January 06, 2004

The Return of the Sixth International

The Sixth International has returned! All comrades are urged to master and command the latest twist and turn of the party line:

The Sixth International: Tory porn: ...The [Aubrey/Maturin] books are far more interesting and important. At present I am midway through a third reading of the cycle, and have come to a pretty firm understanding, I think, of their appeal. And that appeal makes the books, for me at least, rather a guilty pleasure. For the Aubrey/Maturin novels are, at bottom, pornography for tories.

Perhaps I'd better explain myself. I don't refer to the floggings at the grate, nor to the bare bottoms of 'young gentlemen' getting six of the best from the burly captain. (Though there's certainly enough of that; O'Brian was, after all, an Englishman.)

No, the books are not sexual but social pornography. They allow the reader to indulge a shameful fantasy of social stratification, where people have their place, know it, and look happy about it. O'Brian's navy does have a small, a very small avenue of meritocratic advancement for the truly exceptional; but for all that, position is overwhelmingly a matter of having the right connections. For those from the right families and with sufficient means, promotion is as of right. Those less fortunate, unless they should distinguish themselves in battle (and chances to do so seem to have been surprisingly rare), are doomed to end their days as unpromoted lieutenants. And that is just abaft the mast. The lower deck are invariably lovable, stalwart, stout-hearted fellows, but their God-appointed role is to heave on ropes, run out the guns, holystone the decks and wait on the officers at table. And best of all, that's the way they like it. (Bonden, for example, cheerfully refuses Jack's offer to make him a notional bourgeois by rating him midshipman.)

Politics at home is largely a struggle to see which set of corrupt grandees will have access to the cream. Parliamentary boroughs are cheerfully rotten (hence Jack's own seat), the electorate tolerably small. And this is, you see, a goodthing. Foreign policy is simplicity itself: one goes out and thumps Frenchmen (and gets rich into the bargain). True, come 1812 our brave tars had to start thumping Yanks as well, and everybody regretted that (perhaps O'Brian had an eye to transatlantic sales). But the important thing is that one had somebody to thump. Peace is hell to our sailors: it means boredom and unemployment. And why shouldn't peace be hell, with war such a jolly time altogether. Boom boom boom go the great guns; then it's over the side to board, discharging pistols and waving cutlasses. Most of the time the French will strike and then you may have their captain's expert cook. On the rare occasions when one is taken prisoner, the enemy captain is courtesy incarnate, and probably has cousins in Bath and knows many of the same people one knows oneself.

What tory could not love the world O'Brian made? How could anybody else love it? And yet, I must confess, I do love this world, for all that its very structure is an abomination to every principle that I hold dear. Perhaps the charm lies in O'Brian's vast erudition, so lightly worn; his excellent turn of phrase; his undeniable ability to spin a yarn. And, perhaps, there's something in all of us that would love to wave a cutlass...

And who can forget those famous words of Lord John Hay at the Battle of Fontenoy? ""Messieurs les Gardes Francaises, s'il vous plait tirez le premier."

Posted by DeLong at January 6, 2004 10:06 PM | TrackBack

Comments


Many very fine people, and myself besides, finds the world that Aubrey and Maturin live in to be deeply attractive. It is not that we are Tories at heart, but rather that we are romantics, and such stories are, of course, deeply romantic and Romantic.

The smarter of us adore such things, while recognizing that they are also just as much a fantasy as anything Tolkien wrote. I may or may not be a Tory at heart, but I'm smarter than to be a Tory in my brain.

Posted by: NBarnes on January 6, 2004 10:44 PM

____

'Whenever I see a fellow look as
if he was thinking, I say that's mutiny.'

Posted by: Admiral Troubridge on January 6, 2004 10:54 PM

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He's dead on the mark about the desire for social hierarchy, and it isn't just O'Brian--it's an awful lot of fantasy and sf. After all we've just seen the opening of a blockbuster film called *Return of the King*. And a big part of the reason of the pupularity of vampire stories and games is their social order (and the conflict with it.) For that matter, O'Brian's great literary source Jane Austen wrote of social order in times of radical change.

Hierarchy...in the folk dance community there are people who do American dances of, ultimately, English origin, and people who do the old English dances and dances in similar style. The American dances are simpler, and generally egalitarian in their social order--everyone has something interesting to do most of the time, though men's and women's roles (usually) remain. The English dances still contain a lot of lead and follow, and echo the social order of the people who danced them (these are the dances Jane Austen wrote about) and, perhaps, an older order of European tribal dances that may (or may not) be the source of these forms.

