Why is YA Dystopian Literature So Popular? Part II

As a continuation of an earlier blog, I decided I would delve a little deeper into what makes dystopian fiction so popular, especially since I kept most of my notes from college on the subject.

Similar to paranormal romance in which the hero or heroine finds satisfaction or fulfillment in someone existing on the fringes of the character’s society and/or reality, dark fiction tantalizes readers with the thrilling question of their own survival. In a shadowy way, it is a perverse carnivalesque. Instead of asking if we can get away with breaking the rules, we’re trying to discover if we can get away with our lives. While the stakes are not as high for us as they are for the character, our vicarious experience as readers provides us with the breeding ground for a fantasy in our minds: how we imagine we would—really, how we would like to—react to oppressive government.

We seek a certain freedom in something scary, a freedom from the constraints society and the ever-present realization that we will one day die place on us. While we recognize the benefits of the security government offers, there is still a measure of restriction.

This is perhaps why people of even older ages can relate to young adult fiction, and particularly post-apocalyptic stories in which government rule—or, really, any kind of code—is thrown into upheaval. In everyday life, the restrictions we accept in return for “security” may make us feel, at a subconscious level, as if we are not fully independent adults. In reality, the laws which govern our society and effect the efficient orderliness of everyday life (traffic laws, contract laws, age limits, etc.) are of our own construction—they are not natural.

Relinquishing our freedom to break those laws is the price we pay to take advantage of the accompanying security, both from outside threats and from punishment for the transgression of those laws. Underlying all of this is a kind of restlessness in which an individual recognizes that the status quo is insufficient or defective. Sometimes our frustration with all that is wrong in the world translates, in our fantasies, to the demolition of the world system entirely. The possibility of working from the ground up on a clean slate can be more appealing than trying to remediate the world’s perceived injustices. Dark fiction gives us the ability to imagine bypassing social laws and testing ourselves against the greater laws of nature that accompanies the breaking of human rules.

There appears to be a societal preoccupation with individual control of one’s life circumstances. Realistically, there are far too many variables for such a thing to be possible, but that doesn’t deter us from fantasizing about it. As one of my English professors in college said, our society is one in which individual freedom is equated with individual agency. It is an agency, however, that is confined by our own abilities and responses. At some time or another in our lives, we like to envision ourselves the heroes, whether that daydream involves saving the world or returning a lost wallet. By taking it a step further and making our agency responsible for our survival, we have the ability to inspire a what-if whirlwind of adrenaline.

Any discussion of agency must include a mention of chance and how a character’s agency is affected by it, and to what extent. One must remember, however, that the events and the characters exist in a novel, planned by an author, who left nothing to chance in the lives of his characters by virtue of the fact that he controls them and that they are merely figments of his own imaginative agency.

TL;DR: Dystopian fiction is popular as a relatable psychological thrill ride for readers.

Can you tell I was an English major?

*Featured image courtesy of tigerlaohu on DeviantArt

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Why is YA Dystopian Literature So Popular? Part I

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.

The Enduring Popularity of the Fairy Tale

Last week, I began the wonderful, dreaded task that is Christmas shopping. For the last couple of years, I’ve been getting my elementary school-aged niece and nephews books because… well, no explanation is necessary.ever-after-high

This year, my plan is to continue the happy tradition, but instead of introducing the kids to classics like The Phantom Tollbooth and A Wrinkle in Time (which I gifted to them last year), I wanted to find more current stories.

Well.

Beyond the Percy Jackson spinoffs and knockoffs, one of the most prevalent “genres” of children’s literature I found while perusing the shelves of B&N was fairy tales. Twisted, reimagined, modern fairy tales, but fairy tales nonetheless. There were books in which the traditional conventions are altered so that characters go to special academies or are even high school students. Sometimes the well-known stories get tangled up together in a fairy tale of all fairy tales.

Obviously books are not the primary vehicle for fairy tale pleasure. Disney has churned out its usual fare for record-breaking returns (Frozen, of course, but Tangled and Cinderella also did well at the box office). It also recently expanded Fantasyland at Walt Disney World.school-for-good-and-evil

For reasons explaining this, check out Emily Wenstrom’s article at the Write Practice. Another article, featuring Maria Tatar (whom I heard speak at a conference once), also has some interesting commentary on our societal relationship with fairy tales. I would add to these articles that fairy tales are like self-insert fantasies. It’s fun to imagine ourselves as royals in romanticized versions of the fairy tale. The embrace of darker versions of these stories suggests, in my opinion, a societal (or, at least, generational) reaction to the current political and economic climate.

My point is that the market is obviously currently interested in the adapted fairy tale, and if you’re into writing fairy tales, it might be a great time to edit your work and start querying. I’m in the process of editing an “original” fairy tale, in the sense that it follows some basic parameters: a lost princess, a curse, and a whole lot of crazy adventuring.

With the wide selection of adapted fairy tales now available for youths, I think I can be sure of one thing: one or more of my sisters’ children will receive a fairy tale-inspired book this Christmas.