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+4 votes
I'm curious, anarchists always talk about being subversive...who in novel writing do you consider to be subversive?

I'm well aware there was already a question about anarchist novels, but I'm interested in novels that just go against the grain...
by (2.4k points)
isaac asimov, samuel delaney, phillip k. dick, ray bradbury, aldous huxley, frank herbert, robert heinlein, kurt vonnegut, ursula le quinn, alan moore, jack london, (many others) ...  all wrote some stuff that could be considered subversive.

thoreau was not a novelist (though "walden" might be considered one, not sure), but he was as subversive as any well-known writer i can think of.

edited to change to a comment, and add:

one novel i especially liked and found somewhat subversive is "interface" by neal stephenson and stephen bury (though i think recent editions of the book use stephen bury's other name j. frederick george).

also ecotopia and ecotopia emerging (a prequel) by ernest callenbach have some subversive elements.
isaac asimov is the opposite of subversive.  have you read foundation?
i fucking hate that book
i also hate foundation. but asimov wrote a lot.

more importantly subversion is in the eye of the beholder. which is partly why fiction is awesome and also hard to talk about in a political context. i personally could reject 90 % of the authors listed here, based on criteria that wouldn't be outrageous to anyone here. the question is subjective enough to not be especially relevant on an anarchist site, i think, but getting people's recommendations for reading is always valid.

so i will add cyteen books (by cherryh), and reiterate the man with compound eyes. oh, and les guerilleres by monique wittig. and Everyone Knows of my passion for octavia.
could you suggest any asimov writing i might find subversive?  i know that any single person isnt going to be 100% inline with me, or what i believe, and of course subversivity subjective -perhaps i should change my comment to 'i really dont think asimov is subversive'-, but foundation is his most renowned novel i think, and its one of the biggest piles of drivel ive ever had the misfortune to read.

i'm not actually recommending any of those authors (except maybe thoreau, who might not fit the "novelist" label anyways), just saying they have written stuff that could be considered subversive.

i did read the original foundation trilogy way back, and while i didn't hate them the way sms and dot seem to, i also didn't find them particularly good. if i remember correctly (highly unlikely), some aspects of the story line could be considered subversive, in a way vaguely similar to how dune might be considered somewhat subversive. a stretch...? perhaps. i didn't put all that much thought into it, sorry to say.

Funky - I think it is interesting (and worth commenting on) that you find Callenbach's work subversive. I am not saying it isn't, just I think that must speak to when a person reads a thing. I loved Ecotopia, but I found it not particularly provocative when I came across it. Then again, I think I was already pretty deep in my anti-civ dive at the time. Were there particular aspects of the books you found subversive, or just the overall premise?
ingrate: i must admit it was many years ago that i read ecotopia, and so i might feel differently about it now. my memory hints at a general sense of the main character having a somewhat subversive approach to meeting her goals. if i recall correctly, she even hoodwinked her parents quite a bit. and actually, i could be mixing up the original book with the prequel, which i remember finding a bit more interesting, as it described the events leading up to the secession of ecotopia from the united states. it may be that whatever i found to be subversive (and i may be a bit generous with that term, retrospectively) was more in ecotopia emerging than in the original book.

i also was early in my own journey through anti-civ and anarchic thought when i read them, so there is that too. i found those books very thought provoking when i read them. but then again, i could say the same for the ishmael books too. and i didn't find those subversive.
Thanks. I find it fascinating how the same text can resonate so differently with individuals based on their particular context. It is one of the things I think about a lot.
is it bad to use "text" and "context" in the same sentence? I think the answer is yes.

3 Answers

–1 vote
ralph waldo emerson's self reliance. if you mean subversive in a strictly political sense, then no, but it is about going against the grain and some of it resonated with me strongly, and came of as anarchistic. its an essay tho I think, very long one at that.
by (900 points)
+1 vote
I can't list all of them, but the first person I thought of was Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man is an exceptional read, especially in the context of when it came out. I might include Jamaica Kincaid as well, though I am less sure it is her role as a novelist or her social commentary. Same goes for Arundhati Roy. Chinua Achebe is fucking solid, I read Things Fall Apart in one day and felt things falling apart viscerally. In sci fi I think Le Guin and Octavia Butler are both subversive in how they come at a genre dominated by white guys. Samuel Delany probably should be included too, but I haven't read him, just about him. Same with B Traven, David Foster Wallace, and lots of others. Nat Hawthorn was pretty subversive for his time. That Orwell guy and Huxley and Dick probably need passing mention. Oh, William Burroughs, duh. Lovecraft, even though he was a fucking racist.

