There is no paucity of defenses that reframe the practice of reading fiction as prosocial, as a responsible engagement with the real. For example, many arguments remind us that literary representations, despite their fictional status, have the capacity to rouse us to good action. In “The Case for Reading Fiction,” published in The Harvard Business Review, Christine Seifert states, “[R]eading literary fiction helps people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking.” Other defenses suggest that we should read fiction to masochistically seek out feelings of guilt, shame, and sorrow, not for the sake of catharsis but instead for the activist potential of experiencing these feelings. Writing for The American Scholar to address the need for literature in times of war, James A. W. Heffernan states, “We need literature to bear witness to […] sacrifices — the lives we take and also the minds we deform in the process of making war.” For Seifert and Heffernan, reading is a stimulant propelling us toward the real. Although such defenses tend to be susceptible to accusations of elitism and sentimentality, they are convincing. There is indeed a rich intellectual history of defending aesthetic reproductions of the real as encouraging and reinvigorating prosocial encounters with the real. Writes Anaïs Nin: “It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”
Whether we read to engage or to escape reality, we continue to read fiction because it provides us with an experience that cannot be satisfied by other means. Additionally, as a cultural practice, reading fiction has taken on a quasi-spiritual aura; it has become a secular ritual, not unlike mindfulness meditation, that is robustly encouraged by its proponents. One recalls the Orwellian “READ” posters that have been published by the American Library Association since 1985, the most recent a rendering of Channing Tatum, holding a copy of Peter Pan, standing in front of a glittering star field. Evoking the imperious command of alien billboards in John Carpenter’s They Live — obey, marry, reproduce, consume — these posters celebrate reading as an activity of unquestionable social value and say nothing about what is real. Why not read fiction to escape the real?
We have one venerable literary haven where such an annoying question was never a cause for insecurity: pulp fiction. “Shut-ins are great readers of fiction,” writes the interwar pulp magazine publisher Harold Hersey (1893–1956).
The sickroom and the hospital are littered with these unpretentious packages of thrilling stories, with their wrappings torn off and the pages ear-marked by myriad trembling fingers. Nurses find them a solace for the sleepless hours between darkness and dawn, as do firemen on duty and others condemned to the long lonely watches of the night.
Hersey’s memoir, Pulpwood Editor (1937), provides a glimpse into the print culture milieu of the interwar pulp magazines. This was a time when enthralling fiction was a highly valued commodity and reading fiction was a common practice largely disinvested of cultural capital.
The social media moguls of their day, publishers of pulp magazines, like Frank A. Munsey (1854–1925), consolidated print media empires that generated sublime fortunes and political influence. With such titles as Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, Strange Tales, and Unknown, pulp publishers became American oligarchs by providing access not to the real but to the unreal. This is not to suggest that pulp publishers’ democratization of reading fiction was regarded as prosocial. On the contrary, pulp magazines were often seen as a public menace, a symptom of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later call “the culture industry,” an occult alliance of the industrial economy with mass-culture producers to engineer the compliance of the laboring class. Anticipating Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Anita P. Forbes, a high school English teacher, censured pulp magazines by name to the National Council of Teachers of English in November 1936: “Ninety percent of high school students read ‘pulp’ magazines and the material contained in them constitute[s] a menace to the pupil’s morals, his English and his mind.” Whereas contemporary apologists of reading fiction view it as a prosocial stimulant, Adorno and Horkheimer and Forbes viewed it as an antisocial soporific.
Some might sense an intellectual harmony between contemporary defenders and interwar critics of reading fiction: both desire a certain kind of fiction reading that results in prosocial outcomes, such as mutual understanding and accommodating the greater good. But this surprising intellectual parity leaves several questions unanswered: Can certain types of fiction direct our attention to either the real or the unreal? Do we read literary fiction to engage the real? Do we read pulp fiction to escape the real? Does advocating for an activist form of fiction reading ignore the escapist potential of the practice? Does it discount the unique mental health value it provides to certain readers who need to escape a horrible present? Who denies that reading fiction can be an effective practice for making the present moment less real?
