Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Unpopular Ideas

In 1957, when Signet published Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, the ideas it championed were massively unpopular. They weren't (and aren't) new ideas -- the Founding Fathers of this nation embedded them deep in our political structure -- but they'd been the targets of a propaganda campaign designed to render them unacceptable to most Americans., Reviewers and critics pounced on the book immediately, awarding it their most thunderous denunciations. That Rand's novel immediately became one of Signet's top selling titles confounded its detractors and bemused many who'd wondered how a polemic so at odds with the received wisdom could flourish to such a degree.

In 1943, when Clive Staples Lewis published That Hideous Strength, he faced a similar set of opponents. Despite the author's stature as a Christian evangelist and the popularity of his children's works, the forces of the literary world immediately leagued against him. He'd dared to attack far too many of the political ideas au courant to be tolerated -- and in a story firmly attached to Britain's most beloved bit of mythopoetic quasi-history -- the Arthurian legend -- as well. But those opponents, too, were confronted and cast down by the novel's popular success.

Mind you, others had been trying to reintroduce Rand's and Lewis's ideas into popular thought for some time. They simply hadn't been writing fiction about them. They were stunned by the extent to which those fictional treatments succeeded in the marketplace.

Yet another demonstration of the power of story.

* * *

A well-conceived, well-written story persuades more effectively than a non-fictional polemic for a simple reason: it mimics real life. It depicts ideas in action among plausible characters in a plausible setting. He who seeks to popularize an idea should be aware of this. Apparently, many are not.

Of course, for this approach to work, certain prerequisites must be met:

  • The polemicist must have the storyteller's gift;
  • The ideas he seeks to depict must be essentially correct;
  • He must embed those ideas within a setting and a plot that the reader will find plausible;
  • He must give their enactment to characters whose personalities, trials, and responses the reader will find simpatico.

    So, clearly, it's not an automatic "win" to present your unpopular ideas in fictional form. Indeed, there's quite a bit of work involved.

    Several of the ideas I cherish are rather unpopular, at least at this time. It's brought me great satisfaction, having expressed them in fictional form, to have garnered a few more adherents to them. I know I'll never be as effective as Rand and Lewis were. All the same, I've resolved to "do my bit" for concepts that have been getting the dirty end of the stick for decades, but which I regard as supremely important to human happiness. It's a variety of pleasure many persons never experience.

    There's this, as well: Hewing to the received wisdom makes you merely one voice among a multitude. You might succeed in vending entertainment -- and don't get me wrong, I'd never knock that ambition or its fulfillment -- but you're certainly not going to stand out philosophically. To separate yourself from the thundering herd, you must dare to differ -- and the more fundamental your differences from the rest, the more dramatic the contrast you'll make with them.

    Got an unpopular idea?

    * * *

    As I've said before in these essays, I write them mainly as letters to myself: stimuli by which to shape my thinking about my own fictional efforts. All the same, I hope that you, Gentle Reader, find them worthy of consideration in your own storytelling -- and please remember that storytelling is not confined to words placed on paper or pixels to be vended as entertainment. Anyone who must navigate human society, striving to make a living, to get along with family, friends, or neighbors, or to rear children to be decent adults must be a storyteller. The better he is at it, the more success his efforts at those things will garner.

    If you've read any of my novels, did you stumble over any of the hugely unpopular ideas they strove to dramatize? What about any of these:

    • Envy is the most destructive force in human relations.
    • Though freedom is sacrosanct, there are times when duty compels one to yield it.
    • There is a natural aristocracy among men, and to belong to it is to court the greatest danger any man will ever know.
    • The more powerful you are, the more you need the virtues of humility and self-restraint.
    • Good intentions are absolutely no excuse, ever.

      Do you recognize them in what you've read of mine? If so, did you recognize them explicitly at the time, or have they only just manifested through remembrance?

      And what unpopular ideas would you, Gentle Reader, most like to see explored in the next book or story you read, from me or anyone else?

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