This is a long-belated response to John C. Wright’s blog post “Retrophobia”—belated, because I had simply put it out of mind until recent controversies in the SFWA brought it to mind again. So I looked back and noticed James Maliszewski and Tom Simon both gave it their stamp of approval and thought, “hey, maybe I should release some kind of official statement or something?” I know this is considered bad form among bloggers but anyone who follows this blog knows I don’t run on internet time, and that I have a Thing about staying out of ephemeral internet debates because they don’t make for very interesting reading once the storm has passed. But, if anything, waiting has given me time to formulate a proper response.
For those of you who aren’t aware (which is likely most of you), back in December of 2012 author John C. Wright called me “a changeling raised by my true parents or a long lost twin or something.” This was rather unexpected. I never expected Wright to ever mention me, let alone compliment me.
Unfortunately, in an L. Sprague de Campish way, it’s a bit backhanded, as I am held up as an exemplar for how the effects of political correctness are paralyzing the efforts of my generation to read or write good fantasy. All this based on a post I wrote in I wrote in April 2012 on 19th century Hollow Earth novels.
There are two main quotes to pull from “Retrophobia”:
1.“Political Correctness is, at its root, undramatic and the enemy of the arts in the same way it is illogical and the enemy of science and reason, namely, because it is ahistorical and inhuman.”
2. “In the final analysis, what is retrophobia? It is not that the moderns hate the past. They hate the truth.”
The second being the succinct explanation for Wright’s neologism “retrophobia”, an affliction which I apparently suffer even though Wright calls me a “historian” (which I am not, technically, for another month yet). That charge is easy to dismiss, as is a good portion of Wright’s post, where he approvingly cites the SFWA’s resident white supremacist, and expounds a monocausal theory of fantasy already quite elegantly refuted by Matthew David Surridge in an open letter posted some time ago. As I explained in “Sometimes, people just want to write about dragons”, there are multiple personal reasons why people write or read fantastika. The apparent “disease” infecting modern fantasy is one that indeed exists, but then again, always has. There have always been bad fantasy stories. The genre is diverse enough that you can avoid them. So yeah, I reject that part of the argument as well.
Third, this “author feels torn between respect for his ancestors and the knowledge that they were benighted and damned”-business. Wright seems not to have read some of my more personal entries, or he would have noticed that my ancestors were not 19th-century empire builders. I was born in Poland, have Polish citizenship, and still identify as Polish. It really shouldn’t come as much surprise that I wouldn’t look kindly on imperial powers carving up large chunks of the world between them. Furthermore, my sense of romanticism for the Polish Commonwealth of the 17th century is mitigated by the fact that my ancestors were not participants in the “noble democracy” but were instead tilling the fields and facing increasing pressures from demanding property owners who wanted grain for export over the Baltic. There is a reason I study social history and not the romantic sort Wright seems to espouse—not “great men”, but popular culture, popular religion, popular demonology, life as lived by peasants and burghers and artisans who did not, in the main, benefit from the machinations of the elite.
But more than that, the “truth” Wright sees as embedded in romanticized versions of the past (a history constructed for and by those on the upper end of the social scale) is actually a carefully-chosen set of omissions of anything that would contradict or complicate his present worldview—in fact, the very same presentism of which he accuse me of partaking in when I deign to mention the prevalence of the Lost Race motif in Victorian scientific romance. Surely I study the past, in great detail, but it is not the past Wright envisions as the “true” one.[*] That past does not include many of the areas I studied as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta: not the long history of African civilizations, just as storied as Europe’s; not the history of the indigenous peoples of North America who populate the land I currently live in.[†] The very discussion that opens “Retrophobia” is based on, yet again, another set of omissions—see “We have always Fought”, for instance, on the history of women erased from the annals of military exploits due to the deep-seated notions of the annalists. Nevertheless, these niggling details do not support Wright’s “truth about men and women”, and are therefore discarded. Ignored.
This is where the neologism “retrophobia” stumbles, of course. Because the charge is that my generation, as a whole, fears the truths found in the past and therefore cannot effectively write about them. Yet he who makes the charge has failed to see that the “truths” espoused is based on incomplete evidence, and he cannot accept the weight of the past but instead twists it into his own image of what it should be. The reason why historians require so much training is that society has made it seems so utterly natural to think this way that we do it unconsciously, and we need to train ourselves out of these bonds if we’re to use history as any sort of useful guide towards the future. What I won’t deny Wright is that yes, indeed, the moderns take a presentist view of history as well. Only, well, I’m not a Modern. I’m a post-post-Modern, which makes me positively Medieval.
I don’t want to come across as harsh. Wright was far more congenial than R. Scott Bakker was the last time a major author decided to Call Me Out. But I have decided I will not be a silent exemplar for a viewpoint I fundamentally disagree with. Recognizing distasteful aspects in the fiction of yesteryear does not sap my enjoyment of it; in many ways, it enhances it, because I will then explore the context that went into a work and made it the way it was (its history, perhaps?), and thus lets me connect to the society and author on a deeper level than had a simply breezed past such instances of cognitive dissonance. To read critically is to learn to write better as a result, to question the inborn assumptions of the text, to get a better hold on craft and meaning. I will not be “saved” from my reading practices, a hope Wright seems to entertain at the end of the essay. The more I learn, the more I hone them.
[*] Or even the past I write about in my fiction. I dare say that the First Crusade presented in “Dreaming of Jerusalem” is not the “proper” Crusade Wright would have liked.
[†] Indeed, Africa’s history can be a wonderful source for fantasy. There is a reason why the most successful writer of sword and sorcery after Robert E. Howard that I know of is Charles Saunders. He fits African history to the paradigms of the subgenre and creates something wholly fresh, displays a connection to the past that rings true to the form in the way Howard’s other imitators have not been able to achieve.