Why are dragons afraid of Americans?

The chief business of an essayist — I speak here of the kind of essayist that I occasionally manage to be, and that better men than I are sometimes reduced to when not at their best — is to tilt at windmills. The second greatest delight such an essayist can know is to tilt at a windmill, in the full knowledge and expectation that it is really a windmill, and that he shall end by making a quixotic fool of himself, and discover in the heat of combat that it is only a giant after all.

I say ‘only a giant’ advisedly. A windmill is an awful thing, in more than one sense of the word: a soulless creature born of sheer inanimate nature, grinding without desire, crushing without intent, turning its tireless arms in response to a commandment more inexorable than the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. I believe that the windmill was invented by Koshchei the Deathless, while wearing the guise in which he used to appear to James Branch Cabell — ‘the Master of Things As They Are’, as Cabell called him. How wonderful it is, then, having tried one’s lance against a windmill, to find that after all it is just another creature of flesh and blood like oneself — bigger and stronger, no doubt, but just as fallible, just as uncertain, just as liable to err, to weary, and to die. The greatest delight of an essayist is to tilt at a windmill and find that it really is a windmill, that one has crossed lances, in some way, with the fundamental bedrock of reality. But that experience is a great deal rarer.

So I spend a lot of my time tilting at windmills, and most of them, as it turns out, are nothing but giants. This language is figurative. I mean that I pick quarrels with the conventional wisdom or fashionable opinion that different sorts of people are apt to accept as unalterable truth; and then I find that they are only opinions, and dubiously founded ones at that — or else I do not. Since both conventional wisdom and fashionable opinion are fallible and largely wrong, and nearly everybody takes comfort in one or the other, I make a terrible nuisance of myself to virtually everybody. In the past, for instance, I have gone jousting in aid of Ursula K. Le Guin, and particularly for her views on the diction and rhetoric of fantasy, though she needs my help almost as much as a whale needs a life jacket. Today I feel the urge to turn my lance against her, or against one of her windmills, and see whether I score a hit on a giant.

The occasion of this joust is the arrival today, per post, of a long-awaited copy of The Language of the Night, Ms. Le Guin’s first, and perhaps best-known, book of critical essays. It has been allowed to go out of print, but several of the essays in it have been so widely reprinted that not even the folly of publishers has suppressed their well-earned fame. Some of these I first read long ago, when I was in my early youth, and Ms. Le Guin was already an accomplished past master of her craft; which is odd, because I am now several aeons older than the hills, and Ms. Le Guin is still only in her early eighties. I attribute this discrepancy to the well-known habit women have of telling lies about their age.

Now, in those days, in the first flush of youth, or at least in an epoch when I was still thrusting upwards by orogeny and not merely wearing down by erosion, I was strongly impressed, and somewhat flattered, by the first proper essay in Language, which bears the fine polemical title, ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ Impressed, because I had not much experience of the world, and thought that the people who seemed in public not to care for fantasy or imaginative fiction must necessarily have the same fault in private life; flattered, because by implication I was one of the happy few not so afflicted. I was far from being the only one so impressed, or so flattered. This essay, or rather, the extraordinary claim made in its title, has been taken up into the received wisdom of Western culture: so that people feel themselves wise and learned for granting the antecedent, or rather, begging the question, and simply assuming that Americans are afraid of dragons.

In support of the idea, I admit, Ms. Le Guin tells a pretty tale, and she could probably get the average jury to convict. To summarize baldly: America, more than any other country, is the heir to the Puritan tradition, which values worldly things only according to their immediate usefulness, and utterly rejects magic and wonder as tools of the Devil. Even when Americans (and their unenlightened brethren in other industrialized nations) reject the idea of the Devil, they retain a vague and rootless distrust of the sort of things that were once considered the Devil’s handiwork, such as l’art pour l’art, and aesthetic experience, and the free play of the imagination. American men in particular are subject to this disease; they are wholly consumed by the hateful materialistic philosophy of ‘get on or get out’, and have a practised disdain, ultimately phobic in nature, for any kind of art or literature that will not immediately help them get money for themselves. However, like all those who reject the overt manifestations of fantasy, the American Male lets the irrational in by the back door of superstition; so he will sometimes let himself read bestsellers, because bestsellers are good business, and some of their luck may rub off by a kind of sympathetic magic. He is, of course, never consciously aware of such a motive, but it is there just the same, and plain enough for a Le Guin to diagnose. For the rest he will stick to non-fiction, or else

end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography. . . . That all these genres are sterile, hopelessly sterile, is a reassurance to him rather than a defect. If they were genuinely realistic, which is to say genuinely imagined and imaginative, he would be afraid of them. Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time. And probably the ultimate escapist reading is that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report.

Now this is a masterpiece of character assassination, and all the more because the victim is entirely imaginary. The American Male of this depiction never existed: not in 1974, when Le Guin wrote this rant against him; not in 1900, when imaginative and (in the old-fashioned sense) ‘romantic’ literature were being ruthlessly squeezed out of the limelight and into the backwaters of American culture; not in 1830, when American literature was just beginning to take a shape of its own, after the fallow half-century that followed the cultural severance of the colonies from Europe. Americans, of course, and even American males, are as varied a group as any other nationality you might choose to name, and more varied than most. There are Americans with the solid commercial practicality of the Dutch, the quick-witted rationality of the French, the dreamy and intermittently dangerous sentimentality of the Germans — to say nothing of the peculiar cultural complexions of the island nations of Europe. And that is only to count the immigrants who formed part of the cultural matrix in the earliest years of the Union. It leaves out the Slavs, the Mediterranean peoples, the Asians, the Africans (who were present in those early years, but forcibly prevented from contributing to the culture till later). For that matter, it leaves out the American Indians: Hiawatha and Black Hawk are as much a part of American culture and American history as Captain John Smith and Andrew Jackson.

