The Popular Art of Dystopia

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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.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.