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still be read all over the world in dozens of languages when the films on which they are based are long forgotten or superseded by new forms of entertainment.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_278007 Inactive
    user_278007
    @RichardFulmer

    I wrote a novel that imagined America if HillaryCare became law.  I’ll send any member a copy if you e-mail your address to my Ricochet in-box.  In return, please give me feedback on the book.  Thanks in advance.

    • #31
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Joseph Stanko:

    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.

    TV is so passé. I stopped watching about 24 years ago, and I only have one for DVDs.

    • #32
  3. Carey J. Inactive
    Carey J.
    @CareyJ

    Baen Books is a good source for Science Fiction and Fantasy books with a conservative, or at least libertarian outlook. And they don’t use DRM on their e-books.

    • #33
  4. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Arahant:

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

     I think that’s a great idea. 

    • #34
  5. user_3444 Coolidge
    user_3444
    @JosephStanko

    Arahant: TV is so passé. I stopped watching about 24 years ago, and I only have one for DVDs.

    Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dr. Who, Louie… you’re missing lots of good TV!

    • #35
  6. Porco Rosso Member
    Porco Rosso
    @

    Carey J.:

    Baen Books is a good source for Science Fiction and Fantasy books with a conservative, or at least libertarian outlook. And they don’t use DRM on their e-books.

     The terrific thing about Baen is that they don’t engage in any kind of litmus test for writers. There are outspoken libertarians, conservatives, minarchists, and socialists, some near commies in their roster. Baen cares about stories, and by not engaging in political filtering, they allow all kinds of points of view – as long as they write good/fun sf and fantasy.

    Larry Correia has been mentioned above, and I think he’s a great example of modern genre fiction having a conservative/libertarian viewpoint without suffocating the story. His viewpoint informs the story. His Monster Hunter books are urban fantasy (modern world with vampires, werewolves, etc) but the central conflicts are about private sector vs government remedies to largely insoluble problems. It fuels the story, and not by having 100 page long radio addresses letting people know what’s what (Mrs. Rand, I’m looking at you.) 

    • #36
  7. otherdeanplace@yahoo.com Member
    otherdeanplace@yahoo.com
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Salvatore Padula
    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.

    Agree Saving the Queen is not a great book, but one Blackford Oakes novel is very good – Stained Glass. Not nearly as good as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (a classic.) All of LeCarre’s Smiley novels are worth reading, but since 9/11, LeCarre’s work has been ruined by an even greater emphasis on left wing politics.

    • #37
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Joseph Stanko: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dr. Who, Louie… you’re missing lots of good TV!

    To paraphrase based on a friend of mine’s opinion on the subject of poetry, “TV is like beer. With beer, all beers are good, it’s just that some beers are better than others. With TV, all TV is bad, it’s just that some shows are worse than others.”

    I used to watch Dr. Who many years ago and still sort of follow what is happening with it. But that is about as close as I come to TV these days.

    • #38
  9. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Eustace C. Scrubb: All of LeCarre’s Smiley novels are worth reading, but since 9/11, LeCarre’s work has been ruined by an even greater emphasis on left wing politics.

     That’s very true.

    • #39
  10. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Salvatore Padula:

    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.

    But is that the sum total of what this is about? Does it have to be political, in the broad sense of that term? As someone who loves to read, but who gets discouraged trying to find something worthwhile, I wouldn’t mind a refuge where I can depend on finding good stories that don’t go out of their way to wallow in “sardonic irony.” 

    When all we have are anti-heroes, a simple hero would be a refreshing change.

    • #40
  11. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    KC Mulville:

    Salvatore Padula:

    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.

    But is that the sum total of what this is about? Does it have to be political, in the broad sense of that term? As someone who loves to read, but who gets discouraged trying to find something worthwhile, I wouldn’t mind a refuge where I can depend on finding good stories that don’t go out of their way to wallow in “sardonic irony.”

    When all we have are anti-heroes, a simple hero would be a refreshing change.

     I hear you and I sympathize with your view on this, but I think conservatives will continue to be relegated to the periphery of our popular culture as long as they cloister themselves rather than engage. I’m not opposed to the promotion of forums for conservative literature, but I don’t think they will achieve what Bellows’ claims. They may well be good business, but I don’t think they’re good politics.

    • #41
  12. user_96427 Contributor
    user_96427
    @tommeyer

    Joseph Stanko:  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.

    Nolo contendere.  That was the weakest part of Bellows’s argument.

    • #42
  13. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    KC Mulville:

    But is that the sum total of what this is about? Does it have to be political, in the broad sense of that term? As someone who loves to read, but who gets discouraged trying to find something worthwhile, I wouldn’t mind a refuge where I can depend on finding good stories that don’t go out of their way to wallow in “sardonic irony.”

    When all we have are anti-heroes, a simple hero would be a refreshing change.

     It’s about a few things really.  It’s about creating good art/entertainment.  It’s about something we can be supportive of.  And it’s about something that might change a few minds.

    My fear is that what actually gets created is a right wing version of bad left wing agitprop.  Personally, I would find that demoralizing.  I ‘d get angry at the creator for having such a low opinion of a conservative audience, thinking he can fob off inferior work because we agree with his politics.  And I am embarrassed for people who cheer lead for obviously inferior work because of its politics when we are supposed to be the champions of The Great Books.

    • #43
  14. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Arahant:

    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.

    Hoo boy, is that right. Biggest problem: overly nice airheads who think everything is wonderful! — at that level of specificity. (That’s 80% of them right there.)

    • #44
  15. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Arahant:

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

     Or a writer’s circle.

    Sign. Me. Up.

    • #45
  16. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Quinn the Eskimo:

    My fear is that what actually gets created is a right wing version of bad left wing agitprop.

     That’s absolutely true. But, consider: did the existence of bad left wing agitprop drive out the quality left wing agitprop-lite? All those movies and screenplays that are 5% left wing edutainment buried in 95% compelling story? Not on your life. It’s possible the ghettos and echo-chambers of left-wing hacks have no effect on the successful, mainstream work. I really don’t think you can argue it’s harmful to the cause.

    So, in my opinion, Liberty Island is, at worst, useless. I would guess that, at best, it could end up fostering only a very, very few successes–which is to say, as many as any place ever succeeds in fostering.

    • #46
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Fredösphere:

    Arahant:

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

    Or a writer’s circle.

    Sign. Me. Up.

    Is this something Silent Cal Productions would do, or would it be a spin-off like the Ricochet Meet-ups?

    • #47
  18. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Fredösphere:  Or a writer’s circle.

     Is that the literary equivalent of a drum circle?

    Seawriter

    • #48
  19. user_137118 Member
    user_137118
    @DeanMurphy

    Seawriter:

    Fredösphere: Or a writer’s circle.

    Is that the literary equivalent of a drum circle?

    Seawriter

    I imagine it more like a firing circle… 

    • #49
  20. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Fredösphere:
    But, consider: did the existence of bad left wing agitprop drive out the quality left wing agitprop-lite? All those movies and screenplays that are 5% left wing edutainment buried in 95% compelling story? Not on your life.

     If we are talking about a movement to create 95% compelling story, I’m all for it.  I worry that someone will think they can make a quick buck from selling 95% propaganda and only 5% story and there is an audience so starved for something conservative that it will be tolerant of 95% propaganda.

    It’s a parallel argument to those of us on the right who think that while Fox News is a corrective to the regular left wing bias in the MSM, we think that Fox News still leaves a lot to be desired as a journalistic institution.

    • #50
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