One of the best examples of dystopian fiction is 1984. Since its publication, 1984 is the first book people cite when someone’s political or cultural views mortify them. Like it or not, this is the moral point of dystopian fiction. It exists to remind us all about the dangers of authoritarianism.
However, is high morality the only reason people like dystopian literature?
Many types of literature and art are moral and virtuous. Despite being inherently honest and good, they don’t find the success they should. Consider the many art movies and documentaries that cover relevant social issues. Generally, they don’t find a large audience, especially when compared to commercial cinema.
Dystopian fiction is also a form of storytelling based on highlighting social evils in society. Unlike many social issue movies and books, dystopian fiction does very well commercially. The timeless success of 1984 is only one example. Books like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale are all examples of successful dystopian fiction. Furthermore, this is a genre of literature that continues to find a lot of success.
Why Shouldn’t Dystopian Fiction Work?
On paper, dystopian fiction should not work. There are many factors and attributes in a typical dystopian novel that go against normal human nature.
Firstly, people don’t react with excitement when someone tells them that their future is bleak and hopeless. Imagine an author who writes a book explaining why those reading his work are likely to fail in life.
Would the author receive love and recognition from readers? No, because the future the author is selling is not one his readers like or want to invest time in.
In the same vein, dystopian fiction refers to stories about a bleak future. While writing dystopia, writers never paint an optimistic picture. They always present doomsday scenarios and unbelievably subservient people who bow to a repressive system.
Secondly, dystopian fiction tends to heighten some kind of social issue we see in society. In general, people don’t always reward any kind of work on a social issue. As mentioned earlier, many art films, books, and documentaries covering social issues never capture the attention of the audience and readers.
These two reasons alone are enough to make dystopian literature radioactive. And yet, there is actually readership data that suggests people enjoy dystopian literature. The fact that so many of us cite 1984 off the cuff suggests the long term potential of this kind of storytelling.
Generally, people watch and read stuff they enjoy. It is not wrong to make the same argument for dystopian works. Besides serving a social cause, dystopian novels are inherently interesting, atleast the ones worth reading.
However, there is something deeper about our psyche that drives our interest in dystopia as a genre and proposition.
Why Does Dystopian Fiction work?
We already know some reasons dystopian fiction should not ideally get a large audience. The fact that they do should initiate an opposing argument.
Why does dystopian fiction work?
To say dystopian literature is interesting is a cop out. Some writers are able to write more interesting stories than others. That has more to do with writing skills than anything else.
The success of dystopia as a form of storytelling has more to do with audiences and readers. For some perplexing reason, we as readers love reading a story about a dark future where everything is worse than the current world we live in. This habit of ours sells dystopian novels and makes authors very rich.
So why do we like dystopian works?
In technical terms, confirmation bias is the tendency of people to search for any proof that validates a set of beliefs and opinions they hold. We see the most common use of this term during political elections.
If a survey says that a candidate you support is likely to win, you will probably find that survey trustworthy and real. Furthermore, you are likely to dismiss all surveys that present a contrary finding.
When people read dystopian fiction, a lot of fears and anxieties they believe in are actually turning out to be real. If you were ever worried about mass surveillance or authoritarianism and then read 1984, you would find all your fears coming true. If you were worried about gender inequality, The Handmaid’s Tale would validate your anxiety and problems with society.
Our world is full of people who are not happy about the way things are. In such a scenario, dystopian fiction plays nicely because it represents a natural endpoint to all the things people believe are bad in society. In other words, a dystopian novel confirms the belief of people that the future is inherently rotten because of the current poor state of a society or country.
Exaggeration in Fiction
A good story is a decent representation of reality. On the other hand, a great story is an exaggerated version of reality.
Let’s take an example. There is a non-fiction book in a bookstore that covers gender inequality issues in serious detail. We all know this is a serious issue. The author of the book has done a great job of presenting the real status of women in society.
In other words, the author presents a perfect version of reality in the book.
Now consider The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a dystopian novel about a radical group taking control of America and subjugating women as part of their takeover. This subjugation takes away most human rights women hold and bars any freedom they may enjoy. We read the story through the eyes of Offred, a woman who makes her way in this broken world.
Both the non-fiction book and The Handmaid’s Tale are talking about the role of women in society. However, the latter is using exaggeration as a tool to make a point. Margaret Atwood is warning us about the true depths of evil society can fall into.
Most readers would prefer reading Atwood over the non-fiction author. By presenting an exaggerated version, Atwood is managing to tell a more interesting story that hits home and has a much deeper impact.
While writing dystopia, it is vital to heighten and exaggerate certain things to drive home a point. Doing so only makes it more likely for someone to read the book. Thus, another reason dystopian fiction works is that it never presents reality as it is. Instead, readers get a taste of something more extreme and exaggerated, which is kind of the entire point of fiction.
At its core, writers write because they have something to say. To make a point, writers sometimes need to exaggerate certain elements of reality. This is especially true when writers are trying to bring a social problem to light.
In dystopian fiction, we see exaggerated forms of reality. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the message of the story itself. Instead, an effort must be made to acknowledge the problem in its real form and take steps to address it.
(Image Credits: Tim Green & Wikipedia)