Safe spaces don’t make great stories

Nanowrimo has become a popular annual online gathering spot for writers who just need a little more structure. I’ve used it myself since the second year they were online, long before they exploded into a huge place to help artists of all sorts express themselves. More recently, I was active in the pro-life forum and had started my own forum creating a haven for conservative writers, helping them hook up with other similarly minded people while expressing themselves freely and avoiding the often-hostile attitude of the writing community at large.

Throughout all this, Nano had one awesome thing going for it: you got to write whatever you wanted. It was a no-judgment zone, a place where writers could release the wild and wonderful stories they had hidden away inside them. You could share or not. The only rule was that you “won” Nano by uploading a minimum 50K manuscript. Did it have to be a novel? asked writers over the years. Could it be poetry, a collection of short stories, a work of nonfiction? Yes, yes, yes! responded this open-minded group. Anything at all. The key is simply to get you writing – to ensure you write the words down. 

This laudable freedom has suddenly shifted. Executive Director Grant Faulkner sent out a letter to the Nano email list stating, essentially, that in response to recent political events (coughTrumpcough), Nano reaffirms its commitment to open access to all wannabe writers and promises it will be a safe space. He requested ideas from the community at large for how they can better keep people safe (on this virtual platform that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the US government, but whatevs.)

Ooo-kay. In my experience, Nano has always been a reasonably safe space. The only time I ever witnessed anything I was uncomfortable with was when the pro-choice people came into the pro-life list to tell them what awful people they were. The admin handled this fairly and quickly, essentially telling the pro-choice people to butt out. Even so, the message had been sent, and the pro-life people became far more guarded and cagey about their work. My conservative friends were also cautious, both before and after this incident, because in the very liberal world of creative writing we are often bullied and made to feel uncomfortable.

But here’s the thing: that’s okay. The liberals may feel that they need safe spaces to protect themselves from all those dangerous conservative ideas. WE do not. And we can be better writers by specifically avoiding the fallacy of safe spaces, by instead seeking out dangerous ideas and challenging thinkers.

Solzhenitsyn, Anne Frank, Frederick Douglass all overcame unimaginable hardship to write masterpieces. If they had been imprisoned in the open borders of safe spaces, could they possibly have written those stories? Would they have had any reason to? Oscar Wilde and other great alternative-sexuality geniuses were harassed and imprisoned for their speech and activities. IT MADE THEIR WRITING BETTER. Bronte, Eliot, Gilman fought the stifling bigotry toward women and, often, mental illness to create resonant and beautiful stories. None of these geniuses sought out the cloister of safe spaces. Instead, they fought, using their own lives as the proving grounds that made their writing sing with rage and glory.
Stories don’t come from positions of safety. Stories are about struggle, conflict, pain, about the solutions to circumvent or tear down those barriers. They do not issue from writers who think in lockstep but rather from those who are mavericks and renegades, good and bad. We have forgotten the real reason for seeking diversity: hearing different and often opposing views makes us better people. 

As conservative artists, let’s all commit to seeking out those wonderful, brilliant stories within ourselves, to understanding and loving liberals even as we tear down the walls that prevent them from hearing us. Let’s release the fantastic conservative themes and characters that struggle to escape us, or that lie dormant waiting for fertilization. Instead of ghettoizing ourselves, let’s use the power of the internet to share our ideas and personalities freely, scorning safe spaces and taking joy in the magic of storytelling.

Let our words ring.

How About Returning to Modesty?

Young pop stars have figured out that the most extreme, bizarre behavior leads to stardom through notoriety.

Young men, finding their inflated self-images don’t match the way their peers and teachers see them, choose to go out in a blaze of glory, substituting personal infamy – and fame – for personal responsibility.

Another young man, indulged and taught to listen to himself instead of authority his whole life, betrays his oath and walks away from military responsibility, becoming a captive and pawn in an international game. Another man, indulged and praised for his entire life, trades dangerous terrorists purchased for more than fifty American lives for this single dishonorable prisoner.

Things are upside-down. American leaders and schoolchildren alike don’t seem to understand values or the importance of personal integrity. The public story becomes all about random individuals – lumping the non-starring individuals into a sort of Greek chorus, disposable and replaceable. Never mind that they could just as easily have been chosen in the lottery of public esteem.

