Reading in the Winter of Our Discontent

Normally, I don’t think too hard about why I read what I do because I enjoy non-cozy murder mysteries, stories about restarting civilizations after plagues, and similar depressing fare. Oh I can point to my enjoyment of intellectual and ethical puzzles, but it doesn’t quite absolve me of my love of dark novels*. But a recent essay by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker, “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” got me to wondering about why readers—not just me—have made dystopian novels bestsellers for decades.

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Der alte Bücherkasten, by Friedrich Frotzel

Lepore begins with a series of plot synopses that made me realize just how dark authors have gotten in catering to our tastes for fucked up societies. Then she introduces one of her theories about why dystopias have proliferated, writing “Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning. This year, the thunder is roaring.” It’s hard to argue with this. I’ve turned to Wodehouse and Ben Aaronovitch to cheer myself up since the inauguration because so many things have gone awry in my country. (But that’s another blog entirely.) If I could find a utopian novel to read (they’re increasingly rare, as Lepore points out), I know that reading it would make me more depressed about politics than the actual news. Reading a utopian novel now would probably just highlight how far things have gone astray from how I had hoped. Reading dystopias is depressing, sure, but they perversely cheer me up because at least things aren’t that bad.

So far, I can agree with Lepore that we’ve lost something by not encouraging more authors to write about how the future can be something wonderful to look forward to. But then she makes this statement in the last paragraph:

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.

I can’t agree with this. In addition to reassuring me that at least things are that bad, dystopias remind me of the power of human endurance and that the bad times don’t last forever (though they can last an awfully long time). It’s possible that she’s reading even darker dystopias than I have, but Lepore cites The Hunger Games—which I really enjoyed because the protagonist Katniss Everdeen embodied the virtues of endurance and justice. The message I got from Katniss’ story was not that life is suffering and government is cruel and oppressive. The message I got was that, when things are not right, you fight back as hard as you can while keeping your eyes open for cynical manipulation or destructive vengeance.

Utopias make for hopeful reading, but I notice that most (if not all) of them skip over the struggles it would take to arrive in the promised land of post-scarcity and equality. Dystopias are all about struggle and sorrow and suffering and, right now, I think we need to be reminded that the fight for a future utopia is always hard but worthwhile and absolutely necessary.

But if you need a break from the struggle, it’s totally okay to go read Wodehouse** for a bit.


* This makes recommending books to people at my library tricky because so many of them tell me they’re looking for something light and fun.
** Or your favorite comfort read. I’ll even help you find something to read.

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One thought on “Reading in the Winter of Our Discontent

  1. How interesting! Thanks for pointing this essay. I tend to agree with Lepore, although I haven’t thought it through. There’s something very easy about being a doomsayer, it’s so much more difficult to come up with solutions and alternatives. I don’t have the solution myself but I don’t see the point in reading darker versions of our already dark reality.

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