Uneasy about the future, readers turn to dystopian classics

The Handmaid's Tale, which was made into a movie (above) in 1990, takes place in near-future New England as a totalitarian regime takes power and strips women of their civil rights.
The Handmaid's Tale, which was made into a movie (above) in 1990, takes place in near-future New England as a totalitarian regime takes power and strips women of their civil rights.PHOTO: CINECOM INTERNATIONAL

Readers who are wary of the authoritarian overtones of the current United States administration seek insight from dystopian fiction

NEW YORK • Last weekend, as hundreds of thousands of women gathered in Washington to protest against the inauguration of United States President Donald Trump, the novelist Margaret Atwood began getting a string of notifications on Twitter and Facebook.

People were sending her images of protesters with signs that referenced her dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale. "Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again!" one sign read. "The Handmaid's Tale is NOT an Instruction Manual!" read another.

"There were a honking huge number of them," Atwood said.

The Handmaid's Tale, which takes place in near-future New England as a totalitarian regime takes power and strips women of their civil rights, was published 32 years ago.

But in recent months, Atwood has been hearing from anxious readers, who see eerie parallels between the novel's oppressive society and the current Republican administration's policy goals of curtailing reproductive rights.

Last year, sales of the book, which is in its 52nd printing, were up 30 per cent over the previous year. Atwood's publisher has reprinted 100,000 copies in the last three months to meet a spike in demand after the election.

The Handmaid's Tale is among several classic dystopian novels that seem to be resonating with readers at a moment of heightened anxiety about the state of American democracy.

Sales have also risen drastically for George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, which shot to the top of Amazon's bestseller list this week.

Other novels that today's readers may not have picked up since high school but have landed on the list this week are Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, Brave New World, a futuristic dystopian story set in England in 2540 and Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, a satire about a bellicose presidential candidate who runs on a populist platform in the US, but turns out to be a fascist demagogue.

On Friday, It Can't Happen Here was No. 9 on Amazon; Brave New World was No. 15.

The sudden boom in popularity for classic dystopian novels, which began to pick up just after the election, seems to reflect an organic response from readers who are wary of the authoritarian overtones of some of Mr Trump's rhetoric.

Interest in 1984 surged last week, set off by a series of comments from Mr Trump, his press secretary Sean Spicer and his adviser Kellyanne Conway, in which they disputed the news media's portrayal of the crowd size at his inauguration and of his fractious relationship with US intelligence agencies.

Their insistence that facts such as photographs of the crowd and his public statements were up for interpretation culminated in a stunning exchange that Ms Conway had on NBC's Meet The Press, when she said that Mr Spicer had not lied about the crowd size but was offering "alternative facts".

To many observers, her comment evoked Orwell's vision of a totalitarian society in which language becomes a political weapon and reality itself is defined by those in power. The remarks prompted a cascade of Twitter messages referencing Orwell and 1984.

On Wednesday, CNN host Van Jones read a famous passage from 1984 about efforts to force citizens to "reject the evidence of your eyes and ears" and urged his viewers not to become complacent when faced with a barrage of falsehoods.

"Let's not go down the Orwellian road and I hope that's not where Trump is trying to lead us," he said.

Of course, it is not the first time that readers and pundits have invoked the novel to criticise the actions and statements of a government. It is such a standard trope that Orwell's name has become an adjective.

And because so many US readers are exposed to the novel in high school or college, most people have a passing familiarity with its basic themes about the dangers of authoritarianism and use phrases such as "big brother" as a shorthand to describe a multitude of things, from Google to homeland security.

"It's a frame of reference that people can reach for in response to government deception, propaganda and the misuse of language, and those are things that occur all the time," said Dr Alex Woloch, an English professor at Stanford University, who has written about the roots of Orwell's political language.

"There are certain things this administration is doing that has set off these alarm bells and people are hungry for frames of reference to understand this new reality."

The sudden prominence of such novels reflects a renewed public interest in decades-old works of speculative fiction as guides for understanding America's current political moment.

Readers who are grappling with a jolting shift in US politics, when easily verifiable facts are subject to debate and civil liberties and democratic norms feel fragile, are turning to dystopian novels for guidance and insight.

"Many of these books are becoming more important to the average American reader because they want to know what's next, because we've never been through this before," said novelist Gary Shteyngart, author of the dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story.

"Language is being used to destabilise people's perception of reality, and that's very new to this country."

While many of the novels are perennial bestsellers and staples on high school reading lists, publishers were still unprepared for the recent rise in demand.

Shortly after the election, It Can't Happen Here, an 82-year-old satirical novel that was popular in its time but was never really enshrined as a classic, was sold out on Amazon and on Books-A-Million's website. The book has sold about 45,000 copies since Nov 9. Sales for the mass-market edition last year were up 1,100 per cent over 2015, according to its publisher.

"The book has certainly been known and alluded to since its publication, but now it's really caught on because there are so many astonishing parallels to the present," said Dr Michael Meyer, an emeritus English professor at the University of Connecticut, who wrote an introduction to the novel. "It's a satire about the politics of someone like Trump."

The trajectory for 1984 has been even more dramatic. Since the inauguration, sales of the novel have risen 9,500 per cent, according to Mr Craig Burke, the publicity director for Signet Classics, a paperback imprint at Penguin. The book became the top seller on Barnes & Noble's website last week and appeared in the top 10 on the Indie Bestseller list, which tracks sales at hundreds of independent bookstores across the country.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Uneasy about the future, readers turn to dystopian classics'. Print Edition | Subscribe