We have gone from the “Me Generation” to the “Look At Me Generation.” A combination of factors from overly permissive parenting that regards those singleton children as “special snowflakes” to the rise of reality television, a phenomenon in which the most trite and ordinary and even unpleasant person can be a star, have driven a perfect storm of selfishness. While not every young person today regards the world as an audience for his or her special “me” show, far too many of them do.

The symptoms of the disease of selfishness are everywhere. Everyone wants to be the special one, the standout, even though the reality is that most people are ordinary inside, and this has led to an obsession with being extreme in appearance or action. Trying to be an iconoclast, unfortunately, results for most people in just being weird, not exceptional or admirable. Blend this drive with normal teenage impulsiveness, and you get a lot of young people engaging in risky behaviors or endangering others – the knockout game, dangerous selfies, sexual experimentation that goes overboard.

This has deeper consequences for the community as a whole. People who turn inward for meaning are less likely to be fully invested in their communities – selfishness becomes the norm. We end up without enough ordinary people, people with modest goals of having a home and children and love, quiet fulfilling lives. When everyone’s a special snowflake, there is no one left to keep the world running.

“Look at Me” kids make terrible soldiers, teachers, entrepreneurs, parents. They choose goals that are unattainable for their level of talent or expertise. When they aren’t successful right away, they break, self-medicating or finding other extreme ways of getting attention. They no longer understand that losing is part of the game too, that you learn more from mistakes than from doing things right. And they want far more from their communities than they are willing to give.

The odd contradiction in special-snowflakism is that, in making everything all about the self, the individual cedes power over his or her happiness to everyone else. Each snowflake must have an audience, and like a spoiled child, they’ll get that audience by being bad if they can’t get it by being good. Thuggishness becomes acceptable, pointless risk-taking becomes something to be strived for.

Instead of striving for true happiness in their lives, the Look-at-Mes are settling for a shallow sort of iconoclasm, being different on the surface from everyone else – just like everyone else. Like Fruity Pebbles, they all look different but taste exactly the same.

There’s not much we can do to redeem today’s world from special-snowflakization, other than hoping it is rejected because it has become ordinary and boring. But we can work to preventing this next generation from settling for that hollow, brittle self-satisfaction. We can tell stories featuring characters celebrating ordinariness, showing the strength and power in finding and being one’s authentic self instead of an artificial construct designed to get attention.

Look back at the classical heroes, for instance. One way of identifying the guy who’s going to kill the monster and become the kind is by the fact that he’s ordinary. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins drew from that powerful tradition. King Arthur was a fosterling of unknown parentage, and Lancelot was an orphan. Oedipus was abandoned, the million Jacks and Ivans of fairy tales were foolish or the youngest brother or weak. None were special – except through their choices and courage.

We can inoculate our children and audiences against special-snowflakism by giving them heroes like this to look up to, or heroes that go out, do special and brave things – then choose to return to an ordinary life. This once was the attraction of superheroes, the idea that Superman could be this ordinary Clark Kent guy on the outside but have the big red S underneath all his clothes. (Today’s snowflakes are the opposite, Superman on the outside but Kent on the inside.)

At the same time, we need to express that there is nothing WRONG with being unique – if it is authentic. Specialness isn’t a virtue – it is only a trait, one of many that makes a person who they are. When you settle for being different just like everyone else, you are not being courageous – you are cheating yourself of learning who you are, of seeking out and using the qualities and achievements that make you unique and ordinary at the same time.

Humility, modesty, ordinariness – these quaint old virtues have become special by dint of being rejected. It is time to rediscover and embrace them.

Political Lessons from Writing: People First

In storytelling seminar after storytelling seminar, I have heard one writing concept repeated. People come first.

  • If you want to create a series readers clamor for, create a breathing character they love and can relate to.
  • If you want your story to come to life, create a character readers make their friend.

Character-driven story has dominated plot-driven story since about the time of Jane Austen and the Romantics. What most writers don’t realize is that the people-first mentality dominates in every other field where storytelling is important: law, advertising, nonprofit fundraising, and most importantly politics.

Now you may remember we had an election not so long ago. It was kind of disastrous for conservatives, and a lot of people are wondering what went wrong. I think I know at least part of the answer.

