Nineteenth century social scientists and philosophers analyzed the causes and proposed solutions for contradictions developed in industrial capitalist society. Contemporary society is still confronting these contradictions, namely, science and technology made production faster, better, easier, and more abundant, but poverty and socioeconomic polarization remain serious problems that seem antithetical to the view that mass production resulting in mass politics necessarily entails democratization of institutions and greater social justice. European and American literary authors brilliantly captured these contradictions, and they were better able to express them for the general population through fiction, a reality that remains with us to the present but unfortunately with very few literary authors able to capture the essence of these familiar themes.
The 19th century produced some of the most brilliant and creative literary minds in the history of Western civilization. Gavin Jones argues that contemporary literary theory fails to capture the essence of poverty in the manner of classical American writers such as Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, James Agee, and Richard White. Author of American Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840-1945 (Princeton, 2009), Jones advances a literary theory on poverty based on American literature. He argues that: "Only in imaginative literature can we fully understand the problems of poverty and inequality. This statement may seem strange, counterintuitive at best. Surely poverty is a material condition, a position in the social structure. And literary texts: are they not aesthetic artifacts, retreating by their nature into the privacy of the imagination? Only in this retreat from the tactile and the statistical, I contend, can we approach the complexity of poverty as an ideological formation, or understand the inner life of being poor—the tangled web of emotion and behavior that gets brushed too easily from social study."
Fiction expressing disillusionment with society and underlying problems that the political economy had created for underprivileged social groups (peasants, workers, women, children, religious, ethnic, racial groups) assumed a central role during the 19th century. The earliest masters that influenced writers from their time until the present included Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner among others. Capturing the plight of the poor, criticizing institutions that were inhuman and unjust. Émile Zola's Germinal, a brutally realistic story of a coalminers' strike in northern France in the 1860s, intended to evoke anger at social injustice during the Second Industrial Revolution.
Dystopian literature master H. G. Wells raised concerns about the inhuman society shaped during the late 19th century as expressed in the Island of Doctor Moreau. A socialist who eventually moved to Labour party politics, Wells believed in the inevitability of a world state that would promote science under meritocracy. The sense of pessimism about the human condition in Wells, as in other 19th century fiction writers, arises out of concern that society is not headed in the right direction, but that it could. There is underlying optimism for the future, despite disillusionment with society's current trends.
In the 20th century, speculative fiction tried to capture the essence of 'transformation' as a phenomenon of cultural diffusion as well as the rise of internationalism in the world of politics and integrated world economy. Creating alternative world as a way of understanding ours, literary writers tried to penetrate empirical reality through creative imagination, but the preeminence of the individual protagonist, not the individual as a representative of social group, becomes more pronounced. Moreover, the trend is increasingly toward conformity while only appearing non-conformist on a very surface and innocuous level.
While for the most part, fiction writers in the post-WWII have not demonstrated overt empathy for the political and business elites, they have not been able to demonstrate dynamically the penetrating insights and creativity that 19th century writers or even those of the Great Depression were able to capture. Literary themes based on social class, powerful institutions supposedly intended for the social good but in reality retarding social justice and dehumanizing society captured the public imagination from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression. Such themes are not nearly as evident or as sharp after WWII when apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature, influenced by the global war, and nuclear arms race of the Cold War, concerned writers more than class themes that concerned writers from Balzac and Dreiser to Steinbeck.
Even Jean-Paul Sartre, an Existential Marxist, reveals through his best novel Nausea written during the Great Depression that he needs to depart from the larger societal themes that preoccupied novelists from Balzac to Steinbeck and focuses on aesthetic, psychological and ultimately philosophical problems of the modern urban middle class individual who confronts meaninglessness of existence, thus confirming that the Enlightenment value system and European order were killed during the First World War.
"I realized that there was no half-way house between non-existence and this flaunting abundance. If you existed, you had to exist all the way, as far as mouldiness, bloatedness, obscenity were concerned. In another world, circles, bars of music keep their pure and rigid lines. But existence is a deflection."
While existentialist themes have become more common in Western literature, invariably the hero or anti-hero individual in society takes precedence over societal institutions shaped by and serving predominantly privileged social groups.
The emphasis in post-WWII novels is invariably on individual stereotypical amoral villains, a few bad apples, rather than on a systemic problems, although there is a great deal of fiction about business scams and 'evil business people' that give the otherwise sound if not moral and sound market-based political economy a bad name. Even apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature usually intended to be very critical of the status quo does not measure up to the grand themes or creative imagination that Mary Shelley or H. G. Wells raised in their science fiction works.
The value system and Western liberal ideology is clearly evident in contemporary fiction, which tends to promote escapism (escapism fiction that makes the best-seller lists). This is the case in almost all genres, whether through stereotypical romance and adventure stories where mainstream ethical values are violated by the protagonists or in science fiction intended to criticize the faltering of contemporary institutions. This mega trend of escapism fiction has been influenced by motion pictures and TV that serve as instruments of escapism and treat subjects from a very superficial and caricature perspective while trying to remain within the cultural milieu so the novel can find a broad audience. The contemporary appetite for hedonistic, atomistic, fast-food-everything culture is reflected in fiction.
The general reader feels good escaping through reading from everyday life into exotic worlds and situations, experiencing vicariously the adventures of a hero's revenge, love, lust, and achievements whether that entails surviving a storm and pirates in the Caribbean, or prevailing over vampires, werewolves and Martians. Like good tasting fast food that is nutritionally bad, this type of fiction is intended to excite the senses and not the intellect, because this is what the publishing companies want to market.
Nor is this an issue about giving hope and projecting optimism through fiction, because Dickens and Dreiser did exactly that while engaging the reader to think about human beings function within societal institutions; in short, there was a didactic purpose behind modern literature from Balzac to Steinbeck. By contrast, the central focus of much contemporary fiction is distraction from the real problems that society is confronting, with privileged social groups to a large degree determining the destiny not just of the lumpen proletariat but of the broader middle class, but the only solution being to either retreat to spiritual or philosophical medication, 'cultivate your own garden', to borrow the phrase from Voltaire's Candide, or conform.
It is indeed possible that today we are living in an age that has some similarities with the 1840s when the Opium Wars were taking place and the West was imposing its hegemony on the non-white world, a time when the brutal factory system, the devastating Irish famine, the revolutions of 1848, the problems of workers and the urban poor, the American debates on emigrants, slavery, and war prompted serious literary works reflecting these conditions.
There have always been literary theories, and contributors include prominent thinkers from the area of literature, psychology and philosophy. The issue, however, is one of fundamental assumptions, and in contemporary times such assumptions are geared toward celebrating, vilifying, victimizing, and generally focusing on the individual against the context of social and institutional conformity, in other words modern fiction is designed to brush over if not conceal the culture of pessimism as a manifestation of a systemic and historic process producing contradictions in society that mold the lives of individuals. The main reason for this, is that literary writers from the Age of Romanticism (early Industrial Revolution) until the Great Depression were driven by the Enlightenment's underlying theme of optimism, while after the Second World War that optimism fades to the point where it has reached its nadir today and thus it is reflected in the type of fiction we have.