Stalin on Literature

Yep, that title is an eye-catcher but I am drawing on a quote from him that the greatest value of any written endeavor (be it a play, script, or book) is to be that it uplifts people. Looking beyond the fact that he was a paranoid and murderous dictator, let’s look at Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (which was turned into a Starz drama) as well as his recent new book, Fall of Giants.

There is a school of thought that says good literature should be “realistic” and that has been mis-understood to mean “depressing.” So, for instance, if you’re righting about the Middle Ages, it’s best to focus on the down-trodden juxtaposed with their social superiors as a way to show us that nothing really changes and the little guy gets squished.

Follett does this with Pillars of the Earth in which we get to see the merry lives of Tom Builder and his desperate family as they basically get crushed and fall apart, have some moments of happiness, and then fall apart. The tv series is just as depressing except that you get to see the filth and desperation up close. According to the the NY Times book review, we’re going to get more of the same in his new book Fall of Giants except it will be sad times in the 20th century…

Strangely, Follett is very popular in the UK, but then again, so was Gormenghast so maybe people in the UK like it when things go awry. Actually, if you look at any English show, comedy or drama, the main theme is usually about a good plan or vision that goes awry. Like every episode of Mr. Bean but I digress.

I think that life is never that bad and that even in bad times, people on average thrive and find happiness. Out of the 100 Years War for example, we find the growth of literature and art which lead to the Renaissance. During war in the modern period we saw new artistic movements and literature (artists like Picasso or Brassai). People find love, build families, and create order out of the chaos around them. And I think it is these exceptions that people would like to  see in their books and shows.

On a final note, if you like social history than go to the source. There are many books out there that describe the lives of people in our past. My favorite, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, a social history of a 14th century southern French Cathar village done by a French cleric in that time. However, unlike Follett’s history, the people then were actually happy.

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