Subverting Subversion (Not Really, But Maybe)

Okay, I’m talking about writing again, but this is actually something I’ve been wanting to post about for awhile–in point of fact, about a year and a half. And that something is that some of the markers of literary awesomeness do not make any sense whatsoever to this reader and wannabe (read: not paid for it yet) writer. I am referring to these things: subversion and unconventionality.

Here’s what I mean. While taking a class on English history after 1700, I came across a paragraph discussing the writing of the early 1800s–that is to say, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, as well as some others–who were acknowledged as good writers with well-drawn characters, but were criticized by the person writing the paragraph for staying within societal conventions, a.k.a. everybody gets married.

And? So? What is so very wrong with that? They wanted to write what they saw as happy endings (The shock! The horror!) for their (female) protagonists, and, in those days, for a woman to A. be married and B. to be married to a man who would treat her like a person was one of the happiest endings possible. Hang existentialist nonsense, spinsterhood stunk.

But it brought to mind other things I’d read in book reviews and in online discussions of books and movies and music. If a piece of media went against societal norms, it was “subversive.” Therefore it was “creative” and better than something that wasn’t. If it, instead, upheld societal norms, then it was “reactionary” and “derivative.” These exact words were not used all the time, of course. But the general sense was still there.

Then I noticed something else. Sometimes the norms needed to be subverted. Huckleberry Finn undermines 19th-century racism quite nicely, for instance, while To Kill a Mockingbird does the same to early-20th century racism. I’m not as familiar with works undermining sexism, although Pride and Prejudice probably counts.

However, other works praised as “subversive” are seeking to subvert other things. Like monogamy, and self-denial, and responsibility for one’s actions, and other such things, often derided as “borgeousie morality” by the literary upper crust, as opposed to bohemianism and generally being a self-indulgent twit. Or, more ambiguously, authority in general, usually religious or parental, although occasionally the government comes in for criticism–said criticism, however, is usually leveled at the military.

However, this subversion has a problem. For the vast majority of Americans, these authorities have already been subverted in some way, shape or form. Pockets still exist of the old moral codes and their faults, some more widespread than others, some harder-cased about it than others, but the old moral codes are on their way out. The gatekeepers of society no longer preach them, the gatekeepers of academia and the literati violently assault any who seek to retain some vestige of them while simultaneously trying to deal with the havoc they themselves have wrought.

Essentially, the current “subversives” are still busily fighting their images of the Puritans, the bluenoses, and the Moral Majority, when all of these have, unfortunately, completely lost the culture wars they waged–all the while forgetting that they are far closer to their image of the Puritans and the bluenoses than the actual people so described ever were. They are the establishment now, they are the authority figures–and they cannot stand to have any in competition, so they praise the subverters of all who would contest their claim.

The fact is that what is subversive now is to not be what the current writing and literary establishments call “subversive”–which is in fact no longer undermining anything, but further building up a tower that begins in filth and ends in horror–but to be “reactionary.” To undermine their tower while stealing back the beams they stole from the establishment they tore down, the beams that are the only reason their tower hangs together. To speak of honor, loyalty, faith, and honesty. To show men and women refusing to bow to any cultural idol, be it Mammon or Moloch in disguise. To show that nothing we do changes the world, but that everything and nothing we do changes the people who live in it. To show love, in all its myriad forms: friendship, brotherhood, romance, childrearing, and even, perhaps, some fragments of that strange thing called agape, selfless love, that which is purely self-sacrifice for no foreseeable personal gain. To show that the mud and the blood and the pain and the sorrow has a glorious endgame, not a six by six plot of land at the end.

But, you see, here’s the thing. We’ll not be subversives. Sorry.

First and foremost, we will be storytellers. For our purpose will be to build, with destruction an incidence. And, as all the best stories and a few of the not-so-good ones do, we will reflect the biggest one of all. And, so long as we put care and craft to them and have them reflect the reality we see, they will be better.

Or, to put it another way, it may be conventional to build on rock rather than elsewhere.

I don’t care.


I’d like my house to stand. Anyone want to start building with me?

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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