Editor’s Note: Anne Fortier is The New York Times best-selling author of Juliet (2010), and her new novel, The Lost Sisterhood, came out in March. A former staffer at the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, she talked recently with Reason TV about Amazons, academics, and adventure. Watch that here or scroll down to the bottom of this article.
How can a freedom-loving writer make the greatest impact for liberty in the world today? For me, the chosen path has always been through fiction. Even as I pursued a doctorate in the history of ideas in my native Denmark, I realized I had neither the encyclopedic training nor the passion for cool logic—not to mention the nerve—to follow in the footsteps of classical liberal philosophers and economists such as Robert Nozick, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.
In my case, the desire to explore themes of freedom and human action led inescapably to the novel. For as long as I can remember, I have endeavored to physically and emotionally inhabit my interests—moments in history as well as ideas—rather than treating them as objects on display. And there is no question that the novel has the potential to attract and influence scores of readers who are not necessarily predisposed to agreeing with the underlying philosophy. Classic examples are the widespread and continuing readership for Orwell’s Animal Farm, as well as—obviously—the works of Ayn Rand.
Within the realm of fiction, it is always tempting to set one’s stories in a dystopian future, where all our misgivings about state power can be shown in full force. In the current book market, however, an aspiring Rand or Orwell risks being labeled as a writer of science fiction or fantasy and relegated to the themed side-shelves in the vast mass-market paperback jungle. Don’t get me wrong. That can be a great place to be, and a good libertarian author may well be able to grow a keen following of like-minded fans. But one’s chances of ending up on the front table, rubbing spines with Dan Brown and Nora Roberts, are quite slim.
To build a significant audience among the educated female readers who make up the overwhelming majority of American book buyers, an author is generally better off working within the genres we know as literary and historical fiction (two examples are Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular The Help, and Jamie Ford’s now-classic Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet). These are traditionally the kind of books that show strong sales over time, and they also—in contrast to science fiction, crime and mystery, and romance—have a greater chance of becoming staff picks and book-club favorites. That sort of viral marketing does not just increase sales but influence with both readers and publishers.
To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit” and the corrupting effects of power—especially state power. Thus the author need not invent a world and infuse it with political philosophy ex nihilo. The world is already there, firmly based on research, and you don’t have to exercise much poetic license to illuminate the evils of statism and the heroic nature of the freedom fighter throughout human history. For example, my first novel, Juliet, is partly set in medieval Siena and based on the historical situation that informed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It was a time torn between emperor, pope, and corruption and nothing is easier than to let one of the present-day characters speak the glaring truth: “The devotion of the old neighborhood militia was essentially what made the Sienese republic possible. If you want to keep the bad guys in check, make sure the good guys are armed.”
In my new novel, The Lost Sisterhood, the classical liberal subtext is everywhere apparent. The action alternates between contemporary England and North Africa and the Bronze Age Mediterranean world of Myrina, the legendary first queen of the Amazons. Our modern-day male hero is explicitly libertarian, and the lost sisters of my title are not lost at all. Freedom fighters that they are, the Amazons have simply chosen to live outside established society. I had much fun creating scenes where the ancient world foreshadows modern life—that is, life within the impudent, groping embrace of the state—and it is my hope that readers will feel a twinge of outrage at situations such as this one, in which Myrina returns to her companions with five hard-won copper tokens in order to pay the fee for staying overnight at the harbor in Crete:
“Wait!” she cried, striding down the gangplank to the outer dock where the boat was moored. “How many copper tokens to stay the night?”
“That depends,” said the man. “What do you have?”
Myrina opened her fist and showed him.
“Ah,” he said. “Let’s say two, then. Plus two for tomorrow.”
“ ?” Kyme stepped forward, her face still flushed from the argument Myrina had missed. “Can we not pay those in the morning?”
The fee collector shook his head. “Then you must leave at sunrise. But you won’t be able to. Not the way that north wind is blowing.”
Welcome to income-based taxation and installment payments.