This interview first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction in 1996. I’ve seen it reproduced elsewhere online, so I think it should be alright to reproduce it here. Norman has since bounced back with several additional books, largely thanks to online fandom and epublishing, as well as advances in small-press technology.
This interview does, however, show that there were issues of censorship and ‘propriety’ even back then. The 90s were a previous apex of political correctness culture, and this was also the same period of hysteria over Mortal Kombat and other computer games.
For me, the Gorean world is purely a fictional one. An interesting imaginary playground annd experimental forum rather than a life philosophy. Norman is an interesting character, a fairly libertarian and sexually imaginative conservative. It’s also eerie how his experiences in the mid nineties seem so very familiar today.
My commentary in italics.
The following interview by David Alexander Smith, entitled…
“No More Gor: A Conversation with John Norman”
…was published in two parts by The New York Review of Science Fiction, part one in Issue #92, Volume 8, No. 8 in April, 1996 (ISSN #1052-9438) and part two in Issue #96, Volume 8, No. 12 in August, 1996 (ISSN #1052-9438).
Introduction to Part 1
A year ago, at Arisia ’95, I was wandering through the dealer’s room, idly checking name tags as one does, when I saw one labeled “John Norman.”
I struck up a conversation, believing I must be mistaken – John Norman was dead, wasn’t he? – only to discover that, yea verily, John Norman was alive and kicking. Later during the convention, he was a participant on my panel, The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov.
Norman proved himself peppery, constructive, and thoughtful. Afterwards we talked a little about his situation.
Was he still publishing? I asked.
No, he said, he had been blacklisted.
You’re kidding, I said.
I’m completely serious, he replied.
After the con ended, I wrote him a letter, and there began a curious correspondence covering half a year. In the course of those letters, we conducted an extended conversation that sent me scurrying back to con dealer’s rooms to secure Gor books, which I then read so as to be able to hold up my half of this delayed, asynchronous dialog.
I mentioned to David Hartwell that I was having trouble reducing the mountain of material thus gathered into publishable form and he, with his flair for the Gordian solution, asked simply, “Why don’t you just cut up the letters and rearrange them into an interview?” I broached this idea with John Norman, who thought it plausible, and then worked with Norman to assemble what follows.
Smith: Forgive my dispassion, but if you have been blacklisted it is hugely ironic: science fiction, the rule-breaking, boundary-stretching genre, the genre which prides itself on individual expression, blacklists a successful author for political incorrectness?
Norman: Oh, there’s no doubt I’ve been blacklisted, both by publishers and at conventions.
(Norman’s commentary throughout this section must have sounded a damn sight more paranoid in the 90s than it does today. It still sounds a little off-base, but I think those who have been genuinely victimised and bullied deserve a little leeway when it comes to justifiable paranoia).
Smith: At conventions?
Norman: I was recently invited to participate in an SF convention and was listed among the invited guests. Subsequently a prominent fantasy feminist told the program committee that she would feel “uncomfortable” if I were at the convention when she was. Accordingly, my name was literally crossed off the ready-to-mail brochures.
Smith: How do you know?
Norman: I got one with my name crossed off the guest list with Magic Marker.
Smith: What did you do?
Norman: I tried to get an explanation. My inquiry was never answered.
Smith: How did you find out what had happened?
Norman: I was told later by outraged fans: another cave-in to political correctness, another victory for the liberal feminist axis and the thought police.
Smith: Being snubbed at conventions, however annoying, is not blacklisting, which occurs only when you cannot publish.
Norman: My agent has combed the woods and told me there is no opportunity to publish my work with any science fiction, fantasy, or mainstream publisher in the United States.
Smith: But why? Apparently the books, if allowed to be published, sell well (in Europe and elsewhere), which suggests that not only political correctness but also editorial elitism (we know what’s best for you) could be at work.
Norman: Tarnsman of Gor was published in late 1966. It has been reprinted 22 times.
Smith: That’s certainly impressive sales, but I see quite a stylistic difference between the early (Ballantine) and later (DAW) books. Even so, the DAW books (starting with Hunters and continuing through Magicians) have each sold at least 50,000 copies; the average is about 125,000 copies.
Norman: I have recently signed contracts for fresh French and German sales, and have recently been published for the first time in Czechoslovakia. There have been recent Spanish and Italian sales. There’s no evidence that my books no longer sell.
Smith: But there have been no Gor novels for five or six years.
Norman: After DAW refused to buy any more Gor books, I sold a three-part Telnarian series to Brian Thomsen of Warner Books. The first book, The Chieftain, had a 67 percent sell-through. The second, The Captain, had a 91 percent sell-through, which is the sort of thing that would make Stephen King rush over to shake your hand.
Smith: Then why aren’t you writing more Telnarian novels?
Norman: Brian Thomsen, my Warner editor for the Telnarian series, was suddenly no longer with Warner Books. He claims this had nothing to do with his willingness to champion my work.
Smith: What happened to the Telnarian series after that?
Norman: Thomsen was replaced by an editor from one of the blacklisting presses, one that explicitly informed my agent they would not consider anything by John Norman. That new editor canceled the series despite its success and without waiting to see how the third book, The King, would do. That way things are made nicely clear.
Smith: Do you have other examples of blacklisting?
Norman: Two full-length feature films have been putatively based on my work: Gor and Gor II: Outlaw of Gor, both by Cannon Films. Ballantine Books refused to do movie tie-ins to either film; they failed even to answer my letters.
(These films are awful and Norman is perhaps better served by not being particularly associated with them).
Smith: Perhaps the letters never arrived.
Norman: The second one was sent registered mail.
Smith: Then how did the movies get made?
Norman: My attorney finessed his way around Ballantine’s rights department and contacted the legal department at Random House. The movies were made by going over the heads of the censors.
