True confession: I'm mildly horrified by the popularity of bad guys. The Sopranos, House, True Blood, Breaking Bad- all of these feature protagonists that could in some way be described as anti-social, and I don't mean Charles Darnay anti-social. Mobsters, drug addicts, vampires, drug dealers. (Some would lump my favorite show, Mad Men, in there too, and I must agree- Don Draper is so empty he's a walking echo.)
The popularity of the bad guy has even invaded my old favorite genre, the soap opera. Sonny Corinthos and his henchman Jason Morgan are mobsters and killers on General Hospital; I think we're supposed to feel a little better that their primary criminal activity seems to be smuggling and not prostitution or drugs. Victor Newman on The Young and The Restless is a cutthroat business man who punishes his loved ones if he doesn't have total loyalty.
I get it up to a point; Othello and even King Lear are fascinating to watch- for two hours. But a decade later and I don't care what makes you tick if I have to keep watching you do horrible things. I just don't want to watch anymore. (For all of the horrible things Don Draper has done, murder is not one of them- technically.)
I'm relatively alone in this because, as I said, the shows above are really, really popular. It's not confined to television: vampires and dystopia are hot, hot, hot in publishing. You know what's really popular? Young adult dystopia, with vampires or some other kind of monster.
I'm horrified, but I'm not superior. I don't pretend that my tastes are better than anyone else's, and I don't want to get into a fight with anyone about why romance and women's fiction are better. You can't compare by genre, you have to go by title, if you can compare at all. But I don't want to argue with anyone's taste, I just want to understand.
With a little reflection, I think I do.
Years ago, I was watching a PBS production about the rise up to the second world war in Germany. Despite the promises of a better world and some prosperity, many of the artists of the time were painting works filled with destruction. They heard the underlying messages of their leaders, and they collectively shuddered. I humbly submit that many modern-day writers are shuddering too.
American infrastructure is literally crumbling, and we have overall unemployment over 9%. In some communities, unemployment is above 15%. In Mexico, people are engaging in unimaginable violence to pursue and protect huge profit margins available through the drug trade. Human trafficking, particularly for sex, has not abated. Children are literally being bullied to death online. Four and a half decades after the Civil Rights Act, people in certain communities are still being threatened if they try to vote. And, classically, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
It doesn't take much imagination to see the wasteland.
I don't read dystopian fiction, I read dystopian non-fiction. The health problems of homeless teenagers in Arizona. The continuing struggles of the 9/11 responders. The constant compromise of our electronic privacy. The loss of 60 million women around the world due to sex-selective abortion. Neurosex discrimination. The unconscionable inequities in our healthcare system. Worldwide food distribution issues. And, to put a historical spin on it, the end of civilization as the Americas knew it. I tell myself that these aren't the same because most of these books present solutions to the problems we're facing, but that's only part of why I'm reading it. In part, I like the affirmation that someone else recognizes a problem. I think, in part, that the people who gravitate towards fictional dystopia see the same problems a little more starkly than I do. I cannot argue that they are wrong.
The climate disturbs me, but it would be ridiculous for me to petition HBO, Fox, ABC or CBS to change their programming or ask publishers not to publish books urban paranormal. It makes more sense for me to try to change, well, reality through the political process. I can't do anything about anyone else's imagination, but I can at least try to effect changes that shape our collective imagination.
Who knows? If other people join me, we might finally see the publication of the story of the happy elves Lemony Snicket teased us with.