would probably agree is a subtly conservative message. Yet both of these successful movie franchises ultimately pale in comparison with the impact of the books. Even at their best, movies are essentially cartoons and their effects are superficial and fleeting. Books engage the reader much more deeply, at a level of identification with the characters and plot that can instruct the soul and edify the mind. A hundred years from now, moreover, these classic books will still be read all over the world in dozens of languages when the films on which they are based are long forgotten or superseded by new forms of entertainment.

In short, conservatives should remember that mainstream popular culture is still largely driven by books… Instead of banging on Hollywood’s front door, a better approach is to go in the back by publishing popular conservative fiction and then turning those books into films.

Though a little harsh on film’s potential power, it’s a compelling argument. Even low-budget, independent films require far more capital than do the most ambitious novels. Hollywood’s union and guild systems further insulate the medium in a way that fiction does less and less. Suffice to say, film’s a poor staging ground for launching a scrappy insurgency.

In contrast, prose fiction requires far less up-front while offering similar returns. Extraordinary as J. K. Rowling’s rise to fame was — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was her first published novel — such overnight success would have been unthinkable had she began by writing a screenplay about a Wizard’s school that required a $125 million production budget. As Bellow argues, moreover, writing her story as a novel in no way inhibited it from being adapted into the highest-grossing film series of all time. Indeed, quite the opposite.

Bellows also has a fair argument that films adapted from prose have an outsized cultural impact. In addition to the anecdotal examples he provides, such as Lord of the Rings, data seems to back him up. Prose provided the source material for a quarter of the revenue of the 100 top-grossing films of each of the last 20 years, and 42% for all top-grossing dramas. In short, prose fiction offers an impressive cultural and financial return on investment, and is almost certainly a better-suited medium for cultural underdogs.

But while Bellows offers sound cultural strategy, his tactical advice is less persuasive: to create a market and infrastructure for conservative fiction writers. Following his own recommendation, Bellows founded Liberty Island, a webzine where right-of-center fiction authors can submit their work for (unpaid) publication, get feedback, and seek donations from fans. Some work gets promoted to the front page for greater exposure — sound familiar? — and can be slugged by genre.

Bellows likens the site to other communities for aspiring writers who share common genre preferences. But rather than create a conservative sub-genre, he hopes to give writers who happen to be conservative, and who might explore themes touching on their politics, a place to cut their teeth.

I wish Bellows and his collaborators all the luck in the world and — who knows? — maybe the site will, as he hopes, incubate some great careers. I spent over an hour exploring the site and a few pieces weren’t half bad. That said, I think the project is destined to fail.

To begin with, Bellows offers scant evidence that conservative writers are unfairly discriminated against in fiction. Indeed, the general thrust of the piece is that conservatives haven’t really tried prose fiction. Moreover, when conservative authors asked him, as a book publisher, to look over their novels he found nothing worth publishing:

I started hearing from conservative authors asking if I would look at their novels. I read quite a few of these, and while some of them were awful, many others were entertaining and well done. But they didn’t rise to the level of proficiency required for mass-market publication, and no sectarian market existed for conservative-themed fiction. So I suggested they self-publish, making use of the new digital-distribution technologies.

Second, there’s an inherent tension between the audience for a site like Liberty Island and its intended goal. If — to switch political agendas — a feminist writer aspires to write feminist-themed work for a mainstream audience, a community of fellow feminists would be the worst place for her to go for useful feedback: indeed, the material most likely to excite the community would be precisely what would alienate a mainstream audience.

Relatedly, genre-specific support groups only work because the people willing to spend time, effort, and money them are inherently interested in the end product. SciFi writers contribute to such groups because they like science fiction; same goes for romance enthusiasts, historical fiction fans, or any other genre-based community. Their love of the genre is what attracts them to sites. So far as I can see, the only reason for someone to go to Liberty Island — as opposed to a non-ideological site dedicated to a given genre — is to further a political agenda. That makes it far more likely to encourage an ideological sub-genre, rather than incubate talent capable of going mainstream.

What to do, then? I think the answer lies in Bellows piece: 1) encourage conservatives — or anyone with ideas worth sharing — to consider prose fiction at least as much as film; 2) encourage them to hone their skills independently and within communities interested in the kind of writing they intend to produce; and 3) buy and promote their stuff if it’s good. If they encounter discrimination, figure out an alternative strategy, but try the direct method first.

Ricochet has a number of fiction authors among its members and even more interested in reading fiction. What say you?

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  1. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    I’d be very interested, not just to read the work but put some of my own writing up for improvement. 

    Of course, what’s the worst that could happen? We can’t be much worse off than the nothing we have now.

