Click on the photo below to view my VLOG on the applications of The Program as a dystopia to current debate and dicussion:
Young, Suzanne. The Program. New York, Simon Pulse, 2014.
This course is based around young adult dystopian literature, and how over the years, its origin as a utopia has changed and evolved into bestselling books, comics, and even movies. For me, my primary focus of research is the role that social taboos, which can include (but are not limited to) sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, abuse, and mental health, in young adult literature; specifically, in young adult dystopian novels. Narrowing down even further, I decided to pay close attention to the role that the social taboo of mental health (specifically, teenage suicide and depression) plays in young adult dystopian literature; or rather, the lack of role it plays thereof. In order to do this, however, its important to understand why dystopian literature is so appealing to young adults in the first place.
The source I’m highlighting is an analysis published Virginia Tech in the Alan Review (see Works Cited). Essentially, the researchers determined what themes could be appealing to young adult dystopian readers, and divided them into several categories including (but not limited to) platonic relationships, media manipulation, limited freedom, pressure to conform, etc. Then, they devised a list of dystopian novels that were published in 2000 or later and were considerably popular and best-selling, and determined the common themes that each of these novels had with each other. After having a list of themes with supporting novelistic evidence, each theme was analyzed even further with recurring trends in plots and twists of the respective novels.
The review established the role that adolescent development plays, whether it is isolation, the brink of adulthood, or relationships (platonic and romantic). Although the biggest takeaway from the review was to advocate for the necessity of young adult dystopian literature in the classroom, it makes a sound argument with a good indication of what themes, in fact, classify a piece of literature as not only dystopian, but successfully dystopian. For me, the purpose of this article was to support the fact that popular dystopian novels do not discuss mental health as a recurring theme, despite the role it plays in teenage lives on a regular basis. However, for those looking at the rise in the appeal of dystopian literature, or the role that technology or romance play as recurring themes in dystopian literature, this can prove to be an equally valuable and useful source.
Scholes, Justin, and Jon Ostenson. “Understanding the Appeal of Dystopian Young Adult Fiction.” Scholarly Communication Department, Research & Informatics, Virginia Tech Libraries, Scholarly Communication, Virginia Tech University Libraries, scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n2/scholes.html. Accessed 24 Feb. 2017.
Social taboos (both in literature and in everyday discussion) include abuse, violence, religion, sex, and even diversity; however, these topics are still covered in considerable detail in most young adult novels. On the other hand, although self-harm, depression, and suicide are equally as sensitive topics as the aforementioned taboos, their discussion is both frowned upon and avoided. As a broad scope, there has been a sizable amount of novels published regarding teenage depression; however, they constitute an extremely small fraction of the popularity that young adult novels–with thematic elements involving romance and self-discovery–generally hold. Delving more specifically into dystopian young adult literature, this number is even smaller; in fact, over the approximately 600 (give or take) young adult dystopian novels published within the past few years, Google search results yield specific dystopian genres ranging from science fiction to romance, with a single dystopian novel discussing teen depression and suicide: The Program by Suzanne Young.
Generally speaking, and as observed in this course, dystopian novels gain popularity due to their ability to feed on actual, plausible fears rooting from modern day society. What makes dystopian literature especially unique and appealing, however, is its ability to appeal to readers through other popular teenage interests (e.g. The Hunger Games with romance, The Uglies with self acceptance, Matched with science fiction). One of the most pressing issues in modern society is the struggle with mental health; in fact, depression is the most common mental health disorder in the United States in teens and adults, and in 2014 alone, 2.8 million teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 had at least one major depressive episode. One major benefit of an increase in popular novels discussing depression is that it allows for teenagers to not only feel more comfortable with the validity of the problems they might be facing, but for the introduction of a possible solution. Additionally, a huge aspect of societal debate is the role that authority figures can play to help, and novels discussing this might allow for more exposure of and solutions to deeper-rooted problems and misconceptions in society. However, both of these raise questions: who determines what is relevant to teenagers? In what ways could thematic dystopian teenage depression novels backfire?
“Teen Depression Statistics & Facts.” Teen Help, 9 Feb. 2016, www.teenhelp.com/teen-depression/teen-depression-statistics/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.
“YA Books About/Mentioning Depression, Self-Harm And Suicide (201 books).” Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/list/show/13907.YA_Books_About_Mentioning_Depression_Self_Harm_And_Suicide. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.
Formally, young adult novels are generally categorized as novels written toward a target age group of 12 to 18 years; however, in the past decade, loads of novels have been written under the “young adult” novel genre gathering an audience from the range of 15 to 25 years of age. When looking specifically at young adult dystopian novels, the same trend can be observed, with novels like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Divergent by Veronica Roth gathering a massive fanbase from an older age group. In order to do this, young adult dystopian novels seem to have sub-genres of recurring themes–romance, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic–that appeal more specifically to modern-day interests of young adults. The idea is to find a present-day fascination or issue facing the millennial generation, and building around it as a common theme throughout the book to make it more engaging and ‘relatable’ to the reader; however, more sensitive subjects are not necessarily always discussed in novels.
