Rebecca Lerner: Replacing our realities with catastrophes

Monday, September 21, 2015 - 5:15pm

“And may the odds be ever in your favor,” announces an organizer of the fictional but gruesome Hunger Games, which end when all the contestants but the winner have been murdered. This chilling sentiment from Suzanne Collins’s post-apocalyptic bestseller of the same name is an echo of the difficult times in which the book was published. “The Hunger Games,” published in 2008 during the Great Recession, swept the world into the trend of futuristic and dystopian novels. While a glimpse of doom or the supernatural is not uncommon in American literature, depressing accounts of the ominous American future described in novels such as “The Maze Runner,” published in 2009, and “Divergent,” published in 2011, came fast and furious throughout the Great Recession. Over the past few years, the market for dystopian novels has become a very profitable mirror held to a world of anxiety and fear.

The Great Recession, the worst global recession since World War II, was caused by failures in financial regulation and the deflation of the housing market in mid-2007. It resulted in a drop in employment, financial uncertainty and a widening wealth disparity in the country. As of 2014, only 14 percent of the American workforce felt that they had fully recovered from the recession, indicating that for some, its effects will be felt for years to come.

In spite of the economic restlessness the recession caused, people did not want to be buoyed by their literature. Instead, they wanted to read about fictional societies doing things that were even worse than their own society was doing to them. The desire to put the fictional less-fortunate on display is reminiscent of the concept of “disaster porn.” It’s why people slow down to see the gore of a car crash and why horrible events are played over and over on a loop on the news. According to Emily Godbey, a humanities professor at Albright College, it’s satisfying because “we’re able to experience the existential dilemma of human lives … (but) there’s no real risk.”

When “The Hunger Games” came out, I was on a lake with my friends and several parents. One of my friends, who was 16 at the time, began to read from the novel. We were all transfixed. At dinner that night, gone was the hushed discussion of finances and disappearing nest eggs. The topic of conversation was who at the table would survive the Hunger Games — and who would be killed within minutes. Although we were astonished by it, we could still talk and even laugh about this because the idea is so unreal. Of course our government would never force children to kill each other for sport. But it isn’t so absurd that we couldn’t let our imaginations run a bit wild and place ourselves in the setting just long enough to forget how bad things were in real life.

And yet, people have not always wanted to replace reality with imagined catastrophe. The earlier match for the Great Recession, the Great Depression, had a substantially cheerier tone in its entertainment. Instead of craving more destruction and pain in their entertainment, the audiences of the early 1930s wanted to laugh at and root for their heroes and heroines.

The era’s more positive literature included fish-out-of-water stories like “White Collar Girl,” written by Faith Baldwin in 1933, about a charming young collegiate woman who returned to work in her hometown to ease her family’s financial woes. There were many tales of adventure, like the 1932 novel “Mutiny on the Bounty,” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. And then there were novels written that were just for fun, like Virginia Woolf’s imaginative “Flush: A Biography,” a view of city life told by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog. In other realms of entertainment, comedy and singing acts like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Fred Astaire dominated the movie theaters. People were eager to forget their worries through a few hours of happiness, even when the dismal conditions made such a thing in short supply.

Entertainment has always represented a chance for escapism. In the Great Depression, people looked to the light of happier days, perhaps because such days had been with them not long before during the ephemeral prosperity of the Roaring ’20s. People retreated into lightness because the downturn had been such a terrifying quick reaction, an unexpected slap in the face to the entire country. But in the Great Recession, the memories of past few years in the wake of the harrowing terrorist attack on Sept. 11 and the anxiety that followed it, haunted its entertainment and turned it into the dark dystopias to which so many flock. The American public had been primed for doom through the disappointment of the early aughts, leading to novels full of death and despair. Though the memories of the Great Recession will be with us for years to come, the dystopian trend is winding down. Upon leaving the recession, maybe our country’s next beloved characters will find themselves in happier times.