Last week, Adam Bellow, the editorial director of HarperCollins’ conservative nonfiction imprint, wrote about conservative counter culture. According to Bellow, conservatives “are making their own culture. They are writing and publishing their own books, recording their own music, and making their own videos and films. It is Breitbart’s Revolt.”
The late Andrew Breitbart understood the importance of popular culture and was determined not to neglect it. “Politics is downstream from culture,” he famously said, and he continually called upon conservatives to quit griping about liberal media bias and do something constructive instead. Write your own books, he exhorted. Record your own music. Make your own movies. Everyone agreed that this would be a great idea. But no one knew how to go about making it happen.
Well, guess what: Andrew was right. The conservative counterrevolution is coming. Indeed it is already here. It’s just that most conservatives haven’t noticed it yet. It came to my attention only because of the position I occupy in the New York publishing world.
Bellow notes that that mainstream popular culture “is still largely driven by books,” and I agree. As a conservative who reads a lot of fiction, I have to say that conservative-leaning fiction may not be rare, but it’s virtually impossible to find in the mainstream. If you seek it out, I have no doubt you can find something, even if it is obscure work by an author most people haven’t heard of. It’s out there… just not on bestsellers lists.
But, as a conservative who just wants to read a good story, I’m not screening books based on the authors politics. I just want to read a compelling story that keeps me interested up until the last page.
Naturally, conservatives are really eager to find conservative counter-culture wherever they can. They’re so eager they find it in places where it may not really exist. Whether it’s Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or the Divergent series, there’s typically someone on the right who can find conservative themes within their pages in an attempt to align the latest pop-culture phenomenon with our side. Classic books are not immune to this either. Books like 1984, Atlas Shrugged and Brave New World have been adopted by the conservative movement as essential reading.
The counter-culture war (what Bellow has dubbed “Breitbart’s Revolt”) will not be won if we keep citing Ayn Rand and George Orwell as the best examples of writers whose work conservatives should read. Where’s the new fiction?
When searching for conservative fiction online, I find dystopian novels, science-fiction and fantasy, political thrillers, Christian fiction, crime thrillers, military stories. The title and imagery on the cover leave no doubt they are meant for conservative readers to consume, because they are written and designed to appeal to them. These books tend to have anti-Hollywood, pro-military, anti-Communism or pro-Second Amendment themes splashed right on the cover. Words such as “liberty” or “freedom” or “patriot” can sometimes be found on the cover somewhere. It’s not working so far. This kind of self-identifying conservative work won’t help us win the counter-cultural revolt. Conservative novelists shouldn't brand their work as conservative. In fact, the best thing they can do is not try to appeal to just one side of the political spectrum.
We don’t so much need conservative fiction as we need fiction written by conservatives. Fiction without an overt political agenda, or a metaphorical right vs. left plot… A point addressed by Bellow in his piece:
[…]we are not talking about what is sometimes called “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.
We need good stories with likable characters who happen to be conservative without being reminded about it every page. Conservatives need to write novels that everyone (liberals/conservatives/moderates) will want to read. The tables need to be turned. Of course there’s room for the political thrillers, dystopian and the science fiction novels in conservative counter culture—but conservatives won’t win the counter-cultural revolt on those genres alone. Ultimately, contemporary, literary, and young adult fiction is where conservatives have the best chance to influence popular culture.
Some, if not most of my favorite authors are liberals, but that hardly means their novels are liberal propaganda. They are books written by liberals, and that world view naturally finds it way into the prose, but politics really plays no pivotal role in the plot. And that’s why they work. As a conservative, I can read these books and love them for the stories, not despise them for the underlying political message. As a conservative reader who would love to support some conservative fiction writers, I am not interested in any story that is so obvious with its conservative politics. If the plot sounds compelling I’ll read it. If the plot sounds obviously liberal or conservative, I’m turned off immediately, and won’t bother.
Conservatives need to write for everyone, not just those who agree with them politically. They need to create conservative characters who are likable, and have stories that aren’t driven by an agenda. Writers like Stephen King can get away with Republican-bashing in his novels because he’s Stephen King. Conservative fiction needs to achieve mainstream success first, and that won’t happen if “conservative fiction” is so blatantly conservative fiction.
The conservative movement needs to be supportive of this cause. Talented writers who can’t make it in traditional publishing are not only in desperate need of the help of bloggers who can help promote their work, but of conservatives-leaning creatives. Quality writing is not enough. The whole package has to be on par with traditional publishing quality. Much of the conservative fiction I’ve discovered that is self-published looks self-published. People do judge books by their covers, and if the book cover is low quality, potential readers are likely to think the writing contained inside is low quality. Conservative creatives can help writers design or illustrate a book cover, help edit their novel, or create a website for them.
It’s time for the conservative movement to be more supportive of the counter-culture revolt. At the moment it is not. Andrew Breitbart must be looking down at us wondering what we are waiting for.