DYSTOPIAN NOVELS – A YA CONUNDRUM.
I have read a lot of Young Adult books during my literature experience. From Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, to Veronica Roth’s Divergent and Patrick Ness’ More Than This, dystopian novels seem to dominate the Young Adult genre. But I have often found myself wondering how this came to be the norm?
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, among others, are examples of dystopian novels which seem to have dodged the YA label, so I will now attempt to explore reasons for this. Let me point out firstly that the overriding difference between these two sets of books is the difference in age of the protagonists. Obviously, if the protagonist is a young adult then they will naturally be placed in the YA genre (although books such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Where Rainbows End refute this, but let’s not get into that now.)
As I’ve got older, something I’ve learnt is that I definitely enjoy books which I would never have done in my younger years. Novels such as Moby Dick and Birdsong both would have bored me should I have been confronted with them at school-age, but I can now appreciate their timelessness and beauty. One characteristic intrinsic to dystopian fiction is the sense of adventure they all seem to encompass. I think young adults seek dystopian novels because they crave adventure. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say one of the attractions of books are their ability to transport you to another, more exciting world, and when you are a young adult and your whole world revolves around the repetitive school day, there would be nothing more appealing than the opportunity to retreat into a fantasy. Dystopian narratives tend to be bleak just by the very nature of a dystopian society, but the bleaker the characters’ chances the more hope and encouragement the reader will invest in the protagonist succeeding. Put simply, teenagers need this escapism more than adults.
Books such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Notebook are just not exciting enough. All they do is tell the story of someone not so dissimilar from people we are already surrounded by, and while these novels are appealing to me now (perhaps even more so than ones of adventure and mystery), in the hands of a fifteen-year-old, they just don’t provide enough thrill. YA dystopian fiction gives the reader the opportunity to imagine what it would be like if the only chance the world had of surviving was in the hands of an ordinary girl or boy, something even more entertaining if that character is your own age.
Another reason YA dystopian novels are attractive is their ability to become exaggerated caricatures of topical events in every-day life. Whether this is political or social, dystopian books can become an outlet to express warning of what might happen should we become blind to the dangers of our own society. While this is not specific to YA dystopia and is true for the genre as a whole, these issues are often ones which affect a young audience more so than the adult world. The Hunger Games series is a great example of what might happen if we, as a planet, chose to secularise everyone and only allow the elite to live a life of luxury. Poverty and oppression are unfortunate realities in our society today, but imagine if that tyrannical social hierarchy was evident across the planet. If nothing else, YA dystopian literature provides the opportunity for readers to be educated on the dangers that may become more prevalent in their futures.
Maybe it’s just habit that dystopian writers create young adult protagonists; or maybe it is engrained that when the world needs saving, it must be done by someone of a younger generation to give the world hope that the future will be brighter.