Scout Finch, Holden Caulfield, Margaret Simon — meet Katniss Everdeen. She’s the heroine and action star of Suzanne Collins massively popular “Hunger Games” trilogy. She’s also at the center of the latest trend in young adult fiction. Where adolescents once craved stories of social conflict or escape, they now want tales about something more instinctive: survival.
For every literary classic like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Catcher in the Rye” or “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” all three embraced by young adults, today there are a bushel of novels based on a relatively simple premise: How do we endure in harsh and violent settings? With the “His Dark Materials,” “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series representing just a small sample of related books, this focus has reached critical mass.
As beloved classics fade from popular prominence, we’re left to wonder why today’s youth find bleak settings, dark themes and ruthless realism so alluring. If the history of young adult fiction indicates anything, it’s this: Adolescents can discern and perceive society’s deepest anxieties. Today, they live in the age of extremes.
Though bygone romantic heroes, social outcasts or inquisitive protagonists still lurk in all modern young adult fiction, Katniss Everdeen and her peers represent archetypal survivor character. Choosing to save her sister Prim’s life, Katniss fights to the death and prevails against 23 other young adults in a futuristic, coliseum-like battleground set in North America.
The dystopian novel is far from a new genre — consider classic books like Orwell’s “1984,” Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange.” These books spanned generations of catastrophe, from Huxley’s Great Depression-era writing, to Orwell’s the cold war era and Burgess’ during the countercultural revolution. Today, the catastrophe isn’t so obvious, but the doubts and demands of the Great Recession of 2008 still weigh on young adult minds.
Dystopian young adult novels, prevalent in the post-2008 world, pose the logical extremes of crumbling Western society. In the home, parents are divorced. Outside, the environment decays. News coverage reports partisan bickering, unemployment, terrorism and corruption.
And while most adults recognize that the state of society isn’t great, young adults see just how bad it can be. Adults explain away dystopian fears as an undercurrent propagated by the fringe of society. Young adults, on the other hand, see dystopia staring them in the face. A tidal wave of related books appeals to their instincts.
A number of young adult fiction scholars and authors have debated the sudden predominance of the genre. In 2010 in The New York Times, a debate series titled “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction,” experts suggested a number of explanative frameworks. All their accounts, however, pointed to the same context: a world in turmoil.
One debater, Paolo Bacigalupi, author of the young adult novel “Ship Breaker,” argued that adolescents craved “stories of broken futures” because they anticipated truth in those visions. Even as their helicopter parents want to shelter them from this harsh reality, young adults seek to read the truth.
Other authors wrote about young adults yearning to escape the trappings of constant internet surveillance and data mining, or hoping for a post-apocalyptic world where order and systems of oppression were destroyed. Some contributors noted that the darkening dystopia is just a natural step in the gradual exploration of madness, evil and other awful things in society.
The present world of simultaneous scarcity and excess captures all the above and more, making an anxious genre like the dystopia perfect for today’s young readers. Unease over an unreliable world manifests in their demands for austere and disruptive books.
Consider “The Hunger Games” as the epitome of this movement. The violent interpretation of reality in “The Hunger Games” is almost surreal; it’s too graphic and horrible to exist anywhere but a nightmare. But, as part of the complexity of the book within a greater context, it’s perfect. In the age of extremes, the perverse nature of reality stares back when we look in the mirror of young adult fiction.
Mike Meaney is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and Matthew Hoyt is a senior in the College. They are the president and director of communications of the Georgetown University Student Association, respectively. THE STATE OF NATURE appears every other Tuesday.