Both sides were telling a story. In Obama’s story, the hero was Everyman, the ordinary folks of the special interest groups: the woman who could not get birth control, the young American illegal immigrant who’d been brought here as a baby and could not get citizenship, the college student who just needed a chance. In Romney’s story, the hero was, er, fiscal responsibility? Sometimes Romney? It was hard to tell. For the most part Romney was telling a plot-driven story, and those kinds of stories often do not invite sequels.

When I worked at Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, my wonderfully roguish boss and known raconteur Dick Westover taught me something terribly important about storytelling: if you want people to sympathize enough with your cause to give you money, you have to make your cause about people. You have to create engaging, real stories about real people that will make potential donors want to help them.

Say what you will about Sandra Fluke, she was a real person. There were girls who empathized with her, and who were willing to vote in a way influenced by her story. Other characters in Obama’s story included:

Obama himself, the black child of a single mother, which is today’s equivalent of the son of a poor sharecropper. Never underestimate the power of a seeming underdog, and black Americans in our national stories are always underdogs. Obama had two autobiographies, and even people who had never read them knew stories from them. This made him more real, no matter the veracity of the stories. When you’re creating myth, truth doesn’t matter.

Michelle Obama, playing the role of the virtuous wife. Also black, which has power in the American story world. She bolstered the shining image of Obama the hero, making it easy for women to put themselves in her spot and feel the same way. The way she has been treated in the press and by publicity outlets like talk shows turned her into the heroine of a romance novel, and that has power.

The Voter, as a savior of all these social programs for Americans. The sad fact is that while humans love helping other humans, they want to do it in the easiest way possible for themselves. Over and over, Obama and his campaign told the American voter that they could help other people, just by voting for Obama.

There were also villains, and generally they presented themselves serendipitiously. Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin presented themselves at perfect times with boneheaded public statements that were easily twisted to imply statements about women that were not meant. Occasional comments by Romney were slanted to imply that he did not care about the poor, making him the clueless Marie Antoinette of the piece. The desiccated political corpses of Karl Rove and George Bush (sorry, guys) were dragged from their graves and paraded through the streets again.

The media, of course, helped tell this story. They prefer the liberal genre to the conservative genre already, and it was easy for them to wax poetic about their favored story. It wasn’t evil. It was human. It was what storytellers do.

This is why I reject any idea that some of the campaign attacks were strategically organized by the campaign. Storytelling, while the finer points need to be taught and practiced, comes naturally to people. We tend to see the world in the shape of a story. When reporters were presented with facts, they naturally worked them into the story that had already been developed for Obama, and since they were partial to Obama’s story to begin with, that shape became the foundation for what they reported. Thus, Republicans became villains.

Where in Romney’s campaign was this so well-shaped? His campaign was about ideas, not characters. He was reticent in telling his story, although it was a damned good one. He did not have an autobiography. His biographies were relatively poor sellers. Republicans were more likely to purchase books bashing Obama rather than pick up a Romney book. We did not have a hero to look to and inspire us. We were only given ideas and villains. These things do not motivate people to act.

Republican candidates, from this point forward, need to craft stories for themselves. It’s not hard. Most trial lawyers learn how to do this, as do most people running any successful nonprofit fundraising campaign. Additionally, they have to not be afraid to bias that story in their own favor, to create villains that live in the imaginations of the American people. Once we had that: Reagan standing against the Red Peril, the villain Khrushchev, even Gingrich with his Contract with America. We need not just heroes, but candidates who do not shrink from being larger than life, mighty characters in their own captivating stories.

2012 proved it’s not the best man who wins. It’s the best story.

Book Review: Kyle Andrews’s Strange Fall


Kyle Andrews’s Strange Fall is a young adult paranormal book that digs significantly deeper than your average YA, especially in today’s world of Twilight and Harry Potter. The hero is a high-school age girl, Faeriwyn McKeller (usually called Winnie) whose beautiful, popular older sister died in a tragic accident; a year later, her family is drifting apart, unable to cope with the reality that Cindy is gone. Since the accident, Winnie has been drawn to death herself, rejecting her own life because she is living emotionally with one foot in her sister’s grave. Their parents Marion and Mark are equally troubled, even though one is a grief counselor and the other a paranormal investigator.

