MJ Collins is a writer and critic from Kent, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is a Reader in American Studies at King’s College, London. His academic work includes two books, The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800 – 1865 (Michigan, 2016) and Exoteric Modernisms: Progressive Era Literature and the Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Edinburgh, forthcoming). He is new to writing fiction and his work charts the edges of sci-fi/fantasy, especially at the point they touch realism. He is interested in the way history informs our sense of play and fantasy shapes our everyday lives. His first attempt to write a short story was published at Storgy (https://storgy.com/2020/09/14/the-chaotic-neutral-by-mj-collins/). “The Great Majority” is his second. He is old enough to have watched things he once loved become retro, a fact he greets with shock and disdain.
What inspired you to write ‘The Great Majority’?
I’m really concerned by the direction nostalgia is going in the world right now. I’m increasingly worried that young people have become trapped in an older generation’s fantasy of the world. The story I have here, “The Great Majority”, comes from a place of concern that as we idealise the past – politically, culturally, socially (a real trend in UK life right now) – we will give up on the future and get stuck in refining our descriptions of historical experience so that certain people (and certainly not others) can be made comfortable with the past and not have to deal with the emerging reality of what the nation has done and who it has harmed. It’s a kind of palliative care regime for a culture. Even as it makes some people happier I see it ultimately as a new form of harm – a second-degree damage – that annihilates the true past to make some people not have to deal with the consequences of British complicity in, well, literally everything horrifying historically. Ultimately, this leaves us unfocused on reshaping the world for the future and that opens a space for exploitation. To make someone live wholly in their own fantasy world also seems kind of abusive. It’s a zombified existence in a toxic spiral. Its asocial and deceptive. Here’s a little sideline that’s maybe relevant. An old fastfood chain from the seventies called Wimpy Burger has opened in the town where I live in Kent (Brexit Central as it happens). I pass it every day. On the wall inside is an official piece of decoration for the franchise that reads “Celebrate British Heritage: The Wimpy Way”. There’s another that says, “Start Your Day The Proudly British Way With a Wimpy Breakfast”. It’s perverse. For one, it’s pure flimflam: Wimpy is an American company. Some people just remember it from being younger as a British thing it never was. Second, it seems oddly “unBritish” (I know, a weirdly hypocritical phrase to use) to make so much of “British heritage”. It’s too braggartly, boastful, overblown somehow. Memory is fallible and inaccurate, so nostalgia is perhaps the least truthful thing upon which to base an identity. Especially for a whole nation! This is why I chose to dot the story with pastiches of other writers (nods, really) – Orwell is in there, Huxley I think – old-fashioned jokes and styles; my own meta-version of the “Absolute Immersion Nostalgia Therapy” the characters are subjected to. It is an exercise in irony that is political; a warning that we shouldn’t give ourselves over to nostalgia, as pleasurable as that might sometimes seem. We end up building a sense that the world has fallen away from something in some fundamental way and so miss what is growing, beautiful and really new all around. The Puritans who went to the New World (who also make a brief appearance) thought the same. Look where that got us!
Could you give us an insight into your writing process?
I’m a university lecturer in American Literature. It’s a busy job and hard, but I love it. I often get wound up though by the way my thoughts have to be constructed in the form of “academic prose” or “Theory” – perhaps the single ugliest literary styles ever developed by humanity. As I encounter thoughts and research in my day job I have started writing them out in two discrete ways: one in that mannered way I was trained to make careful connections between things; second, in fictional situations I create to apply ideas. The clash between the two styles is often really amusing in itself and shows up things I might not have seen otherwise. It helps me commit things to memory and makes me better at explaining them to others. I guess the difference is similar to replying two situations as tragedy or comedy. Though I’m really not sure I know which style is which! I see writing as a form of learning. I was always a pretty diligent student. I guess I’m still just studying.
What do you consider to be the most enjoyable or important aspect of science fiction or fantasy, and why?
It’s always been a little odd to me that sf and fantasy exist in their own kind of literary space, with their own special kind of (assumed) audiences. The first stories we told as a species were “fantasy” (according to the generic definitions we now use) and people have always written self-reflexively about the impact of new or emergent technology on writing and life. English literature wouldn’t have Caedmon’s Hymn or whatever if The Venerable Bede and his mates at Jarrow Monastery hadn’t learned to make this wicked new technology of The Book to take it down. Caedmon would just be some weird-ass dude in a Northern barn riffing on a lute about God. The two things – sci-fi/fantasy and technology – go hand in hand, which really makes the rise of the internet a perfect space to revive the traditions of fantasy that first shaped literary culture. It’s “high realism” or that strangely meaningless thing called “literary fiction” that is sort of the anomaly! I love Henry James and Eliot and all that stuff – they could turn a little phrase, credit where its due! -, but I think I like “genre fiction” (a stupid term – literary fiction is a genre!) because they suggest we are properly thinking beings, imagining other worlds and inclined to hope, rather than just given to reaction and describing the world around us. I’m being flippant. Good writing is always imaginative, of course. Still more, people often draw a distinction between sci-fi and fantasy that has over the years made the former more prestigious and the latter still a little nerdish and esoteric. But I don’t believe that and don’t see the difference really. I do not think fantasy is remotely regressive just because the skin it’s in looks mock-medieval. Both sci-fi and fantasy are experiments in alternative ways of being human; in tracing new trajectories for being. It’s a brave way to write and think.