I Hate Dystopian Literature

That isn’t entirely true.There are quite a few dystopian novels I like, a lot. But, I don’t like contemporary dystopias. There, I said it. In fact, with very few exceptions, I don’t like the genre at all. But, with the new Hunger Games knockoff Divergent (quickly followed by two visually cloned dystopian films, The Giver and The Maze Runner), I don’t think it’s going away soon, at least in the movies Hollywood chooses to adapt. (Edit note: As far as publishers are concerned, though, it’s kind of yesterday…)

So, let’s first look back a little at the development of the modern and contemporary dystopian story and where we have this odd, new trend. Because, it is an odd trend. The Mean Girls and 16 Candles of today now feature evil governments and martyr protagonists taking the place of school dances and popular kids. It’s a sociologically interesting trend.

Our stories have gone from this:

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To this:

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In many ways, the first real, modern dystopia was We by Zamyatin, a Russian author whose dissenting work made him one of the most banned writers in the USSR.

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We is a story about social philosophy. In the USSR, there were artistic and social movements from Russian Constructivism to Taylorism, which deemed that one could create a rational utopia through mathematical harmonies and collectivism. In the novel, the dystopian society thinks and communicates through numbers and mathematical formulas, all while living in a literal protective bubble. The main character, rather like in Orwell’s later work, 1984, briefly has a chance to change his life, through the influences of a woman and the discovery of the outside world. This is the basis for the entire novel. I would not go so far as to say this was a brilliant work of fiction. For one thing, the mathematical aspect of the novel is not entirely realized, since the author was not really a mathematician, and furthermore the technology and speech makes it very dated. There are also some troubling racial politics, as the dystopian society is racially integrated, but the narrator still, for some reason, has to constantly say negative things about the only black person he knows. Classy. And I can’t help but note that integration seems kind of tied to the negative aspects of the collectivist society. However, one cannot deny that this is really the kind, if not the quality, of dystopias that should be written. Zamyatin was writing against a powerful and corrupt government, and used the science fiction story to illustrate concerns he had with the world he lived in. He also risked a great deal to write this book, and it widely banned in his home country. That’s a key that most fans of dystopia forget. Almost all fans and writers take exactly 0 risks these days. I mean, The Hunger Games has a hilariously unironic Subway tie-in deal, so if anything screams that that dystopia isn’t coming true, it’s a Hunger Games meatball sub.

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What I am saying is that dystopia does not have its roots in stories about oh-so-special people who are special, and there’s some kind of baddy government or something, and the special people have a love triangle, and bang! Boom! Bang! Exciting!

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That really isn’t the history of dystopia. Also… I would not suggest reading that…

Other landmark dystopian classics followed. 1984, which I’m just going to assume almost everyone has read by now, is the quintessential dystopia.

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It draws heavily from We, but creates a far more sophisticated world. Orwell’s understanding of language not only provides crisp prose, but also a world where language, as opposed to numbers, is the key. The twisting and distortion of language, through New Speak, is a huge element, almost as popular a concept as the iconic Big Brother Is Watching.

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Another landmark text is Huxley’s Brave New World, which, for some reason, is faddish to pit against 1984. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Ahem, so, lyk, we thought we would be in 1984, but really we’re, lyk, in Brave New World, because of TV and stuff…”

Yeah…

(By the way, speaking as a non-TV owner, let’s stop bragging about how unplugged we are when we all, yes all of us, binge-watch shows on our computers. True Detective in one sitting, am I right? We aren’t superior to TV viewers. We’re just more efficient…)

It really pains me when literary criticism gets turned into this sort of nonsense. What, did Huxley only write one book? Did Orwell? Are they necessarily at odds? Are there only two dystopian novels worth talking about? What is with this insanity? To make the books an either-or decision, pitted against one another, and to simplify their messages to “1984 has tough gov’ment” and “Brave New World totes choses ur own captivity” is really to lose the value of each novel. Dystopias are, by necessity, abstracts of social concerns, and each address specific concerns within the context of a novel’s structure. Therefore, a concern in 1984, such as the loss of communication through increasingly politicized language, is not at odds with the bread-and-circuses deadening of the senses in Brave New World. Neither are either of these books at odds with the critique of collectivism and constructivism present in We. I have no idea why the so-called literary analysis of dystopia has become, “Pick one, and only one!” but it’s seriously counter-intuitive when discussing a genre that is entirely about different social critiques. It would be best to look at all angles, would it not?

Or can there be... only one?

Or can there be… only one?

And, it think that kind of, “Pick one angle! Only one!” reading is something that will come back and bite the genre in the butt. People really start arguing about is the baddy in a dystopia, as if one political side is full of heroes and the other is full of google-eyed monsters.

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Another noteworthy book is actually from a very different writer than the previous three. This is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a different writer for a number of reasons. For one thing, where Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were intellectuals, approaching abstracted theories through science fiction modes in a rather Dante-esque fashion, Bradbury was a self-taught writer. His sources came from observation, newspaper writing, and his imagination was formed by classic Hollywood genre pictures and pulp fiction. He was a man of dinosaurs, sideshows, spaceships, and his love of literature and the imagination came from his own pursuits and studies.

Here is a quote explaining why I love this man:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

Greatest mind ever? Oh, maybe… maybe…

He never went to college. He was not a major political figure. And, he remains one of the best writers of the era. Bradbury’s fiction is often, almost always, interested in imagination, and the way people approach and love books is a huge part of what inspired his work and what he feared in society. Good characters value books, imagination, robotic Poe-themed houses, movie animatronic model dinosaurs, and they value these things even more than life, at times. Imagination, for Bradbury, is something akin to keeping innocence in the world, and the loss of both wonder and fear is a sign of something deeply wrong with society. This theme is most obvious in his dystopia, but many readers forget that it appears in many of his works. In Graveyard for Lunatics, a character’s loss of his beloved movie models is the impetus for his loss of innocence, and the loss of innocence for many others. His love of his art, the creation of worlds, not unlike creating novels, is his connection to life and humanity. In The Marian Chronicles, characters fleeing government censorship build robotic monuments to Poe, and yet the human characters are also destroying the leftover culture of the Martians before them, replacing beautiful, ancient cities with hotdog stands.

Bradbury, perhaps more than anyone else in the genre, placed a primacy on beauty, understanding that it is not simply the freedom to think of a particular ideology or moral, but also to enjoy and appreciate art that can be so very important. So, when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, the story doesn’t just focus on government restriction of thought. The characters burn books, but what replaces the books is given equal attention. The world left behind is not only misguided in thought, but also bereft of meaning. The characters have no real purpose to live and their actions of either violence or passion do not seem to matter. On the other hand, the good characters are willing to risk death and even die in order to maintain meaning.

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Bradbury was quoted saying that one does not have to burn books. One only has to get people to stop reading them. I would add, one could replace great books with a sort of thoughtless page-consumption and get the job done just as well. The empty consumption of entertainment is as critiqued as the excision of literature.

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I think that often when talking about dystopias, A Clockwork Orange gets left out. I think a lot of people do not remember that it is actually set in the future, and also a lot of people have a set image of dystopias as Evil Empire vs. The Little Guy. However, this need not be the case, and a true dystopia is merely one which uses political and ideological issues to illustrate a particularly bad future. I say “true dystopia” to differentiate between this and what are really post-apocalyptic stories like The Road or I Am Legend, which are more about survival after the disaster and may not even discuss ideology at all.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

Clockwork Orange manages to provide a great deal of detail about the setting without ever telling the reader too much. It’s a corrupt future. Crime is rampant. And, there is a great social disorder, a bankruptcy of morality, a nebulous lack of purpose. The main character spends the first segment of the novel committing acts of violence and maintaining his primacy in his gang. Then, he goes through the infamous Ludovico Treatment and is unable to choose anything but goodness. The novel uses this contrast, a character who only chooses evil being forced to only choose good, to ask questions about free will and morality itself.

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And, what I like about this novel, and why it is one of my favorite books of all time, is that it doesn’t make the evil some sort of empire. True, the evil empires in Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin do influence the main characters to do evil things, but the evil is clearly stemming from the fact that the characters are under a bad rule. That is the focus of the moral examination, and this is something I do not especially care for in large doses. In Clockwork Orange, Alex, the antihero and narrator, commits acts of horrific violence and depravity, and really just because he enjoys it.He has the same uncomfortable truth we see in The Dark Knight, in the portrayal of The Joker: there is something too human, too entertaining, too understandable in the enjoyment of evil, and that, not scary clown makeup or one false eyelash, is what makes these characters so frightening and so hard to ignore.

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Alex takes pleasure in doing wrong, as though it is an art to him. This is illustrated in the way he also loves Beethoven, and how the Ludovico Treatment actually takes from him his ability to feel pleasure in Beethoven’s music. His freedom to do evil is also his freedom to choose beauty. This creates a complex character dilemma, where the reader both sympathizes with and abhors Alex as both demon and victim. And, the evil Alex does, which is truly chilling and disturbed, is not caused because there is a Big Bad Government, but because Alex chooses to be evil. In fact, when the government intervenes, through the morally terrifying treatment itself, it forces Alex to be good. Therein lies the paradox, as it were. Furthermore, if you read the version with the author’s original last chapter, added later on by publishers, you see that Alex’s only real, true cure for evil is boredom. Evil, in the end, becomes tedious, and the sociopathic main character has nothing left to live for.

And that is a very important message! That evil isn’t some exotic, different Other, totally outside of ourselves. It’s not monsters, scary-looking people, political opponents, people who look or live or worship differently than we do. Society has a strange way of othering and glorifying evil. Othering, by making evil something that is not us, even if it means believing conspiracy theories or propaganda. A good example is how every group calls every other group Hitler, and then compares itself to Holocaust victims.

–Also, don’t ever do that.

I cannot tell you how much I love this sort of dystopia, as opposed to the governmental big-bad. This is because instead of giving readers a venue through which they may feel put-upon or victimized, the book forces readers to question their own capacity for right and wrong.

First, a few other mentions in the realm of classic dystopia. One author whose name may not immediately jump to mind is Philip K. Dick. Many people outside of science fiction and online communities do not know this man’s name. And yet, we know his stories, because they have made up a great deal of our pop-culture landscape. Ever see movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report? Yeah, these all came from one Mr. Dick, a strange writer who believed that aliens communicated with him. No, really.