Add to this very serious, realistic core a dose of magic cast by an unbalanced megalomaniacal witch named Obell, a dead John Doe body animated by – well, something – and the sudden appearance of a strange dark force, and you have a book that could easily have gone the way of your standard young adult novel.

Except it doesn’t.

Instead, Strange Fall examines issues of loss and love and mourning in a non-self-indulgent manner. Andrews explores the rawness of mourning for a child and a sister and a friend, showing how different the experiences of each character are. The mother Marion is the rational one, keeping it together for the family (or so she thinks.) Mark becomes obsessed with the idea that his daughter Cindy has not gone on to whatever lies beyond death, but instead is trapped on Earth, needing him to protect her as he always did. Winnie acts out, as one would expect of a teen. In the short span of a night, the struggles of each character is explored thoroughly, from genesis to resolution.

There is no overt religious message in Strange Fall, but there is a God, and His mercy and justice are in the background of every page. A family that is scattered, emotionally and personally and physically, is drawn together by chance to become once again a coherent unit at the end. A being of true evil is destroyed by her own wickedness. Characters are forced to face their worst fears – and overcome them. Each character in the book is tested in some manner and, by surviving, grows. It is clear by story’s end that somehow, a pattern just beyond the world we know and understand impressed itself upon the characters, redeeming them, healing them, and helping them move on with life just as Cindy has moved on beyond it.

Andrews does a great job with some very subtle word play; you’ll miss it if you’re not paying attention. A couple of examples: Winnie’s loss of her sister becomes a genuine lost-ness in the story, as she finds herself thoroughly lost in the woods and in danger. The title refers both to the season of the book and the accident – a mysterious fall from a cliff – that led to Cindy’s death; it may also refer to the fall of each character into despair and sorrow before the redemption of this single strange evening. This verbal technique brings a peculiar feeling of cohesiveness to the story, as if the things that happened seemingly by chance were part of a grand design, as if meaning lies just beyond our comprehension. This makes sense, for does not death often feel this way? Again, with this trick Andrews impresses upon the reader that things happen by design; there is no true randomness in his story, but rather a great and incomprehensible pattern that moves in such a way we can only see the ragged edges.

This book is very suitable for teens of any age, and particularly appropriate for teenagers who are struggling to deal with death in some sense. It also stands well by itself as a work of surprising depth, making it equally appropriate for adults. I highly recommend it.

Going Galt

A very wise man once told a story to a class I taught. His father was driving and for some reason became fixated on a ditch ahead, one that was encroaching on the road. He kept watching the ditch, determined not to drive into it – and drove right into it because the ditch became all he could see.

This is a depressing day for most of us. We lost nearly every single important political race we were involved in – every race that had consumed our hearts and souls. We still control the House of Representatives, but that’s it. Each of our shining stars was tarnished and destroyed by the media and the Democrat machine. For a year, we underwent heavy assault. We were outgunned and outmanned. In the end, the liberals were able to write our stories for us. 

This should not have been possible, and it was only possible because we allowed it. We saw the ditch – the liberals hurled insults and innuendos and lies at us. More space and time were taken up to call conservatives stupid and evil than to honest discussion of issues. In the end, we drove right into the ditch they dug for us, and here we are.

Now we have to get out of the ditch, fill it in to the degree possible. And go Galt, en masse.

Conservatives Going Galt

By now everyone should be familiar with the term “going Galt.” It is, of course, from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a book of at best middling skill but remarkable philosophical vision. In a collectivist society, John Galt refuses to allow his creative powers to be used for the society and to his detriment. Instead, he arranges a strike among those people whose skills and creative abilities power a government and social order that is harmful to them.

They all quit producing and withdraw to their own compound to wait out the inevitable fall of society. This is not evil; it probably minimized the damage. Such a society will fall eventually, no matter what. Rand, a Russian immigrant, knew precisely what happened under a government that believed “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs.” The most capable people shrug and drop out. They quit producing. Without their enormous productive capacity, the rest of society decays and falls into disorder.

In the stories of our real lives, the John Galts are, for the most part, not those at the top of companies, nor are they the ones at the bottom. They are, rather, the people in the middle. Without our middle class, our small-business creators and middle managers who do the real work, without the energetic churches and the TEA Party organizers, without the so-called bourgeoisie, both the other ends collapse.