    • #1
  2. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    With rare exceptions (Orwell comes prominently to mind) I think overtly ideological or political fiction tends to be pretty unreadable.

    I agree with you about Bellow’s plan. I don’t see how setting up a site for conservative fiction writers is going to lead to the spread of conservatism among the general populace. Unless you’re already conservative, why would you go to Liberty Island or read overtly conservative books.

    I’m also generally skeptical about people forming their ideology from the fiction they read. There has been a great deal of discussion about how the Twilight books promote premarital chastity and how the Hunger Games and Divergent have strong anti-statist and anti-authoritarian messages. That may well be true, but I don’t think these messages actually reach the books’ readers. Vampires have certainly become popular and Katniss is now a popular name for baby girls, but I’m unaware of any reduction in teen sexual activity or an increased skepticism toward government on the part of young women or girls.

    • #2
  3. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Isn’t Conservative Fiction anything that displays the realistic logical consequences of actions?

    If you have a baby at 14 and everything turns out hunky dory, that is some serious fiction.

    • #3
  4. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    In an attempt to provide a conservative alternative to the nihilism of John le Carre, William F. Buckley wrote the Blackford Oakes series of spy novels. Buckley was a wonderful writer, but the Blackford Oakes novels were just horrible. I’d rather read the morally questionable Spy Who Came in From the Cold than the morally edifying, but painfully boring Saving the Queen any day.

    • #4
  5. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    The reason why some of the novels and other franchises which seem to have a conservative message work is that they don’t have an overtly conservative message.

    The ability to simply tell a good story which puts on display some of the cardinal virtues and truths that people are frequently concerned to tell is critical.  Who would have taken the anti-statism message (a world in which the government is inept, inefficient, opaque and ultimately easily coopted by nefarious forces) in Harry Potter seriously if its author had been Jonah Goldberg?  That would just be expected from Jonah.

    Part of this has to do with the unintentional nature of the author’s inclusion of this message.  I don’t think JK Rowling started out wanting to trumpet this premise.  I think she sort of backed into it as a result of her life experiences with the various and sundry welfare agencies in the UK.

    That sort of unintentional admission or truth telling – that’s what’s effective.

    • #5
  6. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Mike H:

    Isn’t Conservative Fiction anything that displays the realistic logical consequences of actions?  

    Just write something interesting and don’t shrink from contradiction or ambiguity.  Agit prop is usually boring.

    • #6
  7. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Good conservative fiction must be good fiction first and conservative second.  Having a worthwhile point of view won’t salvage lousy writing or boring characters.

    • #7
  8. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Majestyk: Part of this has to do with the unintentional nature of the author’s inclusion of this message.  I don’t think JK Rowling started out wanting to trumpet this premise.  I think she sort of backed into it as a result of her life experiences with the various and sundry welfare agencies in the UK. That sort of unintentional admission or truth telling – that’s what’s effective.

     The best pro-libertarian fiction I have ever encountered is the British TV show “Yes Minister.”  The creators weren’t trying to convince people of the evil/incompetence of government, but by the end of each episode, one is left appalled by the people who run the country.

    • #8
  9. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    It’s true that fiction that’s only a mouthpiece for partisan preaching is usually pretty bad. But that certainly doesn’t stop feminist literature or gay literature from being an identifiable niche market. There might be a market for people who don’t want to be bothered with random sex and nihilist preaching.

    • #9
  10. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    KC Mulville:

    It’s true that fiction that’s only a mouthpiece for partisan preaching is usually pretty bad. But that certainly doesn’t stop feminist literature or gay literature from being an identifiable niche market. There might be a market for people who don’t want to be bothered with random sex and nihilist preaching.

     Do many heterosexual non-feminists read gay or feminist literature? There probably is a market for overtly conservative literature, but that market consists of people who are already conservative. It’s not going to change the larger culture.

    • #10
  11. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    The continued existence of the Sy-Fy channel seems to demonstrate the viability of a niche market independent of quality. Likewise, the financial success of most fantasy films. If there’s a thirst for the type, many people will give it a shot and hate themselves for doing so later.

    Director Uwe Boll made a career out of ruining video game stories in film adaptations. Quality fiction catches the limelight, but bad fiction sells too.

    There are formulas for maintaining popularity, but not for reaching it.

    Some stories even endure through decades or even centuries not because they are good but because they are iconic, because they encapsulate some cultural movement or interest.

    But yes, generally speaking, writing quality is more significant than philosophical quality.

    • #11
  12. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    What Quinn the Eskimo said.

