Saturday 3 December 2011

Welcome to Dystopia – Population Increasing (by Eve Edwards)

Earlier this year, I had a catch-up chat with one of my editors after the Bologna Book Fair.

‘So what’s the big news in young adult fiction? Fallen angels? Zombies? Demigods?’ I asked.

‘Oh no, they think the fashion for paranormal romance is passing; it’s all dystopia now.’

I have to admit my heart plummeted. Just what we all need in grim economic conditions with youth unemployment at record levels: a generation raised on gloom. I suppose you could argue that reading The Hunger Games makes you realize it isn’t all so bad; you may have to queue at the Job Centre when you leave school but at least you don’t have to slaughter the people around you to stand a chance of surviving. Yet I find myself shying away from a diet of brutality and depressing post-apocalyptic societies. What’s happened to hope for humanity?

My editor’s observation did lead me to think about the history of dystopia in literature. The expression of the theme that came to mind first was a childhood memory of watching the film of Logan’s Run which was based on a novel of 1967 by Nolan and Johnson. That society solved the problem of rationed resources by killing people at the age of 21 (the film raises the age to 30). You can see why it stuck in my mind as a teenager – it made you feel like one of the ten pence pieces in a coin waterfall safely out of the drop zone but knowing every push of the year would take you nearer the edge....

The roots of dystopia in literature go much further back – Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Erewhon, some of the societies in Gulliver’s Travels – I’m sure we could think of many more. If the Twilight/paranormal romance phase was a flourish from that old literary tradition of the gothic; young adult fiction look set to relive another in the return to dystopia. Perhaps it is a necessary medicine. Dystopia is usually intended as a powerful critique of our contemporary society and is often written to warn us of where we might be heading. My problem is that I just don’t like it. I’ll read it but I don’t enjoy it.

Heading to Alcatraz -
Image of the future for generation Z?
There I’ve confessed. Phew. I’m probably guilty of all sorts of intellectual sins preferring to be cheered up by what I read. I take comfort from the fact that a bias towards optimism is proven to better for us individually. The BBC reported in October a study in Nature Neuroscience that 80% of us tend to a positive outlook. This is bad news as it makes us underestimate risk (our marriage won’t fail, I won’t be the one to get cancer if I smoke) but it has the undeniable advantage of making us statistically healthier and live longer. ‘A study on nearly 100,000 women showed a lower risk of heart disease and lower death rate in optimists.’  Reasons to be cheerful indeed!

There is also something in the argument that there is a danger of society at large entering a gloom spiral if it gets too negative about its prospects. It may be that the only way out of our economic bind is a good dose of optimism. I was impressed by the comments on the recession by the entrepreneur, Sir David Tang, made a few years ago, particularly because he has been proved right over the interim. ‘Pessimism has an uncanny knack of being self-fulfilling.’  He goes on to say: ‘It is only with a sense of optimism, preferably accompanied by a sense of energy and laughter, that we will be able to pick ourselves up from a broken Humpty Dumpty.’

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting dystopian literature had anything for which it should apologize. It has brought us some incredible storytelling and the occasional masterpiece. But with the way that bookselling seems to lurch heavily in one direction once it senses a trend, I just hope that space will also be given over the next few years in Young Adult fiction to voices offering a more optimistic view of human life. I think they might be needed if poor old Humpty is to stand a chance.

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Linda B-A said...

I lot to comment on in this post - even though dystopian literature is probably not a central concern for historical novelists! My feeling is that to protect one's own sanity as a writer, you have to take trends at book fairs with a large pinch of salt. No one knows what is going to be the next big thing and - even if we did- should we really try and squash our round stories into the market's square hole? I absolutely agree with you about the value of an optimistic, sane, positive view of life, but it goes without saying that teenaged readers are, in general, going to drawn to all things melodramatic, edgy, wild, black, pessimistic... Writers' inherent optimism or pessimism is going to shine through their work irrespective of literary fashions. I don't know the kind of criteria that editors use when choosing their manuscripts but I suspect that the voice that sings, the ability to transport and excite will always trump the vagaries of fashion.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Very interesting post. On a positive note, here in the U.S., the rumor is that historical fiction in YA is getting "hotter" right now. Don't know if it's true, but I'll keep telling myself that in order to stay optimistic!

Mary Hoffman said...

Well, that's very good news for us, Vicky!

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm with you on dystopias, Eve - why make yourself depressed? But having said that, I've just read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, after studiously avoiding it for several years - and thought there was a strange and compelling beauty about the writing, even though the subject matter was so desperately gloomy. I suppose the strength was in the relationship between the man and his son.

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree with you, Sue - there can be positive notes even in dystopia. But having said that, I do believe it was very good for me to read and re-read 1984 in my teens. It made me think a lot about humanity and inhumanity and the fragility of heroism - and made me an Amnesty member and supporter of the Medical Foundation which is called something different now but I've forgotten what.
I think teenagers need to experience strong emotions and dark things vicariously, so as to prepare them for the real thing - or maybe they help them understand the darkness which is in so many people's backgrounds and families?
I think Brave New World probably has some pertinent things to say, as a dystopia of technology and capitalism, but I should really re-read it. Thanks for raising these things, Eve!!

Eve Edwards said...

I agree with you, Leslie, that 1984 is a must read. Of the recent crop, I've also read and 'enjoyed' Saci Lloyd's Momentum and Blood Red Road (Moira Young) so I'm happy to dip in to the genre. My issue is with the overkill that goes on when publishers follow a trend (in this case the forthcoming film of Hunger Games).

Rebecca Herman said...

Vicky, as a reader I hope that's true - I'd love to see more YA historicals. I actually prefer dystopians to paranormal generally though. My reason being that I like the story I read to be set in a different place and time. Most paranormals seem to be set in our familiar modern world, just with added vampires, werewolves, angels, etc. (I do enjoy the historical paranormals though!). So that's why most of what I read is either historical fiction, historical fantasy, high fantasy, or dystopian. So I read the dystopians more for the setting than the grimness. if that makes sense.