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Escaping Only So Far

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Escaping Only So Far

Why do Americans gravitate to young-adult literature—stories of heroes vanquishing the shadowy forces governing their dystopian worlds? July 16, 2021
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Cultural historian Robert Darnton famously argued that “world views cannot be chronicled in the manner of political events, but they are no less ‘real.’ Politics could not take place without the preliminary mental ordering that goes into the common-sense notion of the real world.” To discover the “preliminary mental ordering” of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, Darnton turned to an unusual source: the French fairy tale, as told by French peasants to ethnographers and folklorists of the nineteenth century. These stories of repulsive ogres, fearsome fairies, talking animals, and enchanted objects communicated, in Darnton’s eyes, important truths as the French peasantry understood them—truths about “how the world is made and how one can cope with it.” As unconscious illustrations of common beliefs about authority, fate, and morality, these stories offered a rare window into the ancien regime as the common man experienced it. The fairy realm of the French peasant mirrored his lived reality. His was a vicious and empty moral order, where personal destiny depended on the arbitrary whims of the powerful, and survival meant internalizing as fact that “the world is made of fools and knaves: better to be a knave than a fool.”

Future social historians will not be able to consult an oral tradition of fairy tales in an investigation of the twenty-first century’s “mental ordering,” but they will have an equally vast catalog of fictional narratives at their disposal. For the most popular stories of our own day also tend toward the fantastic. Speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, and dystopian prophecies—has captured the imagination of twenty-first-century man. These flights of fancy are the cornerstone of our popular culture; their protagonists are our cultural heroes. They testify to the power of escapism.

Yet like the fairy tales of old, our escapist yarns can escape only so far. Their imagery and plotting are irrevocably tied to our society. Despite their diverse subgenres and distinct audiences, these fictional narratives share a set of attitudes and convictions about the nature of authority, power, and responsibility. They provide a window into the moral economy of the twenty-first century’s overmanaged meritocrats.

The rise of the young-adult novel is the most significant literary event of this century. The significance of the genre—often simply called “YA”—is best appreciated when juxtaposed with general trends in Anglophone reading. In an age that has seen both the average number of books read and the average number of hours spent reading steeply decline, YA readership has exploded, and not just among young adults. In 2012, one marketing firm discovered that slightly more than half of all American YA readers were older than 22. Just under one-third were somewhere between 30 and 44. The tentpole franchises of speculative YA fiction, such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, have had even greater reach. They are less individual works of literature than full-blown cultural events. Millions of revelers greeted new entries at midnight release parties; a combined $14 billion has been spent on tickets to their respective film adaptations.

Twilight and The Hunger Games, in many ways one another’s opposites, stake out the outer bounds of speculative YA lit. Twilight and its sequels glammed up sappy romance with the supernatural; The Hunger Games was a gritty dystopian thriller. In Twilight, the great choice facing everygirl Bella Swan is which inhuman heartthrob she will give her heart to; the reader of the Hunger Games wonders if heroine Katniss Everdeen will reach the next chapter with her heart still beating. Where clumsiness is Bella’s defining personality trait, Katniss begins Hunger Games an experienced backwoodsman and ends it a capable warrior. Critic Laura Miller described Bella as “one long, quivering bowstring of frustrated lust”; Katniss is a meteor of blazing indignation and rage. Bella happily abandons her family to join an immortal soulmate, while Katniss voluntarily risks death in gladiatorial combat to save her sister from competing.

The bounds of speculative YA literature were large enough comfortably to house two such wildly different protagonists (and their respective subgenres, romance and action thriller). But behind these differences lie important, though less obvious, similarities. A defining feature of both Bella’s and Katniss’s stories is the painfully limited agency of their respective heroines. In a world of supernatural individuals, Bella is weak, mortal, and helpless. She cannot save herself from the many dangerous situations she stumbles into, nor can she fulfill her wish to become a vampire, except by appealing to forces more powerful than herself. Katniss is more resourceful than Bella, but she, too, is the plaything of powers she cannot control. The totalitarian government that manipulates her behavior is far more malicious than are Twilight’s supernatural heartthrobs, yet it is just as obsessed as any love-struck vampire with the daily doings of a teenage girl. This preoccupation with authority, agency, and surveillance unites the two series.

