Commentary Magazine


Topic: fiction

Conservative Fiction and the Culture Wars

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

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Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.

Conservative nonfiction has flourished. “The real problem,” Bellow asserts, turning to his right, “isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. But while I agree with Andrew Breitbart–who Bellow quotes, and who everyone quotes on this subject–that “Politics is downstream from culture,” and that the prevailing popular culture is far more heavily influenced by liberals than by conservatives, I find myself far more optimistic than Bellow. Perhaps that is because I think there’s a difference between the culture being influenced by liberals and it being influenced by liberalism.

Bellow is right that conservatives should be creative and their creativity supported. But I think it’s worth pointing out that often “liberal” or politically neutral novels reinforce conservative ideas. The same is true of movies and television, though Bellow concentrates on the written word. One of the right’s guilty pleasures is to watch a card-carrying liberal writer or a mainstream Hollywood director or showrunner produce a piece of art intended to grapple with complexity and be verbally assaulted as a warmonger or a traitor by his or her liberal audience. When Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, for example, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, she portrayed torture in the movie, and liberals lashed out and branded her an apologist for the methods of interrogation. Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to respond, somewhat incredulous:

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Bigelow is a “lifelong pacifist” and opponent of anything resembling torture, but she was making a movie about real life, and real life is complex.

But to come back to the written word. This phenomenon is easier to spot in fiction that requires heroism or celebrates law and order. But I think it happens when the subject turns to the culture wars too. In December, Ross Douthat noted a study that found that “having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” In offering his own theory, Douthat referenced the kind of man increasingly enabled by a sexually permissive culture: Nate, the protagonist of Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes about Nate’s propensity to, as Waldman writes, “provoke” the “unhappiness” of the women in his life:

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

His column touched off an interesting back-and-forth with Waldman herself on the topic of whether the situation portrayed in her book’s Brooklyn social circle calls for a more socially conservative ethic, or whether such an ethic would put too much of the responsibility for the personal misery of these women on themselves. But I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Nate.

We meet Nate immediately, as the book opens with a scene in which Nate runs into an ex-lover. She is uneasy and hostile to him. We learn that this is because during their brief involvement (this was not a “relationship”–an important point), she became unintentionally pregnant and had an abortion. Nate was emotionally absent, though he paid for the procedure. Nate is a good liberal–we learn early on he’s contemplating an essay on how rich societies even outsource exploitation just to salve their conscience. When he found out this non-girlfriend–Juliet–was pregnant, he:

felt like he had woken up in one of those after-school specials he watched as a kid on Thursday afternoons, whose moral was not to have sex with a girl unless you were ready to raise a child with her. This had always seemed like bullshit. What self-respecting middle-class teenage girl–soon-to-be college student, future affluent young professional, a person who could go on to do anything at all (run a multinational corporation, win a Nobel Prize, get elected first woman president)–what such young woman would decide to have a baby and thus become, in the vacuous, public service announcement jargon of the day, “a statistic”?

Nate realizes this might not be the case now for Juliet though, who is not a teenager but a professional in her thirties. Here is how he rationalizes the possibility she may want a baby:

Maybe she was no longer so optimistic about what fate held in store for her (first woman president, for example, probably seemed unlikely). Maybe she had become pessimistic about men and dating. She might view this as her last chance to become a mother.

Maybe she’s so dejected and desperate that she’ll–gasp!–want a family. You can see how the liberal cultural norms have seeped into Nate. He waits for her to decide: he has accepted the idea of “choice” in full, like a good liberal. This means it’s her choice completely, and he assumes he has no say. “Nate was all for a woman’s right to choose and all the lingo that went with it,” we’re told by way of explanation for why Nate doesn’t feel he can even suggest aborting “the baby or fetus or whatever you wanted to call it.” He doesn’t even know what to call an unborn child! Nate is opinion-less on the matter of human life, and he is so because he thinks this is How To Be A Modern Man.

After the abortion, Nate disappears, because he thinks even having an extended or personal conversation with Juliet–that is, signaling any interest at all–comes with too many strings attached now that they’ve unburdened themselves of the fetusthingamajiggy. But he doesn’t understand what makes him so toxic to these Brooklynite beauties. He’s a good person–he doesn’t even think one should shop at Whole Foods without feeling guilty about capitalist exploitation!

Is Waldman intentionally commenting on the piggish man-child who is the product of a steady cultural liberalism as practiced in the real world? Certainly not. But if you were to write a “conservative” novel, and this novel had a protagonist who was to demonstrate the perpetual adolescent loosed on the world by a yearslong immersion in liberal social values and the unintentional but very real harm he caused, might not that protagonist be Nathaniel P.?