One of the biggest issues facing the current generation of young adults is depression, a common cause of suicide. In fact, in the
United States in 2015 alone, the suicide rate among 15 to 24 year olds was 12.5%, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. The sensitivity toward the topic and the social blacklist surrounding its connotations has made it a topic difficult to discuss, despite the importance of understanding it and the ways to combat it. As a result, despite parenting books and psychological journals, there is a lack of written works about teen depression; however, Suzanne Young manages to expose the dangers of teen depression and our societal neglect of its importance in an interesting way. Published in 2013, The Program follows the life of Sloane Barstow, a teenager living in a dystopian, suicide-ridden society. Essentially, in this society, students are closely monitored for depression; once any signs of it are detected, they are flagged down and sent to “The Program,” where their memories are erased and the person is returned to their family without a trace of the memories that triggered the depression. However, as seen in the book, this program backfires; not only do students lose a part of who they are, but they are so terrified by the thought of The Program that they hide their sadness even further to avoid being sent off. Not only does this shed a light on the dangers of repressing depression, but it exposes the other factors that make younger people susceptible to suicide, including the lack of understanding from adults. Additionally, Young integrates other thematic elements more characteristic of young adult dystopias, including romance, which makes the novel even more appealing to her targeted audience. Overall, although a sensitive topic, teen depression and suicide is a huge and recurring issue of everyday life–so why isn’t it a recurring theme in young adult literature?
Young, Suzanne. The Program. New York, Simon Pulse, 2014.
Me, About. “The Program by Suzanne Young.” The Program by Suzanne Young, 18 Jul. 2o13, librisnotes.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-program-by-suzanne-young.html. Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
“Suicide Statistics .” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
Dystopian novels are depicted as being the worst possible version of a society, generally characterized by an oppressive government and a huge amount of censorship. In fact, most dystopian novels, including 1984 by George Orwell and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, feature actual works of propaganda in the novels themselves. Specifically in The Hunger Games (both the novel and the movie), propaganda can be viewed as the amount of hype and promotion of the games themselves, with people in both the Capitol and the districts placing bets on who might be the winner, as well as the exposure of the games through talk-shows and overall Capitol sensations. In fact, propaganda in the work itself is even more characteristic of a dystopian society, when we see in the movie how the districts are only given access to viewing the games through a projector, wth no access to any other channel or source of news.
Propaganda when it comes to dystopias (or novels and movies in general) can be expanded to the audience outside of the book: you and I as readers and viewers. In fact, the success of most novels and films ride on an effective means of propaganda. Again, looking at The Hunger Games specifically, the books were such a huge success, that they were all turned into movies. In fact, although the book’s success was largely based off of its originality in a young adult genre, the cover art featuring the mocking jay on every book cover led to other merchandise, including mocking jay necklaces and rings. Similarly, when the first film came out, it was a huge success that bred even more popularity for the novels themselves. However, a key to its continued success was to ensure that the other films, Catching Fire, Mockingjay: Part 1, and Mockingjay: Part 2 were equally advertised to not only keep returning fans motivated to see the movies, but to encourage others to hop on the bandwagon as well. Thus, for the third and fourth movies, the creators utilized modern-day propaganda by forming posters that one could imagine were used in the novels themselves. One of them on the left, featuring a small child covered in coal with the caption, “The Capitol salutes its citizens in the mining district,” could appeal to returning fans of The Hunger Games, as well as an uninformed audience who may suddenly be intrigued by the poster itself. For myself, the use of propaganda when it came to the use of the mocking jay on posters and advertisements kept me interested in the novels, even though the mentioning of the mocking jay pin itself isn’t really the highlight of the books nor the films. However, regardless, The Hunger Games is a perfect example of how the success of a novel (and four films) can be dependent on effective use of propaganda.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. NY, NY, Scholastic Press, 2008.
The “formal” definition of a dystopia according to Merriam-Webster, is “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” Although this is correct, perhaps a better way to look at a dystopia is the opposite of what one would include in a utopia, which is why the definition of dystopia is open to interpretation.
“Utopia,” written by Thomas More dating back to 1516, created the ideal society of perfection–for the year 1516. Over time, our values and policies have changed, and with it, what we view as an “ideal” society. In fact, with this change in ideologies came the existence of the “dystopia,” and as such, authors utilize the concept of dystopian society to express their personal views on the worst version of society and humanity.
Although classic dystopian novels do exist (e.g. Animal Farm by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, etc.), most modern day novels are written in the young adult genre. A simple Google search of “young adult dystopian novels” will yield 33 different titles, all written within the past decade. In modern times, dystopian novels seem to reflect the fears that the current generation may anticipate for the future–hunger, depression, end of the world, etc.–so most current dystopian novels are written in the young adult genre to reflect growing concern and appeal to the audience that would relate to it the most. Furthermore, combining dystopian literature with young adult content allows for a larger fanbase of young adults that can take their appreciation with them as their generation grows older.
Most dystopian novels have another genre combined with them–horror, sci-fi, romance, apocalypse–that allow for an appeal to a certain audience. Some readers enjoy romance, so having a dystopian world where everything goes to hell except for the love of a couple is appealing and appreciated. For example, the popular series The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins holds many themes, but the overarching characteristic of it is the love between the two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, and we follow their ups and downs as lovers which seems to be the only aspect of the dystopian society that remains consistent. Other genres combined with dystopias allow for the double-appeal to young adult readers: 1) the appeal to a generation with fears of a dystopian world, and 2) the appeal to fans of other, more specific book varieties. In general, the success of a dystopian novel rides on its ability to appeal to the audience it was intended for.
Definition of a Dystopia: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dystopia
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. NY, NY, Scholastic Press, 2008.