We all learned in English class that a good story had to have conflict and that there were four basic types of human struggle: against self, nature, others, and society. I think the last, the individual versus society, trumps all the others for providing an engrossing plot. Take a moment to reflect on your favorite works of literature and from star-crossed lovers (be they in Verona or on Brokeback Mountain) to Horatio Alger, or to characters who are alienated, newly immigrated or attempting a first–all have had society as a worthy antagonist. Racial, sexual, and gender based constraints, narrow-mindedness, limited opportunity, bigotry, bad laws, and hateful mores make the literary world go-round.
Now, after many years of political correctness, when we dipped our collective toe in the water of empathy, we have graduated from superficial words to laws that actually make hate illegal. Also along the way, the old taboos lie moribund if not dead. Single parenthood, sex outside of wedlock, homosexual attraction, and fraternizing outside of one’s social group, milieu, religion or nationality are phenomena that jump-started a story and that are now commonplace and accepted. In the late 19th Century, Daisy Miller will be ostracized for her conduct; she steps outside of the bounds of society and suffers—is she just naive and without guidance or wilfully flaunting convention? At least we have that question to consider because there is a Society to oppose our flighty protagonist. That entire plot device is now untenable; who cares how Daisy of the 21st century comports herself in whatever society she finds herself. Daisy can have a child, discover her homosexuality, and embrace a new religion—the story is not one of struggle but a chronicle of what an open-minded person Daisy is; her journey may have some difficulties but she will not be foiled, tricked, tripped, and undermined by a ruthless society. Lily Bart today would hardly be ostracized either; a woman can of course take investment advice from a man—but there was a sexual quid pro quo—okay, why not! Again, The House of Mirth falls like a house of cards in the plot department. Oh Jane, who cares if Rochester is married, you can live with him!
Novelists can still write in earlier historical periods to mine the lodes of societal repression for conflict or set their stories in the still extant enclaves of old word intolerance. Television has made much of that latter approach by latching onto the Amish and a repressive cult here and there for reality programs that unveil restrictive and curious segments of society that can still pose a threat to individuality.
The tail would be wagging the dog, or I would be writing satirically, to lament the end of the bad old days because modern day novels are deprived of tense social conflict. I am merely making an observation. And, what does this state of affairs forecast for us as readers or writers? I predict an increased interest in murder mysteries and survival stories.
I completely agree with your well written writer/reader lament. Having just posted commentary comparing Lily Bart to Edna Pontellier (The Awakening by Kate Chopin), I too wonder where we will find literary insight in today’s “politically correct” world.