This weekend, The Handmaid’s Tale made the Globe and Mail bestseller list. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel is set in a future version of the U.S., which has become a totalitarian theocracy where women are enlisted into sexual slavery at the hands of wealthy men. First published in 1985, recent events on the global stage – most specifically the recent U.S. executive order reinstating the “global gag rule” around abortion – have thrust the book back into the public consciousness. A work that once appeared as speculative fiction is seeming more and more scarily prescient from the vantage of 2017.
Nor is Atwood’s book the only work of dystopian fiction to achieve a second life in our current global political moment. George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has returned to bestseller lists; its satire of a totalitarian regime that traffics in “doublespeak” and operates an ironically named Ministry of Truth has found resonance with readers in the wake of U.S. presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway’s legitimization of “alternative facts.”
As the lies and prevarications from the current U.S. government continue unabated, reasonable people will look to whatever they can find as ballast; more and more, that seems to be books. As Charles J. Sykes wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, “If President Trump’s first tumultuous weeks have done nothing else, at least they have again made us a nation of readers.”
To the extent that reading promotes critical thinking, this could not be more important. To the extent that reading encourages empathy and understanding, it could not be more beneficial. And to the extent that reading allows people to become comfortable with some degree of ambiguity, it could not be more useful.
It is no secret that the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the U.S. is not a reader, preferring to get his news and information from cable television. At a moment in which the term “fake news” has become a catch-all cliché for anything someone disagrees with, this is troublesome enough. But what is more worrisome is the essential nature of the medium itself. The reductive essence of television promotes a Manichean separation of dualities – right vs. wrong; good vs. evil; us vs. them – that more often than not precludes nuance or subtext. As playwright Peter Morgan wrote, “the first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies.”
Novels, if they’re any good, tend to have an adversarial relationship with simplicity. Novelists understand that the greatest source of imaginative power resides in complexity, in a recognition of the slipperiness of proscribed categories and designations. By engaging with history, novelists contextualize where we’ve been; by speculating on our possible future, novelists warn us about where we might be going.
There is a tendency to dismiss works of fiction as frivolous, especially in historically fraught moments. But there’s a reason why people are reaching for Atwood and Orwell right now and not, say, Barbara Tuchman. (Which is not to suggest that Tuchman has nothing valuable to say to us: when you’re done with The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four, you could do worse than pick up The March of Folly.) Humans are by nature storytellers, and it is through our stories that we are uniquely able to access meaning that might otherwise elude us. Far from serving as a retreat from the world, the best fiction helps us to better engage with the world as it is, and to more vividly imagine the world as we might want it to be.
Fiction is literally fake news: it is an imaginative response to the exigencies of our human experience. Perhaps yet one more irony of our current historical situation is that the fake news of fiction may best be able to convey to us some aspect of enduring truth.