Thursday, July 19, 2012

Our own little dystopias

Last week, I shared a few thoughts by YA authors on why dark fiction is so popular. One article, however, made me pause. It contained a sentiment I’ve come across a few times before. The idea has always bothered me. 
The question of why these dark novels appeal to teenagers has been around awhile, and there’s a pretty standard response. It tends to be some variation of “these are dark, pessimistic times with the economy and culture; the darkness of the subject matter reflects those fears.”  
My thoughts on that? Ha and double ha. I don’t believe it.
In my experience, the teenagers who are loving the dystopian themes are generally the ones who don’t have to face it. Would we be so enamored with dystopian fiction if we lived in a culture where violent death was a major concern? It wouldn’t be escapism.
Well, of course not. When reading the Hunger Games, I don’t think “Oh man, I hate it when my dystopian dictator takes on a personal vendetta against me!”

So indeed, dystopias and dark fiction in general don't reflect the outer world of the American teenager. But maybe they reflect the inner world of a teenager. Maybe the average teenager doesn't live the danger of apocalyptic events or war. A lot of teenagers can have moments when they feel like their world is ending.  In terms of the suffering of the world, that could be considered quite small. But is that comparison really fair? Your pain is the only pain you know. Comparing your own suffering against the troubles of the world isn't really the key to erasing your sorrow.

The point is, my world doesn't have to be a dark, terrible place for me to identify with dark fiction. Reading a character who shares the same type of sorrow (no matter the world they live in) can be very heartening. Finding out the kind of sorrow you feel as a teenager isn't unique can make you feel less alone. 

At least, that's how it was for me.


  1. I think a lot of darker, especially dystopian, YA fiction is about taking control over your circumstances. Teenagers are starting to face adult responsibilities and adult consequences, but still under their parents' roofs. Control is a huge issue. Stories like Hunger Games, where someone who isn't supposed to have any power manages to change the whole system... I think that's cathartic even for teens who have pretty blessed lives, and especially for every teenager who can't yet escape a bad situation.

    1. That is exactly what I was thinking Sarah, except you phrased it better than I could have. Great point. And great post Sabrina!

  2. I'm really enjoying this series Sabrina. Thanks for doing it.

    I agree with Sarah. I think dystopias are appealing to teens because of control issues.

    And I honestly don't think that these times are darker than any other time. Every era has its own issues, and none of us have lived through anything as troubling as World Wars or The Great Depression.

    I like what you say Sabrina about inner darkness in teenagers. I know a lot of people think that teens are self-centered and melodramatic, but the pain they feel is real. I remember those things (can I be more vague) in high school that seem so small now looking back, but were so important to me back then. When you are a teen, high school is the whole world. It takes some time before you can see beyond that.

    1. Times may not be darker--no school shooting or senseless murder is any darker now than the holocaust or the crusades, etc. I think the difference is media coverage.

      For instance, 12 people were shot and killed last night at a Batman premier, and another 53 were injured. This happened about twenty minutes northeast from my house, at a theater I've been to. People I know we're in the theater, though thankfully not harmed.

      Now a hundred years ago I might not have ever heard about this event. Or if I did, it would have been long after the fact. My children certainly wouldn't have heard about it. But in today's fast-pased technological age of instant updates, I'd seen it on the news, Facebook, and through texts, all before the sun came up. Since it is on every channel and radio station, my five year old also heard about it. Much like 9/11 or Columbine, it's one of those things parents have to sit down and explain to their children. This was my first "The world is full of good people, but there are bad people in the world, too" talk, and though I fervently wish it could be my last, I doubt that will be the case. Kids on a wide scale have to cope with more today than I ever did as a child, and I'm sure I had more to deal with than my parents. It is the awareness that colors the world a dark and tumultuous place, and I think that awareness (without the ability to maturely process or understand) is what makes teenagers seek out dark stories.

  3. I think about those fairy tales designed for children before Disney came along. So dark-- far darker than I'd let my children read.

    One of the things I believe, is that kids feel every bit as deeply as grown ups do, if not deeper. Stories are, and will always be, a way of sorting out the world, of making sense of the nonsensical. Kids know there are bad guys out there, and when bad guys look like the pic you chose, you know clearly that you can kill that bad guy.

    In the real world, bad guys don't look much different from the good guys, and the shades of gray make life more confusing. You can't tell if someone is good or not, just by looking at them.

    I love this series, Sabrina. Gets me thinking.


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