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The motivational quality of depressing fiction

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  November 20, 2013 09:31 AM

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Good literature offers a nice escape, especially in bleak times. When Washington politics feel especially hopeless, there’s consolation in a Jane Austen novel. But a new book argues that fiction doesn’t want to be a retreat. Instead, it wants to send us back out into the world, revitalized for action, and it achieves this provocation through surprising means: by reflecting bleakness right back at us.

In “Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past,” Stanford comparative literature professor Amir Eshel looks at many recent examples of unremittingly dour fiction, including “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and the 2007 movie, “Children of Men.”

All of these works feature characters swamped by titanic historical forces. Eshel argues that this mode of fiction grows out of the real life traumas of the last hundred years—the world wars, the Holocaust, genocide, 9/11. These events had many awful consequences and one of them was to create a widespread sense of powerlessness, a feeling that the only thing we can do is mill around onshore (or take after each other) while the tsunami sweeps in.

Authors often draw on these historical events to create stories with themes of loneliness and paralysis. It’s easy to see the bleakness in books like W.G. Sebald’s 2001 Holocaust novel “Austerlitz,” but Eshel argues that such grim visions usually also imply a way out of the morass. He invents the concept of “futurity” to describe the way that literature helps us face past historical traumas, while also prompting us to remain optimistic about shaping the future.

“I think what literature and the arts teach us,” he says in a video produced by Stanford, “is that human history is in fact human history. That is, humans are those who make their history, they are the agents of their fate and not just victims to external circumstances.” He points out that while the setting of “Children of Men” is completely depressing (mass sterility, riots), the concerted effort of Clive Owen’s character still counts for something.

It’s a nice idea, that the most depressing fiction is also potentially the most catalytic. In this way, authors are trying to say, I get it, things are awful, but if [insert character’s name here] can do it, so can you.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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