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End of a Fantasy: The Panic Behind Literary Reactionism

“Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

“[Contemporary] fiction is about society,” says Clare Pollard, in a short essay asking how writers can respond to the present moment. I wouldn’t have thought this statement at all controversial, but somehow it prompted a fierce rebuttal from A. Natasha Joukovsky on ‘literary moralism’ and “the Rampant Conflation of Fiction and History”, full of much more dubious statements. Social reform is distracting novelists, Joukovsky says, from their aesthetic responsibility to beauty. Fiction and history are ‘discrete’ – never the twain shall meet. The success of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has nothing to do with its politics, but is due to it being “stylishly written”. While Pollard’s essay is addressed to people for whom writing and reading are ways of negotiating the world, Joukovsky’s is squarely aimed at those who consider themselves capital ‘w’ Writers – members of a sacred order – and so rounds off with a list of commandments, in the form of a hodgepodge of aphorisms that have little to do with the preceding argument.

At first I found all of this merely haughty, its passion misplaced. Once I started to look at the parts that were being quoted admiringly on social media, however, I began to recognise the animating concern behind the essay’s proclamations. It all clicked into place during an exchange online with one particular supporter, who insisted that ‘talent’ and ‘politics’ were two separate qualities, that one can admire a work of art purely for the ability it displays without having any sympathy whatsoever for its creator’s outlook. I said – and I tried putting this in various ways – that any work of art which seeks to represent or engage with some aspect of reality has a political dimension to it, and admirers of that work of art almost certainly find something useful about that political dimension. In response, my interlocutor served up a series of familiar ‘culture wars’ talking points: so anyone who admires Céline is a Nazi, then? Are Chaucer and Shakespeare persona non grata because of their outdated views? And the coup de grace: this is all just one step away from Stalin and Pol Pot! 

I’ve been through all this before. It’s the same conversation I’ve had with certain members of the Transformers fandom when they decry modern Transformers comics for ‘forcing politics down our throats’ and look back misty-eyed on the 1980s Sunbow cartoon, with its good vs. evil storylines. There are people who currently earn their living making Youtube videos every week which repeat this argument with respect to each new fantasy film or TV series that comes out. Until recently, they say, art and pop culture were reliably apolitical, at least on the surface. Their qualities were ones which could be admired and enjoyed irrespective of the state of the intrasocietal conflict. But now everything is tainted by a modern fanaticism with meaning well, or rather, with being seen to mean well. As my interlocutor put it, citing Martin Amis and Milan Kundera, we live in an age where the talentless “take revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic”.

This is not an argument which withstands much unpicking. Suffice it to say works of art and literature have been occasioned by moralistic, empathetic and societal concerns for as far back as we can collectively remember, and while the presence of blatant finger-wagging in a work is often a weakness, it can also be a major part of its enduring appeal (try to imagine Father Brown without Chesterton’s Christian humanism, Dickens without his parade of grotesques, or Swift having any reputation at all). I’m more interested, however, in the psychology behind the argument, so often delivered in a tone of impotent fury by people who seem well aware they’ve already lost the battle.

I suggest one cause is the need to reconcile a belief in one’s innate goodness with an inability to act or speak decisively on urgent moral questions. Exposure and addiction to social media has the marked effect of stripping away comforting illusions. It’s much harder to believe you belong to a clear moral majority when most of the people you interact with tell you you’re in the wrong, harder to believe you’re a great thinker and agitator when dozens of strangers are able to make fun of you at the drop of a hat. Likewise, the number of places we can retreat to in order to bathe in our own innocence, to put out of mind our evident complicity in an unjust global society, has greatly diminished. That all art has a political dimension – and, not uncommonly, a complex and troubling one – is something we were able to ignore as long as nobody talked about it. But now that kind of talk is everywhere. And what, indeed, does it say about us if we continue to look for solace in the work of artists who had reprehensible attitudes, or committed unforgivable acts?

There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but wouldn’t it be such a relief if it were “Absolutely nothing”? Hence the zeal for separating art from social responsibility, for making it a safe space. It mirrors exactly the desire of members of fandoms to preserve the version of a media property that existed in their childhood. Fantasy has started to realign with metaphor; it no longer means an escape from the real world. As a genre, of course, it was never free of real-world politics, but as children we were able to pretend otherwise, just as any number of artists and arts aficionados have been able to hide behind a belief that art (or beauty) makes its own damned rules.

One fantasy still pointedly persists, however, and serves as a call to action. It is the idea that those who are in favour of re-examining the political implications of a work are traitors, weaklings and monstrosities. On the one hand, we are smug and self-satisfied, breaking into the palace and trashing our own cultural heritage. On the other, we are totally joyless, unable to experience art and media as anything other than statements of agreement or disagreement. I’d like to think the panic and pain of reactionaries would be eased if they knew that in general others suffer from the same needs, fascinations and anxieties as them, but have chosen to navigate these in a different, less embittering way.

It may not help at all though. That different, less embittering method of navigation is based on an acceptance (difficult as it is to maintain) that everything is in flux, that even that which is figuratively and literally set in stone can be torn down and replaced. If you see someone raging about ‘postmodernism’, this is what they mean. If everything can be replaced, then it means we are involved in a continuous negotiation to maintain that which we value, and on that score (so their thinking goes) the plebs cannot be trusted.

So the real anxiety that grips these reactionaries, I would suggest, is the scale of their own responsibility; to have to decide for ourselves what kind of culture is really worth having and then to make the case for it convincingly is a serious undertaking. Are you able to explain why Shakespeare is a great writer, or were you just relying on the logic that stature proves greatness, accompanied by some blather about artfulness? If so, Shakespeare being dropped from the school syllabus deals you a blow – an absurdly minor one, but one you feel nevertheless. Live by hierarchy; die by hierarchy. Those who do not really know or think about why they value the things they value – or who are perhaps aware that their only reason for doing so is blind adherence to ‘the way of things’ – have every reason to be deeply afraid of the current appetite for cultural renovation. Their cited ideals of ‘talent’, ‘stylishness’ and ‘aesthetic beauty’ are, it turns out, eye-of-the-beholder stuff whose only foundation is settled consensus. When that consensus appears to come under threat, the last recourse they have is to eulogise or don sandwich boards.

Or, I suppose, present as an unsung cultural elite. Just before dispensing her nuggets of writing advice, Joukovsky implores us to join her on her ‘high horse’, promising “The view is superb”. But the previous paragraph sees her complaining about having to read “a litany of mediocre novels by palpably anxious authors that read like they’re trying to win oppressed-identity bingo”. That doesn’t sound very appealing as a view. That sounds like something Scrooge would say.