For all this variety, one can still draw a sort of composite picture of what we might call the culturally typical American; that is, of the cultural qualities that were thoroughly boiled down in the ‘melting pot’, and became the common property of the whole nation. Our composite American has never shied away from fantasy or the imagination. He loved tall tales long before he learnt to read; and since he grew up in a landscape of wild and wonderful possibilities, he did not much care whether the tall tales were strictly impossible or not. He is equally delighted with Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. He will swallow the feats of Natty Bumppo, which are flatly impossible without being magical, right along with the ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which are magical and might not be quite impossible. He has the advantage of loving adventure stories, and the greater advantage of living in a land where adventure has never been banished ‘beyond the fields we know’ into the realms of fantasy. He likes to play at being a juvenile Don Quixote, like Tom Sawyer, or a juvenile Marco Polo, like Huckleberry Finn. He doesn’t believe in dragons — quite — but he has cousins who went West by covered waggon and turned back because they ‘saw the elephant’. He likes taking day trips into the future, conducted by the folks at the circus of science fiction, even though he knows that one day the voyage will be as permanent and estranging as Rip Van Winkle’s. He enjoys travelling abroad, where he entertains himself by pretending to be a barbarian to scandalize the snobs; he had great fun playing this game in King Arthur’s court. His chief official hero is George Washington, a real person credited with doing things that never happened, like chopping down the celebrated cherry tree. His unofficial heroes include Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, entirely unreal persons who somehow managed to accomplish all sorts of perfectly real things. American adventure fiction takes reality and fantasy, magic and technology, sober exploration and wild travellers’ yarns, chucks them all up together in the air as high as they will go, and makes a glorious game of taking them just as they fall. It may happen to exclude the elements of fantasy in particular instances, but it has no prejudice against them; and neither, we must conclude, has its audience.

This is the common or melting-pot American, in the particularly masculine form that Ms. Le Guin has singled out for castigation: and if he is afraid of dragons at all, he is probably afraid that they may be a shade too dull for him. Old-world etiquette requires him to be a St. George and kill them, but he would really rather climb on their backs, rodeo style, and see if he can stay on for the whole eight seconds. He used to be wonderfully served by what we may call his official culture, the Arts and Literature and Other Good Things with Capital Letters. Cooper, Irving, Poe, Melville, Twain, O. Henry — the earlier part of American literary history is a glorious constellation of tall-tale tellers who didn’t care a rap whether they were being ‘realistic’ or not. Moby-Dick is filled with painstaking detail about life aboard a whaling boat, but it is also the ultimate fish story about ‘the one that got away’; the great white whale is as mythic a figure as the fish that swallowed Jonah, and the one has sometimes been mistaken for the other. The same whale (I have it on good authority) used to go by the name of Fastitocalon, and lurk about in the mediaeval bestiaries, pretending to be an island until unwary sailors tried to land on him and pitch a camp. Fantasy and realism play together with perfect freedom, en tutoyant, neither of them putting on airs or pretending to dominate the other.

It is sadly true, however, that the typical American, especially the male American, of the 1970s and thereabouts, as Ms. Le Guin knew him, did not have much time for fiction, except for the dull mass-produced stuff served to him by network television; and this phenomenon has got to be accounted for. He may not have been afraid of dragons, but there were certainly no dragons in his life. How can we account for this? The hypothesis suggests itself that it was the dragons who were afraid of the Americans, and not the other way round. Something frightened them off.

In ‘On Fairy-Stories’, J. R. R. Tolkien remarks that fantasy came to be associated with children, not because it was peculiarly suitable for them, but because their elders had ceased to like it; just as the old furniture in a house would be banished to the nursery for the children’s use. But it was not only fantasy that was treated in this way. The whole tradition of adventure fiction — all the tropes and categories that descended ultimately from the mediaeval romance, and that were still called ‘romantic’ in English until that word was misappropriated and applied exclusively to love-stories — was quite abruptly banished from polite circles in the latter part of the nineteenth century, not only in the U.S. but in other industrial countries as well, and remained in exile until it crept back in through the new medium of the mass-market paperback in the years after the Second World War. If you want to examine the truth of this claim, you have only to consider the kinds of fiction that were regarded as ‘boys’ stories’ in the first half of the twentieth century. This is George Orwell in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’:

Examination of a large number of these papers shows that, putting aside school stories, the favourite subjects are Wild West, Frozen North, Foreign Legion, crime (always from the detective’s angle), the Great War (Air Force or Secret Service, not the infantry), the Tarzan motif in varying forms, professional football, tropical exploration, historical romance (Robin Hood, Cavaliers and Round-heads, etc.) and scientific invention. The Wild West still leads, at any rate as a setting, though the Red Indian seems to be fading out. The one theme that is really new is the scientific one. Death-rays, Martians, invisible men, robots, helicopters and interplanetary rockets figure largely: here and there there are even far-off rumours of psychotherapy and ductless glands.

Orwell is talking here about the British boys’ magazines, but the same subjects, with minor variations, predominated in the American pulp magazines. The pulps showed far greater specialization than the British boys’ weeklies; there were hundreds of titles, most of them monthly, against the ten papers that served the same market in the tight oligopoly of the British press; but then the American market was a bigger one, and it could be profitable to cater to quite small segments of it. Millions of Americans read the pulps for pleasure, and by no means all of them were boys; but the pulps were aimed at boys, edited for the reading-level of boys, and censored ferociously to keep out any subjects that might be thought to corrupt the impressionable minds of boys. It is this accident, by the way, that accounts for the remarkable sexlessness of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction.

