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Lake Charles, Louisiana, United States
Hello, and welcome to my blog! I like to write about children's literature, fairy tales, feminism, and pop culture in general. I've recently earned my Ph.D. in children's literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I also review children's and young adult books for Kirkus and teach English at Sowela Technical Community College. Oh, and I like cats! [Banner image artwork by Yuki Midorikawa]

Monday, February 6, 2012

Trouble in Paradise: The Dystopian Romance

Dystopias are all the rage now in YA literature.  Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy did for the teen dysoptia what Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series (I must admit I refuse to refer to it as a "saga") did for paranormal romance.  And if you think that's a compliment...

Not to belittle Meyer's or Collins' efforts.  But Good Books do not always start Good Trends.  Or rather, sometimes Pretty Good or even Pretty Decent Books (says the girl who hasn't published a darn thing, save the occasional academic article) sell so well that they start mind-bogglingly dull trends. Seen on girl fall in love with a vampire, seen 'em all.

Admittedly, sometimes Good Books do start Good Trends.  Take Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It basically spawned an entire genre.  Some might call that genre "high fantasy" or "sword and sorcery fantasy," but the truth is that those are branches of a single genre (fantasy) that was essentially breathed into being by Tolkien.  Yes, there were fairy tales, there was Jules Verne, there was myth.  But then there was Tolkien.

And there is fantasy in Twilight, too.  (Something about werewolves and vampires?  To be honest, I haven't read them.)  And there is Twilight in the Hunger Games.

I'm talking, of course, about the love triangle.  My sister tells me the love triangle is fairly nonexistent in the books; it's only in the movies that the Jacob/Bella/Edward triangle exists.  I'm skeptical of this.  I think what she means to imply is that Bella in the book never cares for Jacob in the way that she cares for Edward.  But the quintessential elements of the love triangle still exist: one girl, desired equally by two different boys.  

The "Who will she choose?" element is perhaps a figment of the film adaptation's imagination, but nevertheless, this, too, has influenced YA to a fairly significant degree.  The Hunger Games boasts the Peeta/Katniss/Gale love triangle; fans have even adopted Twilight fandom lingo and refer to themselves as "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale," despite the fact that Katniss very definitively ends up with only one of the boys at the trilogy's conclusion.  Such is the nature of fandom, which routinely exerts the ultimate power of reader response in the guise of fanfiction, fanart, and other forms of fan-created artistic expression.  Allie Condie's Matched, a dystopian romance -in truth, more of a romance with a hint of dystopia- boasts a love triangle of its own.  So does Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel (another paranormal romance, not a dystopia).  Of course, not all teen dystopias have love triangles (Veronica Roth's Divergent, for example), but many do.  Many do not necessarily tickle their toes in the love triangle pool, so to speak, but still include a heavy dose of romance as the premise for their so-called dystopic narratives.  

Recently, it was announced that the CW will begin airing a series called "The Selection" based on Kiera Cass's trilogy by the same name.  The premise is eerily similar to one of my favorite novels, Shannon Hale's Princess Academy.  (Interesting fact: Hale once turned down an opportunity to let Matel make the book into a Barbie cartoon movie.)  In both stories, a group of girls is promised the opportunity to marry a prince; of course, only one will be chosen.  The MTV article calls "The Selection" "The Bachelor" with a dystopian twist."  

And that's essentially what the teen dystopia has become: romance with a dystopian twist.  Book publishers obviously think that girls prefer to take their science fiction, their fantasy, their paranormal narratives, with more than a dash of romance.  No, girls want full blown (age appropriate) Harlequins with only a pinch of milieu, a dash of plot, a hint of narrative.  

It's hard to argue with them when the books they produce sell so well.  And perhaps I should be chided for judging a book by its cover - or its TV pilot.

2 comments:

  1. I think you make some great points. The tough part about YA dystopians, though, is the audience. Almost all of the books you mention are targeted to the young adult crowd.

    I'm saying that's an excuse, but I think all the romance included in these novels is catering toward the post-Twilight crowd.

    I personally love romance in my books, however I am not willing to sacrifice a great story for it. Some of the books you mentioned do and some don't.

    I haven't read The Selection yet, but from the description it doesn't surprise me that it's being made into a TV show.

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  2. Actually, I think all of the books I mentioned here are YA (with the exception of LOTR of course, but that's a different genre.)

    I think blaming the content of the novels on their intended readership is doing a disservice to young readers; young readers can and will enjoy a complex narrative that doesn't rely solely on schmaltzy (very often) poorly written romance. Also keep in mind that A LOT of the folks who bought Twilight and the Hunger Games and made them so popular were ADULT WOMEN. So, again, I don't think it's fair to blame young readers.

    There are great dystopias that don't have any romance in them at all (THE GIVER) and there are great fantasy novels that know how to balance exceptionally-written romance with gripping plot (the works of Shannon Hale, Tanith Lee, and others).

    Thanks for your comment! :)

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