Why is there a Dystopian Trend in Young Adult Literature?

“In the year 2025, the best men don’t run for president, they run for their lives. . .” In his novel, The Running Man, Stephen King included this quote that depicts where apparently fiction believes our society is headed in the future. It seems that there is a trend emerging in fiction that is geared towards dystopia. For clarification, where a utopia is a world where everything is idyllic and good things happen, a dystopia is a world where everything that can go wrong does. This shift in focus is most present in Young Adult literature today, which is mostly consisted of an audience of teenagers. With all the success of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, both on the book shelves and in the movie theaters, there is no doubting that there is a preference for such works. However, why are teenagers gravitating towards such a grim genre? Through examining dystopian literature, its history through popular dystopian novels throughout time, its common themes, cognitive changes that are happening to young adults that could attract them to the genre, an article on the trend itself, and my own personal opinion on the trend, some light should be shed on this issue.            The Montrose Regional Library District defines dystopia as, “a futuristic, imagined universe in which oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control.” Dystopian literature is merely stories that set in dystopian societies. In the genre’s works are common elements. First, there are the characteristics of a dystopian society. Examples of these include: (1.) citizens in such communities are watched at all times, (2.) open mindedness, free information, and difference from the norm is discouraged, and (3.) there is a wide-spread fear of anything that is not contained in the world the citizens are living in. Second, there are distinctive types of controls that dystopian leaders use on their citizens to maintain power. These include bureaucratic, religious, technological, and corporate control. All are meant to restrict what the population can do, believe in, and even think. The third common aspect of dystopian literature is the characteristics of the protagonist. This is usually the main hero in the piece and is the one who wants to escape from the dystopian world due to the moral questions that he or she has about living in such a world. Also, although the dystopian society is meant to look as though it is a great place to live, a reader experiences the harsh, more negative sides of it through the eyes of the protagonist (Dystopian Literature). Dystopian literature has many elements, all which add layers to the complicated stories it weaves.            Although the trend may make it seem as though the genre is new, dystopian literature has been around for decades. In an article for the Huffingpost Books Section, titled The Evolution of Dystopian Literature in 9 Books,” Samantha Shannon uses nine books to illustrate the changes that the genre has gone through since its debut. The term was first used in 1868 by British Parliament member John Stuart Mill to censure a government policy in Ireland. Shannon quotes him as saying, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favor is too bad to be practicable.” The author decides to stick to the theme of a “bad place” and explains that she has chosen books that depict such a place throughout the years of literature.            To avoid redundancy, only four of the books on the list will be discussed, due to their varying time periods of publishing. First on Shannon’s list is Utopia, written by Thomas More in 1516. The plot is mostly conversation between a fictionalized More as narrator and a wandering traveler Raphael Hythloday who is from Utopia, an island where everyone has a right to everything and does the right thing for the good of the society. However, as the discussion continues, More learns that there are dark sides to his new acquaintance’s home: slavery exists, travel by citizens around the island is highly supervised, and before a man and woman can get married, they have to see each other naked, an extremely taboo practice for the 1500s’ time period. Although More is astonished by such a place, Hythloday talks about it with much ease, as if it is like that everywhere. The second item on the list skips centuries into the future, it being the 1949 George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Due to its iconic nature, Shannon does not give a synopsis of the plot. However, she mentions how in the story, after fighting off it so vigorously, the main character Winston Smith ultimately succumbs to the leaders of his dystopian world, Big Brother. From there, she explains how dystopian fiction is different in the way that it shows the weaknesses of characters as they are “always on the edge: of sanity, of safety, of survival.”            A third book that Shannon includes is The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985. She details how the story revolves around apathetic narrator Offred as he lives in the world of The Republic of Gilead, which is in fact the conquered North America that is now under the control of a dictatorship that follows the rules of the Old Testament. Shannon remarks that in reading this book, as an assignment for a high school class, she finally recognized dystopian literature as its own genre. The final book in Samantha Shannon’s piece is from 2013, James Smythe’s The Machine. The novel is eerily set in the not-so-far future and takes place on a planet Earth that is ridden by the catastrophic effects of climate change. The humans’ careless treatment of the planet has caused immense hurricanes and flooding in the popular places such as Japan, London, and New Orleans. The story is about the main character named Beth, a woman who lives on the Isle of Wight and illegally obtains an outlawed machine in an attempt to use it to rebuild the destroyed memory of her husband. Shannon points out that modern dystopian literary works do not always build an elaborate new world; instead some attack the intricate workings of the fragile human psyche (Shannon). As time has changed, dystopian literature has changed with it. However, there is a reason that high schools continue to teach Nineteen Eighty-Four to this day, over half a century later. With each decade and new books, dystopian literature has had concrete themes that teenagers have been able to connect to.            