The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Written From the Right?

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, the eternal debate of "is there any good conservative popular culture" has re-ignited. Stretching to find examples of any, the commenters have posited Yes, Minister and House of Cards (UK original). To be frank, as fans of both, I think neither fits the bill.

In both Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, Nigel Hawthorne's Platonic ideal of the obstructive civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, is a quintessential cynic (see above), while the semi-competent (he fluctuates) is never identified as a member of a political party, although he is clearly leftward of Sir Humphrey. In both series, neither political party nor the Civil Service comes off well. This is not unlike The Thick of It (a spiritual descendant of Yes, Minister), in which both parties are satirized with equal vigor, and everybody is pretty deeply flawed. (Mind you, the store is considerably more gentle in Yes, Minister.) The system is the target, not one side or the other.

House of Cards is conservative, in its origins. But those origins stem from Tory-on-Tory political violence:
Before he began writing, Dobbs was a Conservative party backroom boy, scurrying up the chain of command from speechwriter to special adviser to chief of staff. He was serving as the latter when, on the eve of the 1987 election, he fell out spectacularly with his then boss, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was soon kicked into the political long grass, which was when he found time to write fiction.

“It all started because Maggie Thatcher beat me up and was actually rather cruel to me,” he says, looking softly out onto the Thames from a sunny spot on the Lords Terrace. “I don’t complain about that – politics is rough and tough. But it caused me great unhappiness for a while . . . [Despite] the fact that she could be absolutely horrid to me, I still regard her as being probably the greatest peacetime prime minister in the 20th century.”

It was on the day known as Wobble Thursday, exactly a week before polling day in ‘87. Thatcher was convinced she was losing the election (spoiler: she wasn’t), and “she took out all her pain and anger and frustration on me, when in fact I was perhaps the most innocent person in the room at the time”, says Dobbs with a sweet smile.

Soon after, the bruised former chief of staff found himself on holiday with his wife, sitting on the beach and scrawling two letters onto a piece of paper: “F U” – his soon to be protagonist’s initials, and a none-too-cryptic two fingers up at the page.
Dobbs now denies that the book was a revenge novel--but the picture he paints of his fellow Tories is darker than even most liberals would imagine. Also, to be frank, Dobbs's book ain't a patch on Andrew Davies's adaptations (and in fact Davies has offhandedly junked key components of Dobbs's plotting, rather hilariously transforming not one but two fatal defeats for FU into triumphs, leaving Dobbs in rather an awkward place in writing the sequels), and Davies self-identifies as a liberal.

For what it's worth, though I am emphatically not a conservative, I think there is good conservative popular fiction. It's never the stuff one thinks of, though, no more than is good liberal popular fiction. That's because fiction written to a thesis is almost always tendentious. It suffers from "try too hard" syndrome, whatever the political slant. But R.F. Delderfield's views are gently conservative, and those views inform his work. But he has a broad enough view of the world that non-conservatives can read his writings without feeling attacked. So, for example, To Serve Them All My Days may have a firebrand socialist minder's son as its protagonist, but his integration into a traditional boarding school as its Headmaster is its story arc. "Pow-Wow" never recants his socialist views, but they become less important to him than the well being of the local community of which he is the steward.

Likewise Simon Raven spreads the satire fairly evenly--he has Labour white hats as well as Tories, though the narrator's asides are pretty consistently conservative--sometimes acidly so. Likewise Susan Howatch's theology trends traditionalist in nature, though, like her fictional mystic Jonathan Darrow, I suspect that she is beyond party affiliation. Another favorite of mine, George MacDonald Fraser, was a crusty old Tory long before he was old. So I think it's fair to acknowledge that there is first rate writing from conservatives. I just don't see either House of Cards or Yes, Minister as fitting that category.

However, most of my examples are from a time of greater consensus. And this brings me back to my earlier point: Tendentious novels usually are less well done than those where character (or plot) drive the storyline. Ideological purity is bad for art. I would suggest that much American conservative writing in the last few years has been just that--ideological, and thus mostly bad art. The current conservative movement's sense of being contra mundum is just not good for the muse, unless held in check, any more than is a liberal sense of grievance. In Phineas at Bay, Sir William McScuttle, was a sincere effort to try to depict a 19th Century Social Darwinist, but, because I didn't spend as much time with him, lacked enough roundness to be entirely successful. (I think I did considerably better with Tories Savrola Vavasour and Frank Greystock).

Conservative art tends to not work because it's conservative before it's art.


rick allen said...

Having to start by admitting I'm not really familiar with any of the television or books considered in your post, and continuing with the admission that I read almost no contemporary fiction, it occurs to me that one of the few such works I have read, Michel Houellebecq's Submission, can probably be fairly classified as "conservative," at least to the extent that its theme is the exhaustion and extinction of the liberal, progressive ideology of contemporary France.

Anglocat said...

But how is it as a novel, Rick? (Haven't read it, so sincerely curious.)

rick allen said...

It's a tale set in the next ten years after the election of a Moslem to the French presidency--not an Islamist, but a mainstream moderate--and the graduate acceptance of the transformation of the universities into madrasas, the reimposition of strict sexual roles, etc. The protagonist is an academic working on a Pleiades edition of a nineteenth century Catholic writer whose return to the Church he tries and fails to emulate. It's more a fable than a realistic scenario, but Houellebecq portrays a France whose habitual Catholicism and cynical secularism simply surrenders to a vigorous and simple traditional religion.

I breezed through it in about five days, which again is unusual for me. (Thanks to bookmarks I have a bad habit of reading maybe ten to fifteen books at a time, so it's not unusual to take more than a year to get through even a modest volume.) I read a translation rather than the original, and found it well-written with little surface ideology. I thought the most awkward parts were the occasional sex scenes with his students, which I found mostly unpleasant (I have to wonder whether that's a contemporary staple I'm simply unused to).

(My daughter has been working these last six months as an English language assistant in Provence, so I have been a little more attuned to things going on among our French friends than usual. Not that I claim to be able to follow it, but there is great agitation, there as here, about French identity, and how a non-assimilating Muslim population will change the culture. My daughter's elementary school students, surprisingly to me, are mostly of North African origin, and they are now actually learning their third language, after Arabic and French. Needless to add, most of the teachers are aghast and baffled about what is going on in the United States.)

Anglocat said...

Thanks for the summary, Rick. I may try it--not my usual literary beat, but still...