Literature

The Lost Sisterhood and the Case for Libertarian Novels

A best-selling writer explains the power of historical fiction.

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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."
"What?" 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.

Historical novels—especially bestsellers—are also more likely to appeal to filmmakers, which opens up the possibility of a whole new audience for one's ideas and themes. Traditionally, the theme of liberty has primarily found its way to the silver screen via dystopian narratives set in the future (such as the graphic novel V for Vendetta), but I suspect that is primarily due to the scarcity of libertarians in the field of historical fiction. It's true that it's just as likely that the libertarian ideas might not make the transition to screenplay in perfect condition, but at least the hype surrounding a film release will draw new readers back to the original book (as happened, for instance, with Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall, an anti-war, anti-Prohibition novella after it was made into a 1994 movie starring Brad Pitt).

So historical fiction is one of the best avenues through which a freedom-friendly novelist can reach a wide and varied audience.

A novel is not a philosophical or economic argument, of course, and I don't write fiction to convince people that, say, the minimum wage hurts the poorest, lowest-skilled workers (which it does) or that airline deregulation was a good idea (which it was). A novel is, hopefully, the starting point of a conversation, one in which the author engages readers and asks that they see things from a different point of view than they might otherwise. The author creates an alternative world in which the readers invest their time and their emotions. The payoff is not conversion to an ideological position but a heightened awareness of different possibilities, often via an empathetic, visceral reaction to injustice.

There's no question that economic arguments, philosophical treatises, and policy papers have changed the world in direct (and often disastrous) ways. But it's equally true that popular fiction has a huge role to play in not simply illustrating what a freer world might look like but to explore some of its possibilities, contradictions, and challenges to living, breathing human beings. Above all, imagined characters have the license to shock and provoke the reader without turning them off the book itself. Who, we might well wonder, is speaking the following passage toward the end of The Lost Sisterhood—an 82-year-old modern-day Amazon named Otrera or Anne Fortier?

"If you want to survive—especially in this age of cradle-to-grave surveillance—you have to be analog. Don't tell me you're unaware of the fact that your own government is tracking digital communication with impunity?…Never mind the approaching apocalypse of which most people never give a second thought, but ask yourself this: Who is more amateurish, more vulnerable—those who rely on machines that need to be plugged in, or logged on, or in some other way connected in order to be more than a useless slab of plastic … or those who have learned to master life without?"

Watch Reason TV's interview with Fortier: