What's the Point?

Wanna know how much of a nerd I am? I subscribe to The Writer's Almanac, a daily dose of poetry and literary history in my email. I kinda feel like the kid in class who asks the teacher for extra homework...

But the July 11th Almanac had a piece about Harold Bloom that really stuck with me. I thought about it all day, and even though I had a perfectly nice post about setting planned, I can't help but think about this quote:

[Bloom] is one of the last critics who argues that great literature is a product of genius, and that we shouldn't read to understand history or politics or culture, but to understand the human condition.

Bloom himself is noted as having said: “In the finest critics one hears the full cry of the human. They tell one why it matters to read.”

Now, I have a feeling that if Bloom and I were to meet, we'd have many disagreements. For one thing, he doesn't like Harry Potter, and them's fightin' words in my book.

But I do agree with him on these quotes.

And--even if I HIGHLY doubt Bloom would give two shakes a lamb's tail to consider dystopian works "literature" and worthy of his reading, I actually think what he has to say applies more to dystopian works than he'd care to admit.

Dystopia is hugely popular right now. There are books out now or coming out in the near future that range in topics from environmental disasters to political ones, from survivng zombies to surviving yourself. The world can end any which way in a dystopian work, and it would be easy for us to look at it and assume that's what the book is about. Uglies is about plastic surgery; Among the Hidden is about overpopulation; The Giver is about government.

But...it's not. None of them are about those things.

They're all about the same, simple thing.


Dystopian works--I mean, the really good ones--aren't trying to make a political or historical statement. It's like what Bloom said: it's about the human condition. Uglies isn't about plastic surgery; it's about Tally. Among the Hidden isn't about overpopulation; it's about Luke. The Giver isn't about government; it's about Jonah.

We don't read dystopian works to see how the world ends (be it with a bang or a whimper). We read them to find out how a human might react to the end...and in reading about others, we discover what we ourselves might do.


Zoe C. Courtman said...

This is a great post. I was thinking the other day about how much literary merit my current MS has. I did conclude it's a serious book, even though it's a horror and has a younger protag. Worked for me - as long as I approach my works seriously, that's all I can do! Thanks for this!

Unknown said...

Zoe, I'm so with you. Carrie Ryan taught me that--she made a beautiful literary novel about zombies. It's not so much the subject matter as the way in which it is treated!

Angie said...

I think that's true of any literature. We're all writing about being human.

Elana Johnson said...

Yes! You nailed it. We all think about the end, and what we'll do if we're there. And that's why dystopian is popular right now. How would we react? What would we do?

Great post, Beth!