Fiction Gets Woke


The idea of being ‘woke’ isn’t so much new jargon, but a way of rebottling old wine with new subtleties. The word, which is African-American in origin, concerns the perceived awareness of issues concerning social, feminist and racial identity but is expanding to include all consciousness-raising matters. One can trace the racial use back to the US in 1962, but other key texts include ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge, an unflinching, angry look at race in the UK, and the biography of Malcom X.

But in another sense, ‘woke’ novels have long been with us long before it became specifically about race. Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ offers one such scenario from a 1930s viewpoint in which the populace become factory-farmed drones, while Ira Levin’s version, ‘This Perfect Day’, has us all run by a happy-pill dispensing supercomputer. Inevitably such novels usually use an everyman – and in one rare instance, an everywoman in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – who blindly goes along with the world in ignorance until the scales fall from the eyes and they get woke. And what they see is never good.

The godfather of woke novels before its new usage is clearly Orwell’s ‘1984’, wherein Winston Smith’s consciousness rises almost without him noticing, until he’s gone a step too far and is renting a secret room in the Proles’ neighbourhood. In this sense, Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone In Berlin’, although a true story, is also a woke novel, as the married couple who start writing anti-Fascist postcards act without really becoming aware that they are rebels and therefore traitors. George Blake, the former British spy who worked as a double agent for the Soviet Union, described this process of being forced to act with one’s moral conscience when he went to trial, although many feel that his woke self remained blinkered to the reality of his actions (ie. the deaths of agents).

One of the best examples of awakening is Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, because although it presents a future American society where books are outlawed and firemen burn any that are found, the book is as much about the rebellious feelings the fireman Guy Montag experiences when he sees how slavish his own wife has become. It’s a rebellion of the spirit, of which book burning is a symptom of docile conformity. Ironically, the book itself subsequently slipped onto the banned books list in the US.

An early graphic piece by Richard Corben entitled ‘How Howie Made it the Real World’ encapsulated the whole woke experience, with the happy Howie one day awakening to the gruesome truth about the gone-to-hell world around him, much as it was portrayed in ‘The Matrix’.

Likewise, ‘Get Out’ is the first racially-aware horror film I’ve seen, although the first two thirds play out more as a social comedy before the truth is revealed. Here the formula is different, as the hero Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is already woke and has been for a long time prior to the start of the story. He knows what to expect from liberal white folks in their awkward treatment of race and is inured to it.

There are other new stories to be told here, and it will be interesting to see where it takes us next.

6 comments on “Fiction Gets Woke”

  1. Brooke says:

    Woke was common speech long before 1962. My first conscious memory of hearing woke used as defined here is in church services, of course, in the 1950s. “Stay woke” was the minister’s exhortation, echoed by the congregation, at the end of sermons on the parable of the virgins or the disciplines at Gethsemane and the like. In addition to its eschatological reference, “stay woke” cautioned the black community, always subject to terrorism –murder, lynchings, injustice– to stay vigilant and protect each other.

    As teenagers in the early 60s, our crowd read Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison) and A Different Drummer (Melvin Kelley); both gave new existential twist to stay woke, as did King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Malcolm X was trivial by comparison.

    After prematurely heralding a post-racial age with the election of Mr. Obama and congratulating ourselves on the success of the civil rights movement, people of color in the US found themselves confronted with mass racially motivated violence. And with the incarceration of children under this presidential administration. I trust we are all woke now.

  2. Debra Matheney says:

    I have been reading about James Baldwin’s time in France, where he found a level of acceptance for being black and gay, which he could not find in America. What I have read of his works I have found cutting and accurate about this country and, sadly, little has changed in my lifetime as racism in America is too alive and well. I am deeply saddened almost daily by how folks of any color but white get treated. Yesterday Trump was surrounded by old white men, not a woman or any one of any color, talking about immigration to a country filled with women and people of color. They are aren’t even awake to reality, much less woke. As Trump would tweet, “Sad.”

  3. kevin says:

    I’m really in a quandary about this post. While I do appreciate your intention in writing it, the question regarding the built-in purpose of fiction keeps coming to mind. Isn’t “woke-ness” baked into fiction? In other words, isn’t it the job of fiction to wake us up; to remove the scales from our eyes’; to open our eyes to a world larger than the one that exist only in our own heads? Perhaps what we are really talking about is whether marginal voices get to speak/write? And whether they are heard? All else is status quo.

    And regarding Trump and his presidency, I wonder who are the ones that have awakened? And what have they awakened to? I disagree that Trump is the monster he is being made out to be. He may be a narcissistic fool, but not a monster. In some respects he is simply continuing the policies that previous administrations started before him.

  4. Vivienne says:

    I can’t say I like ‘woke’ as a genre, or as a word out of its usually meaning. I just don’t like ungrammatical. Can people not come up with a proper word?

    beforr 1984 there was ‘We’ by Zamyatin. I thoroughly recommend that as an enlightening novel, tending to awake you.

  5. snowy says:

    I’m just disappointed to discover that a Marketing Department somewhere is so bereft of ideas, that they decided to appropriate a word, that describes a concept unknowable to anyone who has never lived it. And by doing so utterly debase it, just to ‘shift’ more ‘product’.

  6. kevin says:

    Hi Vivienne, I sympathize on some level with you. I absolutely loathe the popular phrase “my bad.” But the tendency among us native black Americans to inflect the language in such a way that a new coinage registers with force, majesty, and unmistakable power as in, Right On! Hot Mess! Girl, Bye! HoneyChile Boom! and so on is just too strong to be limited by “proper” usage. For us, the emphasis is on sound and HOW one says the word or phrase. But I do get your point.

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