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Contributing Editor Mick McGrath

Perseus with the Head of Medusa

(Click on the title to access the 2023 PDF pamphlet version.)

Perseus, Cycle 7: The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones

Back in October, I published an essay in Terror House Magazine arguing that mainstream literary fiction is refusing to publish, or even consider, anti-woke novels. But the truth is St. Martin’s released an explicitly anti-woke novel, Scott Johnston’s Campusland, as recently as three years ago. (Mirabile dictu, there’s at least one mainstream publisher that values multiple perspectives!)

How, then, could I have written an essay arguing that mainstream literary fiction is refusing to publish anti-woke writers like Scott Johnston? They did publish Scott Johnston. How could I have argued that literary fiction doesn’t value ideological diversity? Perhaps they do value multiple perspectives.

Maybe mainstream publishers don’t publish anti-woke novels because, sadly, anti-woke novels don’t sell – as far as I know, Campusland didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Yes, I must wrestle with the following question: Why didn’t Campusland do better? If people are as hungry for anti-woke content as I think they are, why didn’t Campusland make more money? I must admit that I can’t be certain. However, in the following assay, I provide one possible explanation.


The central characters are Professor Ephraim Russell (a thirty-something literature professor at the fictional Devon College) and Lulu Harris (a first-year “Devonite”).

Eph, a white Southerner, is closing in on tenure. But when he assigns The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his Early American Literature class, his students (all of them hopped up on wokeroids) deem him a racist and he’s subjected to a crucible.

Lulu, meanwhile, is a rich kid from Manhattan. Her father, Sheldon Harris, is an entertainment lawyer worth $75 million.

Initially, Lulu wants nothing to do with Devon, which she refers to as a “social backwater.” For God’s sake, her dorm room closet is “a horrifying thirty-six inches wide.” And she’s sharing the dorm with a perfect stranger, a girl named Song, whom Lulu calls a “robot.”

But Lulu’s father is a Devon alum and a self-made man, and he insists his daughter go to college. Never mind that Lulu’s clearly “model material” and already has a ton of followers on social media. Never mind that any minute now she’s going to blow up like Kylie Jenner. Sheldon wants his daughter to experience it – the classical architecture, the dorms, the tradition of free inquiry and civil discourse. For Sheldon, going to college was a wonderful experience – though of course it was a different time when he was at Devon.

Lulu could care less about Devon. In one scene, she flees the “social backwater” and runs into the arms of her beloved NYC. Lulu Ubers to a Manhattan modelling agency, where a photographer wants to take pictures of her with another aspiring model named Aubrey. Lulu and Aubrey are sent through a carwash of makeup, styling, and wardrobe. And, of course, Lulu is “perfectly content to be fussed over.”

The photographer snaps pictures of the girls in all their glamor, but Lulu is irked when Aubrey receives more attention than she does. Before leaving the agency, Lulu snaps a selfie. Then she posts it to her Insta account, and within seconds, her sycophantic admirers are deluging her with compliments.

The novel’s two main threads intersect when Lulu finds herself in Eph’s Early American Literature class. In one scene, Lulu is sitting in class, not rolling her eyes or anything, but instead wondering if Professor Ephraim Russel knows “his effect on women.” Professor Russel strikes Lulu as “perfectly naïve, which somehow [makes] him even more alluring.”

And of course Eph is naïve! Of course he’s oblivious to his effect on women! His mind is elsewhere, thank you very much. All Eph wants to do is teach – and teach well. He’s been chasing tenure for years, and now here it is, within striking distance. And anyway, why on Earth would Eph be thinking about his effect on women here, in his Early American Literature class? It’s not like his students are options. For God’s sake, are these students even women? Of course not! The law might say otherwise, but Eph’s female students, precocious though they may be, are just girls. And, anyway, Eph is seeing someone presently, someone a little more age-appropriate – the lovely Darcy, a Devon administrator. He just wants to do his job! No, college campuses are not chimp enclosures, Campusland asserts. Professor Ephraim Russell wants to do his job, get tenure, and ride off into the sunset.

But what is his job, anyway? What has teaching become in the last decade? For God’s sake, Eph is being investigated for assigning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his Early American Literature class. Is campus even a place of erudition anymore? Or is it a place of activism?

No longer, asserts Campusland, is the academy a place where we challenge students. No longer is it a place where we push students, where we ask students uncomfortable questions in the name of disinterested truth-seeking, where we ask students to ask more of themselves. Au contraire, campus these days is a place where we coddle students, where atremble, we rename buildings and take down statues lest these terrifying Red Guards turn the whole place upside down with their riots and struggle sessions and outdoor public tribunals.

Johnston writes, “Something about the latest winds blowing through campus had a dark edge, as if a subtle transition were going on from the American Revolution to the French.”

Here, Campusland goes right for the jugular, just as it does so many times, for which I applaud Johnston – and St. Martin’s.

However, right before that line, Johnston writes:

Eph certainly thought of himself as a progressive, and by the standards of the Deep South, he certainly was. He hated guns, was supportive of abortion rights and the environment, and so on. Mostly, his politics were representative of what they weren’t: the gun-toting, pickup-driving, shit-talking, revival-tent world of his youth. If progressive was the opposite of that, then that’s what [Eph] was.

The main protagonist of Campusland is a progressive – Eph isn’t exactly a Fox Nation subscriber. The novel, then, will appeal to classical liberals disenchanted with the direction the left has taken in recent years – mission creep, overcorrection, etc. The novel is not, in other words, for people who despise the Woke Inquisition. Nor is Campusland for people who’ve been ruined by Woke Rangers. Campusland says, “I’m down with the cause and everything. I just think the cause is getting carried away.” It does not say, “Die in a grease fire, you colossal know-nothing Torquemadas!” And would it be so bad if millions of white Americans were yearning for a breath of fresh air after years of being told they are privileged oppressors?

