Fiction: It’s More than Just Entertainment

Novelists and storytellers – as well as painters, musicians, playwrights, poets, and architects – give form to the times and places that we occupy. They tell us about ourselves – and we have much to learn if we listen. The arts are not an indulgence.” – Noah Richler

I’ve always been interested in how fiction relates to the bigger picture – to society at large. I’m a big believer in the notion that art has something to say, not only about the person who creates it, but also of the time in which it is created.

One of my favourite parts of English lectures is when the professor puts the text we’re reading into context. To give you an example of what I mean is, for example, Shakespeare. In order to understand his plays, you have to understand a variety of things: the history of any given play (a lot of them are based on historical events or legends), Elizabethean ideology, theatrical performances of the day, the publication practices of the day, etc.

Each time period has it’s defining characteristics and most of these are determined in retrospect. People looking back in time find patterns that point to important issues of the day. To use Shakespeare again, a central concern in Macbeth is the “great chain of being.” The Elizabetheans believed that there was a hierarchy of existence, and kings were at the top since they had a divine right to rule. Messing with this order is a catastrophic thing, as shown in Macbeth. Macbeth kills the rightful king and everything falls out of whack. Without this piece of knowledge, reading Macbeth becomes considerably more confusing than it is to begin with.

In my literary theory class a few years ago, part of the readings included an excerpt from Martha Nussbaum’s book, Cultivating Humanity, and it stayed with me because it articulates my view of literature as a whole. The book makes a case for the importance of liberal education and she focuses on how reading develops a “capacity for narrative imagination.” This capacity helps turn individuals into “citizens of the world” by developing empathy in readers. In a nutshell, the excerpt I read makes the case that literature is always political – it always has something to say about the world, and something to teach. For those of you interested in finding out more, check out think link for more info: http://www.amazon.ca/Cultivating-Humanity-Classical-Defense-Education/dp/0674179498.

As an English student and very avid reader, I’m constantly wondering what our literature says about us. Which is why I’m particularly interested in YA post apocalyptic fiction, as you may have noticed from my previous posts. I think the sudden rise in popularity of the genre, aside from being a shameful money grab following the success of the Hunger Games, communicates an interesting anxiety in our culture today.

Think about the characteristic elements of YA fiction. It falls into the category of a buildungsroman, which is a fancy word for a coming-of-age story. Not surprising, given that it’s YA fiction. More specifically, though, the stories that have been coming out lately deal with some topics that I feel are particularly relevant. There is an ambivalence towards authority and a lot of them definitely question whether the people in power, and their ideology, is really the best way to do things. On top of that, a lot of these stories deal with issues of propaganda, specifically the propaganda of a dystopian society. By definition, a dystopia is a society that operates under the notion that they’ve managed to create a utopia – a perfect society – when in reality, the society is fragmented and dysfunctional. This dissociation between the way the government, or ruling party, wants people to perceive the world, and the reality of said world, drives the main conflict of this genre, and the main conflict is usually the need for change.

On top of this, there’s usually a certain undertone that the future is grim if things continue the way they’ve been. There’s also a sense that, regardless of how hard, and often violent, change will be, it needs to happen. Now, for me, that rings quite a few bells. It sums up pretty well how I’ve been feeling about the world and my future in it since I became an “adult.” There are a lot of things to be worried about these days, specifically for young people. We are inheriting a world that seems to be spinning out of control, particularly in North America. You have the States trying to figure out what to do about their massive debt, a problem which came partly from a whole nation recklessly living beyond their means. You have the whole world trying to recover from an economic crisis with varying amounts of success. You have terrorism spiking to alarming levels. I just finished research for an article I’m writing on for my campus annual magazine about the state of youth employment, or lack thereof, in Canada. Let me tell you – that in itself is a pretty scary story. Canadian businesses, government, and educational institutions are not only not communicating well about how to create more jobs and bring down the youth unemployment rate (which is twice the national average – yikes), but also inadvertently making it even more daunting for young people to figure out how to get on their feet.

The fact that recent dystopian novels pit teenagers and young adults against older generations does not strike me as random, or idle; I see it as symptomatic. As part of this age group, I identify with the resentment towards previous generations, which created a lot of the problems we are now facing, and with the feeling of abandonment and even exploitation by these generations. I think these writers are picking up on a rising anxiety in the young generations about our future, because there is lots to be worried about.

Lastly, it’s no coincidence that the dystopian comes along with environmental devastation; with a post-apocalyptic world. Global warming is becoming a bigger issue than ever and I think we as a society are beginning to really feel it. We’re exploring, in the form of fiction, what the consequences might be, and how we’ll rise, or fail to rise, to the challenge.

Hunger Games, I think, serves as a good exemplar of all of this. So much so, that I would argue this is why it has sparked so much spin offs. I think it struck a chord.

When I sit down to analyze the fundamental aspects of the HG story, a few things stand out to me. I see a preoccupation with spectacle – everything must be sensational and larger than life. I see people, in this case children, reduced only to their entertainment value. I see the haves exploiting and deriving entertainment from the have-nots; the districts provide raw materials for the Capitol, as well as tributes to participate in their primary form of entertainment. I see the 1% doing everything necessary to stay in power and preserve their way of life rather than prioritizing improving the life of everyone – President Snow. I see the effects and consequences of nuclear warfare and the tolls it takes – environmental, societal, and psychological.

I loved Hunger Games when I first read it, and still think highly of it despite its flaws, because I read it first and foremost as a warning. Good fiction holds up a mirror and asks us to evaluate ourselves and our world. The world of Hunger Games might not look like ours, but many of its problems are our problems too.

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One thought on “Fiction: It’s More than Just Entertainment

  1. This is a beautifully written post. I love the thoughtful analysis on the role and nature of literature, and especially the reasons for the appeal of Dystopian literature.

    As an older adult, I feel that I have to mention that every generation goes through many of the same thoughts and feelings that you correctly ascribe to your generation. Every group of new adults feels that the ruling people have screwed things up, that the rich are privileged and rig the game to favour themselves, that there is too much violence in the world. And every generation is correct. My personal belief is that those things are all true, and they all form a loose set of universal truths.

    Take Hunger Games, for instance. The author herself admits that the inspiration behind the book comes from the brutality of Ancient Rome. But we’ve seen this type of society many times before. Feudal lords with complete life and death control of the peasants, societies with slaves, Nazi Germany, even the East German manipulation of athlete’s bodies in order to win Olympic glory. We’ve also seen previous stories dealing with the same concept. I once read a short story (1950s?) about Russia and the US declared an annual War Games in place of actual wars. The Games involved a fight to the death with 100 from each side, in an arena completely blanketed with cameras, and a television coverage that was mandatory viewing for every citizen.

    Every generation needs to come to terms with our imperfect world. And you did an excellent job in showing us how literature admirably attempts to fill this need.

    Like

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