Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Battle for Longevity in Literature

Dystopia vs. fantasy

Flavour of the month (year[s]?) dystopia is continuing to kill it in all forms of fiction. We’ve gone over the reasons for its success – from the universality of its themes to the intrinsic dystopia of our own world. But will this current success translate into longevity? Is it simply the ‘right place, right time’, or does dystopia’s popularity hint at a deeper understanding of personal struggles and a collective resistance?

One of the most powerful things fiction can offer is an escape. In reading, in viewing, and especially in writing, we make a (often unconscious) choice to spend time in another person’s world. For dystopia, this means escaping to a world less desirable than our own – perhaps to reassure us of our world’s perfect imperfectability, or to commiserate with our feelings of oppression and voicelessness.

For fantasy, however, it’s about an escape to a world beyond our means – and often our imagination. These worlds may be experiencing turmoil, upheaval, and even uprising, but their laws and physics remain a testament to human desire – for power, for recognition, for mental and physical freedoms. And it’s through these basic human desires that fantasy and dystopia find common genesis. Like dystopia, fantasy speaks, at its most basic level, to the human need for voice, choice and freedom. While dystopia exacerbates our common sentiments of subjugation and coercion, fantasy erases them, offering power and abilities beyond our human capabilities with which to fight for such freedom.

Despite these commonalities, the two genres attract different audiences and different levels of interest. To date, the success of fantasy in literature, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER (now replete with film adaptations), arguably outstrips that of prominent dystopian works like 1984 and THE HUNGER GAMES. A key reason for this, I think, is the audience fantasy reaches – from children to adults – whilst dystopia is more commonly associated with teenagers and YA, and often mislabelled as sci-fi by the uninitiated (and uninterested). Fantasy is generally easier to read, also, in the sense that it emphasises ‘uplifting’ ideas of freedom and power over dystopia’s favoured themes of oppression and control.

But the major reason, I believe, fantasy continues to outstrip dystopia – and probably always will – has to be the worlds behind these genres and issues. For all its adverbs, dialogue tags and Death Eater attacks, kids (of every age) still wait for a letter from Hogwarts. It’s an escape that has captured a generation and will ensnare many more, probably for decades. We read about Harry as much for his world as the plot. Voldemort or no Voldemort, we still want to live in Harry’s magical world. Can you say the same for 1984?

While we can’t judge the success of one for all, the success of such fantastic fiction emphasises the common desire for escape. However, it’s also safe to say basic human nature will never allow our world to become utopic, and its likely fiction will follow. Dystopia’s popularity is certainly in no danger, but it’s got a long way to go to catch up with fantasy.

(And seriously, Dumbledore – I’m still waiting on that letter.)

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