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Philip K. Dick’s views on science fiction are far more in line with Bradbury’s, if Bradbury thought his Martians were real and was a conspiracy theorist. Although Bradbury is by far the more popular writer in the mainstream, with literary circles fondly embracing him, Dick is actually more successful in Hollywood. And, yet, most people have no idea that these movies are based on books, let alone books by one author.

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Probably his most famous work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from which we get the movie Blade Runner. The movie is a rather loose adaptation, but the story is simple. In the future, there are humanoid robots which do work for a civilization that has depleted its natural resources. They, however, are not supposed to be integrated into human society as real people. The line between humans tracking down robots, and robots themselves becomes increasingly blurred. Now, we have seen this before, most notably in the film Metropolis, and the animated remake of the same name.

The depressing as hell animated version...

The depressing as hell animated version…

At first blush, this seems like it may not even fit with the dystopian genre, and would instead be at the most a post-apocalyptic story. However, further reading shows that both the story and Blade Runner are in fact based on an ideological dystopia. Unlike Big Brother and other evil empires, this is about corporations. The story is about consumerism, and through the unbridled corporatism of the setting, humanity becomes commodity and the robotic product is indistinguishable from the human producer. Product and producer are one.

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You see this theme again in the sci-fi portion of Cloud Atlas.

Moving back to the evil empires, there is one more angle, that being the evil theocracy.

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Margaret Atwood took the formula of 1984 and We and gave it a feminist bent when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a story about a future where a dictatorial theocratic society has taken rule, and created a sort of Christian Taliban social policy of female oppression, regressive sexual politics, et cetera. It introduces another category of evil rule into the dystopian complex. In a genre where often the Stalinist themes pits evil empires against religion, Atwood looks at contemporary societal conflicts and creates a religious empire, like a cult that also runs the government.

For the last two landmark examples, I’ll cite two very different writers. One is Orson Scott Card, best known for book and subsequent series Ender’s Game –and also for his controversial politics. The other is Alan Moore, the man who brought the idea of literary graphic novels to the mainstream –and also known for his controversial politics. Card’s Ender series really does not initially seem very dystopian.

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It’s futuristic, but the future is one of aliens and spaceships. However, it is what happens on earth, and the backdrop for his story, which is very dystopian and provides his criticism. Focusing on the first book, Ender’s Game is about a third child in a population-controlled future, the downtrodden hero, Ender. Ender is taken from his abusive sociopathic brother and saintly sister and placed in a space-school to learn how to defeat aliens by playing lots of cool video games. It’s actually somewhat better than that sounds. But, the dystopian aspects take the form of the government control itself. When is it okay to commit acts of violence and who may morally be used? Is what they do justifiable? The story also has a parallel plot about the brother and sister taking over the government through the use of what is basically a blog.

I’ll remove any ambiguity. I don’t think Card is a great writer. I think his prose style is basic and his ideas tend not to be very well… thought out. The blogging aspect requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, for one thing. For another, I do think that Card lets his characters get away with making morally indefensible choices based on the fact that they have no idea what they are doing. While that leads to some good questions about the nature of war, I feel like, from a story standpoint, he chose a very safe route for his character. Ender does not know about his major conflict, and so it isn’t a conflict for him. Instead, he has these Harry Potter conflicts of fitting in at special school and being a special boy, none of which is as interesting as the big conflict that the main character never knows is a conflict and therefore is never conflicted about.

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It’s like having a story about dropping a nuclear bomb, but making the main character totally oblivious to what is happening. I think the moral could be sustained far more interestingly in a short story than a novel, which leaves us with pages and pages of a character playing strategy games that don’t feel very connected to the actual point of the story. Adventure, ho.

However, I would say that Card is one of the most influential writers in terms of where the genre is today. He gave us a magic boy character. Oh, sure, Ender is actually a genius, not magic, but the archetype is still there. And, more than anything else, this trait will influence the dystopian trends of today. Although the trends of today may just be miming Harry Potter, not Ender, so I don’t really know.

"Yer a special main character, female-Harry."

“Yer a special main character, female-Harry.”

Also, Card is kind of a bigot, but that’s extrinsic to the quality of his work. I just had to address that elephant in the room.

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Moore, on the other hand, is far to the left of conservative, Mormon Card. Moore is an anarchist who believes in wizardry. And, when I say anarchist, I neither mean rioter or dork-with-an-A-symbol-hoodie. I mean that Moore is philosophically in-line with Bakunin and Bookchin and Dorothy Day and the band Chumbawama. And, he uses his work to illustrate his politics and philosophy through the pop-art of graphic novels. Does it work? Hell’s yeah! I may like Clockwork Orange best of these novels, but Moore is the writer I have read the most. It’s not just that he managed to seamlessly melt literature and comicbooks into one glorious pop-art entity, like some superhero Warhol. It’s not just that he mixes pop-culture with philosophy. Oh, no, he’s also just kind of brilliant. That’s all. Just a great, great writer with smart, intellectual plots, and memorable characters.

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So, what’s so dystopian about Moore? Well, his most obvious and purest dystopia is V for Vendetta, but I would argue that The Watchmen is also a dystopian story. In V, the future is ruled by fascism, and the titular antihero works as a vigilante against the Nazi-esque government. This sounds straightforward, and in lesser hands (like, say, the makers of the V for Vendetta movie, which sucks), it could easily be pretty simplistic and stupid. However, Moore understands perhaps more than anyone else in his medium the idea of moral grays. V fights against a government that is undeniably evil. But, he does so through acts of terrorism, and he quite literally tortures an innocent.

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He is chaotic anarchy personified, the first wild blasts against the armor of a dictatorship. The evil empire of the story is also more interesting than the parody of the Bush administration in the movie, although one would be crazy not to realize that it is also a parody of the Thatcher administration. But, more than any specific leadership, the rule is one of fascistic abstraction: limited communication, 1984 style Big Brother, curfews, control of the populace, Nazi-like concentration camps, theocratic corruption, censorship, control of the media. V’s fight can be seen as both a necessary attack on evil, and also a morally ambiguous action of someone who commits atrocity because he has no army. Interestingly, the same may be said for many people called terrorists today, which leads to some very interesting questions about who we root for. Do we root for V’s actions, which can be legitimate terrorism, if we see the trappings of Hitler on the enemy? Furthermore, how much of V’s vendetta is personal, based on his own experience in a concentration camp? The end, with Evey Hammond donning the iconic mask, says that anarchy, as an ideal, will go on, but in the hands of the gentler, the post-revolution proletarian rule.

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The Watchmen is also a dystopia, if one doesn’t become too fixated on the superhero aspect. The story parallels actual history, and asks how much freedom are we, as a society, willing to give up for protection. And, after we have protection, who protects us from the protectors. Who watches the Watchmen? That is the central theme of the story, and one which, in a world of government spying and other miscarriages of justice, feels all the more apt.

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So, if you can’t tell, I really, really, really love these graphic novels….

Also, Ayn Rand wrote Anthem. So, honourable mention, even if it is by Rand. It’s actually not bad. Like, at all. Even if you hate Rand, it’s a pretty decent retread of the ideas in We. It’s not extremely influential, but it’s a decent, little book.

So, my purpose of outlining these books is to note that dystopia has a rather varied past. Which really begs a very important question: why do they so often sound exactly the same now?

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And why, if I love many of these novels, do I kind of dislike the genre as a whole?

Well, first of all, I am going to posit that we, as a reading populace, have sort of forgotten what dystopia means. I don’t just mean writers passing off vague apocalypses as dystopia, just to create an easy baddy for our preternaturally sexy protagonist. I mean that as readers we have forgotten how to read a dystopia. For one thing, dystopias are not prophesy.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

They are not predicting the future. They are, instead, focusing on a problem in the era of the author and discussing it through science fiction as a sort of metaphor or analogy. 1984 is analogous to problems in the USSR, for instance. Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the problem with losing books and great thought. But, even beyond this, many issues in dystopian classics are not about a particular power, but about individual problems, problems which readers may even find within themselves. Have we stopped reading great works? How do we judge the actions of others? How to we value freedom? What would we do?

"Which boy do you choose?" isn't actually a dystopian issue.

“Which boy do you choose?” isn’t actually a dystopian issue.

And, I think that the personal aspect of dystopia, the part which makes Alex such a compelling and frightening character in Clockwork Orange, this is the part that has been excised from reading. Instead, dystopia has become the biggest nail-biting, pants-wetting act of hysteria since people realized they could call all their enemies Hitler.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, “So, lyk, my political opposition is like Big Brother! Or, the people I disagree with are like Brave New World! Also, The Hunger Games is going to happen!”

Yeah… isn’t that all-too-familiar? How often to we hear horribly lame excuses like this, “I wanna say [insert extreme racial slur] without ever being questioned ever! Because people might question me or not want to hire me, that’s New Speak! Political Correctness is New Speak! I am entitled to be hired, even if my rampant racism makes me the very opposite of a team player!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re on the brink of being shot as a First Amendment hero for your brave use of the n-word. Nevermind that even Westboro ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead Baptist has been legally protected as free speech, this status affirmed in 2011, so that the most hateful of speech is legal in the US. Nevermind that you’re not entitled to, say, getting paid piles of cash to say whatever you want to a major TV audience (*cough* Duck Dynasty, you’re not constitutionally entitled to a reality show *cough*). Nevermind all that. Some New Speak law is comin’ ‘round the bend, yo!

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Furthermore, what is interesting is how vague dystopias have become and how both sides gleefully use dystopia to say not, “Hey, let’s talk about our problems!” but “OMG, that’s exactly what my political opposition will do!!!! Run for the hills whilst pissing yourself dramatically!”

Perhaps there is no greater example of this trend than the way in which people read The Hunger Games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Hunger Games became this popular. It capitalizes on two extremely popular tropes: a magic boy (or, in this case, extremely talented girl) archetype, and the love triangle of teen angst. It’s the natural offspring of Harry Potter and Twilight, two of the biggest publishing trends of the entire history of print. (Wrap your mind around that for a while…)

What many people seem to forget while thinking about which HP character they would want to date and which Hogwarts house they’d like to be in, is that Harry Potter is actually pretty political. The story may be about a magical boy who does magical things in a charmingly magic place (and, I’m not making too much fun, because I actually do like this series). Harry Potter is also about an evil ruler with a racist agenda, classist and racist issues in the wizarding world, the problem of media control, and even government corruption. For a story that started out with a wee orphan boy learning that he is magic and getting a fluffy owl friend, it ends with a huge bloodbath surrounding an anti-racism resistance of young people forming basically vigilante bands.