These stories share such themes—and the common aesthetic language through which they are expressed—not only with Harry Potter but with the dozen or so copycat YA titles that place teenagers in similar supernatural or dystopian settings. In addition to Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, these include Daniel Handler’s Series of Unfortunate Events (1999–2006), Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series (2001–2012), Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engines quartet (2001–2006) and Larklight trilogy (2006–2009), Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles (2003–2009), Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus sequence (2003–2010), Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies (2005–2007) and Leviathan series (2009–2011), James Dashner’s Maze Runner series (2009–2016), Cassandra Clare’s Shadow Hunter Chronicles (2010–present), L. J. Smith’s revamped Vampire Diaries (2011–2014), Marie Lu’s Legend series (2011–2018), Ransom Rig’s Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series (2011–2018), Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy (2011–2013), Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy (2012–2015), Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles (2012–2015), and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series (2014–2019). These “second tier” YA works have sold millions of copies and birthed ten film and four television adaptations.

The author of the speculative YA blockbuster rarely strays from a common set of conventions, settings, and character beats. The story takes place in a world not quite modern. Different devices might be used for this purpose. In some series, this means a future so dystopic that the earth has retrogressed to an earlier age; in others, fully modern settings serve as camouflage for a clandestine society whose language, dress, and grooming evoke a more aristocratic past. Thus, Harry Potter’s wizarding world has steam locomotives but not a single television set, Bella’s love interest is literally an Edwardian gentleman, and the dystopian landscape of The Hunger Games is a pastiche of Dust Bowl America and interwar Europe. Other YA series take the genre’s love affair with the turn of the twentieth century even further, placing their teenage heroes in a steampunk-inspired or magic-infused Victorian past. In all cases, the fictional society of the YA novel is classy. Beneath its repressed social rules and rigid social hierarchies is an elegance not found in the mundane humdrum of twenty-first-century America. Evil, when it appears, is distinguished by refinement and good breeding.

From Harry Potter onward, the speculative YA novelist has been enthralled by dreams and nightmares of the clandestine. Under the surface of normal life exists a hidden world more vital, dazzling, and dangerous than most people ever realize. The YA heroine may enter this society as a stranger, but eventually discovers that she (more often, the hero is female) is the fulcrum upon which this new world turns—and becomes aware of the many powerful individuals in this world plotting to use her to turn it.

This is the defining feature of the YA fictional society: powerful, inscrutable authorities with a mysterious and obsessive interest in the protagonist. Sometimes the hidden hands of this hidden world are benign. More often, they do evil. But the intentions behind these spying eyes do not much matter. Be they vile or kind, they inevitably create the kind of protagonist about whom twenty-first century America loves to read: a young hero defined by her frustration with, or outright hostility toward, every system of authority that she encounters.

The resonance these stories have with the life of the twenty-first-century American teenager is obvious. The stories are, as perceptive film critic Jonathan McAlmont observes, “very much about living in a world where parents discuss things out of earshot.” The protagonists all struggle “to perform the role that grownups have assigned [them], despite the fact that [they] are still coming to terms” with their own identity and purpose. Teenage frustration with a lack of agency is the fuel that propels Anglophone pop culture. The prewar imagescape of these novels supplies extra emotional resonance, styling the problem of out-of-date authority as a holdover from a stuffier, more restrictive past. For the hero of a YA tale, this general problem would be resolved in the final, climactic battle with the powers that be. In his or her quest for victory, the protagonist would journey from pawn to player. There are few transformations for which the modern teenager yearns more.

In our culture, this adolescent attitude persists long past adolescence. Why these storylines would appeal to the modern teenager—parented by helicopters, shunted from one scheduled activity to another, living as they imagine a faraway college admissions board wishes they would—is clear. But these same narratives also saturate the fairy world of adults. X-Files (1993–2002), 24 (2001–2010), and Lost (2004–2010) set this pattern for television in the new millennium, their writers discovering that nothing keeps modern audiences hooked like an episode-by-episode descent into conspiracy. Award-winning serials such as Orphan Black (2013–2017), The Americans (2013–2018), and Mr. Robot (2015–2019) would perfect the art of the conspiracy thriller, but even lower-budget procedurals like The Mentalist (2008–2015) and The Unit (2006–2009) would pivot away from their original “mission of the week” fare toward season-long arcs devoted to uncovering secret combinations. The lavish production standards of prestige dystopia—such shows as Black Mirror (2011–2019), Man in the High Castle (2015–2019), Westworld (2016–2020), and Handmaid’s Tale (2017–present)—betray a similar impulse. These adult dystopias drop the interwar imagery and teenage angst of their YA counterparts but have shed none of their paranoia. Prestige TV is just as preoccupied with decisions made out of earshot as is any teen novel.

