For as long as humans have been writing fiction, we’ve been responding to events in the world around us. Shakespeare reportedly wrote The Tempest in 1610 after hearing about a fleet of colonial ships wrecked off the coast of Bermuda, while Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was inspired by the racism the author witnessed growing up in Alabama in the 1920s and ’30s. Even books that ostensibly have nothing to do with ‘real life’ – that is, fantasy and science-fiction novels – often reference real people and events: JK Rowling, for example, has said that she partially based Voldemort and his Death Eaters on Hitler and the Nazis.
But it’s not only the books that we write that reflect the world around us: it’s also the books we choose to read. And the novel currently sitting at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list tells us more than a little something about how many of us are feeling about the world today.
The book in question is George Orwell’s 1984. Originally published in 1949, the classic dystopian novel tells the story of a world at constant war, and a public manipulated and controlled by a repressive government. This tyranny is apparently directed by Big Brother: a party leader who holds sway over a brainwashed and adoring population by depicting himself as infallible and all-powerful.
So far in 2017, British sales of 1984 have risen by 20% compared to the same period a year ago, according to the New York Times. Craig Burke, the publicity director at Penguin USA, tells the paper that the publisher has ordered 75,000 new copies of the book following Donald Trump’s inauguration to keep up with demand.
“We’ve seen a big bump in sales,” says Burke, adding that Penguin are considering another reprint. The rise, he says, “started over the weekend and hit hyperactive” on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Since Friday 20 January, Trump’s inauguration day, the book has seen a 9,500% increase in sales.
The real boost in sales came on Sunday, after Trump’s counsellor and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway gave an interview in which she coined a phrase that seemed eerily familiar to fans of George Orwell’s novel.
Conway was appearing on the NBC show Meet the Press to defend Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer. Spicer had claimed that there were more people at Trump’s inauguration than at any other inauguration in history – a statement that was quickly proven to be false.
However, when asked why Spicer had presented a demonstrable untruth as fact, Conway replied: “Don’t be so dramatic.” Spicer hadn’t lied, she said; he had simply given “alternative facts.”
Literature buffs around the world were quick to spot the parallels between “alternative facts” (a phrase which, let’s be clear, makes no sense whatsoever: a fact is a fact is a fact) and “doublethink”, the rhetoric technique used by the government in 1984 to deceive and control the population.
According to Orwell, doublethink requires one “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.”
Excuse us while we go and scream into a pillow.
But 1984 isn’t the only dystopian novel that has seen a surge in interest following the Orange One’s rise to power: Orwell’s Animal Farm and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are also climbing the bestseller rankings on Amazon UK, while Penguin UK have republished It Can’t Happen Here – about the rise of a demagogue – for the first time since 1935.
Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, meanwhile, has been frank about the parallels between her feminist dystopian classic and current events in America. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a futuristic American dictatorship – now known as the Republic of Gilead – plagued by environmental disasters, in which women have been robbed of any power and forced in sexual servitude. A TV series starring Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel is currently in the works.
“The Handmaid’s Tale [is] unfolding in front of your very eyes,” Atwood said in October, adding that when she wrote the book, she wondered how long it would take for something similar to happen in America.
“Apparently,” she said, “not as long as I thought.”
Image: Rex Features