What is the relationship between literature and progress? At first glance, perhaps not a lot. Many literary people are indifferent or hostile to the ideas of the free market, technological development, and neo-liberalism. Capitalism and fiction are not natural friends. The rich man is often the villain. 

But this was not always the case. Samuel Johnson, the great essayist, critic, and dictionary writer, was an advocate of the benefits of commercial society before Adam Smith. Jane Austen's novels are alive to the moral benefits of bourgeois commercial culture.  Charles Dickens is known for his calls for social reform and his supposed antithesis to utilitarianism, but his imagination was more sympathetic to utilitarian causes that it seems. His novels bristle with calls for legal-reform, impatience with history worship preventing progress, and a dislike of uneconomical characters like Harold Skimpole. 

Literature and progress have frequently been sympathetic to each other, then. The reason, I think, is simple. The essence of literature is invention, as it is for progress. Most of the time, we think of literary invention as creating something out of thin air, pure "creativity", and technical progress as more akin to discovery, to the uncovering and re-organising of things tat already exist in the world. 

But invention used to mean discovery. That's how Johnson defined it. If we follow J.R.R. Tolkien's theory that no writer creates but only sub-creates, you can see this more clearly. The world has already been created (Tolkien thought by God, but it's all the same if we ascribe it to materialism and the big bang). So when an author "invents" a new world, that is only a sub-creation of what already exists in reality. You are discovering some part of reality, rearranging what is already here, not creating anything that didn't exist before.

The literary impulse and the technological impulse are the same. To discover new things about the world. To pay close attention to reality and to draw out new things about it. Many great acts of progress start from a dissatisfaction with the world: Austen disliked the old aristocratic culture, Dickens disliked the conditions children lived in; similarly, Tesla is motivated by climate change. Setting a great vision for the future has been the work more of fantasy and speculative fiction in recent years, than of literary fiction. But there is a role for narrative in the way we think about progress and how it is presented to the public.

In their search to discover new, improved aspects of reality, perhaps literature and progress are more closely aligned than they seem.


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