Dystopias for Hire: Commercialization and Dilution of a Genre

Poet for Hire by Matt Brown via Flickr

Anna Zarra Aldrich, Blog Editor

A man sits beside the banks of the Thames, sandwiched between the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern – a literal crossroads of art. Seated in his folding chair, he has a small table set up in front of him. He has a typewriter and a stack of blank paper held down by a rock, the only thing keeping his potential poems from flying away with the wind. And a sign in front of the whole vignette reads: Poet for Hire.

Whether this business endeavor is serious or ironic it begs the question of what happens when an artist’s vision is subjected to the demands and desires of a public clientele. In a blog from Brady Gerber on Lithub, he discusses how the genre of dystopian literature has “lost its teeth” through its recent upswing in commercial appeal. And so the question is do dystopian tales have the same value to society they once did if they are conforming to modern popular media trends?

In his blog, Gerber pays special attention to Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale which has become a runaway success on the streaming service Hulu as it approaches its third season. Atwood herself is now writing a sequel to the 1985 novel slated to be released in September. Given how the Hulu series has already taken liberties with plotting events beyond the scope of the original novel, it will be fascinating to see how Atwood addresses or ignores the show’s speculations about what takes place after Atwood’s famously vague conclusion: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

A second interesting phenomena in the field of 20th century dystopian classics Gerber points to is how George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed back to the top of the bestseller charts following the election of President Donald Trump. Orwell built a world of intense surveillance and intellectual conformity under the looming presence of Big Brother, a concept that was co-opted for a reality TV competition series beginning in the early 2000s. Gerber writes: “We grew up on Big Brother, and now we retreat to these scary fictional worlds when anything in real life begins to vaguely resemble them.” But now my generation is growing up with these works’ second birth and the creation of new dystopias, many of which are arguably written thirsting for a television or movie adaptation or circumvent the medium of the novel altogether.

Black Mirror, The 100, Colony, The Rain,  3%, Westworld — these shows build entire multi-season worlds around the prospect of things going horribly wrong politically, socially or environmentally and a group of heroes and heroines, usually incredibly young and astonishingly attractive, having to navigate this world and “win.” There used to be a rule in TV: The main characters never die. In a dystopia, no one is safe and many heroes/heroines survive only until the very end of a series, when their necessity to the plot has expired. Turning back to books, the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth (which was adapted for an ill-conceived film series) falls into this trope as the main character, Tris, dies a heroic death at the very end of her world-saving endeavors. Roth was evidently influenced as much by the dystopian canon as the modern appetite for a TV ending.

Many great dystopian classics end on psychologically haunting notes like Winston at the end of 1984 finding peace with the idea that: “He loved Big Brother.” This breakdown of Winston’s intellectual will to resist is heartbreaking and psychologically devastating. Winston dying at the hands of an oppressive government as a martyr for the cause of intellectual freedom could never have been as impactful. In Brave New World, the main character, John, commits suicide out of shame for what he has done after succumbing to the desires of the oppressive regime. In the original end of The Handmaid’s Tale we are unsure if Offred eventually finds safety and remains safe or if she is recaptured (as happens in the Hulu version). These kind of endings are perhaps unpalatable for television audiences who yearn for clarity and heroics.

But then there exist the exceptions to the rule I have laid out like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 which has a happy and hopeful ending of sorts, if you choose to believe the band of literary brothers Guy Montag stumbles upon will ever actually manage to revive society. Even as that became an HBO movie Mildred Montag, one of the most hopeless characters, was cut from the story.

So what are we to make of all this? Is it that, as Gerber indicates, modern audiences, so thoroughly convinced that the dystopian world of these fictions is dangerously close,  are Pollyanna-ing the genre? Whether we are more desperate for hope or sincerely have more of it nowadays, the genre and interpretations of its canon are undeniably in flux. I argue that it’s no longer enough to call what scares us “Big Brother”: we have to turn Big Brother into something we can defeat in a way Winston could not. We have to change the premise so we can save ourselves or at least die heroes who resist to the end. The pressing questions remains: Are these stories, with their made-for-TV endings, still powerful enough to drive people to incite change? Do fictional victories ensure real-life victories as the worlds of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale creep ever closer?  None of this is clear, but I am going to end on a note of hopeful resistance, slightly modified from the original: nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.

One thought on “Dystopias for Hire: Commercialization and Dilution of a Genre

  1. First of all, I had no idea that Margaret Atwood was releasing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, so thanks for that. About your commentary about dystopian fiction, I completely agree (with Gerber, too) with the fact that this genre seems to be filled with stories that just don’t do much. I think a lot of it has to do with how (and you infer this) saturated the genre has become. When The Hunger Games was out and popular, dystopian literature was far from being in the public eye as much as it is today, which I believe is what contributed to its landmark success, but it was also a dark series that commented on society. Now, you could walk into your local bookstore and have an entire section of shelves dedicated to dystopian fiction, but most likely a majority of those books either poorly execute tragedy or simply don’t include any tragedy at all. I also think a good point to consider is the distinction between contemporary dystopian fiction and YA dystopian fiction; YA dystopian fiction is handled much more poorly than regular dystopian fiction (like 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale), and YA lit in general is certainly more susceptible to including money-grab plot tropes or unnecessary things for the mere reason of shock factor. To reply to the question you pose, though, I would have to say that the reason we’re seeing a decline in quality from the dystopian genre isn’t because the genre itself is losing its shine; it’s because so many subpar novels have been flooding the genre that we’re starting to lose sight of what great dystopian fiction is.

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