Thank, JKR… That was… exactly how I wanted to end my kiddie reads session. With horrific slaughter and attempted genocide. Happy reading, kids!

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War... Happy reading.

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War… Happy reading.

But, again, this kind of ending, and the maturing of the HP audience, mixed with their sudden interest in love triangles and escapist romance, made for the perfect meld for The Hunger Games. We were, as a world, apparently okay with seeing massive child-murder, and were also a little excessively jacked about the young vigilante groups. And political revolution in general.

Feel the magic.

Feel the magic.

The political climate has been one of resistance and revolution. Even the conservatives have adopted revolutionary rhetoric. And, we, as a society, were getting really comfortable with being doomsdayers. Religious apocalypses, ecological doom, even facebook all had write-ups about how doomed we were in our doomy doom. And, with a pre-existing template called Battle Royale (which is just better, sorry), it’s really not shocking that the story of a talented main character girl in a dark, scary world of evil would have a love triangle while kicking ass. That’s like the least shocking trend ever.

What is shocking is our lack of sophisticated reading. Both the left and right have had this weird argument about whose enemies are more like the dictatorship in this teen adventure series. What is even worse is how happy these people apparently are in seeing themselves as, well, the victims.

And, here’s where things get stupid. Well, stupid-er. Because we’re already arguing whether or not the right or left are the big baddies in a children’s book series, which is already pretty dumb. But, apparently, some people are actually arguing that The Hunger Games, a teen love-triangle story based on a pre-existing Japanese novel about media violence, is actually going to happen.

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And this is really where I start to have a problem with dystopia, as a whole. I am not the first person to point out that our society’s obsession with dystopia is actually pretty narcissistic. Oh, our problems today are just so much worse than ever, ever before? And, really, when confronted with this, many people have told me, Yes. They do believe this. Furthermore, they believe we are either in a secret, unknown dystopia now, or about to go into one, and then they scream about Hitler, because reading history, like reading legislation, is less fun than screaming. Yep, today we’re worse off than the victims of slavery,the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution, and the Black Plague –combined. Not because we’re suffering. Most of these people are very comfortably situated in a privileged class, because those who aren’t don’t have time to argue about dystopia. No, because something bad is going to happen. In the future.

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The trouble with dystopia as a trend is that it really isn’t doing justice to these authors in context, or doing justice to the books themselves, or being literary at all. Dystopia, especially dystopia that allows one to insert themselves as the hero and their political opposition as the enemy, is escapism. We are imagining our own martyrdom and delighting in it.

" You've got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What's say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it." Christipher Titus

” You’ve got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What’s say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it.” Christopher Titus

We aren’t escaping from reality to enjoy a magical adventure with Harry and buddies, or even a silly romance with sexy vampire boys. We’re escaping to imagine ourselves as heroic martyrs in a world of extreme violence, and to imagine our suffering at the hands of people whose politics we don’t agree with.

 

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn't vote for my candidate.

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn’t vote for my candidate.

 

Okay, so that kind of freaks me out.

I don’t really blame the authors, anymore than I blame Burgess and Kubrick for copycat Clockwork Orange crimes, or think that American Psycho is the reason we have spree killings. I think that Collins wanted to write a smart story about the media, and, in fact, the games themselves were inspired by reality shows like American Idol, not by any legislative policy. No, I blame our poor readership, obsessed with escapism, obsessed with characters whose skin they can fill, and unable or unwilling to read more intellectual texts which may put history and culture into some kind of context. It may sound harsh, but I think we read very poorly.

And, I think that this obsession with dystopia has fostered a breeding ground for serious paranoia. Remember how I said I would get back to Card’s politics? Well, he may write fiction, but he also thinks about the possibility of a “satirical” (but totally possible, and Obama is evil) future, where youth police the streets and we live in a dystopia. And, the fact is, when your rationale comes from a reading body that mostly consists of teen books and stories about doom, and not much fact-checking or study, there is no dystopian possibility that seems too insane or remote.

Whaaaat? It could happen!

Whaaaat? It could happen!

I’m sorry if I’m coming down hard here, but there is a reason. Here’s the thing, if you believe your enemy is evil, is going to make kids fight to the death on TV, is Hitler, is the devil, then you are justified in your mind to do whatever you want to this enemy. After all, you’re a hero. You’re preventing Nazi-1984-Hunger Games-Voldemort! So what if that person is totally innocent NOW. This is NOW. Now is just before the dystopia. In the future, that person will be guilty, so any pre-emptive strike is justified.

And, this is why I like dystopias like Clockwork Orange and sci-fi like Minority Report, and the works of Bradbury and Moore, better than other examples. I don’t like examples where evil is because of a big bad. Even if the stories have subtle dissensions from this, that’s clearly not what readers are getting. This is even worse, to me, when the evil is a specific group that isn’t actually doing this evil. Now, if your group is the Nazis, that makes sense. They did do these horrible things. But, if your group is liberals, conservatives, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gay people, feminists, et cetera, then you run a risk of paving the way for pre-emptive strikes against them. This is why I don’t even like Atwood, despite her acclaim, because I think it breeds bigotry against religious people who haven’t actually done the terrible things in the novel. And I don’t like Michael D. O’Brien’s Children of the Last Days series, because it specifically says that liberal media is covering up for an evil dystopia of left-wing, gay, feminist, Satanic, hippie, Gaia-worshipping Nazis (yeah… he has a lot of axes to grind, I guess…). It’s all based on “what if…?”. I don’t like “what if…?”.

In Burgess’s novel, Alex is our narrator, our guide, and we see the world through his eyes.

His scary, scary eyes...

His scary, scary eyes…

We sympathize with Alex, the raping, murdering, thug. We sympathize and this makes us question ourselves, morality, freedom, and the evil that we ourselves could do without choosing to do right. We all have a choice.

Dystopia too often becomes shorthand for lazy political accusations based more on personal feeling and emotional gut-reactions to people and parties we dislike, than it is used for helpful social critique.

We talk a lot about remembering history, almost always in reference to remembering that Hitler was a thing and so therefore Hitler is everyone the speaker dislikes. I say, remember all of history. There’s another scary, bloody era that we might want to recall: The Salem Witch Trials. And, this talk of dystopia and preemptive strikes has far more in common with that than with any heroic rebellion against any teen series baddy.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

Remember, the people who killed witches and burned devils and werewolves were also afraid, and trying to protect themselves. But, in the end, they are the ones we remember as the monsters. So, the next time you want to call someone Hitler, ask yourself: Has this person started a genocide and invaded countries, bringing about a World War? If the answer is no, chances are good that this person isn’t Hitler, or a dystopian villain, or a witch.

paranorman

 

And chances are, the one you fear is just as scared of you as you are of him.

And in that dreadful place Those spooky, empty pants and I were standing face to face! I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked. I howled. I yowled. I cried, “OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!” But then a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble. They were just as scared as I! I never heard such whimpering And I began to see That I was just as strange to them As they were strange to me! So… I put my arm around their waist And sat right down beside them. I calmed them down. Poor empty pants With nobody inside them. And now, we meet quite often, Those empty pants and I, And we never shake or tremble, We both smile and we say…”Hi!” -Dr. Seuss

And in that dreadful place
Those spooky, empty pants and I
were standing face to face!
I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.
I howled. I yowled. I cried,
“OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE
GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!”
But then a strange thing happened.
Why, those pants began to cry!
Those pants began to tremble.
They were just as scared as I!
I never heard such whimpering
And I began to see
That I was just as strange to them
As they were strange to me!
So…
I put my arm around their waist
And sat right down beside them.
I calmed them down.
Poor empty pants
With nobody inside them.
And now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble,
We both smile and we say…”Hi!”
-Dr. Seuss

Literati outrage of the day.

Outlit C

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Literature, Genre Fiction, and Loving the Bomb

I wanted to address some issues concerning “genre fiction”. In most book discussions, genre is a sort of nebulous figure. It can mean ideas of category, in such broad-sweeping terms as library collection labels (science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, et cetera). It can be more subjective, however. For example, a lot of cross-genre stories have crept up where various YA fantasy elements have melded with other genres, like historical fiction or dystopia.

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk... I don't know...

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk… I don’t know…

Furthermore, readers in today’s media-saturated world often have very, very precise ideas as to what they want, often based more on a collection of tropes than on any clear idea of genre. Usually these can be picked out in a very TV Tropes sort of way: “I want a YA series with a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds anti-hero, who is also a Draco in Leather Pants character, who is in a love triangle with an All Work and No Play woman who is Conveniently an  Orphan, and a love rival Starving Artist who believes Ambition Is Evil…”

I think that this devotion to trope collection is often what prevents good literary discussion. When someone gives a very vague I -couldn’t-get-into-it excuse about a book, often it is because the person reads to fulfil a certain love of trope. With women, especially, I see a lot of readers who have a real romance for some blend of the Draco in Leather Pants and Woobies. For the uninitiated, these are TV Tropes terms for specific character types. The Draco in Leather Pants is basically what it sounds like, a hot badboy, like the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera or every love interest in every Cassandra Clare book ever.

Or Spike. Spike also works...

Or Spike. Spike also works…

The Woobie is a put-upon character that you feel sorry for and want to hug because nothing goes his way, which is often kind of a favorite for certain female audiences.

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme...

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme…

Audiences who really like to fix people, to be exact…

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds is when the woobie might, you know, destroy things. But not intentionally.

Frozen

Frozen

A lot of people really hate these tropes when applied to romance, saying that they encourage girls to get into bad relationships in order to “fix” someone. But, I’m not sure if that’s really fair. I think there is a sort of safety in living out the bad romance within the confines of fiction, and that appeals to people.

And some choose to express their fantasies in song...

And some choose to express their fantasies in song…

It’s also not just for women. Film Noir is laden with femme fatales, who could basically just be the female Draco in Leather Pants, and the idea of “taming” the wild woman isn’t too very different from fixing the bad boy, in my opinion.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

However, there is definitely a subset of the population who really fetishize the tropes, intentionally seeking out books not for quality or enlightenment, but because they want to fall in love with angsty bad boys who would be good if only they had wub, sweet wub.

