O, Dystopic Irony: A Few of the Most Misused Literary Terms


At Salon this week, Morten Høi Jensen argues that “Big Brother” is a less apt Orwellian concept for our times than “the relationship between politics and the English language.” Perhaps so. Though this is a case of misplaced cultural emphasis more than a misunderstanding of a term, it still sparked a question — what about the literary terms we so frequently misuse? Certainly those shoes in the window are not Kafkaesque, as their tag claims.


By its etymology, “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia.” So, if a utopia is a perfect, ideal place, a dystopia is its opposite — a perfectly horrible place, or at least a very, very bad one. Instead, the term has come to be used for almost any sort of speculative future that isn’t ideal. Sure, they all have problems, but are they really dystopias? The polar opposite of perfection? Check the hyperbole, folks.


This is one of those terms that people seem to throw around willy-nilly (most often, it’s used to mean “complex” or “disorienting” in a blanket sense), whether they’ve apparently read any Kafka or not. There’s even a class at UC Boulder dedicated to dispelling false senses of the term. From the course description: “Not only has ‘Kafka’ become a household name, but even the adjective derived from his name, ‘Kafkaesque’ is liberally applied to anything, from works of art to state bureaucracies, from types of shoes to architectural styles, by people who may have never read a word of Kafka’s writing. The term is therefore often misused and misunderstood, in spite of being by now recorded and defined in every dictionary of the language. This course is meant to counteract such a trend and to expose the students to a wide selection of Kafka’s literary output, with the aim of reaching our own tentative answer to the question: What is the Kafkaesque?” Signing up now.


These days, it seems as though almost everything can be called a fable, or at least “fabulous” in the technical sense. Every book with a hint of the magical or the moral is billed as fable-like, when in fact the official definition of a fable is a bit more specific: a short story, typically starring animals, that has a moral lesson at the end. That’s not to say that modern interpretations of fables can’t go wildly off the rails (they should), but just that the term might be more gently applied to realist works of fiction.


In the world of literature, at least, “postmodern” has become a catch-all word to mean “tricksy.” But again, it’s a little more specific than that — though certainly, many tricksy books apply. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature)” or “of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.”


In common usage, tragedy means any terrible event. But literary and dramatic tragedy is more specific, usually requiring the downfall of a main character (not just the death of his grandparents, etc.), often due to some cosmic or hubristic event. The official definition of tragedy (the Greek kind), comes from Aristotle’s Poetics: “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself… with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”


For the last time: irony is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning,” or “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” So, it’s not a black fly in your Chardonnay.