    There is no more conservative voice in Science Fiction than H. Beam Piper. Yet I do not regularly re-read (and re-hear audio versions of) his stories because they offer a conservative message.  I keep going back because they are crackling good entertainment, stories I enjoy again and again.

    Doesn’t matter the medium.  Casablanca has a conservative message, but I can watch it over and over because it is a magnificent story, not because it is a conservative movie.

    There is now a flood of conservative authors out there — right now — that have access to an audience because of technology.  Larry Correia’s first book was self-published.  He is now a New York Times best-selling authors because his stories are so good — not because of his conservative themes.  That is the example to follow,

    Seawriter

    • #12
  13. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Salvatore Padula: I agree with you about Bellow’s plan. I don’t see how setting up a site for conservative fiction writers is going to lead to the spread of conservatism among the general populace. Unless you’re already conservative, why would you go to Liberty Island or read overtly conservative books.

    It makes sense as a launch platform for new writers. More than anything else, new authors need an audience of significant size — an audience not comprised mostly of friends and family — to give their books a chance without the recommendation of popular authority. Not many people relish the opportunity to risk hours of boredom or irritation on an unproven author in hope of making a discovery. Ideally, a good book would receive word-of-mouth advertising in this way.

    In the music industry, musicians need to prove their popularity before a publisher will be interested. The publisher wants proof of viability before even listening to a song. I suspect that there’s a similar scenario in book publishing. The big, national publishers probably want proof of viability before they will read a work; if they even accept unsolicited manuscripts.

    • #13
  14. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    A version of that cover article can be read for free here.

    I’m glad for a new conservative fiction market because I’m glad for a new market. And I don’t see anyone here yet addressing Bellow’s best evidence, which is that all new, counter-cultural arts movements started within some ghetto and branched out from there. I believe new talent can be nurtured through participation in both cozy clubs of partisans and the broader world.

    I’ll definitely send Liberty Island at least one of my SF stories. I recently sent it to Crowded Magazine after several other mainstream rejections, and from the half dozen critiques I received, I found that what disappointed readers was not its engagement with abortion politics, but the ending, which did not answer the question they most wanted answered. So, no evidence of bias in that case.

    However, it is a fact that the prominent markets for short sci-fi are run by open leftists. It really does appear to be true that conservative writers of speculative fiction have a smoother path if they go straight to novel writing. Which is what I’m working on right now.

    • #14
  15. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    (I’ll argue with myself since others are not addressing this point.)

    I suppose where the analogy breaks down is that avant-garde artistic movements (the ones that start small, in some ghetto) are associated with avant-garde politics. In other words, the new styles grow up together with the political ideas with which they are associated, and a dynamic of mutual critique and encouragement between art and argument is at work. But conservative ideas are (almost by definition) well established. The art may be unfamiliar and outré but the politics have well-established institutional support.

    I’m not sure if this point is dispositive, however.

    • #15
  16. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I read the article this morning.  I liked the point that conservatives are now the counter culture.  That might actually give us some cache with young people eventually, and I think that being part of the counter-culture generally does lead to some good literature, music and film.  Also, rollicking good comedy and parody.  The left is just so easy to make fun of these days, it’s hardly even a challenge.

    • #16
  17. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Fredösphere:

    I suppose where the analogy breaks down is that avant-garde artistic movements (the ones that start small, in some ghetto) are associated with avant-garde politics.

     I’m not sure this has to be true.  To pick two examples (although not really sci-fi, but in the fantasy family), The Twilight Zone episode “Spur of the Moment” and the movie “Frailty” from a few years back.  The Left has established enough tropes and conventions in literature that they are ripe for subversion.

    • #17
  18. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Merina Smith: Also, rollicking good comedy and parody.  The left is just so easy to make fun of these days, it’s hardly even a challenge.

     Yes, but conservative comics tend to be self-deprecating and joke about the innocent foibles of people they love, whereas liberal jokes are full of hate and scorn.

    • #18
  19. Nathaniel Wright Member
    Nathaniel Wright
    @NathanielWright

    I do read conservative fiction. I have long been a fan of Jerry Pournelle. I am currently a fan of Larry Correia and John C. Wright. While I don’t have a litmus test that requires that I not read liberal authors, the fact that an author is conservative is a factor that will help to persuade me to read an otherwise new author.

    • #19
  20. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    I’m confused.  Is there any good fiction that isn’t conservative already?  Okay, I’ll admit that some popular fiction can’t be characterized as having any political point of view, one way or the other.  And maybe my world is narrow.  But the three novels I read in the last two weeks were by David Baldacci, Vince Flynn, and Dean Koontz.  All three write books that go to No. 1 on the bestseller lists as soon as they are released, and all three are very conservative in their themes and commentary.  And that’s without even mentioning Tom Clancy.