Clearly there was an insatiable market for imaginative fiction; clearly our ‘common American’ had not died out, or given up reading, or even altered his tastes. But his preferred reading-matter had been banished to the cheapest magazines; the literati sneered and called it trash. After the pulp magazines disappeared, their place as the lowest common denominator of narrative fiction was taken over by television: very inadequately, for where there had been hundreds of pulps publishing thousands of stories per month, there were only three major television networks, broadcasting no more than about eighty prime-time series at any given time. There was much less variety in the televised pulp fiction of 1960 than in the printed pulp fiction of 1940. Naturally, the literati sneered at television twice as hard, fearing its tremendous reach and influence (and profitability) even more than they hated its deadly sameness.

But our common American stuck to his TV set and gave up, for the most part, even pretending to read ‘serious’ fiction, though he retained a certain taste for paperback Westerns and detective stories. The literati had not changed his tastes; they only managed to drive him out. They did not drive out his female counterpart, who was more interested in love-stories and domestic melodrama (which the electronic media call ‘soap opera’). They could not; they needed her money. In the years after the Second World War, more than ever before, American popular fiction became a women’s preserve. Those were the years that saw the rise of the Harlequin romance, and the mini-novel, ‘complete in this issue’, that was for a while a staple of the women’s magazines; but also the rise of ‘women’s fiction’, the ordinary bestselling novel that contained nothing imaginative in the wider sense, but pushed the emotional buttons of the average female reader within a carefully limited domain of ‘realistic’ domesticity.

Ms. Le Guin, of course, has no more time for this stuff than she has for the television shows that the menfolk were using to pass the time:

[L]acking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and ‘true romances’, and nursy novels, and historico-sentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.

But once again, it does not occur to her that the Common American (Female Division) simply took the ‘fodder’ that was actually available. The decision to push this kind of material was made from on high, in the élitist (and profoundly sexist) confines of the Higher Publishing. During what Ms. Le Guin herself has called the fifty-year halt of American feminism, women readers were not encouraged to read ‘serious’ fiction; but their interest in domestic matters and family drama (as old, and as evident, as the village gossip that has been with us since Neolithic times) meant that some of their interests could be catered to without risking the deep forbidden waters of the old-style romance. In these latter days, when women are perfectly free to range over the literary landscape however they choose, I have known any number of female readers who liked both ‘sickly fodder’ and ‘genuine imaginative works’ — women who voluntarily read (for example) ‘nursy novels’ in one mood, and science fiction in another, and find entertainment, even nourishment, in both. The readership of fantasy in the U.S. nowadays, I am told, is about three-fourths female. The same range of tastes, we may well suppose, was latently there in the women of fifty years ago; but the publishing business made a deliberate choice to cater to only one small part of that range.

It begins to look as if we are faced with a deliberate plot; and already I can hear a chorus warming up in the wings, getting ready to call me a crackpot and a conspiracy theorist. I can only reply that there was such a plot, and that some of the original principals have confessed. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis professed that he had never heard anyone actually and explicitly say that works of pure imagination (such as fantasy) were per se not literature, or ought not to be read; but I have seen both those claims made. As late as the early 1990s, I could go into any ‘independent’ bookshop in my home town and confidently expect not to find any science fiction or fantasy, except for stuff like Nineteen Eighty-four or Lord of the Flies, which had been suitably disinfected by being taught as Literature — so much the better if it was unbearably depressing, as those two books are to most people. If I wanted such books, I had to look in the chain bookshops, where the staff and the distant owners were not too proud to carry ‘cheap commercial trash’.

But where did this attitude start? I have elsewhere repeated Dave Wolverton’s assertion, which he can back with formidable evidence (as befits a retired professor), that it began with the American Socialist movement that arose around 1870, and in particular with William Dean Howells, the ‘father of American realism’. Here it is again, from ‘On Writing as a Fantasist’:

He claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about ‘interesting’ characters — such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings — places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where ‘nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story’. He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the ‘common man’, just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.

Howells was still alive, and still wielding that tremendous influence, in the first years of the twentieth century, when names like Henry James and Edith Wharton were the new giants of American letters. Howells’s disciples — it is not too strong a word — had risen to the highest positions in New York publishing, and the editorships of the most prestigious literary reviews. Together they founded what we might call the ‘secular Puritan’ school of fiction, dominated by the idea that strict realism is the only valid form of literature, because only strict realism is good for you. And how do you know that it is good for you? Why, because it is dull. There are those who profess to be fascinated by James’s and Wharton’s fiction, but they are well outnumbered, as I believe, by those who admire their technique, but admit that the bulk of their stories, considered as stories, are terribly and sustainedly boring. This attitude of studied admiration for deliberate dulness was appallingly common at the time; it is brilliantly lampooned in Saki’s short story, ‘Filboid Studge’, in which the world’s worst breakfast cereal becomes a daily staple precisely because anything that foul-tasting must be good for you — if not nutritionally, then morally.

It was not only the younger writers who geared up to write literary Filboid Studge. Mark Twain’s last years furnish sad evidence of Howells’s power. Twain and Howells were close friends in those years, and Howells influenced Twain’s work, I believe, markedly for the worse. Among my books are two volumes of Twain from the Library of America: one containing a sample of his shorter pieces from 1852 to 1890, the other from 1890 to his death in 1910. They might almost have been written by two different men. The stories in the first volume are imaginative, wild, free, and nearly always funny, in the finest tradition of the American tall tale. Those in the second volume are increasingly solemn, sober, preachy, and depressing, and when they depart from strict realism, it is apt to be in the service of heavy-handed satire, like the attack on religion in The Mysterious Stranger. Among these latter pieces is a little screed that he wrote to glorify Howells. In this, he makes a great effort to convince us that a little word-picture by Howells (of menial labourers shovelling snow in the Piazza San Marco in Venice) is a masterpiece of poetic prose. It isn’t; it is a string of pretty words, prettily put together, and wasted on an utterly trivial object.

