Fantasy and Comedy of Manners

Is Fantasy or Comedy of Manners really hearkening back to days of yore, when everyone knew their place, and were content to stay in it?

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.

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Fantasy and Comedy of Manners — 14 Comments

  1. This reminded me of an episode of Babylon 5, fifth and final season when JMS knew the series was ending by his choice. He had the freedom to write scripts that differed from the norm. In this one, we see the space station from the point of view of two maintenance men. The powerful characters, the leaders, the privileged come to life in a new light. Some good, some bad. But we learn again why John Sheridan and Delenn, the ambassadors, and the military have earned our faithful viewing. We also learn that keeping that space station running for the use of privileged is a lot of hard work from people who are highly skilled, thoughtful human beings.

  2. Oh, that’s cool. I never made it that far in that series–I should skip up to the fifth season. Thanks!

  3. This is brilliant. I re-tweeted the link via another mystery writing colleague of mine, Elizabeth S. Craig. IMHO – Veiling subversive ideas within a safe, seemingly harmless (but popular and widely read) genre is the sharpest way to begin to change minds. 🙂

    Cheers,
    ~Cleo

  4. Cleo: speaking as a reader, what I love about this type of story is the ability to get one’s entertainment as well as an opportunity to see aspects of the world anew. Thanks!

  5. The theme of the humble hero/heroine or diamond in the rough is justly popular in fantasy. It’s kind of a cheat or at least a disappointment when the person turns out to be the lost prince/princess after all. Because blood will tell?
    On the other hand, while I think aristocrats can be truly noble–and I like to see them at it– the theme of having the malicious high born brought down can be supremely satisfying.

  6. There are some works that support the “blood will always tell” myth. Georgette Heyer formed a very successful career on that. But I don’t think of these as superversive; however, the second one you mention can be!

  7. I forget where I read the observation that a peasant boy/girl jumped to the height of society is just lucky, but a prince/princess deposed has been wronged and so the restoration is more satisfying.

  8. Superversion sounds wonderful in theory, and as a function of art and imagination, I support it.
    But it also sounds dangerous to me because people who so often actually effect social change are not imaginative themselves and they will grab hold of a powerful idea that was crystallized in an ivory tower and create it in the real-life mud and blood, and what was beautiful in crystal will turn out to be ugly in mud. That’s the whole history of Marxist communism, frex.
    Social change is a troublesome thing, imo.

  9. Votermom: I agree. This is why I am all infavor of extrapolating these ideas through fiction, causing discussion of what ifs.

    Who knows, maybe if Marx had written fiction, that might have prompted a series of communist novels exploring his ideas in terms of how real people might have put them to use. (He doesn’t seem to have had the facility of seeing others as real in themselves, rather than as extensions of his will or his theories; his treatment of his own family serves as example.) But as soon as I say this, I am convinced that Stalin et all would have found some other cant to cover his naked wish for power.

  10. How interesting that the word “subversive” makes so many people assume certain ends and agendas. But I must introduce the idea that the status quo in the 21st century is *not* what it was 40 years ago. So what is *subversive* today? I posit that *sincerity* is subversive. Sentiment is subversive. (In this Age of Irony, everything is a joke, isn’t it? Nothing is sacred and every subject must be approached with a sneer.) Consquently, patriotism is subversive; concepts of duty and honor are subversive. Thank you, Sherwood, for making me feel that I am not alone in thinking about these things and introducing me to the excellent thought-provoking essay by Tom Simon. “Super-versive” is an ingenious way of asking the dystopian writer, now what? (Always harder to build than to tear down. Always.)

    ~Cleo

  11. Cleo: Thank you for your comment! I love it when these things spark a modicum of discussion.

  12. Patriotism cannot be subversive when it is still what the majority upholds and trumpets. Just a few years ago, even critzing Bush was considered unpatriotic and bad.

  13. Meh – “was considered by…” By whom? I wonder how many students in colleges and university settings, for instance, would be “praised” for expressions of patriotism. Hmm. I was not generalizing subversion. I was thinking of a very specific group.

    ~Cleo

  14. Quick addendum — I must add that I’m not trying to be political. What I cannot stand is group-think. Group hate. Group love. Group condemnation. Group praise. All groups need a little subversion thrown into their “We all think that way, don’t we?” machine. Even groups that *think* they’re so very tolerant, open-minded, and accepting. 🙂

    ~Cleo