Smith: But if the books sell, surely you can find publishers willing to make money on them.
Norman: Unfortunately for me, only about seven or eight publishing houses maintain a mass-market paperback line in sc ience fiction and fantasy; this small, closely-knit group effectively controls the market. With such a group, a blacklist need not be an explicit, formal written or oral agreement subscribed to by a gathered cabal pledged to secrecy. It is an understanding that a certain individual is to be ostracized, excluded, methodologically overlooked or such.
Smith: How would that work?
Norman: All the editors talk to one anothe r. At Arisia ’94 one SF/F editor asserted that editors all know one another and keep in touch, so if anything happens, “in three hours everyone knows about it.”
Smith: Sure, that’s possible, but mere rejection of your work is by itself insufficient – any editor can decl ine any book for any reason. Nor is group rejection – several different editors can decline the same book, and for the same reasons, which may well be expressed in the book itself. Even if the editors discussed your work among themselves, and reached similar conclusions about it, that by itself would not in my opinion be blacklisting, because lemmings do not blacklist. Thus, an industry’s refusal to publish work constitutes blacklisting only if two conditions are true:
- Editors are coerced into not publishing (or producing) the work.
- If not coerced, they would publish the work.
Norman: Coercion does not seem to be necessary for blacklisting, even though it might obtain.
Smith: Why not?
Norman: Suppose a small set of editors have a particular ideology. Even without coercion, there could be a general understanding that an author who challenges that ideology is not to be published.
(The Internet and social media has made this kind of social-blacklisting process far more obvious and apparent, so he wasn’t wrong).
Smith: But editors are allowed to use their judgment; that’s what they’re paid for.
Norman: Editors have four responsibilities: to their employers, to customers, to art, and to society.
An editor who puts belief ahead of proven commercial investments owes it to his company to make certain they understand he is doing so.
Customers have a right to expect that editors will give them what they want. The customers are quite as serious about their beliefs and values as the editor is in his.
Editors should also keep the art form of the novel healthy and flourishing.
Finally, the editor can help society to be an arid, uniform, intellectually deficient, repressive, emotionally impoverished totalitarianism, or he can help it be a decent place to live, a place that is open, a place that acknowledges and celebrates the individual, that welcomes difference, that accepts controversy, in short, a place where a rational, thinking, feeling being can thrive and rejoice.
Smith: Editors are also responsible if the things they publish are actively harmful.
Norman: Certain things ought not to be done: folks interrupting religious services with profanity, folks advertising bogus stock, folks explaining how to produce poison gases and make bombs, and such. Not everything goes.
But the Gorean books are written against a background of reality, complexity, depth, breadth, history, experience, psychology, ethnology, biology, and sociobiology. As far as I know, they are the most carefully constructed and intricately designed alternate world in the history of science fiction and fantasy. They are healthy, sane, sound, and fun.
(It is clear Norman believes in much, if not all, of the philosophy present in his books and this is what drives – I believe – the excellent worldbuilding to be found therein. One of the stand-out qualities of the Gorean novels is how real, if different, the societies feel – just with slightly different base principles).
Smith: What does your evidence suggest about coercion and publishability?
Norman: I really doubt that the clique of editors who are in a position to decide what you may or may not read would publish me even if they were not coerced. I think it is possible to blacklist without coercion.
Smith: Embarrassment is a powerful form of coercion – indeed, coercion by embarrassment seems an intrinsic element in the attempted enforcement of political correctness. Have editors been embarrassed into refusing to consider your work?
Norman: Individuals in the little club of ideologically uniform editors might fear losing their cozy ensconcement in the personality network. They might not want to be ostracized as politically incorrect, find themselves castigated, have their characters assassinated and so on. Jobs might be lost. Why risk printing something by John Norman? One might shock one’s peers, one might jeopardize one’s spot in the gang.
(Yet again, the Internet and social media have made this process obvious and performative. We now know this is the case).
Smith: It sounds like enough to make anyone paranoid. Is any of this in writing?
Norman: No, there’s no paper trail. To be sure, they could have made the matter more subtle by at least pretending to look at my material. If you want to be a censor, come up with some reason, other than politics, for rejecting it: the book is too long or too short, the plot is too simple or too complex; there are too few characters or there are too many. But I suppose they want me to know unmistakably what they are doing; it’s part of the fun.
Norman: If the individual discriminated against has no idea what’s going on, what fun would that be?
Smith: You think people take pleasure in this?
Norman: I am frequently talked about. For instance, I have either heard or had reported to me many quotes l ike these:
“I am opposed to censorship, but I think everyone ought to get together and agree not to publish John Norman.”
“We are going to squeeze John Norman out.”
“I know the books will make money, but I publish what I like.”
“My press will not propagate the philosophy of John Norman.”
(This should all sound chillingly familiar to everyone, and it absolutely is fun for certain people. They make that clear with their posts).
Smith: That last one is intriguing. If true (and it’s only one person’s quote), it implies that people are objecting not to the books’ literary quality, but rather their philosophical or political contents.
Norman: Is it possible that liberal rhetoric is a hypocritic al facade for thought control in America? Is it possible that liberals, if given the opportunity, will unhesitatingly and consistently impose on others the same restrictions of freedom of speech and thought which they themselves have objected to when applied to themselves?
Smith: No matter how much they try, editors cannot wholly divorce their view of a work from their image of the author. As a test, someone once retyped, and submitted as his own manuscript, the first fifty or so pages of Jerzy Kosinski’s National Book Award-winning novel, The Painted Bird. Every publisher rejected it, some with caustic comments about its lack of worth. I believe that people’s image of you and your work is acting against its consideration on its own merits.
Norman: Bad-mouthing John Norman is useful as a touchstone of political orthodoxy, rather like telling Ronald Reagan jokes.
