Or is it really subversive, as many aficionados claim–subversion implied as a good thing?
Writer Tom Simon wrote an essay on “Subversion” and what he calls “Superversion” which I quote in part:
Good sf & fantasy, I maintain, is good & powerful not because of what
it tears down, but because of what it builds up in its place. Of all
the faculties of the human mind, the imagination is the furthest from
being subversive. Anyone can say ‘down with the government’, but it
takes imaginative genius to design a replacement for it. Anyone can
throw insults at Victorian prudery (a thing, btw, that does not even
exist anymore), but it takes imaginative genius & empathy to devise a
more humane set of mores.
The essence of art is in what it builds up; tearing down is a side-effect, a result that
may or may not be produced when the artist’s vision makes his audience
dissatisfied with the existing order of things. This is why I have
coined the word ‘superversive’ for the function of imaginative art. Its
purpose is not to undermine society & tear it down from below, but to
build something new & better right on top of it. Either way, the old
society ceases to exist, but the method, the intention, & the ultimate
result are all completely different. The best art is not subversive; it
is something so different, yet so poorly understood, that the English
language has not even a proper word for it.
Now back to those comedies of manners, as exemplified by Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, or fantasies of manners, like Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. What about all those dukes and stylish rich people at the top of society? Isn’t fantasy of manners really hankering after privilege? Yes and no. We don’t have to go into the wish fulfillment side–part of reading is for pleasure, and many of us get pleasure in reading about things we like, admire, wish we could experience in real life if even only for a time, like being the rich owner of a mansion, or the cynosure of society.
Does that mean we emulate the thinking and standards of the rich and powerful? Not always. Take Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer as examples. These writers are often the first names brought up in discussion of comedies of manners. Both have written engaging stories that keep readers turning the pages. But many readers have expressed dissatisfaction with Heyer after that first joyful discovery when young, because of the unexamined bigotry in those fascinating pages, and the assumptions underlying much of the action, like “birth will always tell.” One encounters this message over and over in her stories, but to assume the same about Austen, though she inspired Heyer, and wrote about the gentry and aristocrats, is a mistake.
In Austen’s books, aristocrats never do well. They are pretty much all held up as objects of derision because of their assumed (and unearned) social privilege that is not matched by equivalent principles or behavior. We despise the Dashwoods of London as more servile than their servants to the obnoxious but rich Mrs. Ferrars. We scorn Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lady Dalrymple, and pity their silent, homely daughters; we are meant to consider the Crawfords, born to privilege, as morally flawed because of their long exposure to high society, and Mr Darcy shifts from aristocratic snob to hero after he’s rejected by a young woman who is merely “a gentleman’s daughter.” Emma, wealthy leader, is humbled before poor, risible spinster Miss Bates.
Fantasy writers are aware that human beings instinctively respond to the state of living art that is implied in “style.” Whichever style that might be. Elizabeth Tudor knew exactly what she was doing when she employed all the mythic symbolism operative in her society to build the image of the Virgin Queen Astrea. Power and competence are usually interesting, and combined with art, seductive in a variety of senses. But underneath the trappings, of course, the king is a human being with the same physical limitations as his servant. The most interesting fantasy (I think, anyway) does not focus entirely on those in power exercising power, though that’s a part–it explores the situations, thoughts, and actions of those who cooperate in granting the privileged figure that power. Paris Hilton is a “celebrity” only if people want to look at her and talk about her. Otherwise she’s merely a rich girl busy spending money. For all her wealth, her celebrity power is something we give her.
Those who study syntonics are fascinated with how human beings create and maintain (and change) their hierarchies. Writing about these hierarchies isn’t always done to reinforce them, but to play with them in artful ways–superversive ways–while having fun.