utterly crushed
June 15, 2011, 2:30 pm
Filed under: the sweet life, unseen world | Tags: , ,

There is a difference between literature and pulp we are told, and it seems one strong argument for difference forms around the issue of didacticism.  If it preaches at you, it’s a tract or a manifesto and can’t be literature.  Pamphleteers, campaign managers and copy writers have petty politics and bottom lines in mind and dispatch their missives motivated by short term influence.  It’s a base activity:  move money now, gain power, broaden influence, create loyalty.

Literature on the other hand, classically speaking, has loftier aspirations and doesn’t stoop to moralizing or preaching or influencing.  So, in strict structural terms, literature may show us the human spirit and condition and we are frozen in apprehension at our comic and ultimately mortal place in the world.

So are dystopias literature?  In the essay excerpted below we are told that protagonists in contemporary adult dystopias are utterly crushed to make sure the reader understands the bleak message of the book and to instruct that we must change our ways or suffer the dire consequences.  On the other hand protagonists in contemporary children’s dystopias are not crushed completely in order to not extinguish hope in the mind of the young reader.

You could argue that the hopeless adult dystopia is not didactic at all, but rather a reflection of an important vision of the world.  I like this argument better; it doesn’t pander.  However, the argument doesn’t work for the description of children’s dystopias below which have been compromised with hope.  The hope is sort of a lie:  it makes the reader feel that the world is ok after all, and it allows the author to manipulate and, like a huckster, teach.

In The Little Match Girl which was written for children, a little girl whom life has treated horribly dies by fire from her own matches.  Her death in the final lines is described almost like a dream.  There are no pulled punches here:  life is hard for this girl, in fact it’s hopeless.  Here, I’ll prove it to you, says the author.  I’ll describe how she dies in a fire of her own making.  Refreshingly horrible;  a real life, no moralizing or teaching, just a beautiful memory and then death.

Here is the excerpt from the essay Fresh Hell:

The youth-centered versions of dystopia part company with their adult predecessors in some important respects. For one thing, the grownup ones are grimmer. In an essay for the 2003 collection “Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults,” the British academic Kay Sambell argues that “the narrative closure of the protagonist’s final defeat and failure is absolutely crucial to the admonitory impulse of the classic adult dystopia.” The adult dystopia extrapolates from aspects of the present to show readers how terrible things will become if our deplorable behavior continues unchecked. The more utterly the protagonist is crushed, the more urgent and forceful the message. Because authors of children’s fiction are “reluctant to depict the extinction of hope within their stories,” Sambell writes, they equivocate when it comes to delivering a moral. Yes, our errors and delusions may lead to catastrophe, but if—as usually happens in dystopian novels for children—a new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins would the apocalypse really be such a bad thing?

Sambell’s observation implies that dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.

Fresh Hell, Laura Miller, The New Yorker, June 14, 2010

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