Dystopias: YA Fad, or Here to Stay?

Image from the cover of Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Dystopias are the hot, newish trend in the teen world; they've become so popular they're bumping vampires down a few notches in the bestseller lists. But are they just a passing fad?

Dystopic fiction is nothing new. According the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was first used (created of his own free will) by philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1868. Mill used the word in a speech to the British House of Commons, denouncing the Irish Land Act ("What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable."). Since then, dystopias have become a staple in fiction, cycling through literary, science fiction, and fantasy. The current YA dystopic trend may signal the end of of dystopias as a wandering subgenre -- perhaps even bringing them into the mainstream.

Literary Fiction, Science Fiction, or Both?

Like many “fads” (ahem, *cough*, vampires, *cough*), dystopic fiction appears to be cyclical. Proto-dystopic novels have been around since Jules Verne’s 1879 The Begum’s Fortune, a study contrasting utopian and dystopian societies. Several novels centered around the perils of technology and progress followed (particularly in the years following Edison’s lightbulb, Marconi’s telegraph, and Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity). The first modern dystopia, H.G. Wells’ A Story of the Days to Come, appeared in 1897, over several issues of The Pall Mall Magazine. The first truly dystopic novel, Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes, was published in 1899. (It’s particularly fitting that Wells lay claim to the first modern dystopias as he steadily contributed many ideas and tropes over the course of his 40+ year career.)

The majority of early dystopic fiction is today classed as science fiction. In 1924, Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We marked the publication of the first “serious” literary dystopia. Zamiatin’s commentary on the future of the USSR later served to inspire the more famous literary dystopias, Brave New World (Aldolus Huxley, 1932) and 1984 (George Orwell, 1949). By 1959, dystopic stories had once again become the province of science fiction and fantasy (think Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick). In 1971, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange straddled the line between serious literary fiction and science fiction; come 1984,Neuromancer (William Gibson) gave rise to the SF subgenre cyber punk.

A few years later, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1987) put dystopian fiction back in the black; in 1992, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash reclaimed dystopias, sticking them back in the SF/F section of the bookstore. (Read Exploring Dystopia's marvelous dystopia timeline here.)

Science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction have long been at odds, particularly on the literary fiction side -- science fiction and fantasy are often looked down upon by “serious readers” and, sadly, some “serious writers”. Dystopic fiction, though, depends on elements common to both:

  • issues of morality
  • who is the hero, why is he/she the hero?
  • does the hero choose to be so, or are they forced to be so?

Moving into the Mainstream

Earlier this year, Publisher’s Weekly ran an article on dystopia as a YA trend, focusing on popular titles such as Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (see PW's list of dystopian YA here). As PW’s Karen Springen points out, dystopic fiction is particularly suited to teens. It’s full of angst and worry for the future, and it gives kids and teens an out, a way to parse issues they may not yet understand or be comfortable with.

Good dystopic fiction also encourages critical thinking, perhaps more than any other genre. And, of course, dystopias rock. Yet YA trends seem to translate into adult lit trends a good percentage of the time. Granted, this could be because YA readers grow up to become adult lit readers (via NA readers, of course). But I suspect there’s more to it than that.

It’s possible YA shelves act as a sort of magic 8 ball for the rest of the literary scene because they are so unbiased. Few bookstores break their YA sections into defined genre shelving. Sure, there are series shelves, and some very broad genre shelving, usually associated with age breakdown. Beyond these, though, most YA books are shelved in alphabetical order. Magic realism lives next to humor, which cuddles up to romance, which nudges sword and sorcery. Most teens, too, are open about their reading choices -- when was the last time you heard a teenager claim they prefer Jack Q. McWriterson’s less mainstream, more critical earlier work?

Could YA fiction really be a harbinger of adult trends? Yes. In contrast to most other markets, children’s and YA books are still selling well, even showing some growth. More and more YA titles are being marketed as crossover novels, St. Martin’s is launching a New Adult Fiction line. YA authors once struggled to be taken seriously; today, flocks of adult authors are moving into the YA market.

Magic realism (think Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), a subgenre of fantasy, began in Latin America the exact year is contentious--some put it as early as the '50s, others as late as the '80s). In the English-speaking world, it appeared sometime in the '80s, quickly gaining popularity among SF/F readers. Yet proto-magic realism has been popular amongst YA readers since at least the '30s, beginning with Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series and moving through Tamora Pierce, Jane Yolen, William Sleator, and Dianna Wynne Jones (to name just a few). YA sensations Harry Potter and Twilight have each catapulted two once SF/F bogged tropes into the mainstream--vampire television and literature is arguably more popular now than during Anne Rice’s heyday and the run of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series).

Does the YA dystopic trend signal another turn of the cycle? Maybe. More likely, though, dystopic fiction will get bumped up to mainstream. It probably won’t hit Jennifer Weiner/Sophie Kinsella/John Grisham/James Patterson status anytime soon, but we may be seeing more of it on display tables or racked on the shelves. The year 2010 is an exciting time to be writing YA.

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