When Will Novels Fix Society Already?

From Counter Craft:

In the 18th-century, a specter was haunting Europe—the specter of “Werther Fever.” Goethe’s 1774 epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was so popular that it catapulted the young Goethe into international fame and set off a trend of young men wearing yellow trousers and electric blue jackets… and also, allegedly, thousands of imitation suicides.

Goethe was an unknown 24 year old when he wrote the book, and he certainly didn’t set out to popularize garish fashion or suicide. The novel is an example of both art’s cultural power and also the unpredictability of its influence. There’s no better example of that than overtly political works. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was written to expose the poor working conditions of meat packers and inspire a socialist movement, but readers focused on gross meat industry health violations so instead of socialism we got the 1906 Meat Inspection Act. Even works as blatantly left wing and anti-capitalist as Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Star Trek can be turned into inspiration for rabid capitalists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Etc.

You simply cannot choose what people will take from art. Nor can you overestimate the recuperative powers of modern capitalism, where even the most pointed artistic critique can be turned into just another product. Just yesterday Netflix announced it is creating a game show based on Squid Game, the anti-capitalist Korean series about a fictional dystopian game show that became an unexpected Netflix hit.

All this brings me to the latest discourse about The State of Literary Fiction, which was kicked off by British Journalist Ben Judah declaring that “we live in an extremely sick society”—hard to argue—and that what this sick society needs to address its massive, systemic, and global problems is… better literary fiction?

. . . .

[I]s Jane Austen not a novelist of interiority? But mostly what’s notable is how commonplace the central claim is. Sometimes it feels like every week someone argues political literature is dead or decries the failure of fiction, especially literary fiction, to cure our ailing society by… well it’s not exactly clear. Helping to “rock the vote”? Inspiring a resurgence of left wing politics? Igniting an armed revolution?

. . . .

Another issue is, well, look. How did that work out before? When was the point in which novelists, bourgeois mimetic or otherwise, saved society? As much as, say, Tolstoy was a genius—and he was—did his novels fix the ills of Tsarist Russia?

Link to the rest at Counter Craft

PG realized that he is including too many OPs about nothing today. He’ll be better tomorrow.

1 thought on “When Will Novels Fix Society Already?”

  1. I’m reminded of that Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode, where Ashley’s violin teacher goes on and on about having a love affair with the violin. Then Will says, “I think she expects a lot from a piece of wood and some strings.”

    Where are these people getting the idea that novels are supposed to save the world? And how did these novelists in particular come to the conclusion that they were the ones best suited for the task of “fixing society” when they can’t even correctly diagnose problems?

    At least the OP is humble enough to admit that people take different lessons from a given story. I saw “Squid Game” and concluded that the villains nicely illustrate the ailment of spiritual bankruptcy. The chief villain lamented about having too much money, which indicates he lacked both morals and imagination. Could have been the equivalent of Carnegie and Rockefeller and built libraries and universities for the less fortunate, or a Musk who aims to take humanity to the stars. But nah, he went with tricking people into killing each other instead. Not one drop of noblesse oblige; undoubtedly he would have been a cretin if he were poor, too.

    Well, best wishes to the “save the world through novels” gang. Just remember, kids: your stories can’t be influential if no one wants to read them. So make sure they’re fun and transportive, not Western Union telegrams in disguise.

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