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The Popular Art of Dystopia

posted: 3.14.14 by Jack Solomon

I’ve recently had occasion to participate in some classroom discussions of two famous dystopian stories: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  Well of course, how could one not discuss Jackson’s classic in a contemporary literature class without invoking Collins’ work, and, conversely, how could one not discuss Collins without citing Jackson’s chilling predecessor?  But as I contemplated these two stories I realized that in spite of all that they have in common—after all, they are both visions of societies that, in effect, practice human sacrifice—there is a crucial difference between them, a difference that can help us, tentatively and incompletely, identify at least one distinction between “high art” and “popular art”.

I’m not referring here to the fact that the Hunger Games trilogy is an infinitely more complex tale than is “The Lottery,” written in the tradition of fantasy story telling while unfolding a vast allegory of a socioeconomically unequal America that is devouring its own children, though of course there are those differences.  I am referring instead to something very simple, very basic, something that is so obvious than when I asked students to identify that difference they seemed puzzled and couldn’t seem to grasp what I was getting at.  So here it is: the endings of the two stories, how they come out.  Now, those of us who have been trained in the close reading of literature may forget sometimes just how crucial the ending of a story is, but for the ordinary, mass reader, as it were, it is essential, and it is the difference in the endings of  “The Lottery” and the Hunger Games trilogy that I want to explore here.

Let’s begin with the Hunger Games trilogy.  Though it takes three large novels to do so, and there is much suffering, death, and destruction along the way (not to mention betrayal and moral ambiguity), in the end the tyrannical society of Panem is overthrown in a popular rebellion.  Not only that, but Katniss, the heroine of the trilogy, lives to marry Peeta and look back on the triumphant (if traumatizing) life that she has led.  It hasn’t been easy, and there has been some collateral damage, but the bad guys lose, the good guys win, and, all in all, there’s a happy ending.

Compare this to “The Lottery.”  It has a female protagonist (sort of), too: Tessie Hutchinson.  But while Tessie is certainly to be pitied, she is hardly someone to identify with, and even less a heroine who can bring hope to a hopeless situation.  Content to go along with the hideous ritual of her society until she becomes its victim, Tessie isn’t even a good martyr, and her death at the end does not lead to a rebellion.  With the chilling conclusion of the tale we can be certain that next year “the lottery” will be held again.

And there you have it: while I would not presume to explicate all of the potential readings of this magnificent story, I dare say that we can say that it is a story that presents us with something horrible not only in the human condition but within human nature itself.  Written in 1948, “The Lottery” had behind it the only-too-true history of the Holocaust, which makes it far more than an allegorical critique of mere social “conformity”.  And, not too surprisingly, the original response to the story was rather negative, because, unlike the Hunger Games trilogy,” there is nothing to cling to here: no plucky heroine, no rebellion, no victory in the end over evil, no happy ending .  .  .  nothing but pure bleakness.


Which takes me to my point.  For while the difference between “high art” literature and popular literature is historically contingent, fluid, and indeterminate, whenever I am asked for (or feel the need to propose) a way of distinguishing between “high art” and “popular art”, I suggest that high art gives what we need, while popular art gives us what we want.  A commodity for sale, popular art must offer its purchaser something desired, and pleasure is usually what is wanted.  It is a pleasure to see Katniss survive (along with the boy who will become her husband in the end); it is a pleasure to see the tyrants of Panem fall; it is a pleasure to identify with Katniss (or Frodo, or Harry Potter, or Batman, or any fantasy hero who, one way or another, defeats evil in the end).  But reality doesn’t work out that way, and, corny as this may sound, we need artists to tell us that.  Because when we succumb to the fantasy that we have paid for, the vision of the happy ending that makes us feel good, we are all the less likely to try do anything about the evils that make us feel bad.  This is why it matters that “high art” literature is being pushed aside in favor of popular literature in the literary marketplace, because while we all need to be entertained, we need to see the truth some time as well.

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3 Responses to “The Popular Art of Dystopia”

  1. Matthew Cheney, University of New Hampshire Says:

    This neglects 2 important points:

    1.) “The Lottery” provides a dark pleasure. It’s marvelously written and appeals to us in the way that dark humor does — it’s like an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. That’s why it’s remained so popular for so long. I love the story, but the “truths” it supplies are perfectly acceptable to a general, bourgeois mass audience, obviously, because it’s one of the most frequently read and reprinted stories in American literary history.

    2.) “High Culture” itself is a production of desire — the desire for status, the desire to mark particular intellectual terrain, the desire to feel fulfilled by an idea of “truth” that we construct from the text and thus must, in some way or another, bring to the text and thus already believe is “truth” (or else it would be unrecognizable to us). What is perceived as in or out of “high culture” at any time tells us more about the perceiver than the object itself. I would expect Jack Solomon, of all people, to understand that it is the discourse around “high culture” and the markers that produce and are produced by that discourse that should be studied, not some idea of essential, necessary truths. The truths, if we want to call them that, are not in the text as much as in the ways people talk about and distribute the text.

  2. Jack Solomon Says:

    I think that this careful response deserves an equally careful response.

    First, by saying that I neglect two points, you already assume the correctness of your position. I am not neglecting points, I am presenting a different take on them.

    What is that take?

    My own analyses of culture adapt elements of Peircean semiotics, a semiotic that includes, in a rather tangled manner, an element of philosophical realism—that is, a belief in a reality, or ground, that is outside of a semiotic system. For this reason, I do not put truth in quotation marks. To put truth in quotation marks is to assume a poststructuralist semiology that leads, in the end, to Baudrillardian and Foucaultian cultural criticism, both of which assume an absolutist stance on social constructivism and a denial of reality. Without attempting to refute that stance here (I attempted that in my book Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age many years ago), I will simply say that I do not embrace it myself. I think that there are some extra-textual truths about the human condition that it is best for us to know rather than deny. This does not mean that I think that there is some simple and universal definition of high culture: that is why I always heavily qualify any of my statements regarding it. Of course high culture has traditionally been the possession of of a ruling class for which it has signified what Bourdieu has called “cultural capital.” But there is more to it than that. Kafka gets pretty close to it in his “ice axe” comment.

    Accordingly, I think that semiotic analysis, in the Peircean tradition, can try to get at truths that are not merely social constructions, not that is to say, “markers that produce and are produced by . . . discourse.” In this way I try to strike a balance (I am also an Aristotelian) between the extremes of absolute realism and absolute constructivism. I study, and teach, the sociality of signs, but for the purpose of opening up recognitions not only of discourses but of realities as well. I do not expect to convince an absolute constructivist of this, and am not attempting to do so here. We will have to, respectfully, agree to disagree.

  3. Cherin Wasowska Says:

    “But reality doesn’t work out that way, and, corny as this may sound, we need artists to tell us that. Because when we succumb to the fantasy that we have paid for, the vision of the happy ending that makes us feel good, we are all the less likely to try do anything about the evils that make us feel bad.”

    A sentiment that only the highly privileged (often white men) express. For the rest of us, dystopia is our present, not our future, and as we fight our oppressions, our only hope lies in a fantasy that tells us, yes, it might just get better. Without that hope I am less likely to do anything about the evils that affect my life every day; if there’s no hope why would I even try?

    It is only the privileged, divorced from the realities of oppressed lives, that have the gall to suggest that fantasy would ever make anyone want to “stop caring,” because for them, it takes an effort to care in the first place.