Yet it is the middle class that is being destroyed today. The poor have more to fall back on than ever before; some estimates have the average resources of the poverty-level family calculated at around 60K per year. The wealthy are doing fine, as they usually do. But our country runs on the engine of the middle class, and they are the ones paying more in taxes and suffering from hidden inflation on basics like groceries, clothes, and gas. Meanwhile, they’re scrambling to replace lost income in order to keep from sliding down into poverty.

The middle class cannot realistically go Galt. We have families to feed. We are not prepared to go off the grid. But there are things we can do.

  • Go to church, or start attending a church if you never have. Even if you’re not Christian. A good church will give you the social structure you need for self-discipline and encouragement, and will also give you an outlet for the next piece –
  • Give only to causes you can control, and that are clearly conservative. Dump donations to United Way or to politicians who are not listening to you – and do not donate to large organizations like the RNC unless you have some direct control over what happens to your donation.
  • Stop spending money; save instead, pay off debt, and invest your cash in something that is inflation-proof.
  • If you have a small business, put money in automation, infrastructure, and marketing, not in new employees.
  • Become politically active. Make your voice heard. Tell your story.

The point is control. We cannot let control of our resources slip from our hands any further than they already have. That means we need to keep our money, our labor, our ideas, and our words for our own use. Going Galt, you see, ultimately means controlling what happens to those things that we create.

Book Review: Rodney Page’s Powers Not Delegated

Just in time for this year’s presidential election comes Rodney Page’s Powers Not Delegated, the story of a principled man who decides he must defeat the hyperliberal, poorly-performing current president in order to save America. Sound familiar? Page includes his own recognizable fictional versions of many of today’s political players – Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama, George Soros, Rahm Emanuel – placing them within a slightly-changed version of the political landscape we are familiar with from the last four years.

Powers Not Delegated covers four years of American political life, from the election of the new and relatively unknown President Thorpe, who ran on a platform of “Change!” (and not much else), to the hotly-contested presidential election season immediately following, in which a popular congressman switches his allegiance from Republican to Page’s version of the Tea Party and gives both candidates a real challenge. Meanwhile, Thorpe’s shoddy handling of every presidential duty results in terrible economic conditions, an increasingly porous border, and the secret possession by Iran of suitcase nukes. Page’s version of our world as it stands today is chillingly well-supported by easily documented facts.

Though I still had to finish the book (it was a real page-turner in spots), I confess to some disappointment. Page’s book was a slow starter, largely because it introduced about a dozen characters in parallel plotlines at the beginning of the book. While at some point all these characters did cross paths. it was harder to follow the story this way than it would have been had they been introduced at more natural story moments in the main plot thread, with flashbacks or narrative fill-in covering necessary background information. Page also made a classic first-time-novelist mistake: he failed to go for the throat emotionally. While danger was a clear element throughout and he did not shy from killing off characters, it felt flat, as if he had not reached deeply enough. I honestly think Page would have been better off holding off publication and instead running his book through a gauntlet of unforgivingly critical (but loving) conservative readers and writers who could help him identify the flaws in his novel and give advice on how to repair them.

That said, I still recommend the book. Why? Because it’s different, and it addresses something important in the conservative fiction world. I’ve been talking for a few posts about how changing the story can change the culture. Page’s story takes the standard political potboiler and, without apology, uses it to expose some of the real-life horrors that today’s politically liberal establishment leaves us open to. Yes, not paying attention to border enforcement makes us vulnerable to the worst possible terrorist attacks. Yes, blowing off Iran’s nuclear development ignores their clear and undeniable ties to terrorism. And yes, a lack of close and balanced scrutinization of any presidential candidate’s background leaves us open to government by shadowy figures driven by their own agendas. Fiction is uniquely positioned to help us understand why we need to pay attention to these big-picture things in real life; Rodney Page does an excellent job demonstrating this in his book.

I’m very much looking forward to Mr. Page’s next book.

Just Make It Up

Why would Harvey Weinstein write Mitt Romney in as a character who would not have approved the Bin Laden raid in his upcoming straight-to-television movie Seal Team Six?