(At least at time of writing it seems, Norman was very much a conservative. There’s something amusing in that, the author of notoriously sexual and libertine novels being of the political wing we normally think of as being the po-faced luddites. His ‘enemies’, whatever they call themselves cannot be considered liberal so long as they promoted censorship).
Sex Is Not The Problem
Smith: I think people who have not read your work dislike it because they think it celebrates sadomasochism and violence against or suppression of women.
Norman: The standard criticism of the Gorean books, popular with those who have never read one, is that they are sadomasochistic or such. A sadist is an individual who derives s exual pleasure from the infliction of physical pain on another person, and a masochist is a person who derives sexual pleasure from the receipt of pain at the hands of another. There is not one individual in the Gorean books who meets these criteria.
In fact, sadists and masochists would seem anomalous in a Gorean culture – which does not breed them – a culture in which human nature is honestly fulfilled, rather than thwarted or denied.
(The Gorean novels have a huge following within and around the BDSM community however. This seems anomolous until you understand that Gor is more about dominance and submission than sadism or masochism. I think there are sadists in the books, but these are villains. When a whipping or punishment takes place in the books it is for a transgression – not for the sake of it – and to reinforce the D/S aspect, rather than as an end in itself).
Smith: The novels fall into three basic groups:
- The six early novels (Tarnsman through Raiders), all published by Ballantine.
- The two hinge novels (Captive and Hunters), the last Ballantine and the first DAW. Hunters is particularly important.
- The later novels (all published by DAW).
- By the way, how many Gor novels are there?
Norman: There are twenty-five books in the series. I stopped work on the twenty-sixth, Witness of Gor, when the blacklisting became clear. There was no point in finishing it.
(Since then Witness has been published, along with Prize of Gor, Kur of Gor, Swordsmen of Gor, Mariners of Gor, Conspirators of Gor, Smugglers of Gor, Rebels of Gor, Plunder of Gor, and Quarry of Gor is due for publication this year. While the Internet has laid open the blacklisting and nepotism of the SF community it has also allowed more people to bypass that gatekeeping).
Smith: Over the course of the novels, your themes seem to change. The early novels are action-oriented male fantasies. Tarl Cabot is strong, fierce, capable, self-contained, brave, just, and shrewd. A civilized man in a barbarian world, he is uniquely capable of mixing justice and equity with iron discipline, and as such he rises rapidly in Gor’s meritocracy of the sword.
Though Cabot is perfectly capable of meeting the Gorean world’s savagery with his own, he generally succeeds because of his kindness toward women (Tarnsman) or his equity toward prisoners (Outlaw) or naval slaves (Raiders).
While the world in these early books is savage, and so are its priest-kings, people, and creatures, your Earthman protagonist is not – and that is the foundation of his success.
In these stories women have at best a peripheral role; the novels concern Cabot’s external struggles, and his internal battles against his own guilt and sense of lost honor.
By the later novels, the themes are almost exclusively the sexual and social relations of men and women, with recurring and comprehensive demonstrations that, at least on Gor, men and women find their spiritual and sexual fulfillment in different ways.
Men are fulfilled by being dominant, strong, unyielding masters. They take pleasure in subjugating women, although once the women have acknowledged men’s superiority, they are protective, just, even loving. They will use force and pain, and more frequently the threat of force or pain, to break women’s independent spirit.
Women are fulfilled by being dominated and overcome. Essential to their nature is that they must accept their slavery. However, acknowledging their physical and social inferiority, and subjecting themselves to the will of a powerful master, actually liberates them sexually, as if their sense of place in society is a barrier blocking them from their true selves.
Norman: The books are written from the point of view that men and women are not identical; they are different in their natures and needs. They are complementary to one another, both wonderful but not in the same ways.
Smith: How do the sexes differ?
Norman: The books celebrate the strength of men, the beauty of women, and the intelligence and nobility of both. Women are presented as being sexually alive, heterosexual creatures, as opposed to Lesbic or bisexual creatures.
Heterosexual women tend to respond sexually to powerful, commanding males; they tend not to respect women-men: accommodating, manipulable weaklings fulfilling the political stereotypes of the desexualized male, robbed of the natural male birthrights pervasive among mammals generally and primates in particular.
(Norman’s later books seem to indicate a bit of a softening in regards to LGBT on Gor. This was something I felt needed expanding upon in the game, as we know these tendencies are natural and consistent across time and culture, in prevalence if not indulgence. There are strong naturalistic arguments to support these underpinnings of Gor, but the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy for a reason also. Still, it all makes for a compelling game world).
Smith: What are those?
Norman: Command, pride, and power.
Smith: In between the Ballantine seven and the DAW seventeen books is Hunters of Gor, the hinge book. I find it remarkable. At first it seems much in the line of its predecessors – after all, it is narrated by Tarl Cabot, and the novel’s outward action involves his quest to find and free Marlenus, Ubar of Ar. Actually, the novel is principally concerned with the constant skirmishes between Cabot and Marlenus’s raiding parties and the misandronous panther girls.
After many encounters, most of which involve the victor staking out the vanquished naked on the ground, the men eventually conquer the women, whereupon a remarkable (to me) transformation occurs. All of the panther girls (except their leader) fling themselves joyfully upon their conquering men, ecstatic at becoming sexual and social slaves, delighted that in overcoming their pose of independence, their captors have genuinely freed them from themselves.
This plot line is qualitatively different from the previous stories, where slavery and sexuality are present but the main story is adventure. The first seven books were published by Ballantine; then with the eighth, Hunters, you started to be published by Don Wollheim at DAW. How did the change come about?