But Howells would not have it any other way; he devoutly believed literature ought to be about trivial objects. He thought that snow-shovellers in Venice were worth writing about precisely because they were ordinary and prosaic, and because they were poor and downtrodden; and if only the art of literature could be engaged to make them seem fascinating and important, it would enlist the sympathies of the middle classes on their behalf, and then — hey presto! The Socialist Utopia would ensue. This method was followed by Upton Sinclair and others, and ultimately perfected by Steinbeck. One could call it ‘Socialist Realism for the bourgeoisie’. Such work has a powerful attraction for the literati to this day, for the literati are still Socialists for the most part, and are still, after all these years, waiting for their Utopia. The ‘sentence cult’, the habit of heaping extravagant praise upon works that combine exquisite prose with utterly vapid subject-matter, is as congenial to their ideology now as it was in Howells’s time.

For it is the characteristic mark of the Utopian Socialist in particular (there are other and better kinds of Socialists) that he must be in a perpetual stew lest people hanker after the wrong Utopia. Even to find a modicum of happiness in this life is liable to be condemned by such people as ‘escapism’; and of course stories of fantasy and adventure are ‘escapist’ by definition. It does not much matter whether the stories are realistic or not, in the sense of being formally possible in real life. The Utopian view is that ‘realism’ requires an unrelenting focus on the dreary, the depressing, the degrading; that, as Lenin put it, the worse things are, the better they are — for it is miserable people who can be talked into backing revolutions. Happy and contented people are too liable to accept the status quo.

The idea was perfectly expressed, back in the 1920s, by an American union organizer who complained because workingmen were buying motorcars:

The Ford car has done an awful lot of harm to the unions here and everywhere else. As long as men have enough money to buy a second-hand Ford and tires and gasoline, they’ll be out on the road and paying no attention to union meetings.

But this kind of thinking — ‘the worse, the better’ — persisted strongly in Socialist parties all over the world until the 1980s, and in some of them it persists to this day. A genuine turning-point came in 1987, when another union leader — a British one, this time, the late Ron Todd — confessed that this whole method was mistaken:

What do you say to a docker who earns £400 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, ‘Let me take you out of your misery, brother.’

But misery remains a selling-point for the literati; as long as it is other people’s misery. The élite of the New York publishing business, and the élite of the famous reviews, all earned their élitehood by acquiring the strongest possible taste for Filboid Studge; they cannot possibly admit that the game is up, that the unwashed masses were right all along to take their nourishment from food that tasted good. It was these élites that fought to keep J. K. Rowling off the Times bestseller list (and succeeded in banishing her to a separate children’s list); it was their British counterparts who cried out that literature was dead because polls of the British reading public showed that The Lord of the Rings was regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. According to the Filboid Studge theory, no work of fantasy (‘escapist trash’) should have been allowed on the list at all; the highest place should have been reserved for Ulysses, no matter how the vote had to be rigged to make it come out right.

Tom Shippey tells a lovely tale about a famous British critic who said, on hearing that The Lord of the Rings had topped the poll: ‘Has it? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.’ Such things are not supposed to happen; and to a good Utopian Socialist, who still believes in the Marxist dogmas he imbibed in his credulous youth, such things cannot happen. History is the inevitable progress of humanity out of the ignorant past and into the glorious Marxist future. Fantasy is dead, the adventure story is dead, just as religion and laissez-faire are supposed to be dead; our glorious predecessors killed them a hundred years ago. If the dead are seen walking abroad, they can only be ghosts; and we cannot believe in ghosts. For a Utopian of 2000, the continued popularity of Tolkien was intolerable, as the victories of Thatcher and Reagan were for a Utopian of 1980. They refuted the theories; they confounded the prophecies.

In 1974, when Ms. Le Guin wrote her snide attack on the taste of the American public, it was still just barely possible to believe that the Socialist Utopia was still inevitable; and rather easier to believe that the triumph of literary realism was complete. At that time, the publishing industry had convinced itself that fantasy was unsalable after all, that Tolkien had been a passing fad of the hippie culture, like tie-dye or acid rock. But it was only the publishers who believed it. The American public were never deceived. Many of them had never heard of Tolkien, or of any modern fantasy for grown-ups; the knowledge had been carefully kept from them. But the attitude that Le Guin fathers onto them, the contempt for fantasy and adventure fiction, hardly existed outside the circle of the literary élite and their hangers-on.

Some people — it was a common thing in academia — hated fantasy because it was fashionable to hate it, because that was the way to get up and get on in their profession. Some had an honest distaste for it. Some people loved it. The great mass of the people liked fantasy, when they could get it; they enjoyed taking their children to Disney movies (often more than the children themselves did). TV programs like Bewitched were always popular. As fantasy goes, these things were pretty thin gruel; but a man will take thin gruel and be glad of it, if he can get no other food. But it was never true that the mass of the American people were afraid of fantasy, or of imaginative fiction in general.

