Why the YA dystopia craze finally burned out

From Polygon:

The 2010s saw the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the YA dystopian genre, with The Hunger Games and its followers dominating headlines and popular culture. It’s been argued that the dystopia boom was inspired by cynicism and anxiety in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but for those of us who became teenagers in the YA dystopia-obsession era, the films in particular served a different function: They cultivated a distrust for the government, expressing and amplifying how millennials around the world were tired of tyrannical leaders. The Hunger Games in particular helped popularize what had already become a thriving literary subgenre, with books from Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel The Giver to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series shaping the dystopian boom. And then the wave of Hunger Games copycats oversaturated the market and killed the fad — or so the popular story goes. But there were other reasons the YA dystopia boom ended, and they were built into its premises and execution all along.

The intensity of the fad certainly contributed to its end. In 2014 alone, four would-be blockbuster YA dystopian films hit theaters: The Hunger Games Mockingjay — Part 1, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Giver. But saturation isn’t enough to kill a genre, as the last decade’s rolling wave of new superhero films proves. The YA dystopian genre died because it didn’t evolve. Book after book and film after film laid out the same tropes, with the same types of characters all suffering the same generic oppression and experiencing the same teen love triangles. The Hunger Games struck a chord because of its lurid themes and the way it intensified its era’s anxieties about capitalism, imperialism, wealth and power inequality, and technology, but its followers largely added more gimmicks and different kinds of violence, and called it a day.

. . . .

The Hunger Games emerged from similar adults-vs.-youth stories like Battle Royale, but added new layers about media propaganda and the authoritarian structure. Author Suzanne Collins was inspired by Greek mythology, reality-TV programming, and child soldiers, and she used those ideas to give her books more texture. Her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is relatable and down to earth: She doesn’t want to become a revolutionary or a hero, she just wants to keep her little sister Primrose safe. Her deteriorating mental health feels realistic, and it was mostly unprecedented in a genre full of bold teen heroes who came through the most horrifying adventures completely unscathed.

Following the Hunger Games series, subsequent YA dystopia films weren’t as richly realized, and the creators didn’t seem to care about the traumatic experiences their young protagonists went through. It’s unrealistic to have a film about teenagers overthrowing tyrants but little to no focus on their emotions. Katniss wasn’t endlessly stoic — Collins allows her to be vulnerable, and to learn that feelings are a sign of strength rather than a weakness. Many of the smash-the-state dystopia stories that followed avoided that kind of focus on feelings — or just followed the Katniss pattern of anxiety and anguish, without finding new territory to explore.

. . . .

While actual teenagers were struggling with their own idealism and a wish for a better world, fiction was telling them that systematic oppression is simple and easily solved with a standard good-vs.-evil fight, and that nothing that comes after that fight is interesting or relevant. The stories of how these dystopic societies were rebuilt would be more novel and enticing, but there was never room in YA dystopias for that kind of thought or consideration.

Which left nowhere for these stories to go after the injustices were overturned and the fascist villains were defeated. They all built momentum and excitement around action, but few of these stories ever considered what young-adult readers want to know: After one cruel leader is gone, what comes next? Injustice rarely ends with the death or departure of one unjust ruler, but YA dystopian stories rarely consider the next world order, and how it could operate differently, without stigmatizing its people. Revolution, post-apocalyptic survival, and restructuring society are fascinating topics, but apart from the Hunger Games’ brief coda about Katniss’ future PTSD, most YA dystopia stories just don’t explore these areas.

. . . .

And just as YA dystopian stories weren’t particularly interested in the future, they also were rarely that interested in their pasts, or even their present. They almost never explored their societies in any depth, beyond declaring them to be evil, violent, and controlling. We don’t really know much about the destructive regimes in the Maze Runner or Divergent series — we just know they’re bad. The run of dystopian movies in particular only offered the quickest, shallowest explanation of why a government would force its children into mazes, or make them kill each other. The Capitol’s desire to terrorize its citizens in The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner’s focus on population control and disaster response — these are political excuses for mass murder, but not nuanced ones.

Link to the rest at Polygon

18 thoughts on “Why the YA dystopia craze finally burned out”

  1. Translation: BPH rush jobs with nothing to say.
    Classic SF-as-window-dressing fakes.
    (The twitter crapstorms didn’t help, though.)

    Mind you, there’s plenty of dystopian YA still coming out and quite a bit of it good. Just not out of the BPHs, so the establishment media has to pretend it doesn’t exist.

  2. The OP misses the real distinction between The Hunger Games and the… others. Collins never forgets that “what comes next” is a critical part of any utopian/dystopian story. Smashing the Powers That Be sounds great, an unvarnished good, until one realizes — as did Katniss at the end of the series — that the leader she had been supporting was as bad as those she was attacking. That’s the fundamental flaw with so many of these “Rage Against the Hierarchy” works, and it’s far from limited to YA: They fail to account for the abuse-of-power vacuum that somebody will at least try to fill after destroying the Hierarchy. Those YA readers who paid any attention to the news at all no doubt noticed that!

    None of this is to say that The Hunger Games is flawless; it’s only to say that that gaping flaw common to its competitors is one it doesn’t have. It’s much more a “fundamental flaw avoided” issue than a “better character development” issue.

    • The flaw you mention is a real world failing of revolutionaries and activists all over; they rarely if ever stop to think about what comes next. Regimes aren’t just about the leaders but the whole society. Win or lose, when the dust settles they are going to have to live side by side with the people they went to war with. The aftermath becomes a grinding struggle for control. Massacres, diasporas, guerilla wars, totalitarian lockdowns. Destroying a regime isn’t easy but it’s a lot easier than forging a stable replacement, which has rarely happened.

