In the cover story of the July 7 issue of National Review, Adam Bellow issued a refreshing call for conservatives to re-engage with mass culture. Specifically, he wants them to write more novels. He is not the first to suggest this–Mark Goldblatt considered the role of MFA programs in driving the literary establishment leftward in the same pages in 2010.
But staying the course of this sort of ambition is difficult. A year after pledging to make crossover movies in his new role as a movie studio executive, Rick Santorum announced plans for EchoLight Studios to release a movie about the Supreme Court that will focus in part on the Hobby Lobby decision. It is easier to play to your base, particularly when that base is underserved by mass culture, or to revisit old smashes like Ayn Rand than it is to conquer the culture at large.
So in the spirit of the friendly opposition (and as a potential reader and reviewer of the books Bellow hopes to inspire), I hope Bellow will not mind if I offer a little advice to conservative writers.
Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard laid down a set of rules in the first volume of his six-part autobiographical novel “My Struggle” that might be useful for Bellow and those he hopes to inspire.
“That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form,” Knausgaard writes. “If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. That is why writers with a strong style often write bad books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write bad books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being.”
Bellow agrees with this, drawing a clear line between “’cause fiction,’or, more bluntly, literary propaganda. That is simply a right-wing version of socialist realism—the demand that the arts advance a particular social and political agenda,” and stories where “the authors craft dramatic situations and pick heroes and villains that serve more subtly to advance their point of view.”
Fortunately for Bellow and his compatriots, there are plenty of examples to guide them in achieving that balance between engaging storytelling and serious examination of ideas.
Popular fiction has a long tradition of packaging conservative ideas about everything from sexual mores to foreign policy in page-turning plots.
When Tom Clancy died last year, he left behind his novels, as well as film and video game franchises. The politics of the latter could be thunderingly obvious in their branding of environmentalists and immigrants as terrorists.
But in other media, Clancy was exceptionally adept at finding propulsive stories and new frameworks for familiar issues. Rather than condemning American women for having abortions or American doctors for providing them, he focused on China’s family laws and restriction of religious freedom in “The Bear and the Dragon.” Jack Ryan, his tough hero who rises all the way to the presidency, was an intellectual with a populist touch who implemented the Tea Party’s vision of bringing ordinary people to Congress in “Executive Orders.”
John Grisham may be a Democrat–he even served in the Mississippi House in the 1980s–and an opponent of the death penalty, but like Clancy, this master of the trade paperback bestseller lists offers some lessons for aspiring conservative novelists. Grisham’s heroes tend to be men of modest means who work hard to earn affluence, only to discover its moral and institutional costs. Their character arcs often involve both confrontations with powerful organizations and an education in what it takes to be a good husband or partner.
Neither Clancy nor Grisham are particularly adept at character development or psychological writing. Instead, they hook us with plot, which is the primary vehicle for their ideas. This is an approach that works well if the stakes for a story are external, whether Jack Ryan is foiling a terrorist plot or Mitch McDeere is bringing down a mob-controlled law firm.
Something different is required when a novel is trying to get at more internal issues of morals and ethics.
In 2004, when Tom Wolfe published “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” his novel about an elite university and the contemporary students who fail to live up to its reputation, he obviously intended to pen a scathing look at what would come to be known as hookup culture.
But the book is marred by Wolfe’s failure to create a fully compelling internal life for his titular fallen freshwoman. Charlotte reads like a 73-year-old’s fantasy of how an 18-year-old woman thinks, which is, of course, precisely what she is. “I Am Charlotte Simmons” should be a strong reminder of the value of empathy and nuance when writing characters who do not share your life experiences–particularly when you want to criticize their morals. The “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise, which is part of a long tradition of novels in which a young woman is sexually degraded but manages to tame and soothe the man who is degrading her, at least manages to acknowledge that women might want sex for pleasure as well as for social status.
I recognize that I have drawn heavily from mass-market fiction in sussing out these lessons, and it is worth acknowledging that Bellow is aiming higher in his cri de coeur. “We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth,” he writes. “We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.”
Such a suggestion poses a conundrum. Unless these proposed programs, fellowships and prizes cast a wide net, they risk marking the works that emerge from them or are honored by them as hopelessly ideological.
Conservatives who want to invest in such programs would be wise to support mainstream authors whose work engages seriously with conservative ideas or who demonstrate some level of conservative temperament. Adelle Waldman, whose novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P,” has a nuanced perspective on the aftereffects of an abortion and a rather sour take on how young men conduct themselves sexually in the age of sexual liberation, might be one candidate for this sort of recognition.
I understand that essentially telling aspiring writers to turn out good books is of somewhat limited value. If conservatives are to take back mass culture, though, they will need to have as much faith in their aesthetic powers as they do in their ideas.