The Political Problem With Dystopias

The Fallout of the Recent Young Adult Dystopia Craze

Crunchings & Munchings YA Dystopia

by REBECCA, March 10, 2014

Dystopia has been the watchword of popular young adult fiction for the last few years, whether we’re referring to trendsetters (Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies; Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), those savvy folks who followed the trend successfully (Steven dos Santos’ The Culling), or publishers’ desperate attempts to keep the trend going (Victoria Scott’s Fire & Flood). And, while I may be bored of the latter, it doesn’t at all mean I don’t value the former. But it’s the latter—those books that are manufactured to keep the trend of dystopian fiction alive—that I want to talk about.

Thomas More UtopiaThe word dystopia was coined in the 19th century to signify a state of being that was the opposite of a utopia (coined by Thomas More in the title of his 1516 book, Utopia), and means “bad place” or “hard place”; its coinage and early usage were descriptive of government in particular. A utopia, as Thomas More created it, referred to the ideal state of a republic; one toward which we should all strive. A dystopia, then, created as its inverse, refers to a bad state of a republic. This is all to say, dystopia—both as a term and as a genre description—is intrinsically political.

Several novels of the 19th century mobilized elements of dystopian societies to warn against or satirize their own, but the literary elements that we have come to associate with the genre of the dystopian novel concretized in the first half of the 20th century with the now-famous high school reading list clique of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

Why does this matter for our purposes of thinking about YA dystopias? Because the dystopia, whatever form it may take, is driven by a political engine. That is, the power of dystopia is that it takes real societal problems and represents them pushed to an extreme as a tool to demonstrate the horror that would occur if current problems became writ large. It is a literary genre that examines oppression—that is: de-individuation, mind control, deprivation, lack of choice, lack of access to power, lack of access to resources, and so on.

The Handmaid's Tale Margaret AtwoodWhether the oppressive society is one of religious hyper-conservatism in which women are kept as broodmares for the ruling class (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985) or one in which books are burned to control the society’s access to information (Fahrenheit 451), dystopias are about oppression by a political power and, usually, citizens’ coming to knowledge that the system they live in is not the system they want to live in. Contemporary YA dystopias like Westerfeld’s Uglies series and Collins’ The Hunger Games series are recognizable within this genre.

But, because of the extreme popularity and commercial success of dystopias like The Hunger Games, publishers are hungry for the next bestseller that audiences will gobble up like soma (a little Brave New World joke for ya there), unconcerned with the content so long as they’re appealing in form. Popularity, of course, is the death-knell of individuation, so with audiences ready to buy more books within a popular genre, those that are being peddled become more and more cookie-cutter, more and more generic.

generic

generic

A genre refers to a collection of things that share certain characteristics: science fiction, romance, dystopias. The more closely a book conforms to the characteristics of its genre, the more easily we can recognize it as such (no one would ever mistake a horror movie for a romantic comedy). This is neither a good or a bad thing, however, at a certain point, if something conforms too closely to genre characteristics, it becomes generic—general, indistinguishable, standard. And, as I said, nothing turns a genre into a factory of the generic faster than the promise of commercial success. So, because of the success of a few books in the genre of dystopia, the market has now been flooded with quickly-manufactured knock-offs.

Again, why is this important? I mean, of course if there is a demand for something, then someone will supply it—that’s capitalism, no? It’s important because of what drops out with dystopias’ mass production. What drops out is the political engine that has always driven the genre. With a market for books that are “like The Hunger Games” or “the new Hunger Games,” publishers and authors have scrambled to meet the demand. And what has increasingly begun to be produced are YA novels with the form of a dystopia, but without its content.

Victoria Scott Fire & FloodOne recent example of this is Victoria Scott’s Fire & Flood, the first in a new series from Scholastic. Fire & Flood is marketed as a dystopia—indeed, skim any review on Goodreads to see every single person who’s read it compare it to The Hunger Games—in which contenders must take part in the Brimstone Bleed, a race that will win one of them the cure to a disease from which a loved one suffers. But, while Fire & Flood is clearly capitalizing on the themes of The Hunger Games, it’s similar only in form. In terms of deep content, well . . . there isn’t any. In other words, the Brimstone Bleed is completely bled dry of any political investment whatsoever. Chalk it up to bad world-building (which it has) or bad writing (from which it suffers), but the fact remains that the ever-increasing popularity of the genre has produced a market in which people will buy something called “dystopia” even when what is supplied is only the trappings of the genre

More problematically, given the popularity of dystopia in YA lit, politics seems to actually be the only thing that can drop out and have the genre retain its recognizability in the market. What we’re left with, then, in the case of etiolated “dystopias” like Fire & Flood, is a genre designation that’s been emptied of what was once its defining impulse. Now, for some this is no big deal. After all, genres are always changing, their characteristics becoming resignified. I would argue, though, that it’s a very big deal if you value the political force of literature, which (spoiler alert:) I do.

