What makes dystopian fiction so popular with teenagers? In The New Yorker, Laura Miller explores this question, spurred both by the continued popularity of the genre and a "recent boom."
Of course, she says, there's the fact that, with young readers, recycled Twilight Zone plots are just fine--"a story doesn’t have to be unprecedented. It just has to be harrowing." There's also the fact that dystopias' "harrowing" quality comes from the way in which these fictional worlds are often depicted as warnings "about the dangers of some current trend."
But Miller suggests "dystopian fiction ... [is] not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening--it's about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader." In other words, the young are attracted to the genre because it so perfectly mirrors their experience of the at once vibrant and sinister world of middle school and high school. To make her point, Miller looks at a recent trilogy called the Hunger Games:
If ... you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don't seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it's just some "phase"! Everyone's always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you're having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.
Do dystopian novels, then, just hit closer to home in a teenager's worldview?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.