Norman: Betty Ballantine objected to Hunters. We had a signed contract but the book was rejected without explanation. I heard nothing further for some time. Finally I asked. Ian Ballantine, who was rather embarrassed about the whole matter, speculated that Betty’s problem with the text was the fact that the book contained sexual matter as part of the rich background of a barbaric culture.
Smith: So the problem was the sexual content?
Norman: I was told the problem was not sex. I inferred it must be political. Further experiences confirmed this hypothesis.
(Of course, I think we can say now that it was the sex, and the politics of the sex. I think we can also see that problem has gotten worse over time).
Slavery Is Not The Problem
Smith: Though in Hunters both men and women are enslaved, slavery’s depiction, and their reactions to it, differ greatly between the sexes. Cabot is made a slave. He resists violently and it is clear that to keep him a slave would be so humiliating that he would rather die. Being a slave thwarts essential elements in Cabot’s character.
The women, on the other hand, fight slavery but come to understand that it is their highest state. I cannot remember if anyone in Hunters says “Kiss the whip,” but the sentiment, which is echoed frequently in the later novels, aptly expresses the breakthrough moment for the women you depict. Doesn’t that express violence against women?
Norman: The issue is not violence but dominance and strength. Many women respond to strength and force. They like it. They want it. Most women want a man capable of mastering them.
(This is, I think, where we see the division between reality and fantasy. Many people have transgressive fantasies, which sane people understand does not necessarily mean someone wishes to act on them. The bodice-ripper, the rape fantasy, resisting but being overcome. These are common fantasies, despite the taboo, which perhaps explains Gor’s popularity with women).
Smith: As in romance novels?
Norman: The genre is referred to as bodice rippers. At a Lunacon a f ew years ago, I attended a panel on romances. One woman author recounted a criticism she had received from her editrix to the effect that the hero had not raped the heroine. That was supposedly something to be corrected.
Norman: I frankly suspect that the matter is biological, and that this does lie somewhere within all women. One supposes that there is a man and a situation in which any woman could be mastered and would respond as a loving slave.
Smith: That’s a broad statement.
Norman: To be sure, it is a universal hypothesis of a semantically non-finite scope, so it is not the sort of thing which could be conclusively tested. But even if it is not a disposition in all women, it is obviously a disposition in a great many of them, in my view the overwhelming majority of women.
(While these may be present in fantasies, I don’t necessarily share Norman’s idea that it is quite so widespread as a real desire. Ideally, I think, we should have a society in which people are free to pursue their own satisfaction via whatever means they choose).
Smith: It sounds like you’re espousing force in sexual relationships.
Norman: Force in itself is not evil. The male sex is naturally dominant, and the female dominance-responsive. This is an overwhelmingly general lesson among mammals and in particular primates. To be sure, it is not absolutely universal. Among hyenas, females tend to be dominant. Oddly enough, they are saturated in the womb with male hormones, which may make the difference. Among elephants and buffalo, the male will often only approach the family group when it wants sex; this means that the oldest healthy female will in effect head the male-absent household.
(As with the dominance/submission versus sadomasochism contrast, I think Norman is contrasting the existence of strength with its exercise. You can want a strong partner, without wanting them to use their strength on you).
Smith: So dominance should be expressed via sexual slavery?
Norman: In the master/slave relationship one has, symbolically and beautifully expressed, a celebration of the glory of nature and the reality of dimorphic sexuality.
Smith: A world where men are on top because they are superior?
Norman: The Gorean point is not that one sex is better than another, but that each is unique. They are equal in value, in merit, but that is about it. The female Gorean slave with her beauty, her skills, her sex, her nature, has considerable power in her way, a point often made in the Gorean books.
Smith: But the women are not in charge.
Norman: Ultimately, of course, the male is the master, and the female is the slave. He and she will have it so.
(There are many women in positions of power throughout the Gorean books and while many are ‘brought low’ – actually liberated – to a state of slavery it doesn’t happen to all. The BDSM community is full of people who seek power there, that they lack in real life, or who choose to surrender power that they do have in their lives).
Smith: And you think women like this?
Norman: The only market research with which I am familiar suggest s that 60 percent of the Gorean readers are women. In any event, they number ministers, psychologists, scientists, paramedics, computer experts, open-minded feminists, and many others among their readership. Many criticisms of the Gorean books come from anti-maleites, penis-envy militants, and such, who are only too eager to impose their views on society.
(Again, I think Norman is entitled to a little parania and bitterness here. Interestingly that 60% is roughly the same to the amount of women who admit to having rape fantasies in psychological studies).
Smith: But women in the Gorean books are generally treated as property or slaves. Many people think that’s anti-female.
Norman: You can’t claim the Gorean books have in it for women, because too many women love them. The Gorean books are written for highly intelligent, highly-sexed individuals, both men and women.
Smith: What do you think women like in the books?
Norman: In their way, they are sensuous romances, and women love romance. Also, many women feel denied, sexually starved, frustrated, in our modern politicized reality, our would- be unisex planet. Contemporary society suppresses fundamental aspects of female sexuality, in particular those having to do with sexual surrender. Women, or some of them at any rate, have nothing against being feminine, sexy, desired, and so on, despite the fact that these properties are not required of dentists or accountants.
(And men want to feel sexy, desired and so on as well – but male sexuality is not just seen as embarassing, but as dangerous).
Smith: And thus, in your view, the world of Gor celebrates humanity’s animal instincts. If that is so, wouldn’t people want to live in it? How many American women do you think would want to live on Gor? None? Some? Most? All?
Norman: If you were to ask the average American woman, “How would you like to be blindfolded and have your hands chained behind your back, and then learn that you belonged to a man?” one might suppose that only a certain percentage of American women would be intrigued and thrilled.
Smith: Most of them would be frightened and horrified.
