Death Match: How Dystopian Lit Shaped A Generation

It all started with The Hunger Games.

The trope-codifier of the “young adult dystopia”, The Hunger Games shattered sales records amongst its peers. It was a ratings juggernaut. Suzanne Collins authored the novel in 2008, and by 2012, it had earned the Guinness World Record for the “USA’s Best Selling Children’s Fiction Title” (It sold a total 11.7 million copies, roughly one copy for every two American children). The novel’s central gimmick is the eponymous Hunger Games, a government-sponsored competition in which unlucky children were pitted against one another in a televised fight to the death. Think Gladiator meets Big Brother meets pedicide. The story follows poverty-stricken competitor Katniss Everdeen, and her attempts at overcoming both the game itself, and the regime that instituted it.

In 2011, my mother flitted through Google Search’s listing of “best books for preteens” and found The Hunger Games topping every list. She assumed that, like the familiar works of J.K. Rowling or Sarah Dessen, the novel would be mild. But The Hunger Games is about as extreme as children’s lit would allow. It was gritty, a children’s novel centered around dead children, but also gripping in its cynicism. It posited a world in which the moralizing of familiar YA novels could be weaponized. The characters constructed fake love affairs, murdered their bullies, and understood the cruelty of their world as fact. I couldn’t place the root of my fascination, but still, the novel sparked an obsession with dystopian literature. From 1984 to The Road to Ready Player One, I devoured any writing about social collapse I could find.

It was a macabre habit (my mother labeled it “creepy”), but my fascination mirrored a generation of young readers. The market began to saturate; suddenly The Hunger Games was no longer the only competitor in the arena. Works like Divergent and The Maze Runner began to skyrocket to audience acclaim, each selling millions of copies to a dystopia-hungry readership. Movie franchises were green-lit; school libraries flooded with works promising to be the “newest YA Dystopian bestseller.” The genre-fiction equivalent of a boom town, a successful dystopian author could strike publishing gold. Within two years of its publication, The Maze Runner sold 6.5 million copies. In June 2013-2014, Divergent author Veronica Roth earned 17 million USD. The success of the YA Dystopia was unparalleled. Individual works like Harry Potter and Twilight had made similar waves, but never before has a genre become so consistent in narrative and, more notably, in sales.

It echoed every dystopia’s origin story, the way the genre shifted from a commodity to a wasteland. The dystopian novel was suddenly hyper-commodifiable; it required, even mandated, very little deviation from industry standards. YA Dystopia was a genre that relied on the reader’s easy familiarity with its canon. By the mid-10’s, every middle-school librarian had practiced the phrase “It’s like The Hunger Games, except in this one…” The genre became a perpetual xerox of itself. By freshman year, I noticed the genre’s constants: An authoritarian government subjugates its citizens in a compelling (gimmicky) power structure. The protagonist is subjugated, but manages to simultaneously overcome their government and manage a will-they/won’t-they romance in the process (spoiler alert: they will). The story is told via trilogy. Granted, many novels don’t check every box listed, but these tropes were present enough that they became an easy frame to recognize within new dystopian works. If The Hunger Games riffed on these tropes, then works like Divergent and Matched played them straight, and a canon of novels copied them wholesale.

The dystopian novel was suddenly hyper-commodifiable; it required, even mandated, very little deviation from industry standards.

In 2013, Justin Scholes and Jon Ostenson of Virginia Tech published a literary review of the then-booming catalogue of youth-centered dystopia. They found that after 2008, the year of The Hunger Games’ release, the themes of dystopian works shuttled towards a select few tropes: authoritative governments, media propaganda, conformity. It marked a shift in dystopian literature, from primarily a plot device of literary fiction, to a distinct subgenre. Novels like The Giver and Among The Hidden were successful dystopian novels targeted at young audiences, but they were classified as children’s work first and dystopia second. The advent of dystopian literature as genre fiction blitzed the publishing industry, and then the bubble burst. Now, as Jill Lepore of The New Yorker posits in May 2017, the dystopia has reverted back to a literary golden age. Works like Walkaway and Little Brother can market themselves to young audiences, without feeling subject to the constrictive norms of the archetypal YA Dystopia. Now, we echo every dystopia’s ending moments. Like a regime ceding control to its populace, the rules surrounding dystopia have loosened.