The American dances are (in America, anyway) much more popular...but the English dances are much more choreographically interesting.

Maybe the desire for a social order is sometimes a healthy and creative thing?

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on January 7, 2004 01:34 AM

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Churchill, once pressed on the recipe for Britain's undoubted naval supremacy by the nineteenth century, said it came down to: Rum, sodomy and the lash.

Posted by: Bob on January 7, 2004 06:03 AM

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A bit like "Starship Troopers" too?

Posted by: dave heasman on January 7, 2004 07:06 AM

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I think CS Lewis (among others) would heartily endorse Randolph's suggestion. Lewis believed that Paul's infamous direction to wives to honor their husbands was not sexist per se, but merely part of a natural hierarchy to which humans instinctively cling. Frankly, it's a bit Kipling-esque for me (being the boss is a heavy burden), but then Lewis was English, wasn't he?

I will say that Fritz's last statement, without the word "social", is one I wholeheartedly endorse. Great art - in any medium - is seldom without some underlying structure. Sometimes explicit (classical architecture), sometimes implicit (paintings of the Old Masters), but almost always present. The more subtle the order, the more difficult to do well, whether as an original or a student of a master (how few have been able to match FLWright's sprightly mix of organization and invention).

Posted by: JRoth on January 7, 2004 07:08 AM

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Now landsmen all, wherever you might be, if you want to rise to the top of the tree ... Stick close to your desks, and never go to sea, and you may be the ruler of the Queen's Navy. (From HMS Pinafore, for younger readers.)

Posted by: Stephen Karlson on January 7, 2004 07:25 AM

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Bob,

I believe that Churchill's famous 'rum/sodomy/lash' was his response to a request for a toast to 'the traditions of the Royal Navy'. Accurate enough, if we are to judge by O'Brian (who gives us a smidgen of sodomy, a fair bit of the lash and great gushering flows of rum).

JRoth,

Lewis was no sasanach - he was Irish. An Ulsterman, to be precise, though with Welsh descent on his father's side and roots in the south of Ireland on his mother's.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton on January 7, 2004 07:29 AM

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Speaking of CS Lewis, I re-read the series as an adult recently. My favorite line is from the Dawn Treader where Eustance, in response to his cousins explaining to him that they are kings and queens in Narnia, replies "I'm a republican*". Lewis, of course, intends this (along with Eustace's co-educational school and other offenses) to make Eustace less sympathetic.

* little 'r', needless to say

Posted by: msw on January 7, 2004 07:46 AM

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Thank you, Stephen, for that reminder of Pinafore, which contains its own commentary on the social structure of the RN.

Capt. Corcoran (to Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw):

In uttering a reprobation
To any British tar,
I try to speak with moderation,
But you have gone too far.
I'm very sorry to disparage
A humble foremast lad,
But to seek your captain's child in marriage,
Why damme, it's too bad!

But the captain is, at least, consistent in his views. When Buttercup reveals that she had swapped Corcoran and Ralph as babies, and that Ralph's high birth entitles him to a commission whilst the former captain, luckless in his parentage, is put before the mast, he sings:

And though before my fall
I was captain of you all,
I'm a member of the crew.
I shall marry with a wife,
In my humble rank of life!
And you, my own, are she--
I must wander to and fro;
But wherever I may go,
I shall never be untrue to thee!

(What, never? Well; hardly ever. Here too O'Brian seems to confirm Gilbert.)

Posted by: Mrs Tilton, old enough to remember on January 7, 2004 07:49 AM

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MSW writes:

'"I'm a republican*". Lewis, of course, intends this ... to make Eustace less sympathetic.'

A big 'R' would have done the trick nicely, I find.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton on January 7, 2004 07:56 AM

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Lord John Hay may have been courteous, but he was also shrewd. Once the French fired, with early 18th century firearms it took them quite a bit of time to re-load. In the meantime the English line could march closer and then fire with much better effect.

Posted by: Thomas T. Schweitzer on January 7, 2004 08:17 AM

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Lord John Hay may have been courteous, but he was also shrewd. Once the French fired, with early 18th century firearms it took them quite a bit of time to re-load. In the meantime the English line could march closer and then fire with much better effect.

Posted by: Thomas T. Schweitzer on January 7, 2004 08:20 AM

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What horseshit this all is. Do we read the Iliad because we long for the social order of ancient Greece?

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on January 7, 2004 08:48 AM

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Patrick Nielsen Hayden asks,

'Do we read the Iliad because we long for the social order of ancient Greece?'

Do you mean to say that you *don't*?

