Virginia Tech scholars Ostenson and Scholes of The Alan Review present their publication “Understanding the Appeal of Dystopian Young Adult Fiction” as a dissection of YA dystopian literature into parts that describe and help better understand why this genre is so compelling. These scholars have observed the trend of an increasing interest in the genre, and have conducted a study to better understand which themes specific to YA dystopias compels the reader. The hope is for these trends and patterns to be understood and utilized in a way that allows for the construction of a more interactive and interested audience in the classroom. As seen below, the survey conducted specified which themes are most prevalent in these novels which then indicated which elements were most important in order to draw in the targeted audience.
Through a thorough investigation of 16 novels, Ostenson and Scholes narrowed their research down to the most prevalent themes including inhumanity and isolation, agency and conscience, and relationships and how these relate specifically to adolescents. Teens can relate to the first of these topics in their quest to understand society through personal growth. Secondly, a protagonist’s search for their responsibility in their society relative to the greater good mirrors an adolescent’s desire to understand how and why they should function in the grand scheme of their own world. Finally, modern YA dystopian novels often include romantic or platonic relationships that interest the reader and allow them to place these novels and ideals within the realm of their own lives.
The dissection of these themes does not stand alone but is aided by Ostenson and Scholes through their inclusion of examples of these elements as seen in over eight popular YA dystopian novels. The scholars’ use of these examples makes their argument better understood and more credible. These examples from popular books in addition to the quantitative data about common dystopian themes allows for readers to easily utilize this information in arguing about the popularity of modern dystopian fiction.
How are authors of YA dystopian fiction able to captivate and entertain a young adult audience? Why, as readers, are we interested in stories about societies that are so corrupt, oppressive, and unfair? Somehow, authors of our age have been able to write novels, sequels, and even trilogies that capture the attention of the reader and can even lead to a deep or emotional investment in the novel. Through research and observations, we are able to point to multiple common themes that appear across the grid of dystopian literature that specifically target and intrigue the YA audience that is so desired. Point of view, relatability, and nonconformity are common aspects of dystopian fiction that appeal to the younger audience and allow them to become interested in the genre.
These themes are found in many contemporary dystopian novels, but are exemplified especially in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Program by Suzanne Young. First of all, both of these novels are told from the perspective of a teenager living in their own dystopian society. In the novels these protagonists are straddling childhood and adulthood and are required almost prematurely to define their role and their responsibilities in society. Adolescent readers can surely identify with these struggles and are therefore very likely to relate to and attach to these characters, following them through their journey as if it is their own.
Secondly, YA dystopian novels prove to present concepts and themes that are familiar to the reader yet slightly too far out of the reach of being realistic. Astor of the Huffington Post presents the idea that readers are interested in the corruptness of the society and misuse of governmental control because we are reading about rather than actually living through the “bad stuff” that is happening. These interesting ideologies and events can range from that of being in the hunger games arena which is seemingly more fantastical to bring put in a Program to cure depression or suicidal thoughts. Although these stories are fictional, there are elements of al dystopian novels that the reader can find parallels to in their own world.
Lastly, the adolescent characters in dystopian novels challenge authority and resist pressure to conform to societal norms or presented ideologies. This is relevant to young adult readers as youths are typically thought of as more rebellious and independent in nature. Reading novels about young characters can be empowering and can call the reader to action in their own society. Both Katniss and Sloane are examples of non conforming characters that allow readers to identify.
In order to learn more about common themes that attract young adults to YA dystopian literature, stay tuned on the blog! More topics include that of defying gender roles, understanding movie and media publicity and its influence in the realm of literature and the relevance of romantic relationships in these novels. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you back next week.
Why are we as readers interested in dystopias? Is it the fact that we are prideful in our societies and are able to laugh at the imperfect and impossible dystopian societies that we read about? Or, perhaps it is that we fear for the future of our society and see these novels as plausible futures. It might be that we read these novels as precaution. Whatever the reason, dystopian novels, many of them YA dystopias, have become increasingly popular throughout the past decade. A timeline of dystopian popularity is shown below in the infographic by goodreads. It shows that dystopian novel sales are as high as they have been since The Cold War.
It would seem that the increase in popularity of this genre is in response to tighter government controls and security threats. Often times dystopian novels are written in response to these changes in society and present commentary and a new perspective on societal and governmental flaws. These criticisms are often displayed as underlying themes in dystopian novels where the plot of the book is often to overcome an obstacle. Many times, these books present challenges to the characters that are extremely intense and often deeply saddening. These challenges range from killing 23 children in an arena as seen in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins to fighting to keep your memories as seen in The Program written by Suzanne Young.
