Written by Kristen Simmons
As a writer of dystopian fiction, I’m often asked about the state of the genre—where I see it heading, and if the market is oversaturated.
The problem as I see it is this: dystopian stories (and I’m speaking primarily about young adult dystopian fiction here) hit a wave of popularity several years ago when Katniss volunteered as tribute. This wasn’t the first in the genre (or rather, subgenre, as dystopian stems from science fiction), and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But the widespread interest in that story seemed to broaden the definition of the genre, specifically in young adult literature, to include a wide range of themes, including, perhaps most notably, an emphasis on romance and an introduction of diverse protagonists. Young adult literature often has a focus on the raw expression of youth—emotions experienced for the first time clashing with the developmental identity crisis involved in figuring out where one fits in the world. Add to that the pressure of choosing a faction (Divergent), an oppressive government (Legend), or the walls literally closing in (Mazerunner) and you’ve got something pretty intense. I see why people are attracted to it. I am.
Let me interrupt this broadcast for a small confession. I am the first to claim my own ignorance on the subject. The Article 5 series is classified as dystopian. My next book—The Glass Arrow—is as well. Did I sit down intent on writing within those specifications? Nope. I wrote the story that came into my head, and was just lucky enough that someone wanted to read it. This means that everything I’ve said thus far could be completely out in left field. Or, I could be like a great many writers who do the same thing: Write the story, and let the people who are good at marketing do their jobs.
So what is the current state of dystopia? And where is it heading? Honestly, I think it’s doing all right. Yes, there has been a huge focus on it in recent years. Yes, there is a strong-voiced contingency who shout Fahrenheit 451! 1984! Brave New World! (I am the one shouting The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road, just for the record.)
Young adult dystopian fiction incorporates a melting pot of issues, topics, and voices, but if you strip it down to its roots, you’ll likely find the following major headings:
- Problems with the government (too little or too much or much too much),
- Economic or class issues (no money or an overwhelming divide between classes), and
- Oppression in some form (in my new book, The Glass Arrow, women are oppressed.)
I’m not a historian, but I think the human race has bumped up against these issues before. I know every single time I turn on the news I see them. Do I think these things will be problems in the future? Yes. Is that bleak? Maybe a little. But I hope we’ll persevere. And that, my friends, is what dystopian literature is all about. Not the ugliness of our world, but the beauty of our resilience. Not the way we despair, but the fight that drives us to survive despite the circumstances.
The Glass Arrow continues on the path forged by The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a story about female persecution, where women are reduced to their ability to conceive. Aya, the protagonist, is caught, hiding in the mountains, by a hunting party of wealthy men from the city. Like other young adult stories, the pace is quick, the stakes are high, and there is an element of romance, focusing, like in Offred’s story, on the conceptualization of Aya’s identity as a woman in a highly discriminatory world. I cannot live up to Atwood’s greatness, but I’ll tell you this: Aya doesn’t let the bastards grind her down. It is my intention, after all, that this story be about hope.
Writers write about life and truth, despite setting, despite origin, despite genre. We magnify reality through a fictional lens. So do I feel the genre is on its way out? Not really. Even if the name changes, the concepts will still exist, and somewhere, someone will write about them.