Posted by: Mrs Tilton on January 7, 2004 08:57 AM

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I don't mind a social order of permanent hierarchy if I'm the guy who gets to be the financially independent aristocrat. But I'll take a social order of situational leadership any time. You see, once in a while, I'd probably get bored of doing his lordship too. OK, I'll be honest. I'd be bored of it most of the time and I'd take that role to avoid taking orders more than any else. I mean I neither like to take orders nor giving them bu I dislike taking orders more than I dislike giving them.

And I'm glad. Cause I think I'm the future.

Posted by: bulent on January 7, 2004 08:58 AM

____

Grosslly unfair to O'Brian. The world of the books is not "the world O'Brian made"--it's instead as good a picture as we find in fiction of the real world of that era. And while Aubrey is a Tory (but a Tory with a heart), Maturin is something of a radical leftist.

Bonden refuses promotion to midshipman because he's illiterate, and recommends a young relative, who Aubrey promotes. Aubrey is much concerned about obtaining promotion for his subordinate, Pullings, who comes from a lower deck family, and despite his sterling qualities, has trouble "passing for a gentleman". Later, Aubrey nearly ruins his career by opposing the rapacious enclosure plans of a neighboring landowner, an admiral's close relative. Aubrey also faces financial disaster after getting overenthusiastic about suppressing the slave trade.

I could go on with examples draw from almost every page of the books. Aubrey and Maturin aren't perfect, and are creatures of their time, but are very much decent, honorable people much concerned with the social issues of the day.

Posted by: rea on January 7, 2004 09:12 AM

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rea's defence of O'Brian is a gallant thing altogether, but not, I think, entirely persuasive. O'Brian was bit of a snob, if one unusually gifted at seducing readers into his own snobbery. (His snobbery - his own, mind you, for neither Jack nor Stephen were snobs at all - grows worse as the series progresses.) He does recreate - accurately so far as I can tell - a world that really existed at the time. But he makes us, for the space of a reading, think that world a fine and glorious thing, when in fact I doubt very few of us would find it attractive had we actually to live in it.

As for Stephen's radical leftism, well, I suppose it is somewhat context-specific. True, he had been a United Irishman, and that might have been considered radical leftism at the time. But he had had plenty of time to do a rethink, and by the time of the books' action dismissed his earlier ideal of an Irish republic with contempt. 'It would have been little better', he said, 'than a mere democracy'.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton on January 7, 2004 09:39 AM

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"'It would have been little better', he said, 'than a mere democracy'"

An attitude Maturin shares with the drafters of the US Constitution . . .

Posted by: rea on January 7, 2004 10:17 AM

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I can't speak to aubrey/maturin since I'm a hornblower fan, myself but what the post talks about is dead on for so many genres: sf, romance, etc...Its not that we are tories at heart, or love stratified societies for themselves, or would choose them if we had a choice (Rawls, blah blah blah)but because these books inevitably offer us only one position to identify with : the hero and we like the luxury of being the hero who gets all the spoils of whatever system is on offer.

Has anyone here read lots of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan is the obvious example of the "tory" point of view since Tarzan is a "natural aristocrat" whose natural superiority results in his being chosen to lead not only white people but also black people. But an even better example would be the Mars series in which Burroughs manages to combine a detailed, and even slavish devotion to an aristocratic mileu with a democratic/everyman/rising on merit hero who just happens, through sheer manliness, to rise to the top in his wife's aristocratic martian culture. If you look closely at almost all of Burroughs' work he usually manages to satisfy an American/middle brow longing for a meritoracy with an end result which is purely aristocratic stratificaiton.

Kate

Posted by: Kate Gilbert on January 7, 2004 10:44 AM

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>Has anyone here read lots of Edgar
>Rice Burroughs?

Guilty.

Posted by: Pouncer on January 7, 2004 11:18 AM

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Of course the use of social stratification, like kinship, gives the storyteller a larger amount of dramatic material to use. Just go through George Polti's famous and funny old book "The 36 Dramatic Situations" to get an idea of how quickly your material may be enhanced.

Still for many there is a continuing fascination with the doings of those of higher status, to follow their dilemmas in tales of yore, or to learn the story of Charles and Diana. I wonder whether there is an innate biological component to this.

There is lots of evidence that all societies have status hierarchies, even shifting ones that use parvenus driving Hummers. It's pretty clear that money was invented, not for accounting in trade, but for comparison in status rituals, where e.g. the fat guy with the most seashells hanging around his neck became the Big Man of the tribe. Everybody has fun, and the loser has to wash the dishes.