      BTW, Collins last year revisited her world for a prequel. The timing was not good.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ballad_of_Songbirds_and_Snakes

      It serves a purpose, but what her series is crying out for is a full sequel. Are they doomed to a cycle of revolution and counterevolution? Now that would be a proper question to follow up on.

      • The flaw you mention is a real world failing of revolutionaries and activists all over; they rarely if ever stop to think about what comes next.

        Few know what came before. It really limits things.

    • It’s always interesting how the works that spawn a legion of imitators end up getting tarred with the failings of said lesser imitators, particularly when the literary establishment didn’t like the original to begin with, for whatever reason.

      See: Lord of the Rings and the fantasy genre.

      • I remember a wonderful opinion piece in the WSJ instructing us that kids reading Harry Potter shouldn’t be counted as real reading. I think that’s what prompted me to read the first one. Then I read all the rest.

        • Wait, what? What did the author think counted as real reading, then?

          Dreary stories about incompetent people being stuck in miserable lives and how miserable they are?

          • Fairy tales by von Mises and/or Hayek? (And I say “fairy tales” because the purported “examples” that were used to support their theories were themselves fiction.)

            • The author was a professor at a well-regarded eastern school. I forget which one, but he did seem intent on telling us all about how wonderful he was. His complaint was the HP books didn’t require critical thinking, and didn’t relate to the pressing social issues of our time. As such, Hayek would have qualified, especially if one contended Hayek wrote fairy tales.

  3. Somehow I suspect that lack of nuance and realism was not the reason that a popular genre (especially one aimed at teenagers) lost its popularity. It’s a reasonable criticism to level, but given that it could be leveled at any other popular genre that continues to be popular, probably not the cause of the decline.

    Some trends come and go, and others persist. Nobody really knows why.

    • I wish someone would explain to me the death of the Western. Oh, I know the older works were racist and sexist and all manner of Flawed Texts, but there was something about the idea of the frontier, humans against that magnificent landscape, that appealed to generations of readers. I don’t know why that died out.

      • Not totally.
        And there’s been quite a few perfectly nuanced and “diverse” westerns still being made.
        No need to go much further than UNFORGIVEN. Or the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Older, SILVERADO wasn’t bad, and BITE THE BULLET is still as great as ever. MAVERICK and QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER were also great.

        There are several Issues I can think of, all Hollywood focused.
        First , the western was primarily an American genre until Sergio Leone’s Spagetti westerns brought grim and gritty to the screen with great $ucce$$.
        That opened the door for Mel Brooks. BLAZING SADDLES ruined the genre for a generation of hollywood execs who could no longer take them seriously.
        Then Michael Cimmino did HEAVEN’S GATE. It killed the studio.
        And then STAR WARS hit and the age of blockbusters started by JAWS got entrenched. Westerns don’t lend themselves to hollywood light show movies (although COWBOYS AND ALIENS isn’t bad. It just flopped commercially.) and the money guys are in love with international (read:China) box office.

        Westerns are best suited for thoughtful dramas and that’s not what Hollywood wants.

        However…

        A new breed of western has been evolving on TV, set in more recent times; LONGMIRE and YELLOWSTONE being exemplars. And with the age of streaming screaming for content to keep churning at bay, the westerns are perfect for the services. It can’t all be doctors, lawyers, and cops. I’m betting on a classic MAVERICK revival.

  4. Another possible reason the genre started to die out: its audience grew up. Teenage rebellion fantasies appeal to teenagers. They don’t appeal all that much to grownups who have experienced oppression on other levels. Teenagers who grew up during the economic recession of the 80s are adults by now, often with kids of their own. Teenagers growing up today (under Trump and his aftermath) may have dystopian outlooks, but it will be a different one, one which is no longer served by the idea of mass uprisings. Or perhaps they’ve seen enough of that already…

    • I think generational changes in political experience – and generational changes among the writers, who are usually at least a generation older than the readers – may have something to do with it, definitely.

    • Hmm, the western’s peak was the fifties.
      The western would be good counterprogramming to modern times.

      And man vs the frontier is about to become topical…

    • Well observed and said, Sarah; I agree.
      When I read the first couple of parag’s of the article (skimmed the rest) I was surprised at the myopia of the OP for not realizing that there’s been a passage of time. HG was first published 13 years ago. Assuming the avg reader was 15 (plus/minus 5 years?) that avg reader is now 28 (or 23-mid 30’s).

      I binged the entire series after seeing the first film. I’m a guy, now 62 (was in my mid 50’s at the time) . Well written and deserves all the success. Divergent? Nahhh… not for me. Got thru the first and DNF’d part 2. The others (Maze Runner for example) I couldn’t even watch the movie to the end; but I think that just might be my personal demographic speaking.

      Here’s an interesting point: there’s a ‘New’-ish sub genre of romance that’s doing quite well. Paranormal Women’s Fiction. It centers on a divorced woman- 40’s to 50’s- who becomes ‘magical’ in some way or another. I kind of laugh… Hermoine of HP grows up or something?

      Divorce, teen kids, kinda soap-opera-y and magic.

      Now, it’s primarily an Amazon KU genre, but the $ in it is astonishing.
      Readers gonna read, amirite?

        • The ones I found were more soccer mom magic. (PRINCESS OF WANDS and QUEEN OF WANDS.) Soccer mom gets midlife crisis, ends up in a war of religions. Demons. Panteons at war. Secret FBI depts. Lots of gunplay. Like the best modern fantasies, not to be taken seriously.

          Or if you prefer mystery in your urban fantasy, Tanya Huff’s Blood Ties series. Got made into a Lifetime series, too. Pretty good.

          Pretty much everything “new”, isn’t really.

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