When I tell people I’m an English Literature major, their response is “Oh, so you want to teach?” This is the polite way of saying “Oh, I see you decided to study something so useless that your only choice now is to teach said useless study.” Maybe I am putting too much emphasis on my personal experience, but I do believe there are far too many people who see literature as mere escapism, having no relation to reality.
To me, this mentality is somewhat problematic, or at the very least, a sign of our collective naivety when it comes to the purpose of literature. As far as I’m concerned (and yes, this statement is loaded with a shit ton of bias), literature posits problems and solutions we all face in the real world and, if we all took it seriously, our world would be plagued by a lot fewer issues.
Now, obviously, there isn’t any proof that I’m right and thus, I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong. However, I will try to give some examples of some books I’ve read recently that demonstrate the uncanny prescience some texts have in regard to our societal problems; in this case, specifically politics.
The first novel I would like to address is “It Can’t Happen Here," written by Sinclair Lewis during the Great Depression. In short, the book is about the rise of fascism in America, as a fictional presidential candidate wins the favor of the citizens by promising to help the lower-classes. Once in office, he fails to fulfill all of his promises and tries to keep power by attacking the liberal media.
If not, I will just inform you that this book has gained some recent popularity since Trump has taken office. Now, the events that take place in “It Can’t Happen Here” are much more absurd than our current political atmosphere (I know, sounds impossible), but this is why the novel, written in 1935, was able to foresee the politics of today--because Lewis had the imagination to envision a president as ridiculous as Trump.
This is quite different from the overwhelming majority of people who never gave Trump a chance, not even the so called “political experts.” But in literature, everything is possible, and something as improbable as a fascist president is more than probable.
Continuing with politics in literature, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World Revisited” (written in 1958) is his reflection on the ideas he proposed in “Brave New World.” In an essay about political candidates, Huxley says,
"He must also be an entertainer who never bores his audience… All speeches by the entertainer-candidate must therefore be short and snappy…The nature of the oratory is such that there has always been a tendency among the politicians and clergymen to over-simplify complex issues...The methods now being used to merchandise the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything."
Looking at this quote, it seems that Trump would have been the favorite, for clearly, he was the most entertaining. Furthermore, his campaign was simply perfect, for at no point did Trump offer insight on how he was going to fix the complex problems of our contemporary society. Rather, he went around demanding the end to ISIS and denouncing anything and all things that didn’t benefit America. By doing so, he managed to convince half the nation that conditions in the United States would vastly improve if he were president, without knowing anything about politics. How terribly brilliant!
Based on these two literary texts, Trump should have been regarded as a serious threat to our liberties and democracy the second he decided to run for president. Yet, we didn’t really take him seriously, and many non-voters (myself included), didn’t bother to vote, primarily because we didn’t see a world where Trump was president (it also didn’t help that Hillary was fucking awful).
This is just one example of how literature can alter how we see the world and provide us with the knowledge we need to make a difference. Once again, I can’t say reading will enlighten us enough to create change, but who knows, maybe if I and some other non-voters came across “It Can’t Happen Here” and “Brave New World Revisited” prior to the election, we would have felt more compelled to vote.In short, outside of politics, literature can emphasize the problems of our world by exaggerating them to the utmost extreme. However, in this extreme, which initially seems impossible, we come to realize that the impossible will one day become possible and open our eyes to not only the problems of humanity, but also to the potential of humanity.