So far as I know, anthropology has surprisingly little to say on the ABSTRACT subject of "status", given how much people are affected by it. Clearly it combines with birth lineage and land tenure to evolve social hierarchies of prestige and control.

But it's not just about power over others. It's also about learning by observing, as we all must. Baby elephants watch the mama elephants--who by the way are already paying obeisance to the bull. Perhaps a status structure is NECESSARY for us to order our OWN positions vis-a-vis everyone else in the society, as well as giving us a way to aspire--or not aspire, as the case may be. We WANT to know the acceptable way to BE, to know how it is DONE.

We also want connection, i.e. "organization", if presently only a series of temporary kinds. In our society now, movie stars and music stars have status. If you know about, say, a "Britney Spears", you can JOIN into a conversation with your acquaintances about, for example, what clothes she's wearing, and so on.

Finally, it is curious that status always seems to have a large visual component, although maybe that's just because our eyes are dominant sensors. Movie stars have a rather automatic status, therefore. But Albert Einstein still has status (intellectual), --and almost everyone knows his photo.

Posted by: Lee A. on January 7, 2004 12:13 PM

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The French won, is that right? But both took heavy losses.

Be careful what you ask for.

Posted by: northernLights on January 7, 2004 12:17 PM

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I didn't advocate (or mean to advocate) permanent rigid hierarchy. Nor am I sympathetic with Lewis' monarchism or fondness for oppressive schooling. (Let's not get into how similar dances we done at the court of Louis XIV--brrr.)

And yet, when all is said and done, I think many people feel a need for order and that this may be healthy. Is not one of the great problems of the left the inability to present a united (or even organized) front, and doesn't the aggressive advocacy if "individualism" undercut the US union movement? It is easy to talk about how a desire for social order is "wrong"...but it is also the call of the tyrant, calling his enemies to declare their "freedom" from their ability to oppose tyranny in any organized way.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on January 7, 2004 12:19 PM

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I think this is a rather active interpretation of the series. The books may talk about the class system but they constantly rail against it. The "new" British navy Jack bemoans is even more classist than the old, where a foremast jack can make post, and Jack truly believes that it is producing a weaker navy. I found the characters quite unhappy with the corrupt political system and the gross inequities that are caused by the use of "interest" (even if Jack and, in real life, his hero Nelson used it to their advantage). Royal characters like the Duke of Clarence are presented as fools. I thought that O'Brien gleefully exposed the hypocrisy and incompetence of the elite, even as he seemed to admire the efficacy of dicatorial ship-board life.

Posted by: Giff Constable on January 7, 2004 04:10 PM

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"What horseshit this all is. Do we read the Iliad because we long for the social order of ancient Greece?"

As a data point in support of the article...

A while ago I bought a batch of books from Amazon, fiction and nonfiction, focusing on the Napoleonic Wars. Master and Commander, Sharpe's Rifles, and some nonfiction about the royal navy and the land campaigns.

My Amazon recommendations list was immediately *flooded* with hardcore US Republican polemics (Ann Coulter and the like).

I don't think the assertion is "horseshit" at all. One doesn't have to like 19th century British military culture to enjoy reading about it, but it certainly helps and I would be very surprised if the fans didn't skew more right-wing than the general population. It's a similar thing with "Lord of the Rings" - lots of people love it, but the really hardcore fans skew right in my experience. This is because anyone can enjoy a well-written story, but it's especially attractive to people whose view of the real world is most similar to Tolkien's conservative, war-of-good-vs-evil fantasy world.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on January 7, 2004 04:23 PM

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Randolph Fritz, I don't think an ordered society needs to be a very hierarchical one. Abstractly, I don't think it needs to be hierarchical at all, though I doubt people could pull that off. They just devolve that way, and then linger.

All I've seen of dances from the court of the Sun King had little tentative movement from the women, and great free-limbed capering and posing from the men - one of the dances had been performed by the young Louis XIV. himself. This meant different things to them than it does now, but I found it quite refreshing and pleasant to look on.

Posted by: clew on January 7, 2004 07:15 PM

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This might be a quibble and it might be wrong but with regard to the following:

"True, come 1812 our brave tars had to start thumping Yanks as well, and everybody regretted that (perhaps O'Brian had an eye to transatlantic sales)."

Didn't the US do the thumping at sea, or at least a relative thumping, given the mismatch in overall resources, while the British did the thumping on land. Or at least until 14 days after the war was over.