Norman: The percentage would be far higher if the woman were allowed to name the man, namely a master to whom she knows in her deepest self she could submit and would desire to submit. And if you made the question, “Would you like to be owned by a powerful, handsome sheik, and treasured by him, and ravished frequently as a slave, so that you screamed with pleasure?” you might get an enthusiastic “Yes.”
(I think the success of otherwise excreble novels such as 50 Shades of Grey – and some would argue the Gor series – demonstrate that Norman is broadly correct).
Smith: In defining it that way, you have made it into a fantasy, because the woman has control over the man and has specified the terms of her ravishment. Of course you can do that when you read a book. Do your typical readers, especially your enthusiastic fans, want to experience it in reality?
Norman: One has readers of many sorts and on many levels. If you are asking whether the average reader would wish to experience the Gorean reality, I would not know. Many would be interested in seeing what it was like. Would the average reader like his or her own life to contain more Gorean elements? I think the answer to that would be yes.
(I likely wouldn’t fare well on Gor, but it is not just warriors and the more stereotypically male characteristics. Scribes are a valued caste as much as warriors, and being able to live forever would be great).
The Gorean Philosophy of Sexual Politics
Smith: Well, Hunters is largely a morality play expressing a view of sexual politics. The structure of pursu it, capture, and blessed submission is common throughout literature – indeed, Hunters of Gor is a kind of Genghis Khan Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hunters is a rape romance – it says, in effect, that if a woman will not succumb to her sexuality of her own free will, she must be forced into acknowledging it. Indeed, she subconsciously wants to be forced (as evidenced by the panther girls’ enthusiastic embrace of their masters at novel’s end).
Norman: On Gor men are men and women are women, but the twain meet quite frequently, meaningfully, and excitingly.
Smith: At least in the imagination, as seen in most of the couplings in The Story of O and the fireplace rape scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
Norman: I recall Dominique Francon’s fireplace “rape scene” very differently, although a rape interpretation is a common one. It is abetted by Dominique’s claim that she was raped; after all, who would know better than Dominique? On the other hand, one must consider the full background and context. Dominique and Roark are not strangers. Much has passed between them at the quarry where Roark was working. The sparks of desire have been flying like electricity between them. The symbolism of Roark’s masterful and casual handling of the drill piercing solid rock is clear.
Dominique is aroused and Roark, who is highly intelligent and very little socially controlled, is aware of this. Dominique longs for the power of Roark, and to be mastered. Roark is well aware of this. They want each other badly. However, Dominique is unable to bring to conscious acceptance that she, a young, beautiful, brilliant, sophisticated society woman, has met her master in this seemingly careless, vulgar figure of a common laborer.
Smith: So you are saying, in effect, that Dominique subc onsciously wanted to be taken, and in ravishing her, Roark was carrying out her will as well as his?
Norman: Dominique was taken without her explicit consent, but in accord with the depths of her being, with the full acquiescence of every fiber in her body, yielding to him as what she is and knows herself to be, his rightful slave.
Smith: Rand makes a point that Dominique neither cries out nor, when Roark is finished, is she in any hurry to remove the traces of him from her body.
Norman: I think the subtlety in Rand’s part is to belie Dominique’s conscious judgment, and to make it clear in the text that appropriate, perfectly suited lovers have met, wonderfully and explosively.
Smith: At The Fountainhead’s end, of course, Dominique is married to Roark and is proud of him as he stands, phallically, atop the biggest tower in the city.
Norman: Rand’s treatment of sex shows an awareness of power relations and the enhancement of sexuality by their frank admission and celebration. In Atlas Shrugged, even when Dagny Taggart is naked in bed, she wears an iron-link bracelet of Rearden metal like a slave cuff.
(Words do not exist to express the full contempt in which I hold Rand, and her work, so other than this – no comment).
Smith: There is a large difference between power romances, where the heroine succumbs willingly to the hero’s greater strength, and rape romances, where the heroine has to be enslaved and bludgeoned into submitting, only to be liberated later on. While you may take issue with the word rape, your heroes put women in chains, brand them, starve them, and use force to make them succumb to sex. That the women come to enjoy, even to crave, their submission does not change the fact that force was used to obtain it in the first place. I am sure that many women who want to swoon to Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester would also draw the line at using force to procure sex.
Norman: There is very little bludgeoning in the Gorean books. Women slaves are mastered, but there seems to be little physical abuse involved. There is of course the actual control of food and the threat of the whip. That would be normal in a barbaric society.
Smith: In Imaginative Sex (1974) you come out and state explicitly that:
- Imagination is a component in sex.
- These should be fantasies.
They depend on, to quote you indirectly, affection and trust between partners. Is Gor your expression of a philosophy of sexual fantasy?
Norman: Fantasy in sexuality allows for a deepening and broadening of sexual relationships and an incredible enrichment of the sexual existence. A sexual life with the imagination left out seems to me to be a sexual life certainly beneath the potential of a rational animal. If imagination is permissible and commendable in life –
Smith: – which is, of course, the essential premise of science fiction and fantasy.
Norman: – then it seems obvious that it should also be permissible and commendable in one’s sexual life.
(The popularity of cosplay erotica and Rule 34 would seem to show this is, indeed, the case. Yet, paradoxically we also see a new puritan morality, especially in the creative subcultures).
Smith: Then I don’t think people are objecting to imagination, or to sexual fantasy – goodness knows, we have enough of that available in science fiction, both in the work and in fandom – but rather to the type of sexual fantasy which dominates your work – namely, male masters dominating female slaves.
Norman: To be sure, not every fantasy appeals to every individual.
Smith: Certainly we have seen an explosion in erotica within science fiction and fantasy. Aside from a whole line of books about vampire sex, there are publishers specializing in erotic SF/F, and of course, the whole phenomenon of slash amateur fiction that combines common SF icons such as Kirk and Spock into sexual fantasies.
