Tuesday, 27 August 2013

It's not the end of the world - Lily Hyde

“Oh please recommend us some books to read!” a young avid reader and her mother fell over each other to ask me recently.

They sounded as desperate as if they had been living on a desert island in an information vacuum, instead of surrounded by the thousands of books being published and the millions of reviews and tweets and posts being published about them. Their problem was not with any shortage of books though. It was with the type of books.

“Something without the end of the world in it,” pleaded the mother. And “ANYTHING that isn’t a really, really depressing future dystopia,” begged the daughter.

I was delighted to oblige since there’s little I like better than recommending books. But their plea, especially from a bright and lovely fourteen-year-old with all her life ahead of her, made me wonder what the current vogue for YA ‘dyslit’ is doing for its intended readers. 

When I was little older than her, 1984 made an unforgettable impact on me, as did the post-apocalypse novel Riddley Walker. These books made me think about what humans do to the world and to each other. They taught me about society, politics and the environment from a perspective I could relate to. 1984 depressed the hell out of me; Riddley Walker scared and inspired me; each of them offered a convincingly bleak and strange but recognisable version of the future.

But each was only one version. I spent a good part of my teenage years convinced we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust. Yet looking back now, those years seem quite carefree. I didn’t have global warming hanging over me. I didn’t have economic meltdown and debt crisis and pandemics and increasing poverty and inequality looming from every side. Floods, refugees, disasters, gladiator games or zombie apocalypses didn’t feature in too many of the books I was reading; dystopia was not a recognised and highly fashionable YA genre.

The signs for the future are bad, if you believe the news and half the current novels and movies. I don’t envy today’s teenagers, growing up with it all. It’s a huge responsibility we have put on their shoulders and I sympathise with a girl who’s tired of reading stories about how bad things are going to get. 

That’s not to say that there are not some wonderful, important, thought-provoking examples of dyslit being published now. The best offer not only ideas how to survive, but also ways to change things.

The future, after all, is what we make it. What happened to dystopia’s maligned and unfashionable other side, utopia?


Heather Dyer said...

Hear Hear! As a teen I craved heart-warming, life-affirming spirited examples of how to live well. Especially at such a bleak time.

Penny Dolan said...

Exactly! Sometimes one needs books to get you through the harder times and darkest moments, and these can often be hopeful stories.

Anonymous said...

I am finding it hard to find books in the Library which aren't depressing, or about vampires that I haven't already read! I fully support cheerful, heart warming, sensitive books!!!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm no fan of dystopian fiction, but there's this to be said for it: the kind written for teens is usually strangely optimistic. The heroine - and it IS mostly a heroine - saves the world. I have yet to read one that ends with the equivalent of "He loved Big Brother." ;-)

So, what did you recommend in the end?

sensibilia said...

A good point, re the ending of "1984".
Re "optimistic" and "hopeful", well YA isn't as full-on gloomy as many adult novels, but I do have the following question:-
When you read, for example, "Hunger Games" so many people do actually die, that it is hard to see this dystopian fiction as optimistic. Or do these deaths become devalued because we don't know those characters well, and therefore have no emotions invested in them? So we don't count the death rate. That's not a good thought.

Lily said...

the second plea from the mother nd daughter was - something without vampires in either!

I find the 'heroine saves the world' can be a bit superficial (although not always). I would agree that it's not necessarily optimistic when the default setting is a horrible future in which the main characters have to do loads of fighting, killing and enduring of misery and deaths of loved (or not so loved) ones in order to prevail, and then it's often rather unclear what is going to happen next.

Katherine Langrish said...

How about Garth Nix's 'Sabriel' trilogy - Ursula Le Guin's adult novel 'The Lathe of Heaven'- Cornelia Funke's 'Reckless' & its sequel (there'll be another) - almost anything by Terry Pratchett...