Posted by: jml on January 7, 2004 08:03 PM

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"I don't think the assertion is 'horseshit' at all. One doesn't have to like 19th century British military culture to enjoy reading about it, but it certainly helps and I would be very surprised if the fans didn't skew more right-wing than the general population."

Which is a long way from the original assertion, that the Aubrey/Maturin books are "pornography for Tories."

In an imperfect world, many of the best novels are written by people with a conservative and even snobbish outlook -- people whose sensitivities are attuned to the ongoing stories of class and status. Introducing the rightward-leaning Robert A. Heinlein's adventure novel Glory Road, the very left-wing SF writer Samuel R. Delany observed that "Balzac was Marx's favorite writer, and Heinlein is one of mine." Delany's generous attitude is hugely preferable to the facile, pinched, and snooty attitude in the passage Brad quoted, which is echoed in all too many comments above.

Of course, if you don't like something, it's lovely to be able to tell yourself that people who do like it are *bad people.*

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on January 7, 2004 09:39 PM

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Afterthought: It seems to me that there's lots worth discussing in the intersection of class, status, power, and fictional subcreation.

What I no longer believe in is the good faith of anyone who frames the discussion in the assertion that works as nuanced as O'Brian's novels are "pornography for Tories."

That's not the language of someone who's interested in opening a worthwhile discussion. That's the language of wholesale abuse.

What it's about isn't opening discussion, but closing it. This is the kind of critical language that exists to reassure its readers that there's really nothing interesting going on here. This gets done to genre and category fiction all the time, and we're never the smarter for it.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on January 7, 2004 09:48 PM

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Patrick,

in your two comments immediately above, I fear you have rather missed the point that (as I said in my original post) I *like* the Aubrey/Maturin books; quite a great deal, in fact.

O'Brian might well have been a bad person, but if he was, it's because of the way he abandoned his first wife and their children; it's not something one would know from his novels.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton on January 8, 2004 01:24 AM

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>>In an imperfect world, many of the best novels are written by people with a conservative and even snobbish outlook -- people whose sensitivities are attuned to the ongoing stories of class and status.... Delany's generous attitude is hugely preferable to the facile, pinched, and snooty attitude in the passage Brad quoted, which is echoed in all too many comments above. Of course, if you don't like something, it's lovely to be able to tell yourself that people who do like it are *bad people.*<<

Ah. But Mrs. Tilton *does* like P.K. O'Brian--she is, after all, on her *third* reading through the cycle. It's just that she believes that the novels are so politically incorrect that it is a sin against egalitarianism for her to like them.

Which does get us to *the* really interesting question: why are "so many of the best novels are written by people with a conservative and even snobbish outlook -- people whose sensitivities are attuned to the ongoing stories of class and status"? Why aren't a greater proportion written by good egalitarian democratic socialists?

And at this point I should say something about Philip Pullman and the Republic of Heaven...


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on January 8, 2004 07:55 AM

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Patrick Neilson Hayden,

I disagree with the premise of your post (which alas I can't copy down here) that
a) a writer can be defined wholly as conservative/snobbish or something else
and
b) that such a writer would be a better observer of human nature, social hierarchy, or anything else than a writer one might define as "non consevative."

Its true that, in general in human history, most writers have, almost by definition, been upper class or at least come from a priveleged class because they can read and write and get published at all. That might lead us to assume that they would write only about their social equals from the point of their social equals, but of course they haven't done that (Shakespeare, Chaucer).
The lower classes, women, non-citizens/immigrants and the poor have not had many chances to write their stories, so we can't know for sure what they would write or would have written at the time that early novels were beginning to be written and read. As as they become literate and gain disposable income we can know what kinds of the works that are available to them appeal to them (I reccomend "Reading the Romance" for those interested). Whether a writer "is" conservative or simply writes for an audience/publisher that supports conservative outlooks is an open question. Is the genre romance written by actual romantics or women out to make a buck? Its not even the case that a book supposedly written by a woman for a female audience is, in fact, written by a woman. We can't know much about an author's actual political sensibility from reading their works unless we actually know the author and that is often not the case.

But as for writers and their politics in general: I recently had a fascinating conversation with a well known woman novelist (who shall remain nameless here) who writes serious fiction and teaches creative writing occasionally. she told me that in her experience of her students the more conservative the student politically, the worse their writing was because they tended to be unable to flesh out their characters and their stories with observations and details about the world. She thought that people who had taken the meyers-briggs test who ended up high on the "judgement" scale rather than the "perceptive" scale (forgive me if I'm getting the nomenclature wrong, I never took the test myself and I'm not too sure I'm remembering her exact words correctly) spent too much time judging situations to really explore them in detail in a writerly way. That was her opinion as a teacher, not her opinion of particular pieces of great world literature.

