The Teenage Wasteland of Dystopian Fiction
To be young is to be sad is to be trapped in an Orwellian nightmare. Laura Miller advances an interesting if not wholly surprising theory in a recent New Yorker piece on the upswing in dystopian Young Adult fiction. She posits that novels about grim futures or alt realities populated by savvy teen protagonists capture the sturm und drang of the youth set and resonate with young readers for that very reason. Evidently, a post-apocalyptic future as a proxy for high school angst and coming-of-age drama where the canny misfits, outcasts and renegades are the ones to challenge the totalitarian system appeals to the rebellious narcissist lurking within the average teen.
Miller’s assertion that dystopian fiction is the new YA It genre and a mirror for formative years flux isn’t without problems. Firstly, is dystopian fiction really that popular? When did Holden Caulfield battles Big Brother steal the reins from all things vampiric and supernatural? Not that I’d object if Twilight finally went quietly into that good night, but I’m not sure junior editions of The Road would have the same appeal to the teen girl fan base that made Stephanie Meyer her millions. Miller even admits that the genre is dominated by adults:
It somehow fits the paranoid spirit of these novels that adults are the ones who write them, publish them, stock them in stores and libraries, assign them in classes, and decide which ones win prizes. (Most of the reader reviews posted online seem to be written by adults as well.)
Additionally, what about the entertainment history of bad times (both historical and personal) calling for escapism and diversion over relatability? Do we really want to see an amplified version of our own workaday lives when we could distract ourselves with a brighter, bolder, more glamorous iteration instead? Think of the popularity of Shirley Temple movies during the Great Depression or the insatiable media appetite for Lady Gaga’s everything. Hell, Las Vegas itself was built on embodying this idea. The desire for escapism instead of representation also plays a part in the youthful Twilight and Harry Potter phenomena (Obsessive love! Magic!). In fact, I don’t think today’s young readers are necessarily cut out for fictional dystopia in the first place. Rather than coming of age in the protracted and ambiguous tension of the Cold War, today’s teens know what dystopia looks like because there’s ample evidence of its elements in their daily lives. The genre plays on the fear of the plausible what-if, but what if the what-if has already happened? We’ve got war(s), terrorism, natural disasters, environmental turmoil, the Patriot Act, Arizona’s immigration law, etc. Utah still executes prisoners by firing squad for heaven’s sake. Literary merits aside, opting for a broody vamp who watches the heroine (a proxy for the hormonal young reader herself) while she sleeps vs. picking up The Handmaid’s Tale for a little light reading makes a certain kind of teenage sense.