Norman: The Gorean books are written in exquisite taste and do not contain explicit sex, by contrast with many feminist works. But I like to think that my work was the seminal pioneer work in the area of SF/F sexual fantasy.
(The Gorean books are certainly not as explicit – for the most part – as they’re expected to be by many people. A big part of the problem does seem to be that the Gorean novels are male-oriented, heterosexual-centred fantasy).
Smith: That’s quite a claim.
Norman: It is a bit like Leif Ericsson and Columbus. Some folks were there first, but I may have been the fellow who first landed there in a historically big way. To be sure, I could be wrong.
Introduction to Part 2
This piece, although presented in the form of an interview, is actually a construction that David Alexander Smith assembled from correspondence between himself and John Norman. In developing the piece, Mr. Norman cooperated with Mr. Smith, whom he respects highly, authorized the use of his correspondence, and received the opportunity to review a portion of the piece before its publication. Nevertheless, its contents and organization, ambiance and possible inferences, are primarily Mr. Smith’s responsibility.
Mr. Norman does not object to the article’s publication, so long as it is clearly understood not to be taken as adequate to or definitive of Mr. Norman’s views.
Smith: Although this is a personal judgment, the later books are to me less interesting than the earlier ones. They are also longer – for instance, Tarnsman (Book 1) is 220 pages of medium-size type, probably about 75,000 words, whereas Hunters (Book 8) is 320 pages of small type (perhaps 150,000 words), Players (Book 20) is 396 pages (about 190,000 words), and Renegades (Book 23) 436 pages (probably just about 200,000 words). Their pace also seems to slow down – conversations become more protracted and often repeat similar themes – and the later books seem to have less description of the setting. These features suggest to me that your readership is narrowing.
(Players is one of my favourites, otherwise I would tend to agree. When doing my research the majority of notes were made from the earlier novels. Some of this is simply down to the fact that the setting has already been established by the time of the later novels).
Norman: Well, my problem has never been with readers. Of my last three published books, The Chieftain had a 67-percent sell-through, and The Captain had a 91-percent sell-through. I have no figures on the last book, The King.
Smith: The early books also have much better, tighter prose. The later books are much more lengthy, and in my opinion would have benefited from tightening. Because of this, and because they focus exclusively on the same recurring theme, they are unlikely to attract new readers. I think this affects their publishability.
Norman: Writing style is a matter of taste. As I have matured as a writer, fire-engine prose seems less attractive to me. English is one of the richest, subtlest, most complex and flexible of all the native languages on the planet. I hope my prose has given the language its due, which it seldom gets from my esteemed colleagues in the genre.
Regardless, my novels are complex, thought-provoking adventure fantasy novels. They are also, in their way, intellectual, psychological, and philosophical novels which seem to me quite innocent.
Smith: As I understand the Hollywood blacklistings, coercion and suppression were present in the McCarthy era. Producers and directors were coerced by the threat of being named co-conspirators before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and they rejected works only after learning who wrote them, hence the burgeoning cottage industry in fronts who submitted work they did not write as their own.
Norman: In the Hollywood blacklistings – never proven in writing, so perhaps they never took place – certain authors were denied assignments and employment. Liberals objected vociferously to this sort of thing. One would suppose then that liberals were opposed to blacklisting on principle, regardless of political agendas.
(People on all sides seem fine with censorship, so long as it’s not them being censored).
Gor As a Sexual Fantasy
Smith: A therapist who works with sexually dysfunctional people once told me that essential to the erotic lure of many sex fantasies is their unachievability. The human mind is a complex thing, and people may become aroused by fantasizing about experiencing something which would terrify them if experienced in real life.
Norman: There is a literature on female sexual fantasy and it turns out that many women have rich, lively sexual imaginations – happily for them and their mental health.
Smith: Of course, a rape fantasy cannot harm a woman, whereas a rapist can. Reading about being a slave is a lot more intriguing than actually being a slave.
Norman: Perhaps, but within the privacy of their own relationships, many women do live and love the life of a female slave. These women, who have joyfully relinquished their freedom for the collar or the anklet, who have knelt and kissed the whip, seem to have found the rewards more than adequate recompense.
Smith: Placating the superego through fantasy allows the id free rein, much in the same way that riding a roller-coaster gives the illusion of being near death, without the corresponding risk. Key, though, is that the work is acknowledged (at least by the reader) as fantasy. Do you think the later Gorean books have strong elements of sexual fantasy?
Norman: All the Gorean books have strong elements of sexuality in them. And many psychologists use and recommend sexual fantasy in therapy. Indeed, some defend pornography not only for its obvious, documented value in defusing sexual aggression, but for its liberating roles in freeing the sexual imagination.
Smith: I doubt that you will get universal agreement that pornography reduces sexual aggression.
Norman: The matter is a bit like having safety islands and street lamps. Some folks are going to be hurt by bouncing their cars over safety islands or driving them into street lamps, but, on the whole, the safety islands and street lamps do a great deal more good than harm. For that matter, so do automobiles, yet no one is proposing banning them as expressions of male aggression.
(Again, this is a liberal and libertine position from Mr Norman. It’s also one supported by the evidence so far as we can tell. Part of the reason the new – and old – cultures of repression can be genuinely dangerous).
Smith: Imaginative Sex states that partners should act out their sexual fantasies.
Norman: If one has never owned and mastered a female, one has missed an incredible adventure in masculinity, a uniquely fulfilling experience. Similarly, the woman who has not felt the bonds of a master, who has not felt his collar put on her, who has not knelt, who has not obeyed, who has not yet understood herself as a vulnerable, helpless slave who must and will obey, has not experienced the fullness of her femininity.