I'd argue that a writer can have conservative or liberal leanings politically but a great writer *for the reader* must be able to drop the biases of either of those positions to fully explore the world views of various characters (Read Troyat's brilliant biography of Tolstoy for fun and profit on this topic). If he or she can't drop the biases of their own political persuasion they end up underwriting or short changing some characters and, of course, some genre forms presuppose that or make it easier to do that because they are read by only one kind of person (so they don't miss out on other points of view) or the reader just doesn't expect those points of views to be explored. Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea (which I haven't read) is supposed to be written from the perspective of the neglected voice of the mad first wife of Jane Eyre's hero.

Gee, i seem to have thought a lot about this as an anthropologist. I must miss it all more than I thought I did.
(Oh, in re anthropology and social status. I'd say absolutely all of anthropology is "about" social status in one form or another. Check out any book about caste and status in South Asia, or any book by Bourdieu (I consider him an anthropologist) for a discussion of status and social and cultural organization.)
Kate Gilbert

Posted by: Kate Gilbert on January 8, 2004 08:13 AM

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While Aubrey was undoubtedly a Tory, I think the books reflected a lot of criticism of the kind of Toryism exemplified (anachronistically) by Mrs. Thatcher, and defended Toryism that expected the privileged to justify their position with concern for those dependent on them. The episode of his fight against the enclosure of the local commons is perhaps the best example, but his treatment of his shipmates that had disabilities (providing them with jobs on his small estate, e.g.) also show this attitude.

Posted by: cafl on January 8, 2004 10:18 AM

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Patrick writes:

"That's not the language of someone who's interested in opening a worthwhile discussion. That's the language of wholesale abuse.

What it's about isn't opening discussion, but closing it."

Pot, kettle, black.

Brad writes:

"Which does get us to *the* really interesting question: why are "so many of the best novels are written by people with a conservative and even snobbish outlook -- people whose sensitivities are attuned to the ongoing stories of class and status"? Why aren't a greater proportion written by good egalitarian democratic socialists?"

Um, there ARE lots of great egalitarian writers. But mostly, for what I think should be obvious reasons, they don't write heroic war stories.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on January 8, 2004 11:05 AM

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Kate -- Thanks for indicating Bourdieu. I was not on about the dimensions nor effects nor outer trappings of status, with which, as you say, anthropology and sociology are replete. Nor its inculcation by ideology--which seems to characterize the stance of the critical philosophers. But it looks like later Bourdieu may have something to say about status as a primary motive or innate mechanism, so--thanks again.

To this thread’s main twist -- (1) What are the predominant politics of writers of genre novels, (2) Why do readers love them so, (3) What is the difference between this form of writing and great art, (4) What were the politics of the great artists...

We will fill up the web with quintillions of bits, squeezing MoveOn and Drudge right off the monitors!

The novels in question are actually CROSS-genre: “sentimental education” (e.g. Flaubert, Balzac, James) + “service drama” (e.g. Star Trek, McHale’s Navy) done up with an extraordinary amount of accurate historical and seafaring research (ask any old yachtsman). This gives the writers an enormous amount of ready-made dramatic situations to exploit.

Lord of the Rings is also structurally a cross-genre: “myth” (talisman of power, long journey with accent on destiny, succession of opponents, climax in the underworld with a narrow escape, big physical battle, public and cosmic self-revelation, return to home with tremendous personal change) + “fairytale” (begins with communal moment, immediate main problem/need, threat of literal slavery, magical allies, characters divided into extremes with extreme desires, bad guy holds secretive power, talisman is the crucial object, final success is total and extreme). But it’s a remarkably sophisticated amalgam in which the prelude “The Hobbit” contains some of the traditional necessary story-points (the finding of the talisman, passage of an obscure amount of time, lost or surrogate father). --Extracted from notes taken in John Truby’s Story Structure course, Los Angeles, 1990.

Posted by: Lee A. on January 8, 2004 12:00 PM

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The stories people most like to read are not necessarily the ones they like to live. Tolkein himself says this in The Hobbit, that you can write interesting stuff for ages about miserable things, while writing about absolutely delightful times is terribly boring.

What life would you rather live? One with interesting work, a steadfastedly happy marriage, several happy and healthy children, a comfortable home, and your good health? Or would you prefer to carry the Ring of Power through rain, snow, ash and mountains, be driven mad by thirst, captured and beaten by orcs, nearly killed several times, fail morally and lose your finger in the end, and be unable to find peace again in mortal lands?

