Emotional Truth, Historical Fact, and the Alternative Media of Literature

By: Laura Fasick  

“Alt-media” today often whips up strong emotions by spreading “alternative facts” but as a literary scholar I have long prized a different kind of emotion-inducing, not entirely factual media. Like most literature teachers, I have believed that stories about fictional characters living through real-life events convey the emotional truth behind history’s dry facts. After all, if reading literature makes us more empathetic, then what better way to make vivid to students the magnitude of things as South Africa’s one-time apartheid system or China’s Cultural Revolution? Both apartheid and the Cultural Revolution ended decades before today’s students were born, but surely powerful literature captures for anyone the devastating effect of these movements, effects that linger even now. In recent years, however, I have been increasingly troubled by student reactions when I teach such novels. Students undeniably are moved by the narratives. They are also undeniably educated, since almost all of them declare that they had not previously known about the real-life horrors detailed in the books. However, their interest in the narrative arc involving the fictional characters quickly overshadows their interest in the historical context. Does the protagonist improve during the story? Then they ignore what state of society the novel shows. Students have repeatedly dismissed politics as “superficial” compared to family dynamics and individual happiness. Literature as a virtuous “alt-media” that sensitizes us to others’ challenges? I am no longer sure that it is.

Audience, Representation, Politics
Media Cultures
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Laura Fasick

Professor, English, Minnesota State University Moorhead, United States
-, United States

I received my B.A. in English from the University of Toronto, St. George Campus, and my M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Indiana University, Bloomington. Since 1990 I have taught in the English Department in Minnesota State University Moorhead.