A myopic view of fiction reading risks obscuring the fact that certain pulp genres, such as sword-and-sorcery, are designed to provide understimulation: mental oases to insulate our sensorium from the present. For Robert E. Howard, the inventor of sword-and-sorcery, interwar modernity was an illness-inducing assault on the sensorium, and his invention was designed to make the terrible present less real.
The prototypical sword-and-sorcery hero, Conan the Cimmerian, first appeared in print in 1932, a terrible year but with worse yet to come. The kidnapping and murder of the 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr. in March fell like a gossamer layer of sorrow over the whole Western world. Homeless camps or “Hoovervilles” occupied by the forgotten and downtrodden sprouted up everywhere: in the very capital of the American Empire squatted the Bonus Army, a group of war veterans demanding economic relief. The Dow Jones average reached its lowest recorded level during the Depression years. And in June 1932, the Nazis became the largest party in the German Reichstag, cementing the fate of the Weimar Republic. At this horrible moment in interwar modernity, consider Howard’s May 1932 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, a veritable dark lord of the unreal: “There is to me a terrible pathos in a man’s vain wanderings on occult paths, and clutching at non-existent things, as a refuge from the soul-crushing stark realities of life.” Just a few months later, Howard would see the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” published. Its opening is visionary:
Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars […]. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.
Howard would commit suicide just four years after laying the foundations of the sword-and-sorcery genre. In my view, the Hyborian Age (Howard’s unreal space and time) was designed as an artistic response to an unbearable interwar modernity, a period described by Walter Benjamin — another suicide — as a catastrophe, a pile of wreckage, a “storm called progress.”
Engaging with the real is one way reading fiction can be defended; the practice's capacity to allow us to make the present less real is another. Some might be inclined to view Howard’s use of literary art to retreat from the real as the height of irresponsibility. I don’t see it that way. Many are surprised to learn that Howard’s development of sword-and-sorcery derived from his earlier failure to treat the real artistical. Consider his experimental realist novel Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. Not published in Howard’s lifetime, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs has recently been reprinted by the Robert E. Howard Foundation. It is an experimental novel about an aspiring pulp writer’s failed attempt to write “a realistic account of the drabness, and sham of small-town life, the futile and abortive gropings of humanity, and the failings and ambitions of such strugglers as himself.” The novel recounts Howard’s alter ego Steve Costigan’s iconoclastic failure to discover an appropriate narrative form to render his horrible present:
Steve had wished to write life as he saw it — he had torturously pounded out a few realistic tales and had found the subject the most difficult of all. He shrank from realities that even the portrayal of them was distasteful. “I don’t know where to take hold,” he said slowly. “Life is full of tag ends which never begin and never end. There’s no plot, no sequence, no moral.”
The artistic problem Costigan (and Howard) treated — to render a realistic account of an unbearable present — while not solved in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, would shape Howard’s development of sword-and-sorcery toward a literary form of understimulation. The unbearable present, the absolute hostility of reality, is a central premise of sword-and-sorcery. Consider Howard’s “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” which begins,
There comes, even to kings, the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem and upon the fingers of women sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester’s bell and the feel comes of things unreal.
The story relates the adventure of King Kull of Atlantis, who seeks out a sorcerer whose legendary mirror allegorizes pulp fantasy. Kull discovers the sorcerer and the mirror and, enthralled, his horrible present is briefly forgotten:
“He is I, a shadow of myself, part of myself — I can bring him into being or slay him at my will; yet — ” He halted, strange thoughts whispering through the vast dim recesses of his mind like shadowy bats flying through a great cavern — “yet where is he when I stand not in front of a mirror? May it be in man’s power thus lightly to form and destroy a shadow of life and existence? How do I know that when I step back from the mirror he vanishes into the void of Naught?”
The mirror is cursed, and Kull just manages to escape its mesmerizing influence.
The sorcerer’s mirror is meant to be diabolical. But is it? Escapist reading appears to be irresponsible. But is it? It seems even Howard understood, on some level, the dangers of fleeing reality. Perhaps like drugs, reading escapist fiction requires the proper dosage and moderation. In any case, sword-and-sorcery provides a lens for bringing into focus how our defenses of reading fiction orbit questions of attention, reality, and unreality. Attention can reify and de-reify. Attention can make the present more or less real. More specifically, reading sword-and-sorcery (and the pulp genres sci-fi, fantasy, and horror more generally) is a valuable practice for marshalling attention to make the present less real.
