YA Fiction: The Upside of the Dark Side

by Mike Duran · 11 comments

Are we supposed to be bothered by the “dystopian trend” in Young Adult Fiction? Let me suggest that there is an upside to the dark and post-apocalyptic themes that currently dominate YA titles.

The NY Times recently posed this question to a panel of YA authors: Why do bestselling young adult novels seem darker in theme now than in past years? What’s behind this dystopian trend, and why is there so much demand for it?

Here’s a sampling of a recurrent theme found in the responses:

Andrew Clements —  Perhaps the dystopian stories of today are darker because all of us, writers and readers alike, have become more aware of the many awful things that happen in our world.

Maggie Stiefvater — The question of why these dark novels appeal to teenagers has been around awhile, and there’s a pretty standard response. It tends to be some variation of “these are dark, pessimistic times with the economy and culture; the darkness of the subject matter reflects those fears.”

Lisa Rowe Fraustino — …to hold on to his goodness, not to become jaded… that’s still the ultimate goal of young adult fiction… in a decade dominated by global fears of war, terrorism, climate change, economic hardship, class divides, and a generally uncertain future for many.

Paolo Bacigalupi — I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart.

One of the most common responses to the new dystopian trend in YA fiction is that Young Adult Fiction is a reflection of the bleak age we live in. That assessment, while ultimately unsatisfying to some, cannot be denied a basis in reality. Our world is screwed up and the next generation knows it.

But shouldn’t YA fiction offer some sort of hope? I mean, aren’t we predisposing our children to despair by focusing on the darkness? On the other hand, by denying that our futures look grim and failing to look honestly at the state of planet earth and humankind, aren’t we culpable for denial? Painting rosy futures and happy endings may work for pre-schoolers, but teenagers can see through the veneer.

In this debate, religious fiction authors and readers understandably tend to side with hope. “Our YA novels should be a light in darkness,” we say. “We should offer the next generation a way out of despair.” However, “the way out,” for Christians (and this is not meant to sound simplistic or formulaic, because it’s not), is not through nuclear disarmament, climate control, or humanitarian outreach, it is through repentance and faith. In fact, most Christians believe in some sort of dystopian future, whether it be a Great Tribulation, the Mark of the Beast, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In other words, our version of  “hope” is not shorn of a grim future reality.

For this reason, I’d like to suggest that the trend toward dark, bleak, dystopian YA novels is actually a good thing. 

According to Scripture, all our peace treaties, technological advances, and therapeutic skills still land us in Armageddon. No amount of fiction, firepower, or psychobabble can stave of these approaching hoofbeats. Thus the genre of dystopian novels and films, maybe more than any other, reinforces a vital biblical theme — Man is broken. History and experience bear this out. Dystopia far more accurately reflects the human condition than does utopia.

The “danger” of YA dystopian novels, in my opinion, is not in their portrayal of some bleak future. Rather, it is in their portrayal of possible “hope.” Frankly, the answer proffered by many YA authors is the same empty humanistic jargon that has landed us in this mess. “Believe in yourself. Believe in the human race. Nature will find a way.” Yada, yada, yada. But unless the human condition is altered, Armageddon is inevitable.

The upside of dystopian YA novels is that they accurately reflect our grim future. The downside is that conventional wisdom has no way to stop that future from happening.

xdpaul January 5, 2011 at 9:02 AM

There’s a flipside to a good dystopia story as well: it is rarely about the dystopia as much as a character’s resistance to it. _1984_ is clearly a downbeat book, steeped in a sweltering dystopia, but the story isn’t about the dystopia: it is about one man’s resistance to it.

The fact that Winston Smith loses the fight doesn’t make it hopeless.

It’s funny: there are books that are shot through with nihilism and carry the reader into a pit: off the top of my head I’m thinking of Ransom, The Stranger, The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, books that I put down after reading and never picked up again. But so many dystopian or seeming downbeat tales (in book, film and game) are actually anti-nihilistic and very inspirational to me:

Animal Farm
Brave New World
Donnie Darko
Rebel Moon
A Secret History
A Good Man is Hard to Find
American Gods ( a dystopia of the global pantheon of the elohim)

It is because of exactly what you say, Mike: dystopia is an artist’s expression of the truth – mankind and all of creation is doomed. However, there is also truth in resistance: although a mortal can’t succeed in his resistance, his hunger for resistance to the reward of sin is also a resistance to the very nature of sin. On his own, a man can not overcome sin, but if he does not resist it (even in futility) he can not be aware of his need for rescue.

This is what it means to say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Winston Smith’s resistance to dystopia is a critical precursor to the fear of the Lord. It is important to repent of this world’s ebb and flow to even have a chance to turn one’s eyes to the Maker.

Donnie Darko is a good example of a YA science fiction film that illuminates this almost perfectly in the scene where Donnie, Gretchen and Frank, the only three dead people in the universe end up in the movie theater. Only two films are playing, a new release and an old release. They go to the old release: Evil Dead, a film that had come out 7 years before. The new release? The Last Temptation of Christ. In context, the scene raises a unique question in a very dramatic way: how can the doomed pay the sacrificial price of redemption, when they know that they can’t possibly succeed? Maybe the need (or hunger) for a sacrifice outside of the fallen system proves that a sacrificial remedy outside of the system exists…

Are Donnie Darko and other dystopian stories seemingly downbeat? Maybe. True? I think so. Inspirational? Absolutely.

