Dan Green responds to James Sallis’ article about reading old science fiction readers requires from later readers a knowledge of “the period in which it was written.” Another good work to use as an example: 1984. It was mandatory high school reading for me because schools wanted us to beware of the evils of communism. I dutifully read it and felt the fear.
Interestingly though, when I reread the book after living/teaching in 2 communist countries, I found the book much more relevant to contemporary US culture than anything dreamed up by Soviet officials. The ideology and theory now seems somewhat dated, but the novel seems to be less about collectivism than the act of resisting social messages and mass media repetition. I work at a company that plays CNN headline news (and commercials) in almost every communal room. Workers are bombarded with live unfiltered speeches by politicians and images glamorizing SUV usage, various cruise lines and investment companies. I am reminded of 1984 everyday.
(BTW, Mark Crispin Miller has a great diatribe about TV and 1984 in Boxed In. The problem, he argues, is not that Big Brother is watching us, but that our eyes remain glued to finding out what Big Media Celebrity is doing on the boobtube).
It can be interesting to read about the social context in which a work appears (ex. discuss the effect of Goethe’s Werther on the suicide rate or Rushdie’s book on Islamic fundamentalism). But there is also a risk of creating a media feeding frenzy; isn’t the point of literary study to focus on textual issues rather than on why something became popular? You end up talking more sociology and less narrative.
As long as a work’s historical context does not dominate a literary discussion, I see little harm in it. Yes, Body Snatchers gives a good opening for a discussion of McCarthyism, but spend too much time, and then people lose interest. For better or worse, younger generations miss the contextual allusions and instead spend more time locating a parallel in their own own time period. That is good.
Compare to Animal Farm, which is easier to read, more allegorical and (ironically) more fixed to a certain historical event. Which of the two is more inclined to be subject to reinterpretation over generations? Animal Farm as fable doesn’t have much going for it except the hilarious parallel with the Bolshevik Revolution. 1984 tries to portray a credible world, a coherent philosophy and a way of coping with mind control. Which of the two is more likely to endure? A charming fable or a realistic nightmare?