Smith: In Imaginative Sex you take pains to emphasize that these fantasies should be handled trustfully and safely.
Norman: In expressing sexual fantasy, there have to be precautions to protect the participants. One would wish to screen out the sadists, for example. Further, given the jealousy and possessiveness of men, the desire to pair bond on the part of most women, and the danger of communicable diseases, I would think that the best way is in couples, and that any sexual congress involved would be private and limited to the master and his particular slave.
(It is peculiar that, in many ways, despite being embraced by the BDSM community, Norman seems to find himself at odds with them in many ways, an uneasy bedfellow).
Gorean and American Society
Smith: Many people who express tolerance over people’s private lives and private fantasies become militant if those philosophies are forcibly imposed on others.
Norman: The philosophies of statism, authoritarianism and collectivism are being imposed forcibly on the American people by the bayonets and guns of the state. I wonder how many people see through the rhetoric of “totalitarian liberalism” and recognize what is being done to them. The country is moving toward fascism, with ever more power being consigned to the omnipresent, paternalistic, later to be omnipotent, state.
The imposition of philosophies is nothing new, or exotic, or remote. To be sure, I, unlike various editors who currently decide what you may and may not read in science fiction, disapprove of the replacement of the individual with the group, of freedom with conformity, of liberated thought with supervised, managed discourse. The current readers of science fiction are political prisoners, and most of them, I suppose, haven’t caught on to that yet. And some of them, I gather, like it. It saves thinking, at any rate.
(We currently seem to live in the worst of both worlds, with the totalitarian mindset ascendent in politics and another totalitarian mindset ascendent in the social sphere).
Smith: Elsewhere you have made the point that Gorean society is decentralized and pluralistic. Would you want a Gorean society actually to be created?
Norman: It seems possible that a Gorean world might be the best possible world empirically, given human realities. It would not be a Utopian world.
Smith: Would you want to live in it?
Norman: It’s very difficult to know if one would want to live in a Gorean society or not without having actually lived in it. Much would depend on the test of life consequences.
Smith: You mean how happy it makes its citizens?
Norman: Most large-scale human cultures have been catastrophic failures in producing human happiness. They have seemed to offer their victims little more than a choice of miseries, irrational isms, or actual social psychoses.
Smith: On Gor, anyone can be a slave, the world as a whole accepts and endorses slavery, and almost all of its cities have some form of female slavery.
Norman: It varies from city to city. In the Gorean world, only one woman in forty is in bondage. And in any case, if I understand the signs aright, most modern people seem to live boring lives. In a Gorean world, whatever one might die of, it would not be boredom.
Smith: The later books repeatedly assert that modern society not only suppresses women’s sexuality, it also functionally castrates men. Whereas you show many Earth women who are liberated by becoming Gorean slaves, you have few (any?) Earthmen who are liberated by becoming Gorean masters. For example, Tarl Cabot is not liberated by becoming a master; he steps into the role with little if any feeling other than his desire to recover his honor.
Norman: It seems pretty clear to me that manhood, virtue and virility, are under an ugly, consistent, and dangerous attack. Perhaps women’s rising longevity advantage is an effect of a pervasive promulgation of a diminishing, life-shortening ethos for men which attempts to twist, distort, and undermine them, to cripple them, to lead them to distrust their sex, to look with apprehension on their most natural urges.
Smith: How would this shorten their life-span?
Norman: It produces anxieties and depressing syndromes of health-threatening elements such as the discomforts of hypocrisy and the proven, deleterious consequences of prolonged mental and physical stress.
Smith: You are saying that Gor is an emotionally healthier society?
Norman: Well, for example, some men in our world seem to want to hurt women. These things are incomprehensible in a Gorean world, but they make some sense in our world, a world in which natural relationships tend to be denied.
Smith: Denied how?
Norman: The male, cheated of his manhood, desires to inflict pain in revenge. The female, cheated of her womanhood, accepts and perhaps even desires pain, perhaps to punish herself for deserting her deepest self.
Smith: And women? Are they more free on Gor?
Norman: Yes, I think women on Gor would be more intellectually free than on Earth. Women here are under attack. They are supposed to forgo themselves and line up behind anti-maleites and Lesbics, espouse a militant hate-founded creed, and conform to generally alien stereotypes.
Smith: Could you expand on that a little?
Norman: Some stereotypical principles of antimenicism are the dehumanization of the fetus; the attempt to diminish and devirilize males; the claimancy of victimhood; the demand for special advancements and privileges, economic and social, for themselves; the belittling of, and holding in contempt of, motherhood and love; careerism vs. family; hostility vs. nurturance; barrenness vs. maternity; the postmodern subordination of truth, objectivity and reason to political ends; the adoption of an adversarial relationship to males, abetted by falsification, slandering, demonizing and attempted demasculinization; the exaltation of a sexist “sisterhood,” the praise of, and espousal of, Lesbic attitudes and agendas; the denunciation of “heterosexism,” i.e., love between men and women; the insistency on vanity and self, on idiosyncratic egocentricity and methodological selfishness; recourse to the state to force the imposition of programs on an unwilling, confused and repulsed community, both male and female, and so on.
(This was 1996 remember. There’s a lot here I couldn’t agree with, but there’s also other elements I recognise, such as the undermining of objectivity and science and the way things have moved beyond demands for equality and into demands for revenge and special privileges).
Smith: And how does all this relate to modern American women?
Norman: Many women want romance in their lives, and with men. They do not find the miniaturized, docile male, the poodle male prescribed by feminism, of much sexual interest. He is a bore and tends to be a lousy lover. By contrast, in the works of John Norman certain women are literally slaves, owned women, and they find their joy and their fulfillment in their condition as uncompromisingly dominated females. They revel in their condition; they would exchange it for nothing; they have tried freedom and found it wanting; they love their masters; they are hot, devoted, and dutiful. They are happy. A literature which does not recognize that such women exist is limited, incomplete and naive.
