Does literature change anything?
By Ahlaam Moledina
NCH Essay Competition 2018 First Prize winner
“Literature is the question minus the answer.” – Roland Barthes
From relics of proto-literate Mesopotamia to the variety of contemporary fiction, literature has, for centuries, acted as a reflective tool with which to mirror one’s society through works which aesthetically or intellectually provoke. However, with reference to the words of French critic Roland Barthes, it can be argued that literature, in its very essence, dismantles established beliefs and realities, and thus does not act solely as mimetic, but also as a “disruptive force” with which to question the scope of fundamental truths. With the impact of Barthes’ words in themselves as an example, literature (that is, literary works of fiction deemed to be of artistic merit) can lead to the critical analysis of a reader’s perceived reality through the implication of doubt; consequently, literature holds the ability to incite change in thought, which then can change default action, which can then cause pragmatic change, whether externally or internally. With reference to works of literary prose and their impacts in societal, political or personal discourse, this essay aims to further the point that literature – with its power to deconstruct established ideals and re-conceptualise our understanding of society and of ourselves – is a catalyst for the process of change.
The influence of literature in society is evident in both cultural and academic discussion, with conversations around class, race, and gender most often referencing prominent writings surrounding these issues. Alongside impactful essays such as The Second Sex (Beauvoir, 1949) and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Morrison, 1992), which are undoubtedly central to feminist and racial literary theory, are novels including Giovanni’s Room (Baldwin, 1956) and The Awakening (Chopin, 1899), which act not as ‘activist texts’ with the purpose of exploring social issues from a critical perspective but as works of literary fiction that depict these themes in interplay with the novels’ respective narratives. The significance of texts such as these, that interweave the poeticism and ardent observance that is unique to fiction together with thematic relevance to real issues, is evident in its effects: in such texts, we see the exploration of established societal constructs – race, gender, and class, in the aforementioned cases – whose walls readers exist within, from perspectives that are also most often from within similar societal structures, but which seek to challenge the prescribed limits of such constructs. This results in writing that is simultaneously reflective and transgressive, envisioning structures that are uncanny in their similarity to real life, as a product of existing social conditions as well as in opposition to them, and that raise questions surrounding the architecture of human existence within these constructs without providing the answers to them, unlike with academic writing. Simply put, novels which feature relationships between people and events and the social institutions which entrap them allow readers to see their own lives within these institutions from the outside, leading to critical analysis of societal structures that most affect readers. Thus, readers experience shifts in elementary thinking and dismantle the structures that they exist within by questioning their walls and forming more rounded opinions.
Furthermore, literature has led to more tangible change, with its influence visible in cultural stimulation and even government policy. The Jungle (Sinclair, 1906) is widely viewed to be a book that has changed the world for its direct influence on federal regulation of the meatpacking industry in the US during the Progressive Era, including in the passing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and 1906 Meat Inspection Act under Theodore Roosevelt. Sinclair’s unfiltered exposé depicting the strife faced by immigrants to America in the early 20th Century against a backdrop of sharp criticism of the moneyed classes encapsulates the power of literature to transform attitudes and demand change; public outrage following the novel’s publication advanced the passage of the aforementioned reforms. The Jungle also exemplifies the boundless nature of literary interpretation; Sinclair aimed to further a socialist agenda with the publication of his book but was met with outcry for a different sort of political change, alluding to the intricacies in the balance between authors’ intentions and audience interpretations, and how in either case, change occurs as a result. The influence of The Jungle came from its raw and honest portrayal of a system that existed alongside the lives of those who held power (i.e. those exempt from the institutional poverty and discrimination faced by immigrants, African-Americans, and Native Americans) in early 20th Century America, but one that was invisible to the naked eye. Alongside demands for reform came claims of shock and disbelief from readers who lived in systems that they had become blind to, who were faced with perspectives that were previously so marginalised that they did not seem worthy of attention. 1984 (Orwell, 1949) epitomises Gauguin’s statement that “art is either plagiarism or revolution.” This statement applies to literature. Not only does Orwell explore the ramifications of living in a totalitarian society that holds eerie similarities to our own supposedly democratic one (thus raising questions around political philosophy and the perpetual wonder of “what if?”) but also explores how language is fundamental to incite change. The ability to articulate oneself is change in itself, allowing for change as a consequence of understanding that change is possible as we are able to verbally express it, an idea explored in 1984 and one that forms the basis of Orwellian linguistic theory. Therefore, literature makes us aware of not only what the states of society and politics truly are, but also what they may be, and with it, harnessing the unending potential for change through ceaseless questioning.
Perhaps most notable is the irreversible effect the consumption of literature has on the human experience, with literary theory examining its effects on social norms, empathic ability, identity and self-conceptualisation cited widely in psychological and philosophical studies of moral conception. Unlike with academic writings, literature operates without a conscious mandate and consumption of literature creates an empathic link between reader, writer, characters, and ideas that are being presented, broadening views and forming an awareness of different sides to a moral dilemma, and the range of consequences that may follow, allowing for an augmented sense of empathy and often, more liberal thinking as a result. Literature enhances the adequacy of our ethical reflection and leads to more accepting, tolerant viewpoints as a consequence of readers being faced with an infinite range of characters, cultures and crises that they may not otherwise come into contact with. In a similar sense, we see the ability of literature (as an entity) to connect people from all backgrounds and walks of life, changing the traditionally Caucasian backdrop of literary conversation. Crucially, literature holds the power to change the self; to reconfigure outlooks and imaginations, and to lead to increased understanding of our identities as well as question what we believe to be true about ourselves.
When discussing if literature changes anything, it may be worth noting that the success of literature comes from its lack of boundaries, and consequently there lie infinite possibilities within the scope of change that are left to be considered. At an individual level, and in some cases, at a collective level also, literature (as a process undergone) is change – it is simultaneously being most attuned to the self and being most separate to it, and is learning and unlearning, gaining knowledge while raising questions. Reading fiction leads to understanding perspectives one would never otherwise come close to: a white heterosexual male reading The Colour Purple (Walker, 1982), a novel about being black and lesbian and the institutional discrimination that is faced as a result, epitomises why literature changes everything. If the world is suffering under stagnant dogmas and deficiencies in understanding and communication, literature is its antidote.
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