Widening the Net

I agree with Frederick Turner that “all is not lost.”

Let me offer a case in point. For several years, one of my standard lectures on the summer seminar circuit for the Institute for Humane Studies was called “Artistry Before Agenda.” During that talk I lamented the quality of so-called “libertarian speculative fiction,” pointing out that the same names every year won awards for works that preached to the choir and demonized persons of other ideological persuasions (imagine the pro-state central planner spending his free hours molesting children) without encouraging readers to think. How would this “movement” ever be more than a cottage industry? Who would be persuaded or challenged by such books?

I no longer give that talk.

Why? Organizations such as the Libertarian Futurist Society widened their nets and made concerted efforts to read and discuss and draw attention to a broader range of fiction. They invited into the conversation fellow travelers who, while not self-identifying as “libertarian,” are penning quality novels that clearly wrestle with relevant and thought-provoking issues about individual liberty, including markets.

Guess what? Some are good. Really good. Yes, of course, Sturgeon’s Law applies here, but it applies everywhere. What matters is the quality of the 10% that rises to the top. The quality here inspires hope. So, too, do new innovations in the industry, from the proliferation of small and medium-sized presses to the advent of e-publishing, which are making it possible for marginalized voices to find new avenues of expression.

If you consider this year’s finalists for the Prometheus Award for Best Novel, you’ll find a New York Times bestseller and a Kindle-only e-book publication, works written expressly for adults and works aimed at young readers. The result of this widening of the nets is multifold. For one thing, the authors from “outside the movement” are raising the artistic bar for some of the more complacent novelists who previously lived the life of big fish in the small pond of libertarian speculative fiction. More to the point, this shift highlights the fact that we who care about markets are not as alone as we thought, and there are others with different traditions and backgrounds and affiliations who nevertheless agree with us on some key points.

Perhaps most importantly, this intentional move has helped reach a larger audience in the name of liberty. When Cory Doctorow accepted the 2009 Prometheus Award for his novel Little Brother, his acceptance speech thrived on the ‘Net, finding its way to avid readers who were unfamiliar with the LFS, the Prometheus Awards, and perhaps even the term “libertarian” itself.

This encourages me.

The other half of the equation—finding and uniting informed, like-minded, and multi-disciplinary scholars willing to use the lens of markets to analyze literature in this and other genres—is the challenge to which Sarah Skwire rightly draws our attention.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. She proposes a much more nuanced view, in which critiques of the market stand side by side with favorable depictions and even sound, encouraging advice for would-be businessmen. It’s time to get beyond the clichés about literature and commerce.

Response Essays

  • William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.