So we’re running right out the gates, folks. Probably because I’m uncertain how many pitchforks will be thrown at me for what I’m about to say next:
Current young adult (YA) dystopian novels need to die.
Now, before y’all shoot me with arrows or burn me for click-bait, hear me out. One, because it’s not click-bait. I do think it needs a good death. Second, because I have some good points.
After Hunger Games, the peak of the YA dystopian trendiness, everything about YA dystopian novels exploded. There is a serious over-saturation and oversimplification of the genre as a whole since the novels became popular. The genre has devolved into copying the success of Hunger Games instead of capitalizing on the breadth and fascinating nuances of the genre. Instead of teasing the wonder or horror or complexity of a dystopia world, a back-cover will now say “If you like Katniss, you’ll love *insert ridiculous made-up name of female heroine here*”. That’s not the point of novels. It’s the point of marketing and tired back-cover writing.
On a short anecdote, trust me, it isn’t just YA dystopian novels. YA romances are getting this treatment too, as are many others, and I of course have thoughts on that. But right now, with the current state of things, the dystopian offenses are the most egregious.
So it’s time to take a very brief, swears-riddled literary history lesson. Dystopian novels, pre-Hunger Games, were used to convey serious social commentary without directly attacking society itself and also while incorporating a story. People didn’t love to read straight essays. Nor does anyone love being told they are awful to their face. But wrap it in a story that makes people question their lives and choices and the world around them?
Well hot damn, you got yourself a hot dystopian social commentary.
One of the most famous dystopian novels, and one of the most important for this discussion, is 1984 by George Orwell. It was a novel that discussed how sensationalized and incorrect news, as well as excessive control of people’s lives, eventually created a puppet work-horse society that did whatever the government wanted. It warned of how media needs to be honest and free, and how no one should blindly follow government and disallow it to gain too much radical power or scapegoat any one person as the enemy.
Now take a moment to think about our world today, and scapegoats and sensationalized topics and media.
1984 has grown increasingly more popular once more, ever since certain political events happened. The grandness of that fact is insurmountable, that people are looking for truth and to ask questions. But there is a bigger question that lies therein.
Why did everyone have to go out and pick up a book that was written in 1949 and only has theoretical foods for thought and commentary on society? Why was there no current book? And furthermore, why is there no current book, if the younger generation is the future, that they have to turn to specifically to look for questions?
To be objective, I may not like Hunger Games very much but it’s not per say bad or useless. It questions class systems, which is a fair point in our ever cyclical poverty cycle. Its also written well; I actually have always liked the character of Peeta and certain aspects of Katniss. But it also too often draws away from the commentary and pulls towards things adults assume young adults only care about: drama and romance.
Because I try to be an objective rhetorician, I have seen many of the movies to at least have first-hand experiences instead of go by hearsay. And honestly, I was intrigued and interested in quite a few political and action aspects. Yet then there I was, questioning why it would become excessively about romance all of a sudden. It was tiring. There was a civil war and rebellion going on, yet we needed to take serious time out for a love triangle. This supposedly very serious main heroine was bothering to take time out for a weird, confusing love triangle.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I get parts of it. Teenagers get enrapt with romance and interrelationship problems quite readily. I know it’s supposed to appeal to the audience. I know the writer just wanted the audience interested and involved. I get it. Some teens won’t be that enrapt at all, though.
Yet the romance is taking precedence because romance.
There are messages and there are things to say in dystopian novels. They have a strength, particularly now, that quite a few other novels might not have. Dystopian novels should give younger generations strength in the face of fear and give them motivation and hope to not allow the dystopia their books warn to ever occur.
Dystopian novels, particularly now, don’t need to give young adults love triangles to argue over and trivialize such serious topics. Young adults don’t need their dystopias watered down by cute love or what adults think they’ll like. They need commentary, truth, and strength.
And speaking of strength, what I am not saying is we need to get rid of strong dystopian heroines. Though my distaste with this movement, that is one thing I will never fault them. I have never been more proud as a genre’s success at making powerful, badass heroines. That is something I am not disheartening; I say ramp it up. Just maybe give less emphasis on a love story.
Or, if you do keep the romance, why not make it revolutionary? Our hero’s fighting to save her girlfriend because same-sex couples are illegal and she has been imprisoned. Our hero just has a nice steady boyfriend who supports her, but isn’t the main problem, just a source of balance for her as she saves the world. There are so many opportunities here that don’t need to be Romeo and Juliet or a “big-deal” love triangle.
Our dystopian novels don’t need to be tropes or stereotypes. They can be strong. They can have great, powerful messages. They can have heroines or heroes. I don’t hate the genre; I think it’s misused and misdirected, particularly now. The stereotypical female hero with a love triangle and also being the chosen one and saving the world and being tortured can’t cut it anymore. We shouldn’t let it cut it. We should want more; demand more. This genre deserves more than to just fall into the category of fad. Books like Ender’s Game and The Giver and even Hunger Games deserve more than being apart of a trend.
The writers, the readers, everyone deserves more out of this genre. Now more than ever. Let the stereotypes and tropes that the past few years have built be our martyrs; let them die to grow a new YA dystopian genre that can make a grander difference. As we go through the next few years, let the burning of the genre’s shortcomings pave the way towards deep meanings, hard-worked passion, and a source of strength for all of us. If the stereotypical YA dystopian novel dies, this is what we might be able to get towards. So why not just let them burn to get to something stronger, better?
If we can do that, I think George Orwell would be damn proud.