Reading the fiction of a society can tell you a lot about where it is, and where it is going. No new insight there, true so many times that there is nothing new to be learned. Let's just move along, shall we?
Ours is one sick society. No news there, either, but let's stay awhile, because there is something to be learned. A particular diagnosis.
The hottest trends in literature right now, in terms of sales, are imitators of Harry Potter and Twilight. In other words, pure escapist fantasy, written primarily for teenagers but read by just as many adults. The first is a fantasy about power, the second about indulgence of pure sensuality while flouting all conventional morality even beyond the bounds of sensuality. In other words, the escape is from a state of powerless sterility bound by convention.
The boundaries of our minds are not stretched by this stuff. Nor are they stretched even a smidge by mainstream fiction. Check out this list of winners of prestigious literature awards and, if you're read any of them, please comment below and tell me what you got from them other than (possibly) a good time. If anything.
This is not a particularly original thought of mine, so far. Kim Stanley Robinson made a compelling argument about a part of this deal, though he takes it in a different direction. And he's right, there is some great mind-stretching fiction out there. It's so good I once used it in a philosophy course to help people understand really complex social theories. The suspension of disbelief that good fiction allows can be used not just to escape, but also to give concrete examples to difficult abstract ideas. Want to know how anarchism could work? Pay attention to the character Arkady Bogdanov in Robinon's own Red Mars.
It's not just about the grand direction of society, though -- as important as that is. There is also that little thing called daily life, the stuff that occurs between all the world changing historical moments. And that is where the feeling of sterility comes from. That life, in too many ways and too often, is like what the dig against Oakland says, "there's no there, there."
The problem is that even if there were really good fiction out there, stuff that could inspire us in our daily lives, what difference would it make? We don't read much, as a society, except stuff that we already agree with, already know we will like. The huge proliferation of books available makes it easy to find just what suits our fancy. Gone are the days when a single book could inspire graffiti worldwide saying something like "Frodo lives."
And that is what makes it difficult to share the fiction we love, even with the few fellow readers we each know, because being so idiosyncratic and particular in our own tastes, there is no strong basis for passing along so something so particular to ourselves. And yet, there is some very good fiction out there which does exactly this: that reminds us of what we have lost and, even more, encourages us to go beyond what we have dreamed. Truly heroic stuff, even in the most basic aspects of life. I'd offer, as an example, the work of Jacqueline Carey.
Just enter the phrase "love as thou wilt" into the search engine of your choice to see what you find. I can only tell you that reading Carey's work, and following the many, many interpretations of that phrase, has made each morning more challenging, and most evenings more satisfying.
And that is all I can do, at this moment to row against the tide that threatens to drown us. Pick up an oar, and tell me what else is out there.