Characteristics of Subversive Literature

Updated on March 2, 2020

Merriam Webster defines subversive literature as... Wait, this isn't school, and beginning an article with a definition is simply lazy writing. So, I'm choosing to subvert the status quo and offer examples instead of simply relaying what "The Man" wants us to think (see what I did there?). The key idea behind subversive literature is that it makes us -- OH NO! -- think about what we're reading. For a piece of literature to be effectively subversive, it shouldn't simply offer a diatribe for or against some kind of authority. No one wants to read your psychotic manifesto describing how our government is actually being run by Starbucks.

For literature to be effectively subversive, it will not blatantly state the superiority of one side of an issue. Instead, it will portray two separate ideals clashing, and have us (as readers) examine them for ourselves. You may be asking, "But Jay, how come these works are often rather controversial?" My answer to you, imaginary participant, is rather simple. We often don't realize there is even an other side to a coin.

For instance, let's just say that I have lived my entire life up to this point believing that tiny people in my body are responsible for moving my limbs. When a friend finally informs me that my insides are actually filled with muscles, bones, and tendons that obey the orders of this spongy mass inside my skull, he is kindly met with my contempt and probably a kick to the throat. I know what's going on inside my body, and if anyone offers a different explanation, their explanation is automatically wrong (because I'm always right). Did you know that the world is flat? Or, that our moods are controlled by bodily ooze? Or, that the cure for anything is to let us "bleed it out?" Well these were widely popular assumptions back in the day until they were subverted.

Popular Examples of Subversive Literature

Remember the American Revolution? Of course you don't, but in case you were wondering, it didn't begin by a man waking up one morning and screaming, "You know what? Screw England!" It even took me a while to digest the fact that Mel Gibson wasn't even a part of the war. One of the defining texts that epitomizes the time is Thomas Paine's pamphlet entitled "Common Sense" (which, incidentally, we lack a lot of nowadays). Here's an excerpt:

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. Freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and reason will say, 'tis right. ("Of the Origin and Design...")

While rumblings and public meetings were being held, the need for an actual subversive text was dire. Paine's pamphlet allowed for a systematic form of subversion to the British government that, retrospectively, seems a lot more beneficial than dumping gallons of tea into Boston Harbor.

"Today, your farm.  But tomorrow, THE WORLD!!! BWAHAHA" - Mr. Oinkers
"Today, your farm. But tomorrow, THE WORLD!!! BWAHAHA" - Mr. Oinkers | Source

Subversive literature doesn't specifically have to be nonfiction, though. Some of the most effective examples are through a fictional medium. For instance, George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 depict anthropomorphized animals who overthrow a farm only to abandon its core revolutionary values and a form English that prohibits any sort of thought regarding free thinking, sex, or individuality, respectively. Regardless of your paranoia, these plots seem rather nonsensical (at least, for now). Meanwhile, at their heart, each novel presents subversive ideas and feelings toward established governments and societies of the time.

Some of the most interesting literary forms of subversion come through comic books. As I've talked about before, there are virtually no parameters considered off-limits in the world of comics, so creators like Alan Moore (creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta) are going to stretch any perceived boundaries there are. For instance, in his own words,

I don't want everyone to agree with me; I just want people to think. It seems to me that anything these days slightly to the left of Genghis Khan tends to be labeled subversive. If, in this current time, tolerance and sensitivity are labeled "looney," "left," or "subversive," then I would be quite proud to be considered a subversive. (from Secret Origins: The Story of DC Comics)

When Moore picked up the Swamp Thing series and later produced Watchmen and V for Vendetta, people began to see comics as literary works. In the realm of comics, really the only method to obtaining any kind of philosophical significance was to begin inserting subversion.

Dangers of Subversive Literature

We, as a people, tend to light up torches and gather pitchforks if any kind of ideological threat is pitted to our children, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, children's books are often the most scrutinized genre of literature. Again, this is rightfully so; these are innocent kids we're talking about here, and they should not have their minds filled with gobblety-gook until much, much later in life.

For instance, in her "9 most subversive children's books ever written,"'s Laura T. Coffey explains the audacity of Maurice Sendak to allow his protagonist of Where the Wild Things Are to participate in shenanigans toward his mom while still being able to go on this fantastical journey. No kid should be allowed a fantastical journey after misbehaving, dammit!

Now go outside and don't you dare use your imagination!
Now go outside and don't you dare use your imagination! | Source

Coffey's heart is in the right place with the article, but she chooses to leave a few key subversive works off. Some works are just too subversive, right? If so, then don't have us believe that these are the most subversive children's books ever written. Also, she states in her subtitle, "These classics are sure to get little ones thinking for themselves." I'd like to take this time to present King & King.

The book, by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland, tells the story of a young prince in need of a princess to marry. One by one, princesses are paraded in front of the prince, but not one catches his eye. That is, until he notices a princess' brother. They fall in love and become "king and king." Ever since the book was translated into English in 2002, it has been heavily controversial. Ms. Coffey presumably left titles such as this off her list in order to prevent a major shitstorm in the comments section, but this is subversive children's literature. And yes, it is a highly dangerous topic to discuss.

Our kids need to read, but we also need to monitor what they are reading. Meanwhile, crazy bloggers and insane conspiracy theorists are pointing out social reasons not to read every classic children's book, TV show, and film. Apparently, the Smurfs represent a totalitarian utopia reminiscent of Stalin, and the creators are trying to make all your children Communists. It came as a surprise to me, too (shouldn't they at least be red-colored, then?).

Hence, the dangers with subversive literature are two-fold. Many times, if we scour a text in search of a specific thing, we will find evidence whether it exists or not. If you want a text to be subversive, you mind will make you believe anything it wants about that work. Meanwhile, if there is a subversive idea in a literary work, and you don't particularly agree with it, I encourage you to simply put the book down.


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      18 months ago

      Like reading your thoughts..a bit if humour there has made me smile for the first time today. Thanks


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