Why does the movie Game Change show Sarah Palin in such a poor light?

Why did The China Syndrome have such a huge and lasting impact on the perception of nuclear power, even though its science has been proven to be very bad?

Why are so many movies and television shows featuring positive gay characters?

The answer to all these is the same: because people believe in stories. There’s something magical about fiction, especially fiction that purports to some degree to be truth.

Fiction has power. Unlike fact, fiction speaks directly to your emotions. Stories are like a short-circuit directly into your brain; they bypass logic and go straight to the belief center.

In an article from the New York Times, the relationship between fiction and emotions is made clearer.

In the last decade, psychologists have focused increasing attention on moral attitudes. Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the Stern School of Business at New York University and author of “The Righteous Mind,” told me that researchers have been especially interested in the way emotions and attitudes interact. Moral attitudes are especially difficult to change, Haidt said, because the emotions attached to those preferences largely define who we are. “Certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how you prove your identity,” he said. “It’s as though we circle around these ideas. It’s how we become one.”

We tend to side with people who share our identity — even when the facts disagree — and calling someone a flip-flopper is a way of calling them morally suspect, as if those who change their minds are in some way being unfaithful to their group. This is nonsense, of course. People change their minds all the time, even about very important matters. It’s just hard to do when the stakes are high. That’s why marshaling data and making rational arguments won’t work. Whether you’re changing your own mind or someone else’s, the key is emotional, persuasive storytelling.

Haidt does not say this, but those beliefs arising from emotion are what makes up a culture. Those who share our identity are part of our culture. If you want to change the culture, the fastest and easiest way is by changing the cultural stories. How better can I say that we need more conservative fiction writers?

In Defense of Stories

Once upon a time, stories taught. They were pieces of human wisdom crystallized in digestible form so that listeners could consume the story, vicariously relive it, and rehearse its lessons. Today, one is more likely to find stories that experiment with language or that showcase freaks or that cater to some appetite of human nature, like sex, fulfilling a need that for some reason cannot be fulfilled in one’s real life.

Stories have become junk food for the soul, nourishing appetites but not minds. They are often pretty, often shocking, but too often fail in their primary and ancient function: to pass on vital survival information. Most surprising of all, the stories that do still teach, that nourish the soul, are classified as popular or pulp fiction. The literary novel is more concerned with language, issues, or edginess, and for some reason this is the novel academia holds aloft as the highbrow ideal. Somewhere along the way, we forgot about the core intent of telling a tale.

The Campfire

Picture a campfire, 30,000 years ago. A storyteller, draped in a bearskin, stands before his seated kin. He is old and, though tough, no longer an effective hunter. But he is still wise. He tells the others of his great triumph over the bear that now clothes him, how he stalked it, found its spoor, studied its droppings. It chased him once, and he learned that this type of bear could not, fortunately, climb trees. He shows his audience the ragged tear on one side of the bearskin. This, he tells them, was where his spear sank deep, finding and stilling the great beast’s heart.

The story is thrilling. The gathered shadows dance in the flickering firelight, lending drama and mood. At one point, a drummer starts a rhythmic beat, adding to the mesmerizing effect. Both audience and storyteller stay up late into the evening, ending only when the sun rises.

This is how stories began: as a method of imparting information from one generation to the next, ensuring that there is no loss of knowledge even when the older generation must retire. Ethnobiologically speaking, it may be that the “grandmother” mystery – why women continue living as much as half their lives past menopause – is answered by this paradigm: the grandmother remembers the stories.

Following stories throughout their historical development, this is the pattern we see. Stories, up until the modern era, are not concerned with edginess or promoting agendas or giving different ethnic points of view. Instead, they are concerned with the imparting of information: how to not anger the gods, how to be moral and good, what to do if you are in danger, which plants are safe to eat, what the weaknesses of animals are, who your ancestors were. There was no Waiting for Godot in history – in fact, our ancestors would have found such a story absurd rather than groundbreaking.  Stories were epic in scale, and dealt with the grand questions all men must answer; or they were domestic, focusing on smaller but no less important topics. They did not focus on nonsense, or edginess, or consciousness. They were created to be accessible, not esoteric. People had to understand them with relative ease, or the story did not fulfill its purpose.