    • #20
  21. user_96427 Contributor
    user_96427
    @tommeyer

    Fredösphere: And I don’t see anyone here yet addressing Bellow’s best evidence, which is that all new, counter-cultural arts movements started within some ghetto and branched out from there.

    I tried to address that in the OP: the difference between Liberty Island and other ghettos is that the former is secondarily interested in the final product, while the latter is primarily interested in it.  What advantage does Liberty Island offer over a non-ideological SF community?  None I can see, other than its ideology.

    • #21
  22. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    I’m all for more books by “conservatives,” though I must agree with Larry that there is quite a good bit of it out there. 

    Koontz is a good example.  The literary elites at the NYT and the universities are highly dismissive of his brand of popular fiction, but it sells because he writes, first, good stories with good characters, and, two, messages that appeal, overtly or subconsciously, to the conservative instincts that most of us possess.

    His Odd Thomas series is my favorite.  Odd is fundamentally conservative without making that the plot line.

    I also agree with Sal that the writer must step lightly.  The moment a writer tries to turn a story into a polemic, the writer will lose his audience.  For polemics, I read NR, The Weekly Standard, and the like.  I don’t like to feel that a novelist is lecturing to me.

    So, yes, let’s have more good conservative novels.  But they must avoid the heavy hand.

    • #22
  23. Frederick Key Inactive
    Frederick Key
    @FrederickKey

    I try to do my bit on both ends. Haven’t written any fictional polemics, but as we see all the time, an author’s ideals and his view of the world create the moral universe his characters inhabit, and if he understands that the facts of life are conservative, his work will reflect that.

    • #23
  24. user_255855 Inactive
    user_255855
    @TomWilson

    I think the story must come first, not ideology. I’ve really enjoyed the novels of the Ricochet contributor C J Box.  I’ve read nearly all his books. My wife suggested him because he’s well reviewed and a conservative.  That was enough to get to me to give him a read. I wouldn’t call his work conservative fiction, but fiction by a writer who happens to be conservative.

    • #24
  25. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Funny you should mention it.  More on that later.

    • #25
  26. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I’m coming late to the game, and most of you have touched on points I might have made, especially Seawriter on H. Beam Piper.

    But I think Fredösphere is the only one who has really touched on the critiquing aspect. For many years, I was in several poetry and writing critiquing forums. Many were open. A very few were closed access where you had to prove you could write or that you were someone before posting. Because my critiques were considered so insightful, I was even invited to join a visual arts forum. Because of my experiences, at various times I distilled bits of wisdom on giving and receiving good critiques. (Here or here, for instance.)

    But here’s the part you need to know: 99.999% of the people on fairly unrestricted sites do not know the first thing about writing or critiquing. If you don’t know how to use a critique, if you don’t know how to ferret out the real problems, then critiques are worthless.  You’ll get junk comments that have nothing to do with the writing.  It’s a very frustrating process without excellent critics.

    • #26
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Now, another wild idea might be a Ricochet Writers’ Feed.  But that’s another issue.

    • #27
  28. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Amy Schley:

    Majestyk: Part of this has to do with the unintentional nature of the author’s inclusion of this message. I don’t think JK Rowling started out wanting to trumpet this premise. I think she sort of backed into it as a result of her life experiences with the various and sundry welfare agencies in the UK. That sort of unintentional admission or truth telling – that’s what’s effective.

    The best pro-libertarian fiction I have ever encountered is the British TV show “Yes Minister.” The creators weren’t trying to convince people of the evil/incompetence of government, but by the end of each episode, one is left appalled by the people who run the country.

     Yes, Yes, Yes.
    Jim Geraghty’s The Weed Agency brings to mind Yes, Minister and not just because one of the main character’s is a lifelong bureaucrat named Humphrey.  

    • #28
  29. user_3444 Coolidge
    user_3444
    @JosephStanko

    I read and enjoyed Graveyard Special by James Lileks, does that count?  It’s not all that political, though.

    • #29
  30. user_3444 Coolidge
    user_3444
    @JosephStanko

    Tom Meyer: Even at their best, movies are essentially cartoons and their effects are superficial and fleeting. Books engage the reader much more deeply, at a level of identification with the characters and plot that can instruct the soul and edify the mind.

     Horsefeathers.  A work like Breaking Bad can’t engage the viewer “at a level of identification with the characters and plot that can instruct the soul and edify the mind”?  Please.  Adam Bellow needs to find some better movies (or TV shows) to watch.

    Besides, nobody reads anymore, while nearly everyone watches TV.  TV is what shapes the culture these days, not books.    

    • #30
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