(Given the multiple horrific revelations about well known male feminsits, this no longer seems quite as implausible. It’s not the open perverts you have to worry about, it’s the ‘allies’).
Smith: A world with slavery.
Norman: As the Gorean culture is richly, vividly, authentically barbaric, slavery exists, as it has throughout human history in one form or another. On Gor it exists honestly, openly, explicitly, not called by other names or hidden under political rhetorics.
Smith: You mean slavery is present now, in America for instance?
Norman: Economically, of course it is. The state can deprive an individual of his property, his freedom and his life. It may limit his thought and control his life as it pleases. The average American works 123 days a year to pay his taxes and the more successful work longer for the state, which harvests the fruits of their labor even more ruthlessly. The First Amendment itself is under attack from the feminist left; if not repealed, it will be reduced or nullified by judicial activism, subjecting it to creative interpretation – falsification to accord with self-serving political goals.
(Again, I repeat, this was in 1996. However I think he’s blinded to the self same problems from the right, not to mention from capitalism itself in the form of Silicon Valley companies).
Smith: Has this reached science fiction?
Norman: Science fiction and fantasy in America are no longer free. If they are to be published, they must be subservient to the liberal-feminist agenda. The feminist prescriptions for and stereotypes of the “good woman” are demeaning , confining, and inhibitive, and irrelevant to the calm world of facts. Feminism represents as much a psychological prison for the woman as did the morality of the Victorian era.
Smith: So you are in essence demanding the freedom as a male writer to celebrate female sexual slavery. There is something incongruous in this.
Norman: I am not demanding freedom but rather calling attention to the fact that it has been denied to me.
Smith: Even if some people find it offensive?
Norman: Not everyone likes my work. That is a problem for anyone who has serious edges, hard surfaces and sharp corners – clear views and something to say. I think the many thousands who do like my work have a right to see it in print, and to enjoy it. The main point is censorship versus freedom. I come down on the freedom side of things. In my view people should try to do what seems fine, and worthwhile, and even great and important to themselves, rather than conform to the preferences and yardsticks of others.
To be sure, this is a recipe for integrity, not success. There is no standard, ideal human being which we should all attempt to emulate. Each human being has a right to exist for his own sake, and as he chooses to exist, subject to certain obvious qualifications having to do with sanity, civility, safety, health and love. My own search for truth in life, and in literature, has led to defeat, to the ashes and desolation of censorship, slander, misrepresentation and blacklisting
Gender and Critics’ Perception of Sexual Writing
Smith: I wonder if what upsets people is not the content of the books so much as their author: after all, you are a man writing in part about the glories of dominating and enslaving women.
Norman: That is an important and interesting strand of the Gorean fabric, but it is only one strand. An entire world is created here, with languages, cultures, artifacts, politics, religion, costuming, cooking, military strategies, weapons, plant life, animal life, complex social arrangements, and so on. Surely that is an incredible achievement. One could gather from your comments that there is nothing in the series but one particular variety of man-woman relationship: that of the virile male master and his lovely slave.
Smith: I highlight it because female sexual slavery seems to me such a prominent element in the novels, and in the reactions they generate. The Gorean novels imply that women want this, whether they know it or not.
Norman: There are plenty of folks, such as Anne Rice, who are writing material which is far more erotic than what I do. Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy is light years beyond anything I would do or even think of doing, yet Ms. Rice is a heroine to many feminists . . . and is published by one of the houses that refuses to so much as look at anything by John Norman. To be sure, there are many spankings and bawling men in that trilogy. My work is short on such sure-fire items. So it looks like politics is the real answer.
Smith: When Susan Palwick, author of Flying in Place, a novel about an abused child’s struggle to cope with her memories of abuse, revealed that she had in fact not been abused as a child, she received angry letters challenging her and claiming that she must have been abused because this could not have been invented. In both cases, critics were challenging the artist’s right to imagine something not directly springing from his or her direct cultural experience, as if personal experience were the only grounds from which fiction ma y spring, and any genuine imagination is poaching. In effect, such critics argue that certain topics are the exclusive province of authors who have lived through them, and other authors should be kept out: a kind of ethnic literary mercantilism.
(An early example of the kinds of demands we see these days that you not write outside your experience, or that you pay sensitivity readers or similar to pre-approve and have editorial control over your work).
Norman: It would require a feminist writer to fantasize men utilizing women for food, like Suzy McKee Charnas in her political tract, Walk to the End of the World. To me that seems sick, ugly and disgusting. Needless to say, the publishing house that published that pathology, and doubtless congratulated themselves on their political relevance in doing so, will not even look at anything by John Norman. My books celebrate virility and femininity. That, it seems, is their crime, and glory.
Smith: On that note, it may be appropriate to end this interview with an excerpt from the end of The King, the last John Norman novel published:
“[Free women] are dangerous, he thought. They have all the power of their freedom, of custom, of rude law protecting them, rendering them invulnerable, permitting them to strive in a thousand sly ways against men, capable of reducing and diminishing men, of denying them, of using their bodies to buy what they wanted, of withholding them for gain, of offering favors for bribes, and all with impunity.– Telnarian Histories Book III, The King
It is pleasant to tame women, to make them obedient, dutiful, passionate slaves, and to drive them to sexual ecstasies a thousand times beyond those attainable by the free woman, perhaps bound hand and foot there, begging for your touch. Yes, women should be slaves; they belong in collars and shackles. And women, interestingly, dream of masters. They long for the chains in which they know themselves rightfully to belong. At the master’s feet is the place of women, and this, deny it and fear it and fight it as they will, in their hearts, they know.”