Viewing sword-and-sorcery in this way reminds us that there are two types of attention, what neuroscientists call “top down” and “bottom up” attentional strategies. In engaging “top down” attention, individuals create a psychological filter that enhances the sensitivity of the sensorium to detect salient stimuli that are different enough from the surrounding background to be noticeable. In engaging “bottom up” attention, individuals actively withdraw psychological filters involved beyond their established habituation to environmental stimuli; in this way, something like a covert field of stimuli is permitted to erode and we escape the real.
Is it fair to say certain kinds of fiction are designed to train “top down” attention and certain types of fiction are designed to train habituation to “bottom up” stimuli? Does reading realistic fiction make the present more real? Many defend fiction reading on this basis. But what about the opposite? Does reading sword-and-sorcery — and escapist reading more generally — train our capacities for allowing “bottom up” attention to erode, for inoculating us against illness-inducing covert stimuli? Can sword-and-sorcery make the present less real?
Many of us began reading a lot more than usual with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I certainly did. Early on, most of what I read was interwar fiction and quasi-journalistic activist novels (I never quite finished George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London). As 2020 progressed, though, a full diet of this serious writing became a bit heavy. My reading shifted toward the pulp fiction that had comforted me in high school, Gary Gygax’s Appendix N, the literary foundation of Dungeons & Dragons. While the pandemic deaths mounted, protests increased, and political tensions metastasized, I fixated on the sword-and-sorcery tradition of Robert E. Howard and Conan the Cimmerian. I got lost with the authors Charles R. Saunders, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, C. L. Moore, and Jack Vance, and I read the work of contemporary sword-and-sorcery masters: David C. Smith’s tales of Attluma, the doomed continent; Howard Andrew Jones’s stories of Hanuvar, a desperate leader in the mold of the historic Hannibal; Scott Oden’s series about the powerful, vengeance-seeking Grimnir; and Schuyler Hernstrom’s classically inspired books of rogues and barbarians.
Reading this fiction led me to read more about the genre: a new history of sword-and-sorcery by Brian Murphy, Flame and Crimson (Pulp Hero Press); a new academic biography of Howard by Todd B. Vick, Renegades and Rogues (Texas University Press); an anthology of personal essays, How Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (Rogue Blades Foundation). I wasn’t alone in my renewed obsession with the genre. Sword-and-sorcery, in the form of Dungeons & Dragons, flourished online throughout the pandemic, and a new film, The Spine of Night (2021) — a veritable love letter to the genre — has already achieved cult classic status.
I’m home less often now and consequently reading less as well as different fiction. I just finished Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!, an anthology of short fiction about surviving poverty in Port-au-Prince and Ville Rose, Haiti. Having recently completed a commissioned libretto adaptation of Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God for Christopher Newport University, I found that my interest in the Holocaust has returned. In fact, as I write this, I am halfway through Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), Viktor Frankl’s harrowing firsthand account of life in Nazi concentration camps. Gone for now are the long hours of stalking the shadowy streets of Lankhmar with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, exploring ruined alien architecture with Elric of Melniboné, or traveling to other dimensions with Corwin of Amber. I am once again on this planet.
These dramatic shifts in fiction reading over the past year and a half happened below the threshold of consciousness. I am only now taking stock of this. Surprisingly, a passage from Frankl’s account helps make the pattern comprehensible. Speaking about the extent to which certain types of people over others were prone to survive the camps, Frankl writes, “Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution) but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.” Only a political opportunist would seriously compare the millions who were murdered in Nazi concentration camps to the millions who died by contracting COVID-19, but Frankl’s observation was a lance of light: reading fiction can inoculate the self from the covert toxicity of an illness-inducing present. Perhaps like prayer or meditation, sword-and-sorcery — and escapist fiction more generally — is a form of self-negation, of transcendence. Justifiable or not, it is a modern attempt to make the present less real.
Jason Ray Carney teaches popular literature in the Department of English at Christopher Newport University.