Wednesday, January 25, 2017

YA Guy is... Done with Dystopian!

Industry insiders have been saying for years that dystopian is dead. From what YA Guy can tell, that's not really true.

But it should be.

It took me a while, but I've finally gotten tired of dystopian YA. There's just too darn much of it. And too darn much of it is too darn much alike.

It goes like this. There's a City. (And yes, everything in dystopian YA is Capitalized to make it seem more Portentous than it really Is.) This City is surrounded by a Wall. People are either trying to get Out of it (because it's oppressive) or get Into it (because it's oppressive, but it has Really Good Cake). A Teenager who's a Rebel in some fashion--s/he Hunts, or Reads, or is Not Like Other People--goes Over or Under or Through the Wall and Discovers the Horrific Truth about Reality. Then s/he does two things: s/he engages in a Love Triangle, and s/he starts a Revolution. Both of which will probably take Three Books to be resolved so the Publisher can make Lots of Money.

You know you've read this story before. It's The Hunger Games (or, if you want to go farther back, The Giver, which has the advantage of being a stand-alone). It's not a bad story at all: it's got action, romance, excitement, death, redemption. It's a story that's found its way, in whole or in part, into many other books that aren't strictly dystopian. It's simultaneously simple and powerful, and that's why it's so appealing. If you're a writer in any speculative genre, I bet you've used elements of it. I know I have.

But oh, gosh, in its pure form, I think it's time to call it quits.

Dystopian YA--unless I'm reading the wrong dystopian YA--has become too formulaic to carry on. It's become nothing but formula, with the only changeable parts being the characters' and the City's names. For me, at least, it doesn't interest anymore, and that's because, while I'm reading it, I can't help reading through it to the formula beneath. Formulas--or, if you want to be literary about it, tropes--aren't a bad thing in themselves. They're one of the major building blocks of literature, not to mention one of the major ways readers identify with particular stories. But when they ossify, when they become greater than the story they're supposed to serve, they're done.

There are many ways to overcome stale formulas, and as literature for adults demonstrates, these don't necessarily involve eliminating dystopian altogether. One could, for example, create dystopian parodies, works that use the formulas in order to poke fun at them. One could reinvent dystopian storylines by generating unique hybrids: dystopian comedy, or dystopian picaresque, or dystopian metafiction, or dystopian backstage drama. One could play against the dystopian formulas in unexpected ways, such that the City, for example, turns out to be genuinely, and not just apparently, utopian. There are plenty of approaches to reinvigorating dead or dying tropes. If you know of any YA books that do any of the above (or that revitalize dystopian in some other way), please let me know.

But if you want me to read the latest straight-up YA dystopian, I think I'll pass. I've climbed that Wall one too many times.


  1. Maybe what you mean is that you're finished with dystopian novels that use a dystopia as a backdrop instead of as a tool to speak to our present circumstances? I have been bored of that trend since it started.

  2. Maybe. But so many dystopian novels engage in such a broad and simplistic critique of present circumstances ("the government is evil, plucky teenagers can overthrow it"), I'm rather bored with them as well.

  3. I've never been a fan of dystopian novels. Honestly, I didn't want to read The Hunger Games, but it was an assigned text in my YA Literature class. Once I started reading, I was hooked because it was a good story. Since then I read a few other dystopian novels, but they weren't entirely formulaic.

    1. There are definitely some good YA dystopian novels, including The Hunger Games and its sequels. The original Maze Runner series (but not the prequels) is good too. You should also check out the Rootless series by Chris Howard, one of my all-time favorites. Very creative, using elements of dystopian in highly original ways.

    2. The Maze Runner is the February YA book selection of one of my book clubs. Thank you for the suggestions.