After perusing the NaNo forums and different authors’ novel synopses, I was reminded again of how popular dystopian and otherwise dark Young Adult (YA) fiction is. In a previous blog post about the popularity of fairy tales, I had commented on how the old conventions are being twisted and adapted, oftentimes as darker visions of their Disney-fied counterparts. It got me thinking about the current marketplace.
Much of what is considered “dark” fiction (including dystopian) has grown in popularity for a variety of reasons, and one of them may be that teens today view America as a country that had strived for utopian ideals and is recognizably falling short of those goals. In my experience, teenagers have a proclivity for the dramatic and pessimistic, quite possibly because of the new responsibilities and realities they encounter as they mature. This type of attitude, coupled with the decline of American political and economic world power, makes the subgenre of dystopia a relatable experiment of “what if.”
Dystopia in YA fiction, I think, also has a lot to do with a topic I will soon be writing about in more depth in a separate post: categorization. In The Hunger Games, an individual is defined by the District from which he or she comes; in the similar Divergent series, people are grouped together based on temperament. In another dystopian novel, The Giver, each individual is assigned a role and identity. This seems to indicate that teens are interested in finding ways of discovering that identity through the assignment or classification of roles to which they can compare themselves. We as humans rely on community and the feeling of social acceptance to survive and thrive; the current trend to sanitize the ethnic and cultural differences between people through globalization may be going against the grain of human nature, and therefore might explain another reason why teenagers—and even the adults who enjoy the same books—gravitate towards stories in which roles are assigned and distinctions are made.
Perhaps, then, that is what makes dystopian fiction a particularly popular subgenre. Our social survival relies on association and groups, and the dystopian novel not only makes social survival reliant on those distinctions, but even physical survival. Katniss, for example, is forced to depend on the rebellion, despite the fact that she had no special interest in initiating it. She has been classified and assigned a role that her survival depends on her to fulfill. It gives her purpose, whether or not she draws on that purpose to motivate her. In the same way, we as readers recognize that we want to be assigned a role of critical importance that gives us purpose and meaning in a world that rewards celebrity and heroics, and it is in the dystopian novel when such roles gain life-or-death importance.