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An Apology for Fiction

“The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not,” Elizabeth Bowen famously said two-thirds of a century ago. “It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.” This is as good an apology for fiction as I’ve ever come across, although J. V. Cunningham adds some distinctions that complicate things enormously:

Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.

Maybe lies is not the best word for what fiction does, then. It’s not possible, after all, to tell the truth by telling a lie. Maybe it would be better to say that fiction makes believe something happened that did not. As the philosopher Kendall Walton pointed out in his treatise Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), this small change would place fiction in the company of children’s games — “playing house and school, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians . . . fantasies built around dolls, teddy bears, and toy trucks.” Fiction would then be seen as merely a sustained and self-consistent game of pretending. Some grown-ups involve themselves in role-playing games; some, in fiction.

The comparison remains apt, though. As Walton observes, there is a huge difference between make-believe and private fantasies or daydreams, even when they are deliberate. Make-believe has three special advantages: objectivity, control, and joint participation.

A make-believe world is objective in containing pain and suffering, and in permitting its visitors to be afflicted by them without actually being hurt by them. “We realize some of the benefits of hard experience without having to undergo it,” Walton says. In make-believe, the players actively control the direction and progress of the game. “Brother, save me,” my son Dov calls to his twin; “I’m falling off a cliff.” “I’ve just discovered that I can fly!” his brother Saul calls back. “Here I come to save you.” By contrast, daydreams are passive: they happen to the daydreamer, who floats along or is drenched by them. And finally, as the example of my sons’ play suggests, make-believe entails the possibility of joint participation among the players.

These, then, are the three values of fiction. They give objective reality to mere imaginings; they can be controlled and thus explored, asked about, or rearranged to test a different outcome; they require more than one person, demanding cooperation and shared responsibility.

But what about Bowen’s “uncontradictable truth,” which fiction must contain to warrant, if not the lie, then at least the time passed in making believe? Within the world of make-believe, statements are true if and only if they are true about the make-believe world. It doesn’t follow, however, that because they are true about a make-believe world, they are false statements about our own actual world. Perhaps there is much overlap between the two worlds; perhaps the statement is true about both. Which means that fiction is not merely a way of making worlds, but also a way of making communities in which fiction’s claims are either accepted and become the occasion for further exploration and inquiry into the truths of different worlds or rejected in the wild arrogance that this world alone is sufficient for probing the truth of every possible human utterance.

“The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not,” Elizabeth Bowen famously said two-thirds of a century ago. “It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.” This is as good an apology for fiction as I’ve ever come across, although J. V. Cunningham adds some distinctions that complicate things enormously:

Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.

Maybe lies is not the best word for what fiction does, then. It’s not possible, after all, to tell the truth by telling a lie. Maybe it would be better to say that fiction makes believe something happened that did not. As the philosopher Kendall Walton pointed out in his treatise Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), this small change would place fiction in the company of children’s games — “playing house and school, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians . . . fantasies built around dolls, teddy bears, and toy trucks.” Fiction would then be seen as merely a sustained and self-consistent game of pretending. Some grown-ups involve themselves in role-playing games; some, in fiction.

The comparison remains apt, though. As Walton observes, there is a huge difference between make-believe and private fantasies or daydreams, even when they are deliberate. Make-believe has three special advantages: objectivity, control, and joint participation.

A make-believe world is objective in containing pain and suffering, and in permitting its visitors to be afflicted by them without actually being hurt by them. “We realize some of the benefits of hard experience without having to undergo it,” Walton says. In make-believe, the players actively control the direction and progress of the game. “Brother, save me,” my son Dov calls to his twin; “I’m falling off a cliff.” “I’ve just discovered that I can fly!” his brother Saul calls back. “Here I come to save you.” By contrast, daydreams are passive: they happen to the daydreamer, who floats along or is drenched by them. And finally, as the example of my sons’ play suggests, make-believe entails the possibility of joint participation among the players.

These, then, are the three values of fiction. They give objective reality to mere imaginings; they can be controlled and thus explored, asked about, or rearranged to test a different outcome; they require more than one person, demanding cooperation and shared responsibility.

But what about Bowen’s “uncontradictable truth,” which fiction must contain to warrant, if not the lie, then at least the time passed in making believe? Within the world of make-believe, statements are true if and only if they are true about the make-believe world. It doesn’t follow, however, that because they are true about a make-believe world, they are false statements about our own actual world. Perhaps there is much overlap between the two worlds; perhaps the statement is true about both. Which means that fiction is not merely a way of making worlds, but also a way of making communities in which fiction’s claims are either accepted and become the occasion for further exploration and inquiry into the truths of different worlds or rejected in the wild arrogance that this world alone is sufficient for probing the truth of every possible human utterance.

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