I wrote my undergraduate thesis…
Oy, that sounds so quaint now.
Anyway, I wrote it on the effect History, in all its forms, can have on the fiction written by not only those who are living through the time, but also those who came after. For instance, if there had not been a Nazi scourge laying siege to England, with their notions of racial superiority and brutal policy of exterminations, you would never have had Doctor Who’s Daleks giving the sieg heil as they conquered a fictional future London.
However, this was not a scene on cinema screens during the war. No, it was seen on small screens as a television program only twenty years after the Normandy landing.
Isn’t it amazing how humans learn to cope with things? The survivors of the Blitz were sitting down with their children, children who possibly knew nothing of the war-torn London of the 1940s, and watching the cranky old Doctor save the day every week. In a world that was then dominated by the threat of global Communism and thermonuclear war, fiction became a terrific means of escape and wish fulfillment for societies of all stripes. Take, for instance, the Klan epic Birth of a Nation, which cemented the American South’s desire for a return to the antebellum way of life, a desire that still stubbornly persists to this very day. We can often say things in fiction that we couldn’t, or don’t want to, say in reality.
So what does that tell us about the current crop of hot fiction, designed for young adults, but read by adults as well and, most importantly, written primarily by Boomers or GenXers?
All in all, a rather dismal affair: dystopian futures with corrupt leaders, doomed cancer patients in love, and an endless array of either stark and empty or dark and foreboding covers… and this is what we want our kids to be reading.
The majority of these authors are squarely in the wheelhouse of the Baby Boom or Gen X. There are occasional outliers, such as Divergent’s Veronica Roth, but that can simply be seen as a game of “Follow the Leader” after Boomer Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games went bonanza. A lot of these books play into seminal themes of young adulthood and adolescence: loneliness, bold risk taking, anti-authoritarianism, and identity formation. There’s a reason we think teenagers are selfish, it’s because they are programmed to be. They are trying to figure themselves out as a nervous, confused bundle of hormones on the blink, so naturally a lot of their time is taken up with thoughts of themselves. So, in seeing an easily relatable protagonist of about their age being special and chosen and the one who tells all those pesky adults to shut up and leave them alone… the formula works. Is it a particularly good formula to be reinforcing in our teens? That’s a conversation for another day.
Today, let’s look instead at how these fiction books (and, with the popularity of nihilistic shows like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad topping the ratings, it’s a cross-platform fiction phenomenon) mirror the mindset of those who are creating them. It’s always a curious situation where the 40-and-50 year-olds of any given era are usually the ones creating content to satisfy the 10-30-year-olds. In a time such as today, with the financial crisis leaving a huge gulf in the lifestyle between those two groups, it is interesting to see how those who grew up in better times view the world: dark, hopeless, broken, violent. The starry-eyed idealism and simple white hat/black hat dichotomy of fiction written by those who beat back the Nazis or the Soviets is few and far between. Remember, even when Boomer George Lucas came out with Star Wars, it was seen as a success partially because it offered a retreat from the horrors of Watergate only three years before. Curiously, when one of the first prominent Gen-Y authors hit the scene with Eragon, there were cries of the two stories being too similar. Both are stories written simply, with humble heroes defeating cosmic evil. In the wake of Watergate, it was celebrated. In the wake of 9/11, it was considered tommyrot.
So, what happened? Well, here’s when I take the plunge. Come along if you’re ready.
One of the hallmarks of the so-called Reagan Revolution was fear: fear of the other, fear of those different, and most importantly a fear that the world as you knew it was going to change. As a result, the narrative swung violently to far-right ideas of superiority and Objectivism, where it doesn’t matter how much others suffer as long as you get yours. The Hippies of the Summer of Love, so thoroughly burned by Watergate, turned cynical and embraced this worldview, leading to the popular “Birkenstocks to briefcases” trope seen in the 80s. Gen X has followed suit, also out of the post-9/11 fear, going from being rioters at the WTO to managers at your local Walmart. It seems that, while every generation rages against the machine in their youth with high idealistic fervor, the current climate of high income inequality and feckless government action seems to squeeze the rage right out of each generation following Reagan’s Shock Treatment.
You didn’t see this in the Postwar, where the American economy worked for everyone: you saw bright fiction with square-jawed heroes and clear cut villains. In fact, most communities in America could be described as downright communal, best exemplified in the classic “cup of sugar” metaphor for good neighbors. But as the squeeze was put on, people shut themselves more and more inside their homes, inside their lives and their possessions, and leave anyone else out in the cold. It’s that mindset that is breeding this current dismal crop of fiction, a reflection of their malaise and their desperate attempt to cry out with that last bit of idealism still left in them.
This mindset is being shown in the fiction, written by the previous generations and meant for the current one… but that doesn’t mean the current generation has to accept it. Quizzically, it seems, that when there is plenty of reason to be sad (Cold War, Great Depression, Great Recession) generations will often find creative outlets to make themselves happy, whereas when times have been good (the relative Clinton paradise of the 1990s) you see culture going out of their way to make fiction that makes them sad. Indeed, in times of such wanting and despair, it seems like the current generation is poised to rejected the status quo nearly as a whole. If the Occupy movement wasn’t enough proof that bad times + bad feelings = reaction, then there might be something to be said about adult fans of a show where rainbow-colored marshmallow ponies defeat nihilistic evil through the sheer power of friendship. Think about it.
I do truly believe this system is unsustainable, as the fiction of the Boomers and the X’ers goes to show. Even now, shows like Adventure Time and, yes, My Little Pony are starting to show the optimism and desire for fun in both Gen Y and the generations that are growing up in the remnants of Ronald Reagan’s culture of fear. Given the right circumstances, these generations may finally be the ones to break the cycle and return us to the prosperity and happiness of our parents and grandparents. Keep watching the fiction: it may, in the case of the Daleks, speak to our ways of dealing with problems of the past or, possibly, deal with our way of dealing with both the present and looking toward the future.