And which story would you rather read?

I suggest that most people have different answers to the two questions.


Posted by: Tracy on January 8, 2004 05:43 PM

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The stories people most like to read are not necessarily the ones they like to live. Tolkein himself says this in The Hobbit, that you can write interesting stuff for ages about miserable things, while writing about absolutely delightful times is terribly boring.

What life would you rather live? One with interesting work, a steadfastedly happy marriage, several happy and healthy children, a comfortable home, and your good health? Or would you prefer to carry the Ring of Power through rain, snow, ash and mountains, be driven mad by thirst, captured and beaten by orcs, nearly killed several times, fail morally and lose your finger in the end, and be unable to find peace again in mortal lands?

And which story would you rather read?

I suggest that most people have different answers to the two questions.


Posted by: Tracy on January 8, 2004 05:45 PM

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"So far as I know, anthropology has surprisingly little to say on the ABSTRACT subject of "status", given how much people are affected by it."

I think the structuralists engaged this, though I'm not sure of it.

"There is lots of evidence that all societies have status hierarchies, even shifting ones that use parvenus driving Hummers."

Non-sapient societies, even. Baboon, chimp, gorilla, orangutan, and bonobo behaviors all have their parallels in humans, though, unlike any non-sapient species, humans choose among those behaviors, and import them from other species as well.

I think there are three different kinds of status behaviors in humans; those that are ape inheritances, those that are part of how we order our societies, and those that are necessary parts of sapient life, allowing for the making of history.

"Do we read the Iliad because we long for the social order of ancient Greece?" I think not, though that nostalgia has been a factor in modern Western history. But the Iliad is a war story, and war stories are stories about social conflicts. The military leader and, especially, the 19th-century captain and ship are great social models, most usually invoked by conservatives. There are notable exceptions, though, Gene Roddenberry being one and I think Stephen Brust another.

Clew, in the dances of the court of the Sun King were done in lines, ordered by aristocratic rank. No-one could dance until the king danced with them. I'm also not sure what you mean by an ordered society without hierarchy. Do you eschew the authority of parent over child and teacher over student? Can you give an example, even an imaginary one?

CS Lewis, by the way, was in his life, unlike his fiction, a strong believer in democracy, unlike Tolkien, who preferred to be apolitical, since he could not find a suitable monarch to swear loyalty to. (That's my free reading of his remarks in a letter to Christopher Tolkien.)

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on January 8, 2004 06:30 PM

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I must say though that Lois does strike me as incredibly snobby, reading some of the rest of her blog. In a commentary on the conservatism of Tolkien she manages to bash the entire fantasy genre and Dungeons and Dragons, saying the world would be better off without them. (I suppose D&D may sin in her eyes by not being politically correct, but the actual fact is that it gave rise to the popularity of tabletop roleplaying as an activity, a fine social and learning experience for lots of people and greatly preferable to sitting around watching television from a social perspective).

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on January 8, 2004 08:16 PM

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"So far as I know, anthropology has surprisingly little to say on the ABSTRACT subject of "status", given how much people are affected by it."

Evolutionary psychology has a lot of very informative things to say about that, as do anthropologists and primatologists studying from a similar perspective. Some behavioral economists do as well (e.g. Robert Frank).

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on January 8, 2004 08:29 PM

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Ian -- Thanks for the leads. "The Adapted Mind" by Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby puts "status" down to a signal of control of economic resources by men, to women looking for mate. Once again, that could explain everything...

Posted by: Lee A. on January 8, 2004 10:15 PM

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I take it that, by 'Lois', Mr Montgomerie means me (though as I am not called Lois, I am not sure why this should be).

It's quite true that I generally dislike the fantasy genre. But then, almost all of this genre that I have read is abysmally vapid; a googolplex of emanations down from the Ideal that I will concede Tolkien represents. I will also concede, despite my constitutional dislike for the genre, that it's quite possible it includes stories that are original, well-written and worth reading. I simply haven't come across any (and no, don't bring up those books about the guy with leprosy who goes to an alternate world where his wedding ring becomes magical). I would exclude Lewis's Narnia tales from this judgement, and Alasdair Gray's 'Lanark', if one wished to classify them in this genre.

Nor do I like D&D; not because it is 'politically incorrect' (is it?) but because it strikes me as a silly waste of time, and one prone to induce dangerously intense levels of geekish obsession to boot.

But in this, as in all things, de gustibus non disputandum. If you wish to read "Sir Cutandthrust Battles the Sorcerer of Xazax" to crib ideas for your D&D campaign, fair play to you.