12751687

The romantic, angsty, dangerous love interest is named… Patch. That is hilarious…

This sets off my outrage.

Male readers often gravitate toward another wish-fulfilment fantasy, often with Chosen One narratives where a character is special and gets to have adventures and love and awesomeness because he’s just special. Eragon is a particularly dreadful example of self-indulgent wish-fulfilment writing.

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free!

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free! (And, yes, I know that women read this trope, as well.)

I believe I mentioned a meme in a previous post, about how one reads to escape life, and I said how this is really a very irresponsible way to live. I think that a lot of these Chosen One narratives create a reading environment where literature is not about humanity or raising up ideas and culture, but rather abandoning reality like the children in the Ray Bradbury Story, “The Veldt”.

The problem with collecting tropes is that it often makes it very hard to talk about literature as literature. A lot of people really promote the idea of obsessing over a trope as a positive thing, like it is part and parcel of the reading experience. While it’s not wrong to really like particular tropes, a collection of tropes does not actually make a story. It’s how the piece is used. For example, dystopian tropes can be used well, or they can be…

200px-Modellandcover

There have to be better ways of talking about literature. What does the author address? What about the writing style? What are the questions the author is asking or answering? How does the author enter into the dialogue of art itself? A trope can exist in a really great piece of writing, and also in some abysmal pile of shit. It has no quality requirements. Again, see the picture above. No quality requirements.

Trope collecting is more about filling a certain emotional need, such as loneliness or boredom, and has very little to do with literature. And, sure everyone has emotional needs. Sometimes everyone needs a quick escape, a way to de-stress.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

The problem isn’t from these books. It’s totally fine to read easy books, or even terrible books. It’s no worse than watching TV or watching really bad horror movies about giant rodents. There is, however, a problem in only reading these books, from only being able to read these books, or from refusing to read anything else. No Draco in Leather Pants in As I Lay Dying? I guess it’s a bad book, then… Not as good as Clockwork Urban Angel Vampire Romance of Doom and Fate 7, which is clearly the real masterpiece.

"I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!"

“I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!”

The idea of “genre fiction” is another misuse of the word “genre”. What does that even mean? I understand that literature is supposed to transcend genre, and there is this Sontag-fuelled argument about genre not being necessary to quality. However, I think that the popular notions about genre have really corrupted these ideas.

The problem is, I do agree with this: There is no good or bad genre. There are simply good and bad works of art.

Good vampire novel...

Good vampire novel…

Cornball crap.

Cornball crap.

Good science fiction series.

Good science fiction series.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

However, many people interpret that to mean: There is no literary fiction. There are simply entertaining and boring… whatever that means.

Art.

Art.

The trouble is that genre fiction has come to mean not “fiction that fits within a particular genre rather well” (something which is actually less clear than anyone seems to think), but it’s own thing. Genre fiction has become a blanket term for popular literature that usually has a low reading level, lots of action, snappy dialogue, and mass appeal. Very often, these books aren’t even strict, one-genre reads, like a YA fantasy historical romance, and are more defined by the tropes than by genre at all. Why do you think cross-genre selections of YA reads are devoted to love triangles? Because that trope, not any one genre, is popular.

Dystopia love triangle...

Dystopia love triangle…

Vampire and werewolf love triangle...

Vampire and werewolf love triangle…

Urban fantasy love triangle...

Urban fantasy love triangle…

Sort of like Modelland love triangle...

Sort of like Modelland love triangle…

Twilight with angels love triangle...

Twilight-with-angels love triangle…

Furthermore, good has been replaced by “entertaining”, which in turn often means “it has my favorite tropes and I am in love”. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with quality. Jangling keys in front of a baby can entertain that baby, but would probably not work on your boss.

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull...

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull…

I think those who study pop-culture can definitely discuss something’s popularity and mass appeal in semi-objective terms, such as why The Avengers was generally beloved while Man of Steal is so divisive. But, it doesn’t automatically mean that one’s personal entertainment is a sign of goodness. Again, Screaming Skull. And, often entertainment comes with the ability to access the media.

If one cannot understand Shakespearian English, for example, one cannot be entertained by his plays, even though they are filled with exciting plot devices and timeless characters. And the funny part is that many works of literature actually do have the tropes that people love. If readers gave the books a chance, and put forth the effort to get through the pages, they might discover that…

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants...

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants…

Frankenstein's monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds...

Frankenstein’s monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds…

You don’t actually have to get rid of your favorite tropes. They exist everywhere.

Most art, and that includes literature, is concerned with addressing humanity in some sense, in asking questions, in answering questions, and it participates in a dialogue with other artists, eras, cultures, as well as politics and social issues which concern the author and the audience. This isn’t boring. If this is boring, then life is boring. However, it isn’t as easy to consume as the fast-food reads that pack bestseller lists, and that makes some readers think it is boring. It’s not boring. It’s just asking the reader to do something. If we do not bring anything to the table or do any work while reading, what are we but consumers?

We're all monkeys!  (12 Monkeys)

We’re all monkeys!
(12 Monkeys)

And, again, not everything will interest every reader ever. That’s okay. That’s normal. But, never, ever being interested in anything that isn’t about sexy spies, explosions, chosen boys, woobies, angsty love, and more woobies, that’s just being obstinate. There’s a large portion of the population which is happy to laud privileged, well-to-do, educated people for being able to read basic stories in their native language by the time they are adults. I think this should happen by around age seven. No, no prize for you, college-educated person who only reads Twilight. If you were a child, maybe. Probably I would suggest that you read something else, however.

This isn’t to slight children’s and YA books. I’d praise educated adults for reading The Phantom TollboothSounder, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Paper Towns, The Giver, The Book Thief, The Westing Game, Coraline, A Wrinkle In Time, A Cricket In Times Square, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Hobbit, Skellig, The Book of Three, House of the Scorpion, The Fledgling, The Neverending Story…

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

 I don’t think that quality is determined by age group. However, I won’t praise them for their ability to read, or for actually deciding to read –only for picking some damn good kids’ books. And, I certainly wouldn’t extend that praise to someone reading yet another Twilight knockoff, or ghost-written, mass-produced grocery store novel, or a dystopian version of America’s Next Top Model… gah! That book…

Read it if you want to, but don’t expect the world to bow before your ability to be literate by age 26.

Didn't Disney teach you anything? You get a medal when you save your country from unrealistically muscular invaders!

Summer Reading Contest Winner, 2013. She read three books, so we gave her China.

There are kids in refuge camps who are learning to read in incredibly hard conditions. College-educated, well-to-do adults, especially those currently in college, and especially those in college and not working, should not be praised for doing what they should already know how to do.  That is what college students should be doing already. It’s a unique environment where you can spend years learning as much as you like, with professionals there to help you along the way. Anything less is just ungrateful squandering of a great privilege. When one considers the sacrifices people have made for education, from enslaved people teaching themselves, to bravely fighting for education rights for all races, to women trying to get the right to education  throughout history, to the struggles of the poor to even attain higher education, to the journey of integrating people with special education needs, it seems a little silly to praise people for just taking advantage of being in an educational environment. That’s like praising someone for eating food while at a table full of food.

Eating: not always a really good idea.  (Pan's Labyrinth)

Eating: not always a really good idea.
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

Now, none of this is to criticize fandoms. These can be very good, fun, supportive groups which address great ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something really refreshing about people who get excited about the things they love. It’s like this awesome John Green quote:

“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”

And, surely it’s better than squandering higher education by being a generally useless person for four years.

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It's so hard to tell...  (Spring Breakers)

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It’s so hard to tell…
(Spring Breakers)

However, it’s not a problem of fandoms or really liking something. That is usually really positive. The problem is with being indiscriminate and not taking advantage of education. The problem is in conflating the ability to read for entertainment with being literary. Congratulations on your ability to amuse yourself, but don’t expect a medal.

Actually, the world of literature really can learn from the world of what people call “genre fiction”. That is, literature needs to learn to be more nerdy. We need to teach people to learn to love literature, and love it in that enthusiastic, omg-I-am-so-excited, wonderful way. Because, yes, it’s not about the genre. Books of any genre can be great literary works. But, the focus should be on the “great literary works” part. And the focus of teaching should be about WHY these are great. I think a lot of the reason for anti-literature reading habits come from educators who just failed at making literary works interesting. They created a gap between popular “genre” fiction and literature, and one which really shouldn’t exist. Very often, students are left in a sea of jargon, just trying to figure out what literary even means. This makes people forget all the literature that is exciting, beautiful, smart, fun, and interesting, that makes life more illuminated rather than offering a way to ignore life for a while.

So, stop worrying and learn to love the… literati-inclined, high-brow masterpieces.

strange09

Outlit C

Interim: Some actual literature

I know that this should be an update about The Lion King, but it isn’t. I am too jetlagged and sick to finish writing that right now, and also I accidentally didn’t save a portion of the post when I last worked on it. So, that happened. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to say, since there is just a plethora of strange controversies people have dreamed up for this movie. It’s not like Cinderella, where there are all literally multiple books written about it, and an entire social phenomenon named after it, the Cinderella Syndrome. With these ’90s Disney films the controversies tend to be based more in ’90s radicalism and ’90s counter-radicalism, and neither strikes me as very intellectually substantial. The movie itself is more interesting than the controversies, and its influence on the changing world of musicals is probably going to dominate the discussion.

So, until I get that done, isn’t this supposedly a literature-based blog?

Well, yes, it is. Or, rather, it’s a literati based blog for culture and pop-culture, because someday I hope to get an article in The Rumpus… So, literature.

I had a conversation before Christmas with a few undergraduate writing students, and they expressed a certain frustration with professors who expected them to write in a “literary” fashion. Sometimes I think professors assume too much about what their audiences have in their personal lexicons, especially with terms as relatively vague and baggage-heavy as “literature” and “art”. These are ideas that have encompassed not books, but entire libraries, fields of study and philosophical arguments dating basically to the beginning of philosophy itself. Plato wrote on art. It’s a long discussion. And, while I don’t want to imply that these professors did not do a good job of explaining what they meant, or that I can do better in a blog that could alternatively be called “Two Nerds Bitching”, I do think that there’s an assumption that students have been tossed into the dialog of ideas a little earlier than what might be the case.