Who I don't find subversive: Kerouac, Bukowski, Palachuck (sp? The fight club guy), some of the radical authors ak and pm press have put out with message-based fiction.
by (22.1k points)
thanks ingrate for some potential reading material
i didn't know arundhati roy wrote novels. i remember her as a champion of the progressive left back in the (late?) 90s, basically an anti-globalization activist who i think also focused on the coming (at the time) water wars before that was an acknowledged issue. and maybe micro loans for starting up third-world small businesses. i don't recall anything subversive about her in the non-fiction world, she seemed to be all about change through politically acceptable channels (voting, mass movement creation, etc). can you recommend a novel of hers that you found to have subversive elements?

as you mentioned above, people's perceptions are so shaded by context. as they should be, imo.
I recall really liking The God of Small Things, but I read it way, way back. It just kinda stuck with me.  Her politics are generally boring progressive, but I appreciate her all the same.
interesting, i think i have heard of that book. didn't know she wrote it, thanks.

just to repeat, i highly recommend "interface", if you haven't read it.

i also kind of liked the book "the circle" (don't recall the author off-hand), although i think it fell waaaay short if its potential, especially its potential for subversiveness (which was massive, imo).
+3 votes
This won't answer your question exactly, but as far as I can tell the category "subversive" is a mistaken one.

If you don't say what is to be subverted and to what end, then "subversiveness" as a criterion ends up sanctioning works that are loudly impious towards certain conventions while quietly upholding the most important ones. One of the most important conventions for capitalism is the loud destruction of convention, and this is something we can clearly perceive with literary production. "Subversiveness" is the trademark of work that offends without damaging anyone's bottom line. Céline, Malaparte, Pessoa, Mishima, and Benn are "subversive," and so what.

The things we call "subversive" characteristically offend at the level of thematic content. At the level of form they prefer what is proven. That means: insignificant stories that satisfy us by quietly demonstrating that the tricks people like Henry James and Balzac already perfected "still work," while shocking us with wild and vicious pronouncements, presented in dialogue.

I think what matters is whether a book "thinks" something you haven't thought before, and that couldn't really be thought except the way the book does. A sign that it's doing this is if you can see it straining at the limits of the form it is trying to use. That a book has an abrasive attitude is not at all a sign of this.
by (8.0k points)
edited by
well said, asker. i like your points here.
i appreciate this answer as well, although i'm uncomfortable with "the most important conventions" line. but perhaps that's more an aesthetic issue than a practical one.
thanks for dedicating some thought to this question, there are a lot of incredibly good points here.

as far as "the most important conventions" goes, this has to do with how society has changed and is based on local. I've thought a ton about the conventions that are most dear to modern society, the only one that appears to be left is "work ethic". There's a spoken and unspoken idea that we all need to be productive, and with that also sometimes comes the idea that we need to stand out and be these interesting movie-start type characters.

When i asked the question, i was mostly just referencing the way that anarchists have used it in their books, which is of course vague, plus most people who wear the rebel identity aren't challenging at all to modernity and authority. For example, Alex Jones is a total piece of shit and an idiot despite the fact that he has a reputation for being "subversive". The country we live in is practically based on these kinds of rebels.

Plus, subversion can also be an authoritarian tool of turning certain concepts around in their favor. The most striking examples are the communist megalomaniacs and dictators.
Maybe I can be more explicit.

I think the most important conventions for a novel, the ones that are most in need of being questioned, are those conventions that comprise the novel form.

What I mean is basically that the novel has been an attempt to deal with the changed nature of time on modernity, that time is something far more significant than human beings, and exists as something outside human beings. This makes it a suitable "mirror" in which people see their whole lives reflected back as if inert.

The kind of novel that sells, wins prizes, etc, will necessarily be one that reflects life back in a way that gives it the coherence, unity, and meaning it is objectively missing.

I say, an interesting novel is one that approaches this task with the gravest doubts.

the time stuff you mention makes sense to me sort of, there's already a lot of cliches about "wasting time" in modern society, i find thinking about "time" as being more useful when i just adopt a sense of urgency about living a life without time...

however, you have lost me a little here:

"The kind of novel that sells, wins prizes, etc, will necessarily be one that reflects life back in a way that gives it the coherence, unity, and meaning it is objectively missing. 

I say, an interesting novel is one that approaches this task with the gravest doubts."

in my limited experience, the kind of novels that usually sell are the ones with a ton of action. When you talk about novels that reflect life with unity/coherence, that kind of thing was more popular in the 19th and 20th century, literature seems kinda dead to me these days?

A lot of the reason i still sometimes visit internet anarchy is i like to understand other people's frames of mind, and i would like to understand how other people use the ideas that they preach.

Well, my sense of it is that the only way "forward" is to make novels that don't form a whole in this way, but that reflect the fragmentation of real life, formally. Whether they succeed at making something helpful out of this, or instead make some kind of pleasing, sham unity,  is a question we would have to ask about individual books, I think. Some obvious examples of the kind of thing I mean here would be Pynchon, DFW, Bolaño...
That's also the unbearable lightness of being in a nutshell, one i read recently about traveling, love, desire, an almost zen BDSM, "the people". I highly recommend it.