Modern Tales: Genre vs. Literary

The story with meaning and purpose was the mode up through modern times. Then came the postmodernists and deconstructionists.

Postmodernism rejected the idea of universal truths and cultural morality. Instead, it focused on the idea that there could be no experience outside the experience of the individual. Suddenly, there were no ancient truths. Instead, there was a fallible relativity, truth filtered through the experiences of every individual. Morality in such a system is fractured; instead of the white illumination of a cultural tale, a thousand or a million different colors are refracted, as a single incident is directed through the lens of each person experiencing it.

Now the story was no longer the tale; instead, the storyteller was the focus of attention, each listener having to consider his point of view, his sex, his particular flaws and prejudices. Stories, scholars taught, are filtered through all those parts of a storyteller, and what comes out the other end is necessarily flawed. To get to the core of any story, it must be deconstructed, examined for all those things that warp meaning, and then put back together.

Of course, there is no story but that comes from the experience of a storyteller. The guy in the bear skin? He was sharing his experience, his point of view, what he had learned from facing down the bear. Whether he hated or respected the bear, he had survived and had the skin to prove it. There was the physical, tangible truth in his tale.

Postmodernism rejects this, and as a result rejects nearly everything that can be taught in a story. Experience, artistic and linguistic beauty, feeling what another person feels, those became the focus of stories.

But humans did not evolve to enjoy that method for telling tales. Humans need the old style, the stories that share the knowledge, experienced and learned, of the storyteller. Thus literature itself fractured into genres, starting sometime in the 1920s. There were literary tales that embraced the concepts of postmodernism, and there were a dozen new genres that had developed out of the literature from before. Certain key stories from before can easily be classified into protogenres: the tales of Sherlock Holmes gave birth to Great Detective stories; Lord Dunsany’s fairy stories became fantasy; Jane Austen’s works gave birth to the romance of manners; Frankenstein morphed into science fiction and horror both.

While “literature” continued along the path of postmodernism, the genres did not. They continued teaching those ancient lessons that are so important, guiding young people into the right paths and reminding older ones of the simple lessons they may have forgotten. This is part of the reason different genres appeal to different sexes: women read romances and good chick-lit to learn more about relationships, while men like action-oriented books because they can vicariously experience those physical challenges. Eventually, literary stories were the only ones recognized for their importance or groundbreakingness; the genres were considered pulp, and printed on cheap disposable paper between cheap cardboard covers. Literary stories were taught in universities; pulp genres were viewed as a guilty pleasures.

This schism in literature is of great importance to our culture today.

Modern Storytelling: Genres

When a culture devalues its stories, the stories do not disappear. There is too much cultural pressure and need for them. Instead, they appear in different forms. Movies, immersive games, and even music fulfill the teaching functions that once came from stories. But because some people still like written narrative stories, the genres remained, though diminished.

Writers who have been trained in universities are taught the postmodern style, and taught also that genres are somehow bad or lesser; the writers of true talent, therefore, usually choose to write literary stories. Those who write genre fiction instead are taught to be ashamed of it – it is lesser in their eyes than literary fiction, its ancient teaching mechanisms ignored or forgotten or never understood at all.

This is particularly bad because literary stories are designed to teach one thing: relativism, sometimes called tolerance. We are in the age of relativism, in which your (postmodern) reality is so different from my (postmodern) reality that neither of us has a right to judge the other. We are, rather, to understand one another – to “feel your pain.” Victim or victimizer, it’s all the same. The terrorist has a reason for what he does. The mass murderer, well, he clearly did not get enough love or attention as a child. Feel sympathy for the victim, but also for the devil.

How can a society function when judgment itself is devalued? Well, the genres take care of that. They do not hesitate to judge. There is always a good guy, and there is usually a bad guy. Evil is clear and present. There’s a mad bomber loose? The hero finds a way through the puzzles the bomber leaves behind, researches and learns how to defuse the bombs, finally tracks down the bomber himself and eliminates him. We feel the same vicarious pleasure upon reading that story that we felt back in front of that campfire 30,000 years ago; with a good storyteller, we are similarly mesmerized, turning pages until we realize the alarm will ring in only a couple of hours.