Actually, I think that this might be interpreted unfairly. I think many professors believe that they should not have to dumb down their classes and that students, whose primary occupation should be learning as much as possible in this rather novel period of life, should supplement their courses with additional material. This is true. However, I think that many bright students get left in a sea of terminology and possibly biased or partial definitions and, with what may be seen as an overwhelming abundance of library material, might come away with headaches and confusion. So, instead of saying that I have an answer to questions as vast and timeless as “What is art/literature?”, I’ll instead talk about what other, smarter people have talked about.

First of all, if you’re repeatedly being asked by a professor to write in a certain way, whether or not that professor has the carte blanche on all that is literary is secondary to what you are supposed to learn in this class. 9 times out of 10, the professor is trying to teach students raised on Hollywood blockbusters, TV, and fast-paced YA series how to use certain techniques. So, unless you’re just so revolutionary and brilliant that you need to fight against the system and show the world that your experimental, postmodern novel-in-verse is the next Finnegan’s Wake, I’m guessing this is an attitude problem. Obstinance isn’t a virtue in and of itself, and sometimes you need to do your writing exercises, draw your still-life sketches, play your etudes, do your plies and rond de jamb, practice your batting swings, and learn your multiplication tables. I don’t know why people think that writing is any different. You’re probably not going to suddenly breathe out the next classic novel without ever practicing your writing or studying the greats. It’s as unlikely as picking up a guitar and, without any practice or ever listening to music, shredding like a rock god. I’d like to dub this “American Idol Syndrome” or, since I currently live in the UK, “X Factor Syndrome”, the idea that out of nowhere you’ll suddenly become a star. It doesn’t matter that the winners of these shows have histories of practice, because they only really exist to their audiences between certain hours of the day, and their rise is like magic. Such is the reality in reality TV.

It's worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction... Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

It’s worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction… Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

But,  I do think that this frustration goes beyond the goth girl who dropped out of my undergraduate fiction writing class because she wasn’t allowed to submit Lord of the Rings fanfics. I think that this goes beyond people who just don’t want to write character-driven stories, or who think that they will be the next J.K. Rowling and therefore do not need to study Faulkner, and so on. Certainly, these people are real (horribly, horribly real), and, yes, they are an enormous drag on every writing course they enter. “Why do I have to read Moby-Dick when I’d rather read an urban fantasy about fast-talking wizards?” they say. Or, “I read popular fiction because I know what sells and I’m going to sell!” they proclaim, dully unaware of how much popular fiction is written by staff authors, or that the majority of such submissions are rejected unread. It’s terrible.

"Whadya mean rejected?!" [Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption...]

“Whadya mean rejected?!”
[Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption…]

However, there are plenty of bright, bookish people who get themselves on the wrong end of a confusing use of terminology. They don’t understand what their professors want. They don’t understand why they like something that seems lowbrow, or hate something that’s supposed to be highbrow. I think that a lot of talented and intelligent students somehow find themselves in this situation and burn out. And, I think that many professors believe that these students are like the “I don’t have to read writing to understand writing! I’m going to be a bestseller!” types, and brush them off.

I think that a lot of people first become unsettled by this discussion when they realize that their likes do not exactly pair up with everything that is or has been critically acclaimed. They find themselves reading a book and going, “Why do people like this? Why am I supposed to like this?” It’s like meeting a popular person and finding yourself in that uncomfortable situation when you seem to be the only one in the room who doesn’t like him. I think that this happens a lot in the visual arts and music, as well. People look at a Rothko and think, “I don’t get it. It must be crap.” People listen to classical music and are shocked to find themselves bored by Mozart and Dvořák, but enjoying Katy Perry. How can that be, when classical music is supposed to be so good and Katy Perry is so… whipped-cream boobies?

Truly she is the voice of a generation...

Truly she is the voice of a generation…

I think there’s a place between embarrassment and reactionary snobbery, and many people fall into it. “Well, yeah, I didn’t like Rothko. That’s because I haven’t been brainwashed into liking that arty bullshit! I’ve got common sense on my side. Sure, I like Vampre Night 7 better than Steinbeck’s works, but that’s because I’m a book-lover, not a hipster! And, yeah, I think Transformers 2 was a good movie and didn’t get Wild Strawberries, but that’s because I understand the common man, not that elitist crap. I might like Flo Rida, eat food that is cooked in 120 seconds, and think that Raphael was a Ninja Turtle, but at least I’m not a kale-eating snob who uses artisan cheese knives and wears vegan shoes!”

"Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I'm not a HIPSTER from OREGON!" [Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

“Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I’m not a HIPSTER from OREGON!”
[Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

The tragedy here is that these people are hurting themselves, just as much as a person who refuses to eat anything but fast food. The unglamorous secret is that you’re not going to like everything. And that’s okay. You won’t like every film that makes it big at Sundance or Toronto, you won’t like every piece of classical music, you won’t enjoy every play, you won’t fall in love with every painting or sculpture, you may not get a performance piece, you might not like that Nobel Prize-winning author, and you may even dislike books that people call “classics”. And that… is okay. Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, what you’re experiencing is normal.

The arts come from people, people with their own quirks, perspectives, and visions. It’s like getting to see someone’s personality in audio or visual form. And, like the people you meet every day, you may not like everyone. This, however, does not mean that you should give up on art, music, ballet, “arthouse”, or literature. You may not like a guy named Ted, but that doesn’t mean that every Ted, Teddy, or Theodore in the world is an asshole.

"I don't approve of Roosevelt's actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose."

“I don’t approve of Roosevelt’s actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose.”

Furthermore, those professors talking about art and literature have their likes and dislikes, as well. I had a professor who hated Death of a Salesman, and a professor who thought Shakespeare In Love was a really wonderful movie. I happen to like Death of a Salesman and I think Shakespeare In Love is the second most overrated Oscar winner after Titanic. There is room for discussion.

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

You see, the arts are not the sciences,and I think schools have done kids a disservice in not explaining this. I partially blame standardized tests, which turn everything into right or wrong answers, little fill-in-the-bubble sheets with simple, multiple choices. However, while there really is an answer to an equation and only in advanced math do we get more discussion (which, frankly, I don’t understand), the arts aren’t like that. Did you know that many people think some of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t any good?

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one. [Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one.
[Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Did you know that writers as prominent as Jane Austen were loathed –by other prominent writers?

Namely, this guy.

Namely, this guy.

Personally, I dislike a lot of critically beloved art and literature. I don’t like The Lord of the RingsPride and Prejudice, Jeff Koons, or anything that Marina Abramovic has been doing lately. I don’t think that most of the Oscar winning movies are very good, especially things like The King’s Speech (although Circuit B will disagree with me about that one). I even think that Nirvana is an overrated band, and I don’t like Verdi’s adaptation of Othello, and I didn’t enjoy Les Triplettes de Belleville, or most of John Updike’s writings.

Is there a stronger word than "hate"? I mean... just look at this Koons shit.

Is there a stronger word than “hate”? I mean… just look at this Koons shit.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I should dislike all epic fantasies, English literature, postmodern art, performance art, Oscar winners, grunge bands, Italian opera, animated arthouse films, or strong, masculine voices in literature. This doesn’t even mean that I dislike everything these artists and writers have done. Furthermore, this does not give me grounds to depreciate the artists. They simply do not speak to me, but they do speak to many other people and I have to respect that and understand why.

The fact is, and this is the crux of the problem, the arts require a certain understanding to appreciate them. They have their own “languages”. Musical notation is, in fact, very much its own language. But, so is color, visual symbolism, visual cues, cinematography, acting, mise-en-scene, textures and brushstrokes and shapes, and, yes, language itself has its own dialects. While most people understand that language has dialects, especially when trying to speak to someone from another culture, it is for some reason often ignored that writing should have different dialects. However, this is true. One cannot, for example, say that a single, standardized, essay-type dialect is suitable for all of literature. Imagine if Shakespeare were forced into these structures? Or, how would you like to listen to a rapper who sounded like an academic essayist? Even various essays use different levels of formality depending on their function and purpose.

"I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: 'Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'" From "My Name Is", the essay.

“I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans in my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: ‘Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'” From “My Name Is”, the essay.

Just as you cannot step into a conversation with people whose language you do not speak, you may not be able to access an artist’s work whose “language” you do not understand. What people do not realize, however, is that this doesn’t mean that they have a problem. You’re not at fault for not knowing someone’s language. However, if you want to converse with this person, you need to learn how to communicate. An inscrutable painting, a piece of music that bores you, a work of literature that you simply do not “get”, these may simply speak a different language than the one you are used to.

The good news is that very often basic exposure breaks down these barriers. NPR did a report which showed that listeners who were unaccustomed to certain kinds of music literally did not process the notes. Their brains simply could not comprehend all of the sounds. However, repeated listening allows people to learn the musical language and appreciate the subtleties of sounds and unfamiliar chords. Furthermore, scientists believe that literature actually affects a different part of your brain than, say, the next vampire romance or slick cop vs. the baddies novel. Unfamiliarity with the complex syntax and vocabulary, as well as the subtle character development and action, can be like working out a muscle that you don’t normally use. If you’re accustom to taking walks, even good walks, you’re still probably going to hurt when you take up marathon running or mountain climbing. It’s the same here.

Many people decide that when they cannot get into art or literature that they have some sort of terrible problem, or that the art/literature has a problem. The answer is that neither you nor the arts have a problem. You’re just not used to the art yet. It’s like not being able to swim a certain distance, run a marathon, or enjoy a really exotic dish. You just need to get used to it.

So, that comes to the frustration with this vague idea of what art and literature are.

I think there’s a subtle difference here that people aren’t always getting. That is: art can be anything. But, it isn’t everything. There’s a difference between what art can be and how art succeeds.

Art and literature are basically anything intended to be artistic and literary, as well as some highly successful things that maybe weren’t intended to be that high brow at the time but nevertheless affected culture profoundly over time. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, and obviously doesn’t do justice to the discussion of aesthetics. However, I think it does answer the questions of those who do not understand what their professors are talking about.

“Why is it art?” should really be less of a question than, “How is it art?” When confronted with a professor saying, “You need to be more literary!” don’t ask what it is to be literary, but rather how something is literary, and how it works. It’s in the writing of the book, the turns of phrase, the subtle development, the way the writing builds on traditions or breaks traditions. It’s in the compositions of artwork, the techniques, the designs. It’s in the musical theory and the composition and the performance of a piece. The how-is-it-art is in the parts, which give you the completed whole.