Just three years after Ms. Le Guin published ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’, the dam burst once and for all. In one amazing year, 1977, the film industry was changed for ever by the astounding success of a fantasy movie with science-fiction visuals — Star Wars. The biggest selling book of the year was The Silmarillion. In the same year, The Sword of Shannara and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever proved that Tolkien was not alone, that there was a huge pent-up demand for fantasy by other authors as well. By the early eighties, science fiction and fantasy books were frequent bestsellers, and SF and fantasy movies were reliable box-office hits. The Common American (of both sexes) was back; the American tall tale, in all its forms, was alive and impossibly well. Raiders of the Lost Ark showed that the pure adventure story, even without the trimmings of SF, had lost none of its old power to enchant an audience. The auteurs of the 1970s ‘new cinema’ have been mourning their lost glory and counting their losses ever since. They tried to conquer Hollywood for the kingdom of Filboid Studge — and failed. And since that day, the very citadel of Filboid Studge in America, the New York Literary Establishment, has been under siege.

That, in brief, is the story of the American who was never afraid of dragons. He took to dragons with childlike delight, as soon as the dragons were allowed to get near him again. And sad to say, the people who were afraid of dragons all along — the people who went to war upon the dragons, and made the dragons afraid of them — were not the hated capitalists, the money men reading ‘that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report’. They were the literati themselves, the Progressives, the enlightened and cultured ones — people a lot more like Ms. Le Guin than the straw men she mistook for her opponents. Like Pogo in the famous comic strip (another masterpiece of the American imagination), Ms. Le Guin could aptly have proclaimed: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’


  1. Brat Farrar says

    Speaking as an American, very few of the other Americans that I know are “afraid” of “dragons”, and quite a few spend a good chunk of time seeking them out. (Personally, I’m trying to hatch several, and it’s slow going but rather exciting.)

  2. Thanks for adding some details to my knowledge of the left-wing attack on enjoyable fiction. You might get some fun out of Howard Fast’s _Being Red_, on what it was like to be the only popular writer in the American Communist Party.

    To some extent, the fantastic has been brought back into respectable literature by way of magical realism and Thomas Pynchon, but it’s not a field I follow enough to know the whole story.

    • Magic realism is fantasy that literati can pretend is not fantasy.

      One of its virtues is that magic in it is not something you can use effectually. While that’s a legitimate form, their favoritism for it shows that in part the hatred of fantasy is the hatred of showing characters in effective action.

      • That’s interesting– what I’d noticed about magical realism is the lack of world-building.

        • Not encouraging people to think things through it another virtue. . . though it can have a unity of its own by skillful rhetoric.

        • In magical realism, stuff just happens. Which is a poor way to write fantasy, because “stuff just happens” destroys verisimilitude and cheapens the plot. If “stuff just happens,” then everything good or bad that happens to the protagonist is simly deus or diablus ex machina.

  3. Bill Bridges says

    Le Guin has since repudiated some of the essays that appear in The Language of the Night. She used to have a post on her site explaining why, including being embarrassed about her ire toward Westerns and the like, but I think she got sick of fielding questions about it and it seems to have been taken down.

    • OTOH, she repudiated her early Earthsea work, too. I read some of the sequels and did not find it wise.

    • That’s interesting to hear. Unfortunately — as I discovered in part of my research for this essai, sampling the general tenor of online references to ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ — her original, repudiated work has taken on a life of its own in this case, and, as I said at the outset, become part of the ‘received wisdom’ of many people who like to imagine themselves as brave and antinomian individualists, when they are only socially maladjusted. Ms. Le Guin herself might agree nowadays that the meme she created on this occasion could use some tilting at.

  4. Stephen J. says

    “He thought that snow-shovellers in Venice were worth writing about precisely because they were ordinary and prosaic, and because they were poor and downtrodden; and if only the art of literature could be engaged to make them seem fascinating and important, it would enlist the sympathies of the middle classes on their behalf, and then — hey presto! The Socialist Utopia would ensue.”

    I would have no interest in launching a socialist utopia as a result of it, but shouldn’t ordinary, prosaic people be considered worthy topics to try to make fascinating and important? Much as I do love dragons and could not do without them, I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with calling human characters “trivial” simply because they are engaged in a mundane task. “I am human,” said the poet Terence, “and nothing human is” (or should be) “alien to me.”

    Lewis’s words in the prologue of Screwtape come to mind, and might be paraphrased: “There are two equal and opposite errors our race can fall into about dragons. The one is to pretend they are irrelevant to ordinary life and should be ignored; the other is to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them, and to ignore ordinary life as a result.” One of the great tragedies of human life is that since errors and sins always exist in pairs, anyone happy to be moving away from one error can always be made to forget that he is moving towards the other, and thus to make a refusal to slow down or compromise a point of Pride.

    • I would have no interest in launching a socialist utopia as a result of it, but shouldn’t ordinary, prosaic people be considered worthy topics to try to make fascinating and important?

      This sounds very well on the surface, but I must cry Distinguo! on two counts:

      1. The thing about ordinary, prosaic people, when acting as they do in ordinary life, is that the things that happen to them are not stories, and do not have narrative or dramatic interest. Lewis addressed this point brilliantly in An Experiment in Criticism, and I shall anticipate myself (I have an essai on that book half finished) by quoting him here:

      Just as all except bores relate in conversation not what is normal but what is exceptional — you mention having seen a giraffe in Petty Cury, but don’t mention having seen an undergraduate — so authors told of the exceptional. Earlier audiences would not have seen the point of a story about anything else. Faced with such matters as we get in Middlemarch or Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’ Tale, they would have said ‘But this is all perfectly ordinary. This is what happens every day. If these people and their fortunes were so unremarkable, why are you telling us about them at all?’

