I’m told YA dystopia is dead. It’s been done to death (like vampires), no pun intended. Editors and agents and publishers are tired of Hunger Games spin-offs.
The trend is dying, which is fine, but that’s what I just wrote. Whether that makes my story un-sellable or not doesn’t particularly matter to me. The story needed to be told in that setting. I am sitting here trying to imagine it in a different setting and I can’t. I think the setting has made my characters who they are and is integral to the plot.
I was thinking about dystopia and why we may like it so much, why it matters and sells so well.
I think back to the Giver. The Giver by Lois Lowry was probably one of the most influential books of my childhood. I didn’t read anything else in the trilogy (and now I hear there’s to be a fourth book?). I didn’t even know there were other books for a long time because I was fine with the Giver’s ending. It felt enough to me. How could a girl growing up in the time just before and just after September 11th not love a story about a boy who has dreams and brings color, and sound, and love back into his world?
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was beautiful to me. There are several parts that I don’t think I could ever erase from my mind. Being people who exist in the margins, unseen. Feeling like the word shattered. That epilogue! That book has an eery feeling that makes you feel bigger and smaller at the same time.
V for Vendetta, which fewer have read in its original graphic novel form by the great Alan Moore, on the big screen sparked a cult-like obsession. Or maybe that was Natalie Portman. Fine line.
The Hunger Games has reached a fever pitch that is absolutely deafening. I remember hearing that they were going to do a movie and thinking that it wouldn’t sell well. Boy is it good I wasn’t on the team making that decision. They did an excellent job marketing, but I think there’s something in Hunger Games on a screen that appeals to us. For the record, I think the film is wonderfully done–a little whitewashed, sure, but I left there feeling guilty for watching Survivor, for watching Katniss right then. I find myself angry at people on Facebook posting “Team Peeta!” because isn’t that very Capitol of them? To be on a side, to be hoping one boy wins over another, and ignoring the real danger?
I’ve read a few excellent dystopia YAs recently including Delirium and its sequel Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver, and Divergent by Veronica Roth.
So what is it about dystopia that fascinates us so?
This article says that it has to do with our post 9/11 world, that we find the future bleak and we tend to romanticize the past. I agree on both counts (I think the future is bleak, I think shows like Downton Abbey, Madmen, Boardwalk Empire, etc show us how enamored we are with a more ‘romantic’ and ‘safer’ time than the uncertainty of our current world).
I think there’s something to be said about what these books teach us too. We unconsciously or consciously are seeking something from each of the books we read. An escape or a truth or a validation of some kind. Dystopias can give us all three: it is a world that we recognize, but not quite, so when we leave the book, we do not carry the fear of the book’s world back into our world; there is a reason the dystopia exists–what did we humans screw up this time to create a world so familiar and so uncomfortable; and I think that teens in particular seek out dystopias because there is a validation that their experience (feeling alone, bullying, sex, friendships, finding our way in society, standing up to adults, challenging the status quo) is not unfamiliar, and because, like this article suggests, no matter where you set a story, the story is familiar. It clangs in our hearts.
There’s a myth cycle or a fairytale cycle that almost every YA novel follows, and we are validated inside of the path of children leaving “home” (physical or metaphorical) to reconstitute home. It’s a common path, one that teens are walking themselves, and the liminality and challenges are familiar. But dystopia gives us just enough distance from our current world to be safe, to be addictive, to be thrilling. It makes us feel dangerous and powerful.
There’s a theory that children in children’s lit must “leave home to reconstitute home”.
Initially the young protagonist must leave home or the family because power relations have been distrubed. Either the protagonist is wronged, or a change in social relations forces the protagonist to depart from home. A task is imposed, and a hidden command of the tale must be fulfilled. The question which most of the Grimms’ tales ask is: how can one learn–what must one do to use one’s powers rightly in order to be accepted in society or recreate society in keeping with the norms of the status quo? The wandering protagonist always leaves home to reconstitute home.” (57) Jack Zipes, Fairytales and the Art of Subversion
I think that readers go through this same journey. The power relationships have been disturbed in the readers’ lives or they’ve been wronged, and they depart from home through reading. They instinctively understand who in the book they are supposed to identify with and empathize with. I believe the reader also faces the question: how can one learn what must one do to use one’s powers rightly in order to be accepted in society or recreate society in keeping with the norms of the status quo? I think the reader learns these answers through the book: what the character finds within him or herself, so does the reader. I think the reader leaves home, through the story, to reconstitute his or her own current home.
I think that’s what’s beautiful about fiction that is otherworldly (dystopia, sci fi, fantasy). It allows us to take that journey.