Monday, 6 June 2011

Dissing Dystopia?

The Web is buzzing with the sound of trapped flies again. This time it's a journalist called Megan Cox Gurdon, writing in the Wall Street Journal, causing the vibrations:

Admittedly, her reference points are American, as you would expect, but I have some thoughts - indeed experience - to share on this. For a start, that word "dystopian", which Ms Cox Gurdon doesn't actually use but which is lurking behind her article. It was coined by those who mistakenly believed it was the opposite of "utopian." They thought that Thomas More's "Utopia" was a mistransliteration of the Greek for "good place", with the prefix "eu" (as in "euphony" or "euphemism"), whereas the first letter actually represented "ou" or "not."

Therefore Utopia means "the nowhere place" not "the good place" and "dystopia" is not its opposite. Glad we got that cleared up.
The journalist is not very knowledgeable about children's books, saying that "40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing." Maybe it's her Maths that is off, because I make that 1971, the year before my first book was published. No such thing as young adult literature? It wasn't called that and it might not all have been "dystopian" but it was certainly there.

Alan Garner's The Owl Service was published in 1967, Paul Zindels' The Pigman and My Darling, My Hamburger a few years later. Peter Dickinson's Changes trilogy was from the same period, beginning in 1968; John Christopher's Tripods series began at the same time. And this was also the period when novels originally ostensibly for adults, like Lord of the Flies (1958) and Catcher in the Rye (1951) were being given to teenagers to read because of the age of their protagonists.

But let that pass. Is there anything in the writer's main contention that the basic material for YA literature today is overwhelmingly bleak? Well, perhaps. To take speculative fiction first, there is no doubt that ever since  Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, the latest trend in YA has been towards the dystopian: Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Philip Reeve's quartet that began with Mortal Engines, Julie Bertagna's post eco-disaster trilogy (Exodus; Zenith; Aurora); William Nicholson's Windsinger trilogy; Cassandra Clare's really rather bad "City of ..." novels ... the list could go on and on.

But it followed the previous bestselling trend of paranormal romance, set off by Stephenie Meter with her ridiculous vampires and werewolves and though not as child-friendly as Harry Potter (which certainly had its darker aspects) was hardly corruptingly evil.

I think the journalist is thinking more of books like Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, though she doesn't mention it, perhaps because it's by an Australian and this is a US-centric article. Or Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden, a brother-sister incest novel about to be published across the pond.

Self-harm especially exercises this author:
"it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care."

This interests me because my current protagonist is a self-harmer and since the book I am writing is sixth in the Stravaganza sequence, there is a mixture of "real life" events and something more speculative as the heroine of City of Swords has the uncommon experience of travelling to a time and place where cutting with sharp weapons is about to become commonplace as a city experiences civil war and siege.

I don't see it, as Ms Cox Gurdon expresses it as bulldozing coarseness and or misery into children's lives. YA readers in my experience are very good at ceasing to read material that does not interest them, without the intervention of parents. But teenagers have a very wide experience of ways of being unhappy; in my books I try to help them come to terms with those, specifically to understand that hard times do not endure forever.

I think Ms Cox Gurdon is right in a way about vogues. A particular genre arises as a trend out of one or two bestselling titles then settles down to being just one of a range of possible genres. the next after dystopian will probably be "historical" something you couldn't sell for love nor money "40 years ago."


Miriam Halahmy said...

And what about 'For Esme with Love and Squalor' one of my favourite stories by Salinger. Esmee loved squalor! Great post Mary, lots of food for thought.

jongleuse said...

Thank you for a fair and balanced appraisal! I couldn't get into The Hunger Games at all but will have to try again seeing as that's what the young folks are reading these days...

Stroppy Author said...

Great post, Mary - thank you. Sounds like another of those American head-in-the-sand approaches to teens. Don't mention sex and it won't occur to them to to do it, and all that.

It's necessary to write about misery - life is full of it. For some people, it's all there is. Their experience needs to be recognised and validated (and put in a context of a possibly brighter future). And for those not currently experiencing misery, there's always that useful vicarious experience, cathartic 'fear and pity' thing. Aristotle would have liked YA dystopian (done well).

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes, Miriam - I loved 'Esme'- and when was 'The Catcher in the Rye' published? It would probably be marketed as YA now...

I agree with you Mary, that teens will read only what engages them, and they are sophisticated readers too. In fact, since 'Lord of the Flies' was a set text for me in school aged 12, and Brave New World, 1984 and Animal Farm are often on the GCSE syllabus, I don't see what the fuss is about. Call something a classic, and that seems to emasculate it as far as some critics and educators are concerned. Which is odd, when you think about it. Surely the whole point of getting children and young people to read 'classics' is to expose them to potentially life-changing experiences. This - NOT passing examinations - is the purpose of all art.

Katherine Langrish said...

See also this angry and pertinent blog post by Collen Mondor (of Chasing Ray):

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