This is why we cannot use trope identification as a form of literary criticism, because the existence of a “Draco in leather pants”, and a “woobie”, and a “word of God” reference to something greater than the book itself does not have anything to do with the actual book-ness of the piece. This is also why “symbolism” (eg “This symbolizes that the bad guy is Hitler!”) is not literary criticism. Any hack can do that.  As redundant as it sounds, the first thing to care about in writing is the writing –and that is the same for art, music, and so forth.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and ...this.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and …this.

You see, in visual arts we’re more comfortable with just flat-out saying this, while literature, being naturally more verbose, we’re more likely to write fourteen books on the subject. In visual arts, anything can be art. However, not everything is, as any artist or critic will tell you. So, where is the line?

The fact is, there is no multiple-choice, standardized test bubble answer –check here for art, and here for not art. The arts are very much a dialog, discussing life in different eras, and what their goals are, how they change from time to time, school to school, and person to person. Like learning a new language, the arts require audiences to put forth some effort to communicate with the pieces, and not simply sit there and expect to be entertained, as one might be with a Michael Bay movie or Vampire Academy novel.

But, I also think that knowing there is this effort and dialog does cause some people to over-think the arts. They are confronted with a piece of writing which they do not understand and they start doing the literary criticism version of what Calvin and Hobbes do with math homework.

CalvinAndHobbesMath-algebra

They start making up really complicated ways of reading the piece and then get frustrated, as though they are trying to crack a code instead of read a book/view a painting/listen to a song/watch a film. I think that bad teachers, who make students analyze the color of curtains instead of the quality of prose, are to blame for this Da Vinci Code style reading.

Not everything is a code... including everything mentioned in this book.

Not everything is a code… including everything mentioned in this book.

In actuality, most books, music, film,and art are meant to be enjoyable. They may have a more subtle or informed sense of enjoyment than what you may get from Avatar, but they are meant to be enjoyed.

Take David Foster Wallace, for instance. His book, Infinite Jest, is often brushed aside as a “hipster” or “elitist” work. This is entirely due to the fact that it is over a thousand pages long and is non-linear in structure.(Because heaven forbid anyone sustain disciplined reading over an extended period of time! I guess Les Miserables is proto-hipster, then.) However, what might surprise those who sniff at his work is that David Foster Wallace was probably one of the least elitist writers ever. And, when wondering what his work is supposed to be about, he gives you not only the most concise answer but also the best answer for what to look for in literary fiction:

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

And there you have it. That’s why literature affects you differently than the zooming pace and snappy dialog of the sexy FBI agent and his will-they-won’t-they-do-it partner in the latest instalment of the Xplosions and Guns and Sex series.

I once read a terrible internet meme that said something like: “I read so that I can escape reality.” Now, while we all need an escape now and again, that is still a horrible sentiment. You read not to find comfort in the struggles of those who overcame in the past, or to find out about yourself and others, or to understand the world, or to seek beauty, or to empathize with others? You read because you don’t want to think about these things and would rather imagine supernatural love triangles and magic powers? What, do you not think you have any invested interest in what happens on planet earth? Yes, bad things happen to people. Let’s not eat lotuses and forget about it. We have some duty to our neighbors. We do not have the right to be ignorant of life and therefore end up hurting someone, voting poorly, developing prejudices.

And I think that really sums up the difference between a quality work, and something that professors/critics/literati-types won’t like. Good art is about being human. It’s about finding beauty. It’s about sharing in this great dialog of all these minds. Great art, not commercial, lowest-common-denominator production, is about the common person, reaching out to everyone, open to anyone, produced by anyone, the most democratic and glorious celebration of human life and individuals in this existence we call being human. The mega-studio blockbuster is made by executives so rich that they will never move in the same spheres as you, and made from collections of marketing data. It’s mass appeal is as calculated as selling corndogs, and made from elites and for the purpose of filling pocketbooks. One has to move beyond this strange prejudice that “easy to understand” means “for the common person”, which holds the corollary that intellectual pursuits cannot be achieved by common people. That, not the pursuit of beauty, is the truly elitist position. The person who says, “Well, I am not brainwashed by art and literature so I know that Moby-Dick is bad!” is the real elitist, setting himself apart and above all the many, many minds that have been moved and influenced by these great works.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.


The fact is, literature and the arts are about being human. When we do not understand them, it very often comes from too many preconceived notions and the worry that the piece will be too difficult. In fact, very often the opposite is true. Very often the piece is simply the story that was inside a particular artist, and that artist’s voice is trying to tell it in the best way that she knows how. And that may sound corny and mushy and too simple for a piece that seems so complex, but it isn’t. You know that “oh-so-elite” David Foster Wallace? Here’s something else he said:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

I remember watching with my mother this documentary called Between the Folds. It’s about origami, which doesn’t sound like an interesting documentary subject, but, like I mentioned before, it’s not the what but the how that makes something art. And, this is actually one of the most delightful and entertaining movies I have ever seen.

BTFPoster0809WEB2SM

In the documentary, the origami artists discuss their development in a relatively new art form –that being the origami as fine-arts sculptures. What is interesting is how the art progresses through stages that usually take eras for arts to develop through, and how the documentary brings attention to this. Toward the end, the artists begin to look at the medium they love so much, which they have given up jobs and devoted their lives to working with, that being paper, and start to think about how little they can do with. I mean this in the most positive sense. Paper, to these artists, is absolutely beautiful, and they get a sort of kinship from the process of touching and folding the paper. I think many people forget the relationship between artist and medium, one which is very often something like a love story. If paper is beautiful, and touching and folding and working with paper is itself beautiful, then why should it simply be an art that dazzles people with the artists’ ability to draw up mathematically complex plans and turn them into 3D paper dragons?

And so, the artists begin seeking minimalist folds, one or two folds, abstracted and focusing only on the beauty of the paper. When the documentary was over, my mother said to me that it was really fascinating that as the artists matured in their craft, artists who were fully capable of creating very complex and mathematically detailed paper sculptures, were drawn to the simple. What does this yearning for simplicity say about humanity?

I think that being able to see this process, and how delighted the artists are, and how in-love they are with their craft, really helps demystify the idea that non-representational art is for this elite class of critics to interpret to the people, like guardians of an oracle. Take Rothko, for example, an artist often considered too obtuse for audiences, or possibly even a great bullshitter. No one except maybe Pollock gets as many “my kid could do that” comments as Rothko. But, this is because people are looking at his art the wrong way.

Like the origami artists, Rothko could paint in both representational –and surrealist– styles. However, he was drawn to simplifying his medium. It is like the artist Kandinsky said in his manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual In Art, art is more than just looking difficult. If you want that, go watch a trapeze act. Art is about expressing something about yourself, and life, and about seeking beauty, and about trying to present something rather special to the world. Rothko is about color.

MARK-ROTHKO-MARCUS-ROTHKOWITZ-blanco sobre rojo

I do not understand how these self-proclaimed guardians of beauty, against “Modern” art, cannot find any beauty in color, in the way it relates to other colors, in the way the light plays with it, in the delight of paint itself, in the sheer joy of color and medium. Do they ever find themselves in contemplation over a single drop of perfect alizarin crimson? Because that’s what it’s all about, no obtuse cipher of jargon and terminology, but the rapture of it, the beauty of it, the fact that colors, and paper, and words, and notes, and movement, and texture, and syntax are beautiful.

Image16rothko

These supposedly difficult prose pieces are simply relishing in the sound, texture, and music of language, its power to move,surprise, delight, terrify, enlighten, enrage, and soothe. The complex notes of classical composition, which sound like incomprehensible noise blobs to the unaccustomed ear, are really these fantastic, unique sounds, which blend together in beautiful techniques to create some of the greatest music in the world.

So, there isn’t an easy answer as to what it is that makes something literary or art. And, yes, if you’re serious about it you’ll have to do a lot of studying and expose your mind to the greats of your field, the best writers, musicians, artists, et cetera. But, if you love it, this is what you will do already. It’s what you will want to do. That’s how people who love their art behave. The person who loves music is not the person who plays the radio and dances along to the Top-40 whatever, but rather the one who listens to the best of the best, and practices. The artist doesn’t just like putting posters up or “liking/sharing” something that looks cool; artists practice art and study the art world. People who love books are not people who dully consume them like potato chips, or madly seek out fandoms to obsess over, or correct typos on the internet. They care about writing, about quality, about great words, about language, about ideas.

Stravinsky's Petrushka manuscript

Stravinsky’s Petrushka manuscript

That kind of care is really the baseline for the answer. There is no exact answer, because this isn’t a science. But, the desire to enter this dialog of art, to work with the world of art and what it has done, to be aware of the arts and their ideas, and to love and delight in the materials themselves, this is the how. It won’t always work, but might.

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

So, you read The Hunger Games…

hunger games
Suzanne Collins’ series about children killing each other has been surprisingly mainstream and popular. This is even more remarkable when you realize her much less controversial series, Gregor the Overlander, did not achieve this kind of following.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.


Not only does The Hunger Games have a movie franchise, but major directors want to work on it, an Oscar-winning actress leads the cast, and hip bands seem to willingly offer their music (as opposed to begrudgingly offering it, as in the case of the Twilight movies).
So, how did an American knockoff of Battle Royale become so successful? Why is dystopia the go-to genre of choice for, of all things, escapist literature? What does this say about our culture?

Honestly, that’s really up for its own discussion.

