EDIT: I've rewritten this piece and done a post on it's revision here.
This week was my week to write an editorial for the local paper, so I thought I'd post it up here. It's on dystopian fiction. What do you think? Do we have any Hunger Games fans out there? What's your favourite dystopian book? So without further adieu, here it is:
First we had wizards, then we had vampires and now the growing tread in fiction for the younger populace of readers is the dystopian genre. Until this past year I had no idea how to pronounce “dystopian”, let alone know what the genre was. Since then, I’ve been educated. Dystopian fiction is very generally classified as a story that takes place in a hypothetical society where the living conditions are extremely poor. Often these conditions are due to corrupted government and are set in a futuristic time, usually post-apocalypse. Like me, you may have thought that this genre has just popped up over the past few years, but in truth it’s been around since the late 1800s with some older dystopias that are still popular today being George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954).
Needless to say, this genre is still going strong especially in books for younger readers. Ever since the 2008 release of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, the first in the dystopian trilogy, and the release of the movie earlier this year, this genre has taken off. A few prime examples of this are books being published like Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi (2011) and Blood Red Road by Moira Young (2011). The growing number of books in the dystopian genre means the growing number of young people reading the “doom and gloom” fiction and this is raising some questions among parents. The most common of these questions among parents is whether or not it’s healthy for their children to be reading these kinds of books that often include violence and are centered on a dysfunctional society.
Like most issues there isn’t a straight answer to this question. Dystopian stories have great potential to have many positive effects, and those effects are what I’ve personally experienced with these types of books. They are cautionary tales with the power to jolt someone out of their apathy and force them to think about the choices we are making today and how they will determine the future. Reading about a futuristic society that is clearly an awful place to live and seeing the parallels to our own society can have a warning effect. Our future could be like it is these books. That realization might even induce some action from the reader. It might just be turning the light off when you leave a room, or maybe taking an interest in voting for the coming years. Although it’s not earth shattering action, dystopian books get the reader thinking about their future which is an extremely positive effect in my books. Aside from the more intellectual results, current dystopian fiction often features strong heroines which are always nice to see in comparison to the classic damsel in distress, and are books that are just plain exciting to read.
All that being said, there are still those nagging thoughts of the potentially desensitising violence and inaccurate portrayals that are often found in dystopian fiction. Those are the reasons that give parents pause in allowing their children to read this genre and those are two very good reasons. As much as I see value in dystopian books, they are only effective when the reader has grounding in the fact that the story is fiction and hypothetical. When we have children reading books like this we get into problems with them taking fictional representation of our possible future as the truth of how it currently is. Truly though, the main complaint is the violence, especially between young people in the books. However I do not find it desensitising at all, but the opposite. Reading about it makes me more aware of how awful the violence is. The presence of violence is not what will cause problems, but how the violence is portrayed. I’ve yet to read a dystopian novel (and I’ve read many) that glorifies violence and makes me want to be a part of it. As a teenager, I know that dystopian books are fiction and I know that violence exists. I have the tools to take away the subtle lessons that make the dystopian genre what it is, but as a young child it can be too much to deal with when they are still relativity unexposed to the world.
Does this mean that parents should condemn this genre all together? Of course not, but it is important that they work with their children to decide when they are mature enough to handle dystopian. When they are ready for dystopian, parents should help them realise the lessons to be taken away from the book and the misconceptions that may be found. If parents give their children a good foundation in this area they won’t have to fear for their child’s worldview and can sit back and let their children learn to love the written word (and maybe learn a few things at the same time!) through the exciting books that are part of the dystopian genre.
So there it is. I'm afraid I went horribly over the word limit for the editorial, but we'll see what happens.