      A Venetian street-sweeper may be a very interesting subject for a story, when he is doing something (for him) out of the ordinary; not when he is sweeping the streets. In Howells’s descriptive vignette, nothing actually happens, except that the snow gets cleared off the piazza; and Howells expects us to react with shouts of joy and astonishment. A sane reader does no such thing. And if the swindle, for it is a swindle, is repeated too often — if too many authors pretend to offer us stories, and actually sell us prettily told vignettes about people doing dull things in a dull and ordinary way — we will, nearly all of us, stop being swindled, and look elsewhere for our entertainment, and even for our information. That is how the Realist literati drove our Common American out of being a reader and into exile.

      2. While it is undeniably true that ordinary, prosaic people are often worthy, and can be both fascinating and important, they are not topics and should not be treated as such. A human life, any human life, is more important than any story that could be told about the everyday activities in that life. If you want to illuminate that life and make people realize its importance and fascination, you need to address the unusual — what was accomplished in that life, how that person influenced other lives; and that is not the kind of thing that is readily illustrated every day.

      Even Michelangelo is remarkable because he painted an artistic masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; not because he lay on his back on a scaffold day after day. That was how he produced his masterpiece, but he was, I am assured, a damnably dull spectacle whilst doing it. The how, in such a case, is much less important than what he accomplished and why he did it.

      • You can write about ordinary people doing ordinary things if you manage to depict it in some way as extraordinary.

        That takes truly extraordinary writing.

        • Unfortunately, for the literati, ‘extraordinary writing’ all too often means ‘exceptionally pretty prose’: which means that one is not, after all, really writing about ordinary people doing ordinary things — one is writing to show off, and the people and things are only there to provide an excuse for the exercise. This, in my humble but infallible opinion, is just what Howells was doing with his piazza-shovellers.

          • Stephen J. says

            Maybe so, but is that necessarily a disqualification? I have no doubt that — at least in part — Rembrant painted to show off his painting technique, and Rodin sculpted to show off his sculpting technique, and Keats wrote odes to show off his poetic technique; the crowd in the park, the thinking man and the Grecian urn can be reductively but not inaccurately (or at the very least unfalsifiably) claimed to be nothing more than excuses for those exercises. Even if we stipulated such reductionist assumptions as given, I can’t see the artistic merit of those works being appreciably reduced.

            Howells’ assertion that only literature without dragons is worthwhile is wrong, of course; but I think this may be veering too close toward the opposite and, I think, equally wrong contention that only literature with dragons is worthwhile — though that may well be me reading more into this argument than is intended. Lewis had a wonderful passage in The Great Divorce about the unique temptation of artists to grow too concerned with how they were expressing things (and ultimately with what people thought of them for it) rather than with the things that moved them to artistic expression in the first place; it resonates a lot with what you’ve said, but it seems to me that that warning applies to all artists, whether we disdain dragons or embrace them.

            Out of curiosity, is this street-sweeper vignette of Howells’ available anywhere on the ‘Net? I tried to find it and could not.

    • Ordinary people can be interesting, but that doesn’t mean there’s any special virtue in writing about the dullest parts of their lives.

    • “Ordinary people” are interesting because almost every human being contains interesting complexities and from time to time does something interesting. But what ordinary people do in the most mundane routines of their lives is not interesting. For that matter, stories about extraordinary people doing very dull things wouldn’t be interesting either. Would one really be interested in reading about how superheroes or brilliant scientists put on their socks or boiled eggs for breakfast? (Unless, of course, they’re doing it with robots or death rays!) 🙂

      • Mary Catelli says

        The naive young superhero learning that most of life as a superhero is exactly like life without superpowers.

        The cynical old superhero grousing about mundane life.

        A new employee of the superhero organization who learns first “No man is a hero to his valet” followed in turn by learning “No man is a hero to his valet. This is not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet.”

  5. This is absolutely brilliant.

    Incidentally, I suspect you wouldn’t care for his politics, but you have a spiritual brother in Mencius Moldbug, who describes his blog, Unqualified Reservations, thusly:

    “UR is one madman’s search for existential anomalies in conventional belief systems. An anomalous belief is one that everyone, or at least everyone sane, believes, which is simply wrong. The anomaly is existential if it entirely invalidates the entire belief system – or, at least, that field in which it resides.

    If you discover such an anomaly, there are two possibilities. Either you are effectively insane, or everyone else is. For example, if you discover that our President, B. H. Obama, is in fact a giant alien predatory lizard, you are insane or everyone else is.”

    That is from his finest (in my opinion) essay, “Divine-Right Monarchy for the Modern Secular Intellectual.” Link: http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2010/03/divine-right-monarchy-for-modern.html

    • I have happened upon some of Mr. Moldbug’s work before, but thanks for reminding me.

      I should say that his notion of ‘existential anomalies’ is entirely sound, except for his terminology. They aren’t called that. The phrase ‘existential anomaly’ has several meanings in the jargon of the postmodern social sciences; we are not, I think, meant to tie it down precisely to any one of these meanings on any particular occasion, since that might dispel some essential rhetorical fog and we can’t have that. However, none of these meanings bear much resemblance to Mr. Moldbug’s conception. I have seen Germany before 1871 referred to as an existential anomaly, and women in refugee camps. The general sense in which the meanings of the term hover can be roughly described as ‘something that shouldn’t exist but does’. What Mencius Moldbug is on about is much more nearly described by the word antinomy. It’s a pity we can’t use that word without being reminded of that learned fool, Kant.

  6. Does anyone have detailed knowledge of Le Guin’s politics? She’s clearly somewhere left of center, but she’s got no love for totalitarian leftism. This shows up most notably in _The Left Hand of Darkness, but also in a shorter work which I think is “The New Atlantis”.

    • Distinctly left. She wrote of working on some anthology of SF and omitting all conservative and libertarian stories. Dancing On The Edge Of the World

      • Whoops. Meant to write that collection gives a good idea of her views.