This obsession is grounded in experience. It is not just twenty-first-century teenagers who feel buffeted by forces beyond their control. Bearing the brunt of a recession we did not cause, facing disastrous wars the stakes of which were unclear at best, the citizens of the liberal West spent the last two decades nursing the wounds of lost agency. This loss extends past grand politics. A series of studies have traced this process in the United States. Increasingly, Americans “bowl alone”: the social clubs, civic societies, and congregations that once gave normal people meaningful social responsibilities have declined significantly. Most issue-oriented action groups that remain are staffed by professionals who seek only money from their members. As a growing number of Americans live in crowded cities, government becomes more remote and less responsive to any individual’s control—a problem exacerbated by the increasingly national cast of American politics. More important still, one-third of Americans now find themselves employed by corporations made impersonal by their scale. The decisions that determine the daily rounds of the office drone are made in faraway boardrooms—rooms, one might say, “where adults discuss things out of earshot.” What decides the destiny of Western man? Credit scores he has only intermittent access to. Regulations he has not read. HR codes he had no part in writing.

For the most part, the citizens of the West have accepted this. They have learned to comply with expert directives. They have learned to endure by filing complaints. They have learned to ask first when faced with any problem: “Can I speak to the manager?” They have accustomed themselves to life as a data point.

But only up to a point. The modern-day fairy tale is not at peace with HR. Our fairy realm’s preoccupation with the problems of the micromanaged life resonates. Its paranoia reflects a culture that has lost faith in its own ruling class. The YA novel’s adolescent attitude toward authority speaks to the experiences of the many millions shaken by their own impotence. The mania for dystopia is a literary sensation custom-made for the frustrations of our age.

Yet if these novels speak to the sum of our anxieties, they are a poor guide to escaping them. In the world of YA speculative fiction, those who possess such power cannot be trusted. Even worse than possessing power is to seek it: our fables teach that to desire responsibility is to be corrupted by it. They depict greatness as a thing to be selected, not striven, for. This fantasy is well fit for an elite class whose standing is decided by admissions boards, but a poor guide for an elite class tasked with actually leading our communities.

The protagonists of our fairy realm do not embrace heroics. This poses a practical problem: if power degrades those who seek it, how can protagonists ever become skilled enough to defeat the enemies of good? In answer, YA novelists have converged on a compelling solution: the defining character trait of a YA hero is that she must be forced into heroics. In these stories, the heroic role is a product of either accidental circumstance or supra-human destiny. The protagonist may be a “chosen one,” identified by ancient prophecy. She may be dragged into the shadow world by chance. Or she might embrace heroics to save a loved one. In no case does she desire fame; her virtue is to shirk acclaim. Though she will change the world, this not a role she desires. Her calling cry is the normal life; every few chapters she will repeat an earnest wish to settle down to some quiet place where she need not strive for victory nor fear defeat. It is precisely her unwillingness to be a hero that makes her virtuous enough to become one.

Yet outside of the modern fairy realm, power is not given, but created. The morality of the twenty-first-century fairy tale is in fact a road map to paralysis. Its heroes begin as the playthings of manipulative and illegitimate authorities, their goodness made clear by their victimhood. But faced with this illicit order, nothing can be done: even rebellion can be trusted only to unwilling rebels. Our fairy tales imagine a world where only those who do not want power are deemed fit to use it. Translate that back to reality, and we are left with a world where all power is, and will always be, deemed illegitimate. No magic curses justify the power of our managerial class; ultimately, their legitimacy rests on how well they wield it.

In the stories of the modern fairy realm we see the seeds of stagnation. Protesters who occupy Zuccotti Park without the faintest notion of what their occupation should accomplish, political parties that seize all branches of the government without a plan for governing, Ivy League students pretending that they are not, in fact, elite—all of this flows from a culture that can articulate the anxieties of the overmanaged but cannot conceive of a healthy model of management. We cannot suffer ourselves to imagine righteous ambition even in our fantasies. Responsible leadership is not possible even in our fairy world. Little wonder so few strive to realize it in the real one.

Photo by Anita Bugge/WireImage

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