In the futuristic worlds that dystopian literature is set in, despite the diverse and unique characteristics of each story, there are common themes that are often found in most dystopian fiction. First, there is a wide-spread lack of history and memory of the times before the present dystopian society was established that is amongst all of its citizens. Leaders of dystopian society are putting on a roués that their society is better than anything so there is no need for outside knowledge. In addition, it is thought that this makes the population more apt to psychological manipulation, which could, in turn, provide a better avenue for making the people dehumanized, a typical goal of dystopian society leaders. Second, a popular theme in this genre is a raise in technological advances that not only regulate the citizens’ lives, but also oppress them. The more machines do for humans, the less humans can do for themselves. This is also viewed as another vehicle for dehumanization as technology in these stories often rises above the humans and attempts to enslave them. A third conventional theme is human domination of nature which has two possible consequences. One, the landscape in and around the dystopian society is described as desolate and unfertile. Humans have used up all of the resources so drastically that nature cannot repair itself. Another possibility is that, despite the environmental abuse, nature rebuilds itself and turns against humanity. Humans may have harmed nature, but now it has evolved to destroy humankind. A final theme in dystopian literature is the mandatory categorization of citizens into castes or specialized groups with particular functions, skills, and responsibilities (Introduction). Humans cannot make their own decisions as to what to do in day-to-day life. They must be separated into groups that tell them their job and purpose. Themes of dystopian literature are complex and sometimes hard to wrap one’s head around. With such intricacy, it is a wonder why or even how teenagers are drawn to such a genre. By looking into the psychology of adolescents, the picture becomes clearer.            As a human being ages, his or her brain develops and changes at each stage of age. During adolescence, teenagers’ mental capabilities are altered in five ways different from childhood, due to the advancement of their brains. One way that the teenager cognition changes is that for the first time they can think in hypothetical terms. Children see everything as black and white, here or nonexistent. By teenagers being able to think of possibilities, not only can they plan for the future, but it helps them understand the alternative universes of dystopian societies. A second change in cognitive abilities of teens is that they can understand abstract concepts that children cannot. For example, the concept of love is hard for a child to grasp. However, teenagers not only understand it, to some extent, but can even explain it. This skill is essential for teenagers in understanding the literary themes of dystopian fiction. A third cognitive transition for teenagers is called metacognition. In basic terms, this means that teens can think about thinking. Not only can they reflect on their own thoughts, but they can also think about the thoughts of others. This mental ability is helpful while reading any genre because for the reader to truly get into the story, he or she has to put him or herself in the shoes of the main character. Until a person can think about the way that others think, this is impossible. The next change that teenagers have in cognition as opposed to children is they can think in multidimensional terms. They can see all sides of a problem and look at the bigger picture. This capability helps in understanding the twists and turns of a dystopian novel. The final cognitive transition that teenagers experience in their mental skill is that they can think relatively. As mentioned before, children see everything as black and white, no gray area. However, teenagers can see that not everything is in absolutes. There is a downfall in that teenagers can suddenly think of so many possibilities that life is overwhelming, yet in again helps with understanding dystopian fiction. Although the government in the dystopian society says something is right, the protagonist does not agree; therefore, he or she is thinking relatively, like teenagers can (Steinberg 58-63). With all these new mental capabilities that arise from a person entering adolescence, dystopian literature could be just the thing to use their newfound thinking skills on. This is a psychological concept; however, what do people in the English field actually have to say about this trend?            In an article for the online edition of The New York Times, six accomplished authors and one professor of literature gave their opinions on the dystopian trend in Young Adult fiction, in a piece titled, “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction.” First in the article is the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi. He believes that teenagers today are eerily aware of the world being destroyed around them and they want to read fiction that relates to these issues and shows the worst case scenario of such events. With the depletion of the essential natural resources and the looming threat of the effects of climate change, adolescents are growing up in and will inherit a world that is much different than the one that previous generations have experienced. Bacigalupi continues that the media may try to mask the true issue at hand by bombarding teens with the apparent need to buy the latest technological gadget, but teenagers want the truth and if the second writer of this trend is Maggie Stiefvator, author of the Shiver triology. She begins her piece with a prediction that the dystopian trend will not end soon, like the vampire Twilight trend before it. She infers it will only get bigger as the next few years pass. Stiefvator than brings up how most people believe the pessimistic trend is due to the bad economy and the natural negative nature of today’s culture. However, she has another view on the issue. She believes reading dystopian literature is a mode of “pure escapism.” While the world gets more and more advanced, teens are pressured to make so many decisions, yet are confused as to where their life as adults is heading that they need an escape. What a better place to escape than an alternative reality like that of a dystopian society? Also, Stiefvator points out that the evil in real-life is not as clear as it is in dystopian literature. In the story, the bad guy is always revealed; however, in the real world, people don’t get that luxury and it is frustrating for teenagers who want to advocate for the right things. It’s difficult to fight for or against something if one does not know the true enemy.            