In YA dystopias where the oppressive force is only there to facilitate the drama of the story, that oppressive force becomes commonplace rather than exceptional; unimportant in its particulars because it’s only necessary to catalyze the plot of the novel. This has become par for the course in new (apolitical) dystopias to which I’m referring. Why do we care? Well, wouldn’t you care if there were a slew of books in which every character was raped—not because the rape was important, but because the author needed something to kick-start the drama of the book? Wouldn’t you care if there were a slew of books in which all African American characters were slaves—not because slavery had anything to do with race, but because the author wanted to shorthand a reason for why two characters couldn’t be together?

That’s what it looks like to empty acts and systems of oppression of their political resonances and turn them into plot devices. And once oppressive and repressive systems of government become something that millions of people are used to viewing as merely the backdrop to an action-packed YA romance, we enter dangerous territory. Repetition matters! It lends force! The more times something happens, the more force it gains. The more used to it we become. So, the more books that are published that use the apolitical trappings of generic oppression to facilitate a plot, the more we, as readers, become accustomed to accepting oppression as a given—as just part of the story. Eventually, accepting oppression as just part of the story can turn into not even noticing oppression at all. These are the stakes.

censorshipNow, I am absolutely not writing this in an attempt to control what authors write. In fact, this is not really about authors at all (except insofar as they need to eat, so writing something that’s likely to sell seems appealing. I get that). It’s about the potential real-world implications of literary trends that drive (and are driven by) the market. To put it another way: it’s about capitalism and the ways that art purchased by a mass audience can never be wholly extricated from the market. What we buy dictates what gets published; what gets published dictates what we can read. And what we can read contributes to what the world we dream into being looks like.

Nor is this about taste. I am absolutely not writing this in an attempt to make people stop reading books they love (hey, we’ve established that Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopia, right?). I’m writing this because trends are so often considered waves that wash over us rather than patterns that react to us, and because so much ink is spilled attempting to predict the next one for purposes of profit that we sometimes forget to talk about the implications of their content. I’m writing this because I want us to keep having conversations about the real world effects of the books we read as well as discussing their merits and shortcomings.

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17 Comments

  1. april hennessey

     /  April 9, 2014

    Just read this post and I love it. I had a similar discussion with my 9Honors kids last semester when we read watched The Hunger Games alongside Lord of the Flies. And revisited the topic when we read F451 later in the semester. I felt like it was important to get them to recognize the “politics” of the genre rather than just reading/watching for the sake of “action.” Over the course of the conversation, we discussed that these political/ideological/ontological underpinnings might be part of the reason why one narrative might be more compelling to them than another. That is to say, that whether they recognize these things consciously or not, they find themselves relating to the worlds that look most like their own or most reflect the issues/struggles that they themselves face daily. They are compelled not by the story or action alone, but by the politics that inform those things. Anyway, great post. Good conversation. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks, April!

      That’s so interesting. I also find that even if there *are* strong political stakes, if they aren’t ones that interest me, I might recognize that the book is more compelling, but still not feel personally invested in it.

      Reply
  2. I thought I was the only person with a problem with this genre. It has great potential, but it is being overrun. It was like when Twilight was at the top of its game and tons of vampire and werewolves (still pretty popular) were the most read books. I am thinking that maybe contemporary novels or even classics will make a comeback for a couple of years. Here’s hoping. Great post!

    Reply
    • Glad to have an ally, libraryofthoughts! I wonder what it would look like for “classics” to be expressed as a contemporary genre—interesting thought.

      Reply
  3. Margalit

     /  March 10, 2014

    Terrifically insightful post, with a very important message!

    Reply
  4. Thank you for this post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and feel like you perfectly articulated the problem with most dystopia fiction that has been released lately. It’s a shame that the trend has gone the way it has, since dystopias have such great potential to be fantastic thought-provoking fiction. (As seen in many of the examples you’ve cited, like The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, etc.) Thanks again for writing this!

    Reply
  5. KM

     /  March 10, 2014

    How exactly does The Culling qualify as having followed the trend successfully?

    Reply
  6. Brilliant post. I’ve had the same thoughts about copycat “Hunger Games” books, but haven’t been able to put those thoughts together in anywhere near as articulate a form!

    Reply
  7. Stumbled onto your post and I thought it was terrific. You’ve really put your finger on why the YA dystopia trend has been bothering me.

    Reply
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