What we can do, however, is bring you the best of Pushy Librarians and coerce you into the world of highbrow literature! And thank goodness this is a dystopian series and not, say, another paranormal romance, because there’s a whole lot of literati-goodness to choose from!

battle royale
1. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
While it’s not a great classic, we would be sorely remiss to leave off the book that Collins owes the greatest debt. If you read The Hunger Games, then you already know what Battle Royale is basically about. There’s a futuristic world where a corrupt government (this time focusing on a pan-Asian dictatorship) keeps control of the populace by forcing groups of children to battle to the death on live television. Like The Hunger Games, it is both a straight dystopia about the evils of tyranny and government coercion, and also a satire of voyeuristic TV culture. But after the basic plot, that’s where the similarities end. In the world of Battle Royale, there is no segregated society of haves and have-nots. Instead, the class conflicts are much more like those of today. Also, no one is really immune to the battles. There are no tributes selected from labor camps. Instead, groups of middle school children are simply drugged and taken to the fight zone. There, they fight on a marked location where their territory gets smaller and smaller due to rigged explosives, until even hidden children must be forced to encounter one another. What makes Battle Royale so intense is that all of the children are from the same school, and so you see the harrowing decisions they make concerning whether or not they have to kill their friends and peers. Unlike The Hunger Games, the book is told from a variety of perspectives, so that even seemingly evil characters get full back stories and development. This makes for an intense, harrowing, and profoundly disturbing read, and one that most fans will thoroughly appreciate.

lord of the flies
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
If The Hunger Games discusses the violence present in the state (“Now we see the violence that’s inherent in the system!”), Lord of the Flies looks at the violence present from human nature left to its own devices. Like The Hunger Games, it’s a story of violence and brutality, and features children in the acting roles. But, unlike The Hunger Games, the children are the instigators and arbiters, as well as the victims. The story is about a group of schoolboys who end up on a deserted island, forced to govern themselves. While readers may or may not agree with the message that humans naturally gravitate toward brutality, the story does raise many important points about the nature of violence and human’s proclivity toward cruelty. And, in case you were wondering, this is another Nobel-prize-literary novel, so no docked points on the literati-o-meter!

WE
3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
This sci-fi dystopian novel is dated, often silly, and regularly dips into less-than-sensitive race relations. So, why read it? Well, aside from inspiring one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time (next number down, folks), it also has the distinction of being the most hated book of the Soviet Union. That’s ballsy stuff. What’s the story? Well, in the future everyone’s life and work is based on mathematical forms and utility. You are a series of mathematical functions, and your job is to work properly in a larger system that is far, far more important than you. Personal liberty, love, individuality, these are weaknesses and must be stamped out by the law. In many ways, the novel functions as a satire of the USSR’s interest in Taylorism (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/taylorism), communist statism, and the constructivists’ idea that mathematical harmony leads to betterment.
For the record, this is constructivist art:

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko

"The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions.... The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life." 
-Vladimir Tatlin

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko
“The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions…. The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life.”
-Vladimir Tatlin

So, you can see, you’re already getting brainy just by learning these terms! But, on top of your adorable braininess, We is also a straight dystopian novel. It raises questions about the role of government, individual liberty, human rights, and how a society may be repressed and may accept its repression. And, if you like dystopia, you have to read the book that inspired the man who made dystopia what it is today…

1984
4. 1984 by George Orwell
I wanted to leave this off the list in the same way I left The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia off of the Harry Potter List. I’d like to think everyone’s already read 1984. But, my work as a real-life librarian has informed me that this is not even close to being true. Even though dystopia is a huge fad, so huge that Tyra Banks actually tried her hand at it (with appropriately hilarious results)…

Witness the true horror of... government pageants?

Witness the true horror of… government pageants?


…many people still haven’t read the book that basically made the genre what it is today. Orwell’s work set the stage for what people think of when they think about dystopia. Like Zamyatin, he writes about government control, individual liberty, and how a society may be repressed –along with plenty of references to the USSR. But, Orwell went further with his world-building than Zamyatin. While in We the characters talk and think in mathematical forms, roboticized as they were by Taylotistic models, Orwell focuses on more realistic reasons for how a society may be repressed. Orwell came up with the idea of New Speak, changing words and terms in order to weaken just what concepts the populace may even be able to grasp. He also wrote about random arrests for control, absolute loyalty to the state, invasion of privacy, and children being used as informants. Orwell’s journalistic abilities helped create a world that is both realistic and terrifying, despite its moment of datedness. If you want to be a true dystopian-reader, you have to read this book.

handmaids-tale
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Let’s talk about feminist literature and… hey, come back!
Yes, we live in a post-feminist society in many, many ways, and in quite a lot of circles the backlash has pretty well blacklisted the idea of feminism in public thought. This is unfortunate, because much of how we relate to one another in society and politics is based on gender norms and relations. If you’re in doubt, check out the stir concerning the recent rape trials and the politics involved. Regardless of your personal beliefs, feminist thoughts have had huge impacts on the discussion of gender in society and any good thinker would be remiss to dismiss them.
(I rhymed…)
In the school of feminist literature, there are certain eminent members, like Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir that all feminists must read. Atwood is pretty secure in her place on the list. From her pursuit of feminine literary norms, to her desire to elevate “chick lit” to an art, she’s definitely a feminist writer. However, just as Orwell and Zamyatin were not just political proselytizers against Stalinism, Atwood is far from the feminist strawman of a yowling man-hater whose politics go before her art. This is apparent in her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale.
The story is a science fiction tale about a right-wing theocratic military dictatorship that imposes strict roles on the populace, especially women. The main character is a concubine, and the conflict is her struggles for autonomy in a society that does not value her.
While the other dystopians I mentioned have to do with freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of work, this also includes freedom of bodily autonomy, freedom of relationships, and freedom of religion. It is an award-winning science fiction piece that has spurred enough debate and discussion to definitely warrant a literati stamp of approval!

fahrenheit451
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is a veritable god among book-lovers. He produced some of the most engaging, entertaining, and intelligent stories in American history, and we will fight you on that. Not only that, but he was insanely prolific, and managed to address complex, intelligent subjects with great scope and depth in a way that was enjoyable and entertaining to read. So, what I’m saying is, Nobel Prize for Literature people, you totally missed a good one.
The story is set in the future, and concerns a world where books are illegal and firemen are employed to find contraband books and burn them. Many people say that the story is about censorship, and while that is the case Bradbury himself said that the main focus was not on how people take literature away from us but how WE relinquish our literature freely. The characters give up their freedom for the sake of technological convenience and nonstop entertainment programming. They don’t even realize that there is a war going on!
Sound uncomfortably familiar?
Bradbury’s story hits eerily home with his insights about giving up our heritage of literature and great thought for a sense of security and entertainment, even if we’re not secure and are dying inside!
The plot focuses on a fireman who one day does the unthinkable and reads one of the books he is supposed to burn. His depressing, empty life is changed completely and he realizes that the crazy of the world may be the only sane people left.
Also, any book that encourages readers to abandon simplistic entertainment in favor of intellectual thought, or else face dire consequences, is definitely something we can get behind!

huxley0408
7. A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fun fact, did you know the band The Doors was named after Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which is about dropping acid. Just… saying.
Ah, A Brave New World. You know, a lot of people who feel stupid saying that we live in an Orwellian future like to say that we live in this book. Personally, I think the only book that sucks people in and forces them to live the events is The Neverending Story, but I digress.

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!


The story sounds at first like a utopia. The world is peaceful. We have technology. No one is getting burned alive with their collection of Shakespeare… But, that’s just the surface. Huxley’s book shows that peace at all costs may not be such a great idea. The people are artificially created, and live a weak, anti-intellectual, passionless lifestyle. Families and romance are pornographic. Nothing matters. Humans are basically just there to blandly exist, consume, and die. The chillingly clinical look at human existence and the reasons for continuing at all is not only frightening but important in today’s “unexamined life” espousal. If there’s nothing to die for, is there anything to live for?
Or, as Huxley himself said: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

clockwork orange
8. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If no other book on this list will give you an invite to the “cool readers” crowd, this will. What can you really say about A Clockwork Orange that hasn’t been said? Or, what can even be said that the trailer for the (amazing!!) Kubrick film didn’t say?
Witty, funny, satiric, musical, exciting, bizarre, witty, political, thrilling, frightening, metaphorical, comic, sardonic, exciting, metaphorical, Beethoven, metaphorical, frightening, sardonic, comic, bizarre, musical, witty, frightening, political, satiric, Beethoven, thrilling, funny, exciting, funny, comic, bizarre, satiric, metaphorical, sardonic, thrilling, exciting, political, musical, exciting, witty, Beethoven, frightening, comic.
Basically, Clockwork is one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read. The story is set in the future, where crime and depravity have become extreme and government corruption is the norm. Our “hero” is Alex, a young hoodlum who basically typifies the “kids doing violence” archetype. He’s a murderer, a mugger, a rapist, an abuser, a household terror, a gangster, and he does it purely for the fun of it. He’s Shakespearian in his enjoyment of villainy, and not in a way that seems mustache-twirling or unrealistic. He has fun when he’s being a criminal, and that’s who he is.
Enter the law. Enter a new treatment by the law: The Ludovico Technique, which classically conditions Alex into being an unwilling law-abider and pacifist.
The novel asks you, what do you think of this? Can a person’s human integrity be violated, even someone as evil and rotten as Alex?
For a book filled with so much depravity, to the point that the movie received an X-rating and was blamed for copy-cat crimes, one might think that it’d be too difficult for the average reader. However, Burgess separates the reader from the action through a writing style done in an imaginary slang-speech that Alex uses throughout the book. The experimental style allows the readers to step back and consider the ideas without being repelled by the story. (To be fair, the movie does this, as well, through experimental film techniques.)
It’s frightful, fearsome, and so, so quotable, and you won’t be sorry you read it!

1Q84
9. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is one of those divisive names in literature. On the one hand, he’s very popular and an excellent writer (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?). On the other hand, some people dislike him because they see him as being overrated among Western readers whose only introduction to Japanese literature is through his books. While I understand the need to branch out and read other Japanese writers, this doesn’t mean that Murakami is a bad author in his own right. In fact, he’s a damn good writer, and don’t you forget it! (Again, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?)

Read the damn thing already!

Read the damn thing already!


