The Book We Need Isn’t Orwell’s 1984

Orwell’s 1984 may provide us with a vocabulary for critiquing the Trump administration. “Double speak,” “thought police”: these and other turns of phrase explain the peculiar and insidious ways in which Trump is gaslighting America. (This is a phenomenon that Lauren Duca has explained, incisively, in Teen Vogue.)

And while we need 1984‘s lexicon of authoritarianism, it’s not the book for our moment.

Yes, George Orwell’s 1984 is currently one of the hottest selling books, and the sales numbers back up the image of America’s readers scrambling for this title. A perennial feature of many high school required reading lists, the dystopian novel ascended to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list not long after administration mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” during a particularly barbed exchange with Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. Writing for NPR, Lynn Neary reports that it’s easy to find a correlation between Conway’s comment and sales of 1984 on Amazon. Commenting on the sales period immediately after Conway’s remark on Sunday, 22 January, Neary observes:

The Amazon best seller list is updated hourly so it can swiftly track a surge in a book’s popularity. A spokesman for Signet Classics which currently publishes 1984 said sales have increased almost 10,000 percent since the inauguration and moved noticeably upwards on Sunday.

Neary then notes that Signet, the division of Penguin-Random House that publishes 1984, reprinted 75,000 additional copies of the book to meet demand. I understand the impulse to seek out Orwell: he’s familiar, he’s been coded “safe” by his appearance on public reading lists, and his presence in so many series of “classics” renders his name a quick metonym for satiric and dystopian modes of writing.

But 1984—with its prevailing themes of espionage, surveillance, social conditioning, and mind control—is better suited to a critique of the Cold War (and post-Cold War) culture of suspicion. (If you want a striking and thorough explication of why 1984 is not the book for our current brand of hell, you should read Josephine Livingstone’s trenchant essay “Grave New World,” over in New Republic.)

In a political atmosphere marked by “alternative facts,” Macedonian bloggers who fabricate outlandish falsehoods bought by Trump enthusiasts, and a newly minted Secretary of Education who (in her confirmation hearing, no less) refused to voice support for public education,  we as readers and writers would be best served by seeking out high-quality, investigative nonfiction. Probing pieces like those in The Atlantic and The New Yorker would prove especially critical, as they provide immersive accounts of recent issues in the broader context of American history. (The essays of Jelani Cobb, for instance, come to mind.) Book-length works of rigorously researched nonfiction should also place high on our lists. (If you want an antidote to Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as Sec. of Ed., you might want to jump to Diane Ravitch’s work, in particular The Death and Life of the Great American School System.)

But I am a fiction writer and the creative writing editor for an academic journal, so I’m not one to shy away from creative writing in dark times. Indeed, I’ve found myself drawn more frequently to poetry—writers with a control of rhythm like Patrick Rosal or an ear for the fragmentation and discomfort that’s part and parcel of American culture like Monica Youn—because its concision and imagery can resonate, like the perfect pluck of a well-tuned string, with the post-election emotional upset.

Against the current backdrop of an administration that is actively dismantling civil liberties while claiming that no prejudice or slight is intended—and I’m referring, here, to the Muslim ban and the administration’s slippery rhetoric on that subject—the mimetic power of fiction also enables us to engage, and immerse ourselves in, narratives that evoke both our fears and our empathy.

There are two works of speculative history that come to mind at once, and both feature an imagined scenario in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt startlingly loses the presidential election. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) provokes a concern over the speed with which America can devolve to autocratic rule: FDR’s successor, Buzz Windrip, rapidly allies himself with a paramilitary force akin to Hitler’s SS, and America devolves into a totalitarian nightmare. The other work of speculative fiction is a more recent production: Philip Roth’s 2004 bestseller The Plot Against America.

In mentioning Roth, I think it’s important to offer the usual disclaimers: he’s a writer who certainly falls under the label of “midcentury misogynist,” a term coined by Emily Gould. (In Slate, Amanda Hess meditates on the negative effects that the midcentury misogynists have had for women writers. Read Hess’s piece, if you want a pretty good pre-Roth trigger warning.) When I first read The Plot Against America, around 2008 or so, I thought it offered a compelling thought experiment: in the 1940 presidential election, Charles Lindbergh—with his “America first” rhetoric (sound familiar?) and his showboating campaign done entirely in the famed Spirit of St. Louis aircraft—defeats FDR and ushers in a series of measures specifically targeted toward the destruction of America’s Jewish community. One of the early programs devised by the fictional Lindbergh administration is “Just Folks”—a work program that separates Jewish families and sends their children to labor for white Protestants with no regard for the children’s religious and cultural upbringing.

Reading The Plot Against America today strikes me differently. Firstly, I learned several years ago that I have Jewish ancestors who lived with their faith and ethnicity closeted, and they often passed themselves as Christian to preserve the family in rural Pennsylvania. (And my WASP relatives refuse to acknowledge this family history.) Surely, my ancestors would’ve been imperiled by a program like Just Folks or the “America first” rhetoric; surely, with America’s own sordid history of racial and ethnic purity, I myself could be at risk for acknowledging (and studying and appreciating) how this Jewish ancestry has forced me to rethink my otherwise Scots-Irish Catholic upbringing. Roth’s Plot has acquired an urgency and a sense of danger that it previously hadn’t possessed—but it also brings its readers into the home of a Jewish family, thereby introducing many Americans to people they otherwise wouldn’t meet.

Simulating meetings between different social and cultural groups is one advantage of fiction. Eerie resonances with reality are another, and here’s why I feel that Plot is such urgent reading at this moment. While Lindbergh does resoundingly defeat Roosevelt in Roth’s alternate history, the novel nonetheless hits a few notes that echo American politics, post-November 2016:

Here, speculative fiction like Lewis and Roth’s novels depict for readers the strategies of totalitarian rule, the praxis of hate, and the assaults against civil liberties. Without being overtly polemical, these novels illustrate which behaviors and utterances threaten America’s democratic values. More over, through their characters, these novels render in human form the costs, the ravages, of the state’s exercise of power.

1984 has its purpose, yes, but it isn’t the vehicle for understanding and empathy that I’ve found in other novels and in poetry. And it isn’t the means of arriving at a nuanced articulation of a social issue, which I’ve gleaned from research-heavy nonfiction.

Read widely, friends. We’re going to need books more than ever these next four years.

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