      • Indeed, Ms. Le Guin is so Left that Norman Spinrad has been known to ridicule her for it. That takes some doing.

        Le Guin, unless she has changed her opinions dramatically in recent years, is by conviction a Utopian Feminist, and by ecological function, what Lenin called a Useful Idiot. In principle she is opposed to totalitarianism; in practice she always seems to have more sympathy for would-be totalitarians than for their opponents, because the totalitarians offer to help her towards her Utopia and their opponents smell like sexists.

        Her fiction suggests that she has an exaggerated liking for orderly, or rather regular, systems of society, without having reflected that such regularity never exists but by brute force imposed from above. Bits of her nonfiction, like her lashing out at the stock market report and J. Paul Getty in ‘Why Are Americans’, suggest that she has no great interest in understanding orderly but irregular systems, like market economies, or indeed like any form of society that humans will create by largely voluntary association. Her ideology, so far as I have been able (and interested) to discover it, is just that sort of Leftist thought that Orwell described as ‘a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot’.

        • In defence of Ms. LeGuin (though she doesn’t need me to do it, and I agree with Mary above that the later additions she made to the Earthsea universe were disappointing), here is a small piece she wrote for “Ansible” back in 2007 about Serious Literature versus Genre.

          At least here, Mr. Simons, she is not attacking the taste of the Everyman but rather the true enemies of the fantastic, the critics and reviewers.


          • That’s good to hear. Now if only the word would get out to those people who still take her long-ago attack on the Everyman as gospel. . . .

          • By the way: Link followed, squib read. Bloody marvellous. This is why, despite my frequent disagreements with Ms. Le Guin, I do love and appreciate her as a critic.

          • The astonishing thing about the cretinous sentence that roused Ms Le Guin to her well deserved piece of sarcasm is that it was published in Slate magazine, which is not meant to be a haunt of the wild-eyed modernist.

          • It goes to show is the extent of society’s absorbing them.

          • The second Earthsea trilogy does not at all repudiate the first: it only repudiates the claim (which Le Guin never made) that the first trilogy expresses the whole truth about Earthsea. By the same token, The Songs of Experience is a satire on the Songs of Innocence, but the latter is an anti-satire on its successor: each equally shows the limitations of the other. Or as Olga Tarnova has it in the Mr. Kaplan stories: “Can Pinsk be opposite of Minsk?” Well, in some ways it is, and not just in Mr. Kaplan’s pilpulistic fashion in which New York (that is, Manhattan) is opposite Brooklyn.

            In any case, Le Guin has been savaged by both Left and Right, which is the natural position of someone whose concern is not polemic but story (and that’s a subtext of WAAAOD, by the way). Nobody with disdain for “orderly but irregular societies” could have invented Anarres, and make no mistake, it is Urras that is the utopia, particularly from the perspective of post-holocaust Terra.

        • As I recall Earthsea, she had a creepy tendency to romanticize poverty, though that faded as the series went on. Her more recent Gifts, Voices, Powers seemed more sophisticated in a way that I couldn’t pin down.

          • Dan Berger says

            Romanticize poverty? I saw it as a glorification of the hermit, of the monk, of the cloister, as a place where the serious work of life can be done.

            The poor peasant in Earthsea was never condescended to, but squalor was squalor. The glorification was of a Franciscan (or, more properly, Taoist) simplicity, not of poverty.

        • LeGuin is the sort of Leftist that I can get along with very well, because her ideals properly belong to the Right and not the Left, though she doesn’t seem to realize it. Her massive tome Always Coming Home, after all, describes an agrarian, conservative, religious, mystic, isolationist society as a near-utopia. God grant us to live in that sort of leftist utopia!

          Her affinity for the Left mostly comes from her feminism—though hers is the eco-feminist type that wants to sacralize the differences between the sexes rather than obliterate them—and her disdain for all forms of monotheism. The latter is a genuine flaw, but I don’t care, because she is my favorite writer.

          The Gifts, Voices, Powers series is one of the best things I’ve read in years.

          • Always Coming Home is the sort of commonplace fantasy you find on the left: a society where people don’t want anything that would seriously disrupt it, and so living in perfect harmony. Not to mention other problems with it. . . such as it would never reproduce itself. Two children per parent only means you don’t replace those who die as children and those who don’t have children.

          • @Mary:

            Math is hard. Facts are poison. Up the Revolution.

          • Given the choice of Kesh or Condor, you’d rather have Condor?

          • Condor is another fantasy wish-fulfillment world where her enemies live out the dreams she has of them.

  7. You mention Henry James and Edith Wharton, but both of them dabbled in the genre of the ghost story. Now, whether James’ “The Turn of the Screw” has been (as you put it) disinfected by being classed as Literature, or whether ghost stories were considered the poor relations of ‘proper’ literature but at least a cut above the penny dreadfuls and horror fiction, I have no idea, but I do find it interesting that even the realist novelists used this escape valve.

    • It is interesting to note that the theory that “Turn of the Screw” was in fact a picture of the governess’s diseased mind was first put forth by the same man who reviewed The Lord of the Rings under the title “Oooo Those Awful Orks.”

      • Indeed. The literati were so shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, by the treason of one of their own, that they could only account for it by supposing that James was being deeply symbolic and allusive, and that he wasn’t writing about ghosts at all. For, you know, that would be just dreadful.

        • Retroactively, mind you. James’s contemporaries all took it to be a Christmas ghost story in the tradition of them.