The conceit of “Dystopia-As-Genre” has vanished from publishing relevance. Readers have moved on. Why obsess over projected horrors when works like The Hate U Give and Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda contend with real-world injustice? The commercial dystopia is dead, and our generation of readers exists in its shadow. It begs the questions: How did the dystopia capture such a vast readership? What ideas instilled by these novels still linger in our consciousness? And what is there to love about the YA Dystopia today?

In Laura King’s New Yorker essay “Fresh Hell,” she posits that the dystopia is the perfect metaphor for the teenage experience, especially under the looming glow of late-stage capitalism. What better metaphor for external pressure from parents and authority figures than a dictatorial regime? What better metaphor for social positioning than a fight to the death against children? The stratification of uglies and pretties? The separation into cliques based on personality type and blinding luck? In many dystopias, the social anxieties of a young generation are magnified to epic scale. A Vox panel in 2018 demonstrates how works like The Hunger Games operate primarily on the level of social interplay. A love triangle is faked as a bargaining chip, a fashion statement turns political. Just like in the real world, intent is communicated via symbology, via winks and nods. And these efforts, unlike past dystopias, typically were associated with a sort of victory, or at the very least a bettering of circumstances or a diversion from straight-up tragedy. Even at its worst, the genre hinges upon the radically optimistic assumption that, even on the macro level, hope is possible, and that someone like the reader can achieve it.

Like a regime ceding control to its populace, the rules surrounding dystopia have loosened.

In our highly politicized youth culture, this immediate exposure to macro-level agency feels like a blessing. The Dystopia Generation has translated their literature’s optimism directly into activism. Research from the Pew Research Center in 2020 showcases a marked increase in agency within Gen Z, the primary consumers of dystopian literature. Young people are more likely to position themselves with a specific political party, campaign or advocate for specific policy positions within their social groups, and develop confidence in their ability to make measurable change within the government. Obviously, one cannot pin this all on Suzanne Collins, but the connection between anti-authoritarian literature and an anti-authoritatian readership seems greater than mere correlation.

Fittingly, the burnout of dystopian literature was self-designed. The works encouraged young readers to think critically about the media and messaging that surrounds them, and eventually, they began to criticize the failures of genre dystopia itself. Maria Isabelle of DiabolicalPlots theorizes that the decline of dystopia wasn’t just because the plots grew stale. It’s because the works weren’t political enough. Works like The Hunger Games and Divergent may have mastered the aesthetic of revolution, but their characters stayed within the confines of white heteropatriarchy. The characters were largely white, with a few token characters of color often acting as living parables of racism. The characters were often strong women, but most narratives failed to develop them beyond “strong woman who can kick ass (unless placed within the confines of a love triangle).” Eventually readerships shifted from dystopias to work centering on real-world social issues. This failure resonates through the dystopian canon, but from a certain framework, is almost a victory. Dystopian literature did what it set out to do: give the reader the tools to reject any viewpoint that does not serve them well.

The unsteady legacy of modern dystopian raises a central question: What is the purpose of literature? Is it purely a technical craft? An academic exercise? Is literature’s value in its ability to be gorgeous for the sake of being gorgeous, lyrical for the sake of being lyrical? Or does literature’s value come from its sociocultural function, its ability to shift the perspectives of readers? Can literature be “quality” in a vacuum, or does “literary merit” mandate that works engage positively with an audience? Regardless of the sect between literary and genre fiction, the elements of craft are useful only insofar that they compel their readership. Innovative plot devices develop suspense; textured characters develop empathy. And at any level of quality, the tropes of YA Dystopia develop agency in their readership. Genre fiction is easy to critique; the needs of commercialization often prioritizes wide appeal over technique. But if dystopian fiction is to be used as a socially generative tool, then did genre fiction not exceed expectations? Did it not gift readers the agency to build a better future?

Conceptually, The Hunger Games lends itself well to metaphor. The comparisons are endless: reality TV as Hunger Games, political squabbles as Hunger Games, high school cafeterias as Hunger Games. It’s telling that when searching for symbols to describe their world, teenagers found a death match. Our generation of readers developed tangent to housing crises, to nationalism, to climate crisis. Of course we speak the language of bloodbaths, of authoritarianism, of stratification. I’m grateful for the best and worst of YA Dystopian Literature. Like any good dystopian protagonist, like Katniss and Thomas and Tris, I was struggling towards agency. For the first time, I was told that I was seeing the world correctly, that I had the power to change it.

 

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