On genre fiction in general: I confess that I am not really a fan (though I often enough pick up a crime novel as the airplane book du jour). But I am sensitive to Patrick Nielsen Hayden's complaint that people are too quick to dismiss genre works *because* they are genre. That's quite unfair. I do not go in much for science fiction because - well, who knows why. But when I do read it, I am prepared to judge it on its merits. One of the few SF works I have read and can well remember was Niven and Pournelle's 'Mote in God's Eye'. The human characters were flat and uninteresting stereotypes; but I was astounded by the authors' creative achievement in imagining a bizarre and utterly alien life-form and society.

Lee A. wrote that the main thrust of this thread is the politics of genre writers. The thread began with Patrick O'Brian, whom I do not regard as a genre writer (if he is in a genre, it is a very select one).

Posted by: Mrs Tilton on January 9, 2004 06:48 AM

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The genre is sea stories. O'Brian is one of the great writers of sea stories--one of the minority of genre writers who are accessible to people outside the genre.

I find it interesting the extent to which this story form bears on politics. It's not too hard to see why: when times are hard people want the security of an assured place in a social order and the assurance of belief in a good captain. And, I think, if the left is to offer that in the USA, it has to find leaders--at least symbolic leaders--who are seen to fill that bill. Such figures are fairly scarce in the US Democratic party; Wellstone, Mondale, and Humphrey were exceptional results of the populist socialism of Minnesota, and no union leader has ever been president--can anyone think of any senators who had union backgrounds? Oddly, the US left's most charismatic leaders are often allies from the upper class--Kennedy, FDR, and so on. Hmmmmm...

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on January 9, 2004 03:23 PM

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As for "What tory could not love the world O'Brian made?" - the Tories were the ones who did not want foreign expansion, because they could see perfectly well that they would get hurt whether it worked or not. If it didn't work they would pay for it (and risk disturbance at home), and if it did they would get squeezed by nouveau riche Whigs who had got all the gains. Tories were the knights of the shires, king and country and so on - not mercantile expansionists. The mercantile expansionists were the Whigs. (See Macaulay's comments on how people returning with Indian loot raised the price of both rotten eggs and rotten boroughs at home.)

Of course, a later generation of Tories were equally concerned to maintain what they in turn inherited - but they were never into making things become that way in the first place.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on January 9, 2004 04:03 PM

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Randolph Fritz - Parents and children is (are?) a mixed case; I don't think parents should have any legal authority over adult children, and their authority over minors is based (IMO) on their duty to the children's good, or the children's future adult selves' good. It's not as though there's a caste of childhood to which some are doomed and some not. The same is even more true of teachers and students, as the students (or their parents by the limited authority above) are there by choice, and temporarily.

By no hierarchy I meant that no-one was intrinsically above anyone else, no-one with a special relation to the laws. At any given moment, someone is a child not a parent, an accused not a judge, but I would in fact call that order and not call it hierarchy.

Posted by: clew on January 9, 2004 06:48 PM

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Mrs. Tilton says: (Sorry for calling you Lois, that was a slip since I regularly encounter a Lois Tilton on the net)

"Nor do I like D&D; not because it is 'politically incorrect' (is it?) but because it strikes me as a silly waste of time, and one prone to induce dangerously intense levels of geekish obsession to boot."

An obsession and a waste of time compared to what, precisely?

Playing D&D is a social, creative, and problem-solving activity. In fact it exercises more creativity and imagination than pretty much any other popular activity. It doesn't rank up there with proving Fermat's last theorem or writing the next War and Peace, but let's be realistic about the sort of activities that are engaged in by the great majority of people. Watching television, playing sports, reading mass market fiction, chatting about non-Earth-shaking subjects, web surfing, bar hopping, concert going, etc, etc.

What activities do you think people should do instead of playing D&D? Subject to the caveat that they should be reasonably mainstream entertainment activities, not ideals like "volunteering at the local homeless shelter" and so on.

I personally have played D&D a grand total of once, and other RPGs a handful of times, back in high school. Didn't know anybody with an interesting enough campaign going. But I find the anti-D&D/anti-roleplaying prejudice of so many people quite remarkable. It's "geeky"... what, you mean it requires imagination and intellectual ability? The horror. It's "obsessive"... what, you mean it involves attention to a passtime other than the accepted obsessions of television, sports, gossip, and so on? The horror. It's "silly"? Oooooh, I could say so much about the "silliness" of popular non-D&D passtimes...

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on January 9, 2004 07:59 PM

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