          • What I found chilling about the story (and this is only my own personal opinion, mind you; I’ve never read anything about it by Edmund Wilson) is that you start off thinking it’s a ghost story and being afraid of the ghosts, and you end up hoping the ghosts were real, because otherwise you have a perfectly nice old lady who, when she was a young governess, with the best intentions and out of real love for her charges, drove a young girl mad and killed a young boy as the result of a kind of mass delusion, where the isolated household is full of secrets and she is roped into the beliefs of the servants about the dead former governess and the gardener or handyman or whatever Quint was.

            I can see how the Real Literature crowd can draw all kinds of meanings from it, but it works perfectly fine as a ghost story. It just adds to the horror that James can convey a fine shade of doubt as to the governess’ psychology without making her a monster or a repressed hysterical feminist avenger (unlike the readings of her character by the critics). It’s really more an indictment of the failure of adults towards the children in their care; Flora and Miles are orphans and their uncle washes his hands of them by packing Miles off to boarding school, leaving Flora in the hands of an inexperienced young woman in her first employment, and making it a condition that he doesn’t want to be bothered by her about anything at all. The headmaster of the school expels Miles for unexplained reasons but – apart from a letter home – again does nothing more to help the boy or alert the responsible parties. The people who should care about the children do nothing for them, and the people who do care about them end up making matters worse.

  8. egoscribo says

    “The great mass of the people liked fantasy, when they could get it; they enjoyed taking their children to Disney movies (often more than the children themselves did). TV programs like Bewitched were always popular. ”

    I think there is more digging here, not so much against Le Guin (whose essay is something of a straw man, IMO). The huge popularity of fantasy in movies and television shows (presumably as opposed to the literary side) is quite interesting. People were watching I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Mister Ed, and I am sure other shows I cannot recall now, and seeing fantasy in film pretty consistently shown to be a good thing and true (Christmas classics like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life among the most prominent, Bell Book and Candle among the most charming). Where were the literary/printed counterparts in middlebrow, midlist literature?

    • Where were the literary/printed counterparts in middlebrow, midlist literature?

      That’s the question exactly. As nearly as I have been able to figure out, the answer is that there were none. There were, to be sure, plenty of literary (or at least printed) counterparts; the trouble is that they were not admissible as middlebrow or midlist literature. They had escapist cooties and were not to be touched by any reputable publisher. A few writers managed to get by the restrictions: James Thurber, for instance, who could sell fantasy because his publishers understood (or thought they understood) that he was primarily a humorist: he didn’t really mean it. The same dodge got Kurt Vonnegut out of the SF ghetto and into the New York reviews.

      With that middlebrow middle ground lost, a large gap developed between genre fantasy on the one hand and the light modern-dress fantasy of TV and film on the other. If you wanted to write fantasy for print, you needed to peddle the hard stuff — sword and sorcery, or horror, or children’s books, or (at the nearest approach to Modernist fiction) the kind of rigorously logical fantasy that used to be published in Unknown. The reward for that was a career in the ghetto, and second-class citizenship even there — the first-class citizens were the SF writers. On the other hand, writing for TV or for B-movies was a sure road to artistic suicide, even if it paid well in the short run; and the competition for work was ferocious.

      One result was that talented fantasy writers learnt to disguise themselves as something more profitable. Another was that when fantasy turned out to be the motherlode of commercial fiction, the middlebrow publishers were caught absolutely flat-footed, and the new category was taken over by the paperback SF houses — for whom it was a ticket out of the ghetto.

      • Suburbanbanshee says

        Elizabeth Goudge managed to write a huge number of novels that happily careered from realism to fantasy multiple times within the same novel. The only person I can think of with the same style is E.L. Boston of the Green Knowe books, but even those are much more definite about what’s ghosts and fantasy and what’s not.

        • Suburbanbanshee says

          I should probably say that not all of Goudge is fantasy, but since she was writing spiritual novels most of the time, she had no compunction shoving in fantasy too. Alas, I haven’t been able to even find most of her books, so I can’t list any good list for you of what’s fantasy and what’s not.

          There were a fair number of “small fantasies” published between the wars and after WWII, almost all by literary publishers, and many one-offs by established authors or by never-seen-again authors. Whimsy or horror were pretty much the thing. Also, a lot of Gothics that cruised the fantasy coasts without necessarily making landings.

          • ‘Cruised the fantasy coasts without necessarily making landings’ — I like how you put that! Very apt description of the mid-century attitude among the more respectable publishers. You could cruise the coast, but Heaven help you if you landed on the shore and made contact with any of the inhabitants.

  9. Brilliant essay. I see you are channeling your inner GK Chesterton more than ever. Several of your turns of phrase would do him proud.

  10. The European and American movements of Realism and Naturalism in literature were reactions to Romanticism and sentimental novels. Portraying them as politically united anti-religious socialist movements requires ignoring a lot of evidence to the contrary: Balzac was a conservative royalist, Dostoyevsky as a Christian utopian, Howells and Tolstoy Christian socialists, Wharton a conservative imperialist, and Zola a republican. The politics of others (such as Eliot, Flaubert, James, and Maupassant) are hard to nail down.

    Meanwhile, James Joyce was not a Realist. He was a Modernist, a movement that formed in reaction to Realism and Naturalism, a lot whom embraced the parts of the Romanticism that Realism and Naturalism had rejected. Modernism is not a purely leftist movement, either. Ralph Ellison, Franz Kafka, and Pablo Neruda were leftists, but Gabriele D’Annunzio, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf were not.

  11. Matt Osterndorf says

    As late as the early 1990s, I could go into any ‘independent’ bookshop in my home town and confidently expect not to find any science fiction or fantasy, except for stuff like Nineteen Eighty-four or Lord of the Flies

    Is Lord of the Flies supposed to be science fiction or fantasy?

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