dystopias: are they really new?
1. A polycraftual knitter, writer, and aspiring metalworker and graphic designer.
2. One who gets nothing done without multitasking.
3. A lover of fresh Utah snow, dark chocolate, and bright orange.
Archaic: A gamer and passionate skier masquerading as a scholar.
Studying adolescent literature relies on a tool loved by many English majors: labels. (You make take that remark seriously or sarcastically.) Sometimes, these labels can be useful—how many writers have made it big after being labeled the next Tolkien or Rowling? Of course, us writers in the YA market know how damaging those labels can be, especially when adults won’t condescend to read a “kid’s book.”
I’d like to open a discussion about one label that can go both ways: the label of “genre.” The word gets thrown around often. In academia, “genre” often defines a work as poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, while in the bookselling market, books are organized by the “genre” of literature, YA, science fiction, and so on. Academia might call these latter examples “subgenres.” My question is, where do they come from?
Let’s look at an example. Dystopic literature is popular right now, and has been a genre for awhile: Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopic novel even the scholars have read, was published in 1986. Modern fans of dystopic literature may prefer Hunger Games or Maze Runner, or even the X-1999 series of graphic novels. These novels challenge the way we view the world. They entice us.
But do they present new ideas in new ways?
I thought they did, until I studied the theories of Tzvetan Todorov. In short, Todorov defines a new genre called the “fantastic,” essentially a movement during the Victorian era that incorporated the supernatural. Turn of the Screw, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, and many others walk the line between Victorian and Fantastic . . .
And so does the dystopic.
- Todorov argues that the role of the Fantastic is to force the reader to hesitate, to rethink the way they see the world. In literature of the Fantastic, this happens because of the supernatural. Doesn’t the dystopic function in a similar way, using familiar settings and a once-familiar world instead of the supernatural?
- Fantastic literature encourages transformation in the characters as they, too, hesitate in the unfamiliar world. Readers of Hunger Games know full well the changes that Peeta and Katniss experience, and Offred’s transformation in Handmaid’s Tale is the driving issue in the book.
- Structurally, Fantastic literature always ends where it started. This is the hardest one to prove without providing spoilers. It’s also harder to spot in dystopic series. However, I argue that it’s still there.
My goal here is not to argue that the dystopic is unoriginal. It’s to get you to think. Are these similarities coincidental, or is there a closer relationship between the fantastic and the dystopic than most people realize? I would love your input!