The third writer in “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction” is Jay Parini, a poet, novelist, and Creative writing college professor. He feels that teenagers are drawn to this genre today due to the ever-present surveillance that they are kept in by security cameras, hovering parents, the never private Internet, and the education system that is judging their every move through standardized tests and Common-Core curriculums. They are attracted to fiction in which the characters are going through similar obstacles, like Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Parini concludes stating that teens feel trapped in this world and are looking for the comfort of others in the same boat. Fourth to write his opinion in the article is Scott Westerfeld, who is the author of the best-selling dystopian series, The Uglies. His feelings on the trend are credited to teenagers having to make adult-like decisions, such as with college and balancing a part-time job with school, while not having the right or respect of adults. In addition, Westerfeld feels that an apocalyptic scenario could be what teens are secretly hoping for so that they don’t have to worry about seemingly arbitrary adult responsibilities, such as where balancing a check book. Andrew Clements is the next writer of the article. He describes growing up in the 1950s when he was quite unaware of all the negativity that the world possessed. However, when he was in sixth grade, he got into darker genres and material; for instance, Edgar Allan Poe was one of his favorites, which showed him that the world was not the happy place he had been accustomed to, but a frightening place where anything could happen. Additionally, Clements mentions how with the advance of technology today, children grow up with incredibly realistic special effects in movies and are constantly bombarded with graphic news stories on television that cause them to be tolerant of such themes at an early age. Therefore, for a book to really scare teenagers, it has to be the worst case scenario that can get in their heads and cause a true fear.            In “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction,” professor and novelist Lisa Rowe-Fraustino writes about how she contrastingly feels that the tales of dystopia are not only teenagers, but that adults crave it too. She mentions that adults have enjoyed The Hunger Games and Harry Potter Series as much as teenagers, and that she doesn’t believe it’s a trend in Young Adult Fiction, but just a trend in fiction and human taste overall. Yet her opinion begs the question, why are adults into such a pessimistic genre also? Fraustino says that adults see the world’s biggest problems like hunger and disease and feel powerless about helping the people affected. However, in dystopian literature, where the protagonist raises up against seemingly all powerful forces, it gives adults hope that younger generations will raise up and first the problems that their generation did not. The sixth and final writer of this New York Times article is Michelle Abate, who is an English professor at Virginia’s Hollins University. She writes how Young Adult literature has been pushing the envelope on what is considered appropriate for teenagers to read. She cites the main themes of classic works to prove this point with Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland’s theme of political satire, The Outsiders’ theme of violence, and Bridge to Terabithia’s theme of death. Adults are always at a struggle to either expose their children to dark themes so that they can prepare for the real world, or to shield them from harsh realities to keep their innocence intact. Though Abate did not offer or even imply an answer, she does raise an interesting problem that plagues parents, guardians, and teachers, yet it sometimes overlooked by the masses (Abate).            Given all the research I have completed, I too have developed an opinion on this current, complex topic. From what I have reviewed, it seems there are two possible explanations for the teenage fascination with the dystopian genre in literature. One notion ties into the psychological aspects of teenagers discussed prior. People in this age group are just starting to question the world around them and no longer simply feeding into to everything their parents tell them. Teenagers are developing their own opinions and seeing the world for what it truly is, not a rose-colored glasses view. The questioning of authority that often occurs in Young Adult dystopian literature is exactly what teenagers are doing at their age. It is comforting to read stories in which the main character does the same. Another explanation is that due to the mostly uncensored Internet and the extremely easy and instantaneous way that news spreads on it, teenagers, and even children, see the harsh realities that are going on around them. Unlike the times of the past when broadcasters could manipulate what the viewers were seeing, like during the Vietnam War, the Internet has surpassed television and does not have a fraction of the same guidelines as its predecessor. Teens today can go on social media sites and see the rebellions and riots going on in governments around the world in real time, no matter where they are from. Fairytales where everything ends happily ever after, no longer satisfy their interest. They are looking for something more realistic, or at least what they view that as, which are the perils of the people in fictional dystopian societies. Majority of teenagers are in this perfect phase when they are not as naïve as children, yet are not as close-minded as adults. Therefore, it is no wonder why teenagers are drawn to the worlds of dystopian literature.            Dystopian literature has been around for decades and though it is seemingly only getting popularity now, it has had a following of readers for a while. Parents may not be comfortable with their teens reading such dark material, but in reality, parents generally have a hard time adjusting to many aspects of letting go of their “children” and allowing them to grow up. Fortunately, of all the research I have completed on the topic, none of it even hinted that this trend is harmful to the Young Adult audience. I personally think that adolescents reading dystopian literature is a beneficial practice because it will help them think of the future and experience new things without any real-life danger, just by simply turning a page. Every time period goes through trends, whether it is in fashion, diets, or hairstyles. Young Adult literature is no exception and right now that trend is dystopian. How long will it last or what will be the next big thing, only time will tell.           


Work Cited

Abate,Michelle A.,Paolo Bacigalupi, Andrew Clements, Jay Parini, Lisa Rowe-Fraustino, Maggie Stiefvater, and Scott Westerfeld. “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 26 Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

“Dystopian Literature.” Montrose Regional Library District. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

“Introduction” Contemporary Literary Criticism Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 168. Gale Cengage 2003 eNotes.com 14 Apr, 2014

Shannon, Samantha. “The Evolution Of Dystopian Literature In 9 Books.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Steinberg, Laurence. “Cognitive Transitions.” Adolescence. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2011. 58-63. Print.