Incidentally, “white Americans” aren’t the only ones yearning for an aggressively anti-woke voice. For years, African-American writers like Jason Riley have been telling progressives to stop harping on systemic racism and to start holding young black males accountable – how many black infants have to die in drive-by shootings before we have an ongoing nationwide conversation about black-on-black crime?

Nor is the LGBTQ community a monolith. If an aggressively anti-woke novel came out tomorrow, disaffected gays like Andrew Sullivan, Douglass Murray, and Bret Easton Ellis would seize on it.

And there are millions of others! There are, make no mistake, millions and millions of “counterrevolutionaries” out there, young readers who’d happily read an aggressively anti-woke novel if it existed. We need only look to Joe Rogan for evidence of this – Joe Rogan, who not too long ago signed a two-hundred-million-dollar deal with Spotify and has since been offered another hundred to ditch Spotify and get in bed with Rumble, the conservative YouTube wannabe. Last I checked, Rogan’s a big deal. They say eleven million people listen to his podcasts. And, yes, Rogan makes fun of woke-sters constantly.

And he’s not alone. There are many others who are ruthlessly annihilating the woke ideology: Look at Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Steven Crowder. Incidentally, Steven Crowder’s YouTube channel has nearly six million subscribers. Clearly, then, there’s a market for aggressively anti-woke content.

Look at Dave Rubin, Bari Weiss, Lex Fridman. Look at Bill Maher, who makes fun of woke-sters relentlessly in his “New Rule” segments. Look at Dave Chappelle – remember that standing ovation Chappelle received in L.A. about a year ago? And what about Ricky Gervais, who obliterated socially conscious celebrities at the Golden Globes two years ago and was widely praised on Twitter?

We are witnessing a fully-fledged reverse wave. An aggressively anti-woke novel might not have fared well in 2020, but here in 2023, such a novel would be welcome. People are tired, having watched, among other things, the BLM riots, the hysterical firings, not to mention the subsequent crime wave, which was caused not by COVID, though perhaps COVID was in the mix, but by the Ferguson Effect, i.e. every police officer’s fear of becoming the next embroiled racist cop, which of course would be a nightmare so horrifying that many police officers are simply not apprehending young black males, or so say writers like Heather Mac Donald.

Alas, Campusland is not such an aggressively anti-woke novel. It feels tempered. Maybe that’s why it didn’t achieve “escape velocity.”

Furthermore, because Campusland has this braided double-helix structure, seesawing from Eph’s perspective to Lulu’s, and from Lulu’s back to Eph’s, the novel does at times feel like mass appealism and therefore loses some of its danger. Campusland has “something for everyone.” It wants to be loved.

At times, Campusland longs for the academia of yesteryear. At other times, it satirizes frat boys. Then it romanticizes college football. At another point, it feels girly, like an episode of Glee – indeed, a lot of young women might enjoy reading a novel like Campusland for the same reason they enjoy watching a film like Clueless.

Dead-Ball Era

The last novel I read (before reading Campusland, that is) is Teddy Wayne’s 2020 novel Apartment. If I were forced to reduce Apartment to something bite-sized, I’d say it’s about a gay guy who can’t be his true self in America – as if we haven’t heard that story a billion times. Tellingly, Wayne sets the novel in the 1990s, not in 2020 where things are clearly better for gays. Anyway, to make a long story short, Apartment is two-hundred pages of uneventful banality. Two-hundred pages of uneventful banality!

Mainstream literary fiction is so pathetically lame, so embarrassingly bad, so unendurably boring that you could use it to get information out of terrorists. Shouldn’t everyone in the world of literary fiction be fired for breach of their fiduciary duty to shareholders, since according to the National Endowment for the Arts, “the share of those reading novels or short stories is now lower than in any prior survey period”?

Of course, the humorless misandrists presently at the helm of literary fiction will no doubt blame this decline on video games and Netflix, saying in effect, Young people these days don’t read anything longer than a face tat.

Too true. Millennials and post-millennials don’t read. But is this because over the years Millennials have been lured away by first-person shooters and have forgotten how enjoyable reading fiction can be? Or could it be that literary fiction hasn’t given them anything fun since Fight Club? Can we at least agree that literary fiction hasn’t been very adaptive?

If I were literary fiction, I’d literally do anything else at this point, since literary fiction is losing readers like Democrats are losing Latino voters. While promoting his 2019 collection of essays, White, author Bret Easton Ellis told New York Times book reviewer, Lauren Christensen, “I’m still waiting for the great Millennial novel.”

So am I – though I do like Ottessa Moshfegh.

Literary Fiction is flailing and gasping. If I were Literary Fiction, I’d grab onto anything I could – anything but woke-sterism, that is.

If I were Literary Fiction, I’d try anything. Publish your American Psychos, your Fight Clubs, your Fifty Shades of Greys… Bring back the smut merchants! And, of course, publish aggressively anti-woke literary fiction.

Call this stuff déclassé all you want. Last I checked, prestige fiction isn’t exactly flying off the shelves.


About the writer:
Mick McGrath has an MFA from the University of Tennessee. His writing has appeared in Terror House Magazine, The Thieving Magpie, and elsewhere. McGrath is the cofounder of Heyoka, debuting in 2023 as one of the few online journals that welcomes anti-woke content.

Image: Perseus, Cycle 7: The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1833- 1898). Oil on canvas. No size specified. 1888. Public domain.

Medusa device: Tuberculosis: the head of the Medusa advertising an exhibition against tuberculosis in Basel. Lithograph after Robert Strüdel (1883-1898?). 1913. By free license.

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