Why is dystopian literature so appealing to students?
As an expert in Women's Writing, Professor Watkins delves into the interplay between utopia and dystopia, encouraging students to confront their own anxieties and envision alternative futures.
In a world marked by pandemic hardships and intrusive technologies, discover how dystopian fiction resonates with today's youth, providing an imaginative outlet for navigating their restricted lives.
The future isn't always bright. As TV shows like The Walking Dead and The Handmaid's Tale reveal. But why are we drawn to these dystopian visions?
As Professor of Women's Writing in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Susan Watkins has a particular interest in dystopia, apocalyptic fiction, ageing and the future. Through her research and her work with students studying for a BA (Hons) English Literature degree, she's exploring what dystopian fiction can tell us about ourselves and the world we live in.
"You can think of dystopia as the opposite of a utopia" she explains.
"It can be a future or an imagined scenario where everything's awful or worse than our present situation. But I also talk to students about Margaret Atwood's term 'ustopia'. So, whether something is viewed as utopian or dystopian depends on your perspective."
In The Handmaid's Tale, the men in Gilead have created a utopia as far as they're concerned. But it's the women who see that as dystopian. Creative writers like that idea: the possibility of creating a vision of the future that's meaningful to them, or to us – an 'ustopia'.
Dystopian fiction is typically characterised by nightmarish visions or situations in which characters endure all manner of tragedy, pain and loss. It often makes for a pretty bleak view. So why are we drawn to these dark tales?
"I think it allows us to work through our own anxieties. Where dystopian stories offer the potential for resistance and transformation, if you can engage with the protagonist who's coming to realise their own place in the situation that's been created, questioning and challenging that, then you can work through those same issues as they apply to you."
A quick browse through the Netflix home screen reveals a renewed interest in dystopian fiction with shows such as Squid Game and Black Mirror. But what's behind our current obsession with dystopia?
"I think most recently it's been about COVID. The pandemic is probably the most dystopian experience people, and particularly young people, have been through. Think about all the direct ways the state infringed on our personal liberty. You can't go outside. You can't see your friends or family. You can only exercise once a day. The restrictions were so dystopian; the fears about disease were dystopian. I think that explains the interest in it, because people need to work out imaginatively what they're experiencing. Which is the purpose of literature, as far as I'm concerned."
Does dystopian fiction hold a particular appeal for young people?
"I think that particularly now, young people's lives are so restricted. They are growing up in a world where they are endlessly monitored. Parents micromanage their lives more than ever. And social media is so intrusive and well, dystopian. So, it's not surprising that they find this literature appealing. These stories speak about the things they're dealing with and allow them to work through those experiences."
For Beckett students studying English Literature, Professor Watkins' course is a great opportunity not only to dig into classic and contemporary dystopian writing. Study also covers key moments in 20th century history and how those provide a real-world context for the creation of dystopian fiction. Going wider, students can engage with even bigger issues, sparking conversations around fundamental human concerns such as freedom, identity and happiness. So the learning experience isn’t only about literature – the course opens students up to other areas like history, philosophy and politics too.
“One student told me that she just felt ‘more educated’ having done the course,” Susan confirms, “And for me, that's partly the point.”
Students have a lot of freedom, which can be quite new for them, but also quite challenging. They're encouraged to come up with their own research and essay questions, so it's up to them to decide how to pull together all the literature and history they've encountered to answer those questions.
So what does the future look like for Professor Susan Watkins?
"In autumn, I'm going to the University of Heidelberg for four months to the Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies to work on a project about ageing and dystopia!" What she learns through this project promises some fascinating discussions with her students when she returns.
Susan Watkins is Professor of Women's Writing in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. She is an expert in contemporary women's writing and feminist theory, with particular research interests in dystopia, apocalyptic fiction, ageing and the future.