My question still remains: why are young adults so interested in dystopian novels? Many scholars have devoted time to researching this interest including Justin Scholes and Jon Ostenson of The Alan Review at the Virginia Tech online journals. These scholars suggest that teenagers are able to relate to the characters in these novels because most are written from the teenagers perspective. They also explain that the protagonist’s willingness and ability to assert him or herself and to bring about change in a place that dampens individualism and rebellion appeals to and empowers the reader. The Program clearly demonstrates this stolen individualism through the program itself. As there is a depression and suicide epidemic across the nation, this program is instituted in order to reduce the number of suicides by taking away all painful and potentially damaging memories. But, the protagonist Sloane does all that she can to fight the program and regain her memories from before, although they may be painful. When the government tries to suppress her, she resists. This quality is found in most protagonists of dystopian novels and the idea of defiance and independence of rule may be what attracts so many young adults to these types of books.
Though the reason behind the attraction to YA dystopias has been speculated, there are many other factors ranging from gender roles to youth empowerment that also play into this interest. The Program as well as other popular dystopian novels are great examples of rebellion within an oppressive society that allow readers to imagine themselves in such a position to defy their own authority. But, what exactly rallies thousands of young people around these similar stories? Stay tuned to find out.
A point of view that may be common to many millennials is this: I read the The Hunger Games because I heard about the movie. Just before the release of the first movie I certainly read the book with a set of preconceived notions as a result of the hype and many advertisements for the movies. I understood the idea of the Games and knew that Panem was not an ideal place to live, but I still focused most on the relationships between Peeta, Gale, and Katniss and the “greatness” of the games rather than the corrupt Capitol or lack of resources throughout the districts and even the fact that young children are called to manslaughter. The New York Times discusses in their article “How ‘Hunger Games’ Built Up Must-See Fever” that the producer’s challenge in making The Hunger Games is to create the movie without showing all of the film (referring to the grotesque scenes of children’s deaths). Brooke Barnes of the New York Times says, “the movie itself is quite tame in it’s depiction of killing”. This should bring a few questions to mind. Does the marketing of the film change the intended meaning of the novels? Do advertisements for the film and related merchandise inhibit a viewer or reader from realizing the true dystopian nature of Panem?
Online marketing techniques and polls were used in order to market the movies how the people wanted to see them and of course to bring in higher profits. For example, posters and movie cover photos like the one seen above is not inclusive of any important themes other than romance, which is not the primary message of the series. Another example of this distraction, that may even be labeled a misunderstanding of Collins’ work, is the CoverGirl “Capitol Beauty” collection. This collection markets each individual district as if they are character from the capitol with extreme hair and makeup. This in itself distracts from the written meaning and actions taken in the book since district characters would never really present themselves in this way.
When the media markets exactly to the viewer’s preferences the originality of the film along with its true dystopian underlay can easily be pushed aside to instead watch the film as an exciting fight between tragic heroes that happens because it has to. The film was marketed strictly as an intense and exciting piece of entertainment, where Katniss is brave and changes the world without much analysis of the dystopian society and real possibility of something similar happening in our own world. While the filmmakers certainly display the controlling government and starvation throughout the districts, as well as the killing of children during the games, it is not a blatant representation of Panem as a dystopia but rather an entertaining fight between multiple tragic heroes that is ultimately reviewed as a “great movie”.
Barnes argues further in the New York Times article that “Lionsgate’s efforts appear to have sold the book as well as the movie”. The statistics show that the creation of the film as well as it’s effective advertisements have proven successful in increased book sales. This, at surface level, seems great for the producers and for Suzanne Collins. But, there still remains the debate over whether the advertisements inhibited the common viewer from understanding the book as a YA dystopia or as an unrealistic but entertaining story.
According to Merriam-Webster, a dystopian society includes elements of misery, disease, depression and overcrowding. In looking at Thomas More’s definition of utopia and anti-utopia in his own Utopia, it’s definition also includes that it is an unreachable or even non-existent place. Although dystopias are usually futuristic, they are imaginable. Often the government is totalitarian and oppressive. This social control, though it is evident to the reader is often faded by the illusion of a flawless society. The science fiction genre is similar in multiple respects. It is also defined as an imaginable and futuristic world, according to Merriam-Webster. But, the focus of these novels and pieces stays on major technological, social, or environmental changes on a society. While these two genres are often mismatched, it is important to recognize that dystopian fiction is often recognized as a sub-category of science fiction. Therefore, dystopian novels can be labeled as science fiction while not all science fiction novels are necessarily dystopias. But, there are others who do not necessarily categorize dystopias as particularly science fiction novels or want the two to be combined. Michael Solana of Wired argues that the creation and popularity of dystopian science fiction has a certain capacity to entertain and shape the way readers view and understand the future of technology. He further presents the idea that manmade technological advancements in many novels often lead to disruption of lower order societies which is something to be feared. This specific combination of dystopia and science fiction allows a reader to believe that mass technological and environmental revolutions in the real world may lead to a dystopian society. This is where the combination of these two genres can overlap and cause confusion and even panic in a reader. While the two genres are certainly similar in many aspects, it is important that a reader or viewer recognizes the ability of science fiction to be independent of a dystopia.
“Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology.” Wired, Conde Nast, 14 Aug. 2014, www.wired.com/2014/08/stop-writing-dystopian-sci-fiits-making-us-all-fear-technology/.
“Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dystopia.
“Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science%20fiction.