So, what is this nearly-thousand-page monstrocity about? Well, it’s 1984! But, it’s a bizarro 1984. It’s 1984, but with magical creatures, a martial arts technique made entirely out of testicle-punching, a massive publishing scam, and an alternative universe created by doing something so out of the Japanese norm that the fabric of space and time is actually ripped.
The story is about an assassin and championing ball-smasher (this is seriously a plot point –highbrow literature is weird), who climbs over a railing and creates the alternative 1984 (the Q is for question). It is also about a cult, an editor who is trying to pull off a literature scam, and his dyslexic prodigy who may not be writing fiction after all. In with all this weirdness is still the familiar Orwellian story about government, control, and the importance of language. Plus, you get to say you read a Murakami book.

infinite jest
10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So, you really, really want to prove you’re not a literary newb, love for YA book series aside? Why not Wallace?
And, yes, let’s address the pink elephant in the room: this is a notoriously difficult novel. People make flow charts about this book. Yes. There are flow charts to help you understand what’s going on.
But, who am I kidding? You’re no pansy! You are dying to prove your literary chops, and, let me tell you, difficulty aside, this is not a book you’re going to regret reading. Satirical, poignant, funny, memorable, harrowing, and full of tennis, it’s one of the most entertaining books you’ll ever encounter.
So, what’s the plot of this notorious, difficult, smart, funny, awesome book of pure awesome? Well… Um… Okay, will a teaser do? It’s about a video that’s so entertaining that anyone who sees it will watch it on loop until they die. In a futuristic world of drug addicts, extreme tennis, support groups for the ugly, and wheel chair terrorists, the students of a prestigious tennis academy, the inmates of a drug rehab halfway house, and a variety of other characters eventually pursue the afore-mentioned Infinite Jest.
The book is hardly linear, and written in a series of snippets that reveal a lot of daily life for the characters in the story (complete with copious footnotes, so watch out!). This may feel daunting, but it’s actually very rewarding in that you get to experience a lot of Wallace’s insights. And, as one of the greatest intellectuals, if not the greatest intellectual of our time, Wallace’s insights are not to be missed.
Empathetic, gorgeously written, and dense enough for you to feel really good about yourself at the end, this is most assuredly a book you don’t want to skip!

So, you read Twilight…

So, you’ve read Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. But, you’re entering your mid-twenties and you’d like to read something more… adult. Am I correct in making that assumption? And, provided you have taste, you won’t be heading down the road of ghost-written generilit. But, you’ve tried this or that book, hither and yon, near and far, and you haven’t found books that have really given you that oompha you had when reading the children’s book. You like some of the tropes, perhaps –love triangles, chosen-ones, the hero’s journey, spunky main characters (well, for the HP and HG fans, anyway), magic, monsters, dystopian worlds, political satire, angst, gothic trappings…
Never fear! Pushy Librarians ™ to the rescue! Pushy Librarians are here to encourage you (aggressively) to read new and exciting books. And, since Pushy Librarians are grotesquely well-read, we can suggest books that are JUST right for YOU.

So… you like Twilight. Judgements about your taste in romances aside, we actually would like to make a brave stance and say: We understand. Sure we do. Life can be boring. Why not a world where danger can happen but, no, not really? Nothing dreadful really happens. Romance is forever. Romance is exciting. Everyone wants you. You’re hot and all the boys in town, follow you all around… After we’re done singing The Carpenters, we must say, you’re in luck! A lot of great books actually have all the angst, love triangles, forbidden desires, monsters, gothic romance, and vampiric lore you love to escape into!

wuthering heights
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights is quintessentially angsty and moody. It has that setting, the dreary moors, the crumbly, old estates, a place where the wind howls and fog clings to the ground… Well, you get the idea. It also has one of the most epic tales of doomed love and revenge in the entire canon of literature. And, of course, it makes it even juicier to know that it was originally condemned for immorality in its time. The characters are Heathcliff, a gypsy orphan, adopted into a rich family, but forever mistreated by the children and heirs. He is in love with his adopted sister, Cathy, a wild-child, beautiful, adored, and unfaithful. Together they… ruin everyone’s lives. And how that ruin unfolds, falling apart so beautifully into corruption, violence and tragedy. Oh, and possible ghosts.

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2. Romeo and Juliet by our man, the Bard! (Fanfare)
The ultimate in teen-angst. It’s about forbidden desires, and the wonderfulness of desire, and desiring desire, and desiring forbidden desire, and falling in love, and falling in love with love. Sure, they’re flighty, brash, and immature, but aren’t all teenagers? And the fact that they can’t be together just makes their brash, young love all the more passionate. It really is tragic, too, if you let go of some of your contemporary condemnation for their relationship and just go with the heady emotions of youth. And the dialog! Juliet is one of the wittiest characters in Shakespeare, and has some of the best lines you’ll ever read. No stammering Bella Swan here!

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3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Supposedly, Twilight (the first book) is sort of, kind of a re-telling of this story. It has the two main characters who meet and, oh, no, there’s misunderstanding, they don’t like each other, she doesn’t know why he’s so rude and standoffish… There’s some great tension in the scenes of will-they-won’t-they (oh, who are we kidding? They will!), but it’s more than just a romance. It’s also a drama of social norms and laws, a woman’s place in the world, and the dangers of misplaced trusts and misplaced doubts. But, don’t worry, there’s a love story in the end!

Trilby
4. Trilby by George du Maurier
It’s the bohemian revolution in Paris! (Cue your Moulin Rouge…) The artists and poets are all doing their arty, poety thing, and in the midst is Trilby. She’s a cute, quirky heroine, like every character Zooey Deschanel ever played. She’s a foot-model (okay… that’s kinda weird), and she can’t sing worth anything. Like, at all. Aw, see, it’s like Bella’s clumsiness, except that Trilby’s a LIKABLE heroine! And, yes, I’m not exaggerating her adorableness. There was a huge fandom for Trilby back in the day. She falls in love with a rich boy who… leaves her. Models aren’t so chic in those days. When he comes back, she has the voice of an angel and performs for adoring crowds. How? Well, she’s under the thrall of the mysterious musician, Svengali, who may have her in some kind of a spell. While the straight interpretation is… very anti-semetic, in light of He Who Comes Later you can really see Svengali as a Byronic Hero, an Other, outside society, whose genius could have blossomed if only people weren’t so prejudiced and…

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5. Yeah. Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
So, it’s based on Trilby, but you knew this was coming. Or, at least, I hope you did. This book is pure Gothalicious, angsty whipped topping in a crystal bowl. The author was a Gothic fanboy who loved reading Poe and who also wrote pulp fiction serials. He wanted to elevate pulp fiction to a literary status, because he loved the melodrama of it. He liked how this trait is in old, Gothic Romantic stories, like Poe, or The Monk, or The Castle of Ontronto… He also liked lifting ideas and putting them in his story, filling the story with winking nods to Gothic literature’s melodrama and overly-stylized dialog… I think he and Tarantino would have been friends… And, Phantom was his assemblage-piece of fanfictiony homages to Poe and other Gothic writers. As a pulp fiction serial. And it is wonderful. By wonderful, of course, I mean campy, excessively angsty, almost cute with knowing references to other media (Red Death is only the beginning), full of really beautifully terrible dialog, and characters that the world has decided we need to see over, and over, and over again. It’s not just the Beauty and the Beast aspects, or the love triangle, it’s really the Phantom. Imagine of Edward looked like Skeletor, was super smart, a great artist and musician, could sing, had a sense of humor, slept in a real coffin (yeah…), had glowing eyes, strangled people, and was basically nothing like Edward. But, he’s a badass. How bad? Once, he was played by Freddy Kruger. Bad. Ass.
Oh, and Freud and Jung. All over this.

cyrano
6. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand
Or, maybe you want your love triangles with more tragic love among good people and less crazy, Freudian violence? Cyrano is about a dashing soldier/poet with a long nose that he thinks means no woman would love him. Roxanne is a beautiful, and actually quite nice, woman who loves poetry. Christian is a handsome but slow-witted man. Cyrano sets Christian up with Roxanne, using Cyrano’s poetry. Love, war, tragedy, and poetry commence. And it is beautiful!

Carmilla
7. Carmilla by le Fanu
So, we’ve been neglecting an important aspect, you might notice. Vampires. Well, fear not! Carmilla is a very strange, little book. It’s written before Dracula, and le Fanu does a surprisingly good job and writing from the point of view of a woman. It’s set in a castle (do you even have to ask?), where live a lovely girl and her father. But, when a carriage containing a mysterious woman and her daughter crashes, the daughter ends up staying at the castle for… reasons. And this is Carmilla, beautiful, alluring, languid, pale, sexy, and totally undead. Delicious undead goodness ensues.

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8. Dracula by Bram Stoker
So, you knew this one was coming. What can we even say that hasn’t already been said about the most popular horror character of all time? He’s dastardly, but strangely tragic. He’s horrifying, but alluring. He can turn into a bat, a wolf, and fog, can’t see his reflection, is repulsed by garlic, sleeps in a coffin, and dies when getting staked in the heart: he’s a real vampire! Aside from being a complete badass (he kills an entire ship, and it is absolutely, mind-numbingly terrifying!), he’s also sneaky, slippery, and can get you when you’re asleep! Even if you pull your covers all the way over your head and your toes don’t even stick out the other side, and you have your favorite bear and… I need to get more garlic.

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9. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
The original in sympathetic vampires, this is sort of a polarizing series. Either you think it’s awesome for being a literary series about vampires, or you think it’s pretentious melodrama. But, either way, it’s worth giving a go for the sheer cultural punch it offers. Every vampire story around today owes something to Rice and her creations. Hell, without Rice, there’d probably be no Buffy. And, without Buffy, Joss Whedon may not be the cultural icon he is today. Wrap your minds around that one, fanboys and fangirls! But, aside from this, Rice doesn’t just give us angsty, sympathetic monsters. She gives us monsters with culture, with monster dreams, with monster goals, with traditions and expectations, and an entire universe, who ponder philosophical quandaries about their existence and who… make rock bands. Okay, it may not be for everyone, but if you like vampire stories, it’s worth giving a go.

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10. Collages by Anais Nin
Anais Nin: exotic, romantic, frank, whimsical, philosophical, beautiful, hypnotic… There’s a lot to say about this woman, and a lot many people have said about her. This is one of her easier books to digest, and still will probably impress all your bookish friends who teased you for liking Twilight. It really is a collage, of memories and moments, intertwined in pure poetry. It’s like a long, feverish dream that you do not want to end. At times heartbreaking, at times sweeping with desire, at times repugnant, it’s always a pleasure of forbidden fruits, passion, tragedy, delight, and sense of self. Never pretentious and always entertaining, Collages is the perfect read for someone wanting that tingly feeling of reading a book saturated in the colors of passion.

The Angst of Being a Good Reader

There is a moment as a reader when you stop reading, sit back, and realize that not only are you not Tolstoy, Garcia-Marquez, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, Melville, Faulkner, O’Connor, Shakespeare, Homer, Murakami, Fitzgerald and all the gang, but you that you never will be. And this is depressing because they seem like such a cool gang, and you really want to join. But, like the kid bringing a garbage can lid to the snowboarding slopes, you’re hopelessly out of your league, and skulk on home to watch cartoons and eat packages of orange cream push-ups and watermelon bubble gum, wondering what it might be that causes the difference between you and the Flying Tomato.

-C.