Most importantly, we learn how to defeat the bear. The best genre fiction teaches us all the things that our elders would have in the time of Grimm or Shakespeare or Homer or the man in a bearskin. Through vicariously living the hero’s life, we can see how to defeat the bad guy, how to act in order to win a true love, how to be patient in life and hardworking so that we can reap the rewards that eventually come.

Conservative fiction can only be genre fiction. It is designed and intended to teach those lessons. Conservative writers naturally reject relativism and postmodernism, instinctively knowing that stories are there to teach lessons, and that there is a universal truth behind them all – perhaps even a Truth – that somehow stories are able to illuminate, if only a little bit at a time.  While conservative fiction can feel empathy for the evildoer, it must judge him appropriately, and execute him if necessary. Stories do not have to have a happy ending, but there must be a chance for one, and above all there must BE an ending just as there is a beginning. And stories must be accessible to ordinary people, because they are teaching tools for those who come behind. How can a lesson or a truth be illuminated if the reader cannot understand the story?

Conservative fiction, in part, is about exposing the real, universal truth. It is a road the human race has traveled since stories were invented. And only genre fiction today is capable of performing this function.

Book Review: Kia Heavey’s “Night Machines”

Kia Heavey’s Night Machines is a difficult-to-classify novel (more or less paranormal suspense with strong romantic elements)  that asks the reader to really think about what marital fidelity is. Among the many surprising things in this novel is, despite its very Christian theme, it is not a Christian book at all. It is, instead, a very female book, one that takes the darkest and most private thoughts of a woman and lays them bare.

In Night Machines, Maggie Moore and her husband, police officer Rowan, are undergoing a transformation in their lives. Maggie, after devoting herself to her family as a stay-at-home mother for five years, is re-entering the workforce; Rowan has been presented with a difficult case, the murder of a little girl, that haunts him when he looks at their children,  Hazel, 5, and Charlie, 2. Maggie is additionally presented with a terrible temptation: her new boss, a wealthy, handsome, and charming man who desires nothing more than to put her at the center of his life. Both Maggie and Rowan turn inward to deal with these problems rather than to one another, a reaction that begins to tear them apart.

When Rowan begins to work double shifts in hopes of solving the murder, Maggie is left even more alone. She creates a rich fantasy life with her boss at the center of an imagined affair. Soon she begins dreaming about it, wonderful lush erotic dreams that fulfill her in ways her husband is currently unable to. This seems like an innocent solution to a complex problem – until her dreams begin to turn real.

Night Machines was a difficult book for me to read, largely because Kia Heavey manages to make the story both realistic and personal. Every woman has this dark fantasy life within her – heck, that’s why Fifty Shades of Gray is such an enormous success. It is uncomfortable to stand back and look at that fantasy, questioning whether it does more damage than good to your life and mental health. Kia shows us how that fantasy life can twist and turn against you, warping into a monster that controls you. While Night Machines‘ monster turned out to be quite real, it did not have to be. Maggie’s fantasy pulled her away from her husband and family simply because it was more attractive to her than the daily grind. Our fantasies do the same for us, whether it’s the wonderful dream of hitting the lottery or imagining the road not taken. When our fantasy lives take root and shape our waking thoughts, we are no longer living in the present real world, but instead are a step removed from ourselves, cheating us and those we love by weakening the ties we have and sapping our desires for real things.

Night Machines is set primarily in modern Connecticut, largely in a big pharmaceutical company, and Ms. Heavey does a remarkable job of evoking the unique atmosphere of this world (I once worked at Pfizer in Connecticut – she captured it perfectly.)

I highly recommend this book to women who want to understand themselves better and to men who are brave enough to look at a darker side of women. Unlike many self-published novels, Night Machines is not only well-written but carefully crafted to evoke some very specific feelings. I found it to be not particularly frightening, but haunting, leaving behind questions about me that I’m not certain I can ever answer. I very much hope that this is only the first of many books from Kia Heavey.

(Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book but no other compensation.)

Bask in the glow of my new theme!

Author Kia Heavey was kind enough to put together the lovely banner (though I’m still working out how to fit it in a bit better) and the WordPress theme is Mantra, which is amazingly flexible. The background came from Fuzzimo.com. I’ll be changing quite a few things around over the next couple of days. If anyone wants to be added to the blogroll, just contact me.

NOW I can get this party started.