Fiction and the Real World

I’ve written before, a little while ago now, on escapism and the simple joy of being transported from one world to another via a book, and I still think that in fiction the story, whatever shape that may take, is the most important element. That said, the various real-world implications that stories can have can’t be ignored. Many authors, or corporations, like Marvel and DC, have large numbers of readers and thus have a real platform from which they can speak to the world. Should they be using this platform to transmit ideologies?

I want to qualify that question a bit more. I believe that it is impossible for a human to be objective in pretty much anything (objective meaning that there are none of the person’s own beliefs or values involved), therefore I think some of those values are inevitably going to come across in any work of fiction. What I mean by ideology is a system of ideas relating to real world politics or society. Originally a Marxist term used to describe the way the capitalist class retained power, I’m using it in a broader sense to refer to all systems of political or social thought. This may not be the most common use of the word, but it’s a good blanket for what I want to talk about.

Next up, let me give you an example of what I’m talking about: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Here we have a book consciously challenging stereotypical capitalist ideologies of class boundaries and oppression without much subtlety. It’s pretty clear what’s wrong in Panem. This caricature of capitalism and consumerism is then attacked throughout the trilogy by an alternate ideology of relative equality and community, though it seemed to me when reading the final book that Collins stopped short of a full solution, instead seeming to endorse the current American system that presumably led to her dystopia in the first place. This sort of story challenges readers to open their eyes to the world around them and see the problems that have been intensified in popular fiction.

As a lover of fantasy (I’m using that as a broad term to cover anything not set in the present-day or factual historical environments), I’m used to books where I believe the authors have a real choice in how politically charged they make their stories. In a world of the author’s imagining, it is up to them whether they want to make political allegories or whether they want to completely divorce their world from ours. The comic book companies Marvel and DC straddle the line between reality and fantasy, with fantastic stories set in an otherwise realistic world. They tend not to sit on the fence, either, with DC (particularly in its earlier years) renowned for having heroes who were model citizens and fully endorsed the law. Marvel, in contrast, earned a name for itself with broken, flawed heroes, and a continual theme running through it (and in DC also) is a hope in human nature. This is less political and more social, but political statements have also been made, particularly by Marvel in the fight against discrimination as they featured black heroes like the Black Panther and the Falcon, and a whole team of superheroes who are continually hated for being different, the X-Men. Furthermore, Marvel’s Civil War mega-event was explicitly written in response to the US Government’s crackdown on terror. These are not just stories of escape written to satisfy the fantasies of weak, lonely men, they really have something to say about the world.

Let’s face it, the books that end up classics often have some sort of ideological message as well. John Milton’s Paradise Lost heavily critiqued the political and religious landscape of the 17th century, and we’ve all heard of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Jane Austen is famous for her portrayal of personal life in the 19th century (and as an English student I know there’s a whole world of study that opens up when you look at how that related to the real world); the 18th and 19th century Romantics were writing in response to industrialisation and an increasingly capitalist world. I’m simplifying here, but these ideological statements, responses, or whatever you want to call them, are common in great literature.

A related to question to ask is, ‘Does this make a difference?’ or even, ‘Does this make the world better?’ Is The Hunger Games going to inspire an upheaval of capitalist ideology? Would we want it to? In some ways, pop culture is a very safe way of transmitting these ideas. You can get your statement off your chest, have it devoured by millions of teens and know that you’re probably not going to cause worldwide turmoil. In a way, you’re doing something without doing anything. That said, the smaller, gentler prompts could have more of an impact. Maybe DC’s early comics did inspire respect for the law. Maybe Marvel’s X-Men comics did make some individuals less discriminatory. You know what, maybe The Hunger Games will stem the flow of out-of-control consumerism in some people. It’s impossible to predict how these things will affect readers, but if the author’s good enough it’ll probably do something.

Is it a good thing? Should these ideas be transmitted? Well we don’t live in bubbles. It’s all very well telling someone to keep their beliefs to themself, but that’s not the way humans work. We come into contact with other worldviews and our own worldviews are shaped by that contact. Literature is one of the best ways to broaden your horizons and to educate yourself in the views of others. By no means do we have to accept that everything we read is true, or better than what we already believe, but surely it’s better to have these ideas than not; to learn from these things when we read. I’m all for a good story and a bit of escapism, but it’s good to have something to say about the real world as well. In a way, it was refreshing to read something as bold as The Hunger Games, to see an author showing a possible social system in that way. It’s a lot easier to be able to engage with an idea when it’s not hidden.

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