I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.
Week 3: Genre Saturation and Mizora
As I finished my reading of Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora: a Prophecy this week I started to feel my first real sense of fatigue with the utopian genre. If you read enough of anything in a particular style or approach, this will inevitably happen; the conventions of utopian fiction start to feel formulaic and predictable, even though this is more a function of exhausting your own critical eye, not necessarily an inherent feature of the text. With this sense of fatigue, I yawned and fired up the audiobook The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym on my iPhone during my commute and noticed that I was almost immediately looking for the expected twists and turns. To Poe’s credit, I’m halfway through the book and he’s sticking doggedly to his own designs on the structure, pulling us through enough frame story that it isn’t really “frame” any more, it’s the actual story.
But Poe’s deviation from the usual pattern (minor frame => uncanny event => utopian immersion => utopian explanation => expulsion from utopia, closure of frame) notwithstanding, I started to wonder if the readers of this type of fiction during this era also became saturated (or just bored) with the genre. I forget the actual numbers, but there was an absolute explosion of utopian fiction in the last two decades of the 19th century, which saw the publication of hundreds of stories that were either frankly utopian or had utopian features. Wouldn’t this have been dreadfully stale among reading audiences by 1900? It reminds me of trends in speculative fiction like the flood of militaristic “space marine” stories in the post-Vietnam War period from about 1975-1990, or the nauseatingly-pervasive vampire fiction explosion from 2000-2010. By the end of these trends, the initial catalyst stories for the trends were rarely improved upon, and usually the opposite was true: they became caricatures of themselves.
Did this happen, I wonder, with this utopian fiction trend of the late 19th century? Did everyone roll their eyes and think to themselves Oh great, another one trying to rehash Bellamy’s Looking Backward… *yawn*. Get me another cordial of whiskey while I sleep through this… Or, more likely, as we saw in the 80’s, did everyone who at first took the space marine genre seriously with texts like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War recognize the derivative nature of the texts that followed and relegate them to the status of “junk literature”, or “enjoyment reading, not serious stuff?”
This brings me back to one of the chief difficulties I’ve had with this entire topic this term. The 19th century utopia is a fascinating period of the genre to study, but I feel like I’m missing a huge chunk of its significance because I have little conception of how these stories acted as artifacts. How were they published? Who published them? What were the general public opinions of both the writers and publishers of these sorts of stories? How would they be marketed? How would someone hear about a new utopian story or novel? Were newspapers, reviewers, etc, involved? If so, aren’t these secondary pieces of primary data equally important to situate the novel historically? Sometimes I get the feeling I’m spending time studying a piece of vaunted literature, and other times, as with Mizora I get the feeling I’m looking with a very academic, scholarly, critical eye at the 19th century version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m not certain, though, and that bothers me.