Mike Duran January 6, 2011 at 7:05 AM

Very well-stated points, Dan — and ones I agree with! (And referencing one of my all-time favorite flicks, Donnie Darko, earns you a “Like” thumb.) While I do agree that there is “truth in resistance,” I would suggest that many dystopian visions submit resistance as part of a humanistic solution, i.e., “We can make this a better world” and “We are better than this.” In other words, it is really a rehashing of utopian idealism that causes one to “resist” dystopia. Just a thought. Thanks for your comments, Dan! (BTW, How’s your novel coming? I’d love to know.)

xdpaul January 6, 2011 at 11:17 AM

Thanks, Mike. I think there is a good reason why dystopian literature kills or crushes the protagonist more often than not – the protagonist is rarely motivated by obedience to God, and more frequently motivated by a hope in humanity. This is why the dystopia of Dante’s Inferno does not end the same way as the dystopia of 1984, the dystopia of John’s exile and vision of society in Revelation does not end the same way as the dystopia of Brave New World, the dystopias (dystopiae? what is the plural?) found in Fox’s Book of the Martyrs don’t end the same as The Man in the High Castle.

Take That Hideous Strength, and compare it to A Clockwork Orange. Take the Giver, even, and compare it to The Long Walk.

Whether the hero suffers and dies or triumphs against a dystopia is not the difference in these books. I’d argue that (at least in books that are true to the nature of the universe: i.e. aren’t lying in their fictions) their resistance creates a space for themselves to turn from the sin that surrounds them: symbolized in the dystopic society. These are all characters prompted by the Holy Spirit to do something good: repent of their sins and resist the sin of the world — BUT it is what they do with that prompting that makes a difference in how the story can be interpreted.

Those who heed the call to repent (resist) but then ascribe resistance to their own efforts, or a sort of self-inflicted divinity, end with humanistic “success” (which is fleeting) or “failure.” Those who resist and then take up the light yoke, waiting on a their redeemer, i.e. resisting in obedience to their maker, end with godly success – whether in life or death (to live is Christ and to die is gain) – and success alone.

Dystopian literature that relies on a protagonist resisting via humanistic (“we can save the world”) motives and methods and ends in total, eternal success makes for really bad literature – because it is “fiction that lies. ”

P.S. Novel #2 is finished and unsellable. Novel #3 is in the works.

Nicole January 5, 2011 at 9:53 AM

“Thus the genre of dystopian novels and films, maybe more than any other, reinforces a vital biblical theme — Man is broken. History and experience bear this out. Dystopia far more accurately reflects the human condition than does utopia.” Profound, Mike.

xdPaul, it’s always interesting to learn what portrayals of darkness “inspire” people or suggest hope to others.

Amy @ My Friend Amy January 5, 2011 at 11:38 AM

I also find dystopians to be overall more hopeful than other books. It’s easier to be kind when it doesn’t cost you anything, but when your life is on the line it somehow gains much more significance. I think the hope found in dystopian works is less that things will get better and more that there will always be some good, some love, some kindness.

But I also think high school being like a dystopia is a fairly good reason why these books are so popular, similar to Buffy never really being about fighting vampires, but the many stresses of high school and growing up.

David A. Bedford January 5, 2011 at 2:02 PM

I agree that the first step is to recognize the brokenness of the world we live in. It comes from the breaking apart of the modern world view and its commonly held values, with nothing certain taking its place. This also means we can do a lot to determine the kind of world we live in in the future. It’s the young people who will achieve this.

I try to write about the issues we need to face and what can be done about them (the light in the darkness). We need both kinds of fiction: what the world is like (and what it will become if we do not take a hand in it); what the world could be like if we become aware and build a new set of positive values.

Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

Kat Heckenbach January 5, 2011 at 2:28 PM

I have to say I wish you’d posted all Maggie Stiefvater actually said. The quote you used is her quoting others, and she does not agree with it! If you read her entire article here:


…you’ll see that she’s got an interesting take on it. She sums it up well in the closing:

“In a culture defined by shades of gray, I think the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers.

Teenagers want to be able to fight for what’s right — but finding out what’s right is now 90 percent of the battle. If only the evil in the world was named Voldemort, we could get down to the business of slaying it. And with the dystopian novels, we know just what we’re fighting for.”

Mike, you mentioned “empty humanistic jargon” and I think she’s in agreement with you on that–as am I–there needs to be absolutes in right and wrong and dystopian novels give us that, no holds barred and not watered down.

mike duran January 5, 2011 at 3:36 PM

Kat, that’s very fair. I read the entire article before I linked to it and you’re right: Maggie’s take is different, I think, and not representative of my point here. Her quote above, however, was. I realize she is stating what she believes convential wisdom is, which is why I used it. But I agree with you that her views are probably closer to mine than the ones I critique here. Thanks for pointing that out.

R. L. Copple January 5, 2011 at 8:48 PM

I’ve never been real big on sad endings, especially if they are devoid of hope. Obviously you can have a lot of nasty stuff happen and the “hero” struggles to overcome those. How it ends really defines the presence of hope or not.

But I would suggest that the concept that such art depicts our age may not be the actual reason. Rather, I would suggest it is more akin to what Kat is mentioning, that we want black and white in a world of gray. We want a clear enemy, and a defined fight, or we want escape from the current reality, which is an equally strong current.

The 60s was a time of great turmoil as well. And you had shows like “The Monkees” and campy “Batman.” I remember on commentary on one of the Monkee’s disk I have, one of the members of the group, don’t recall which one, mentioned receiving letters from teens telling them they didn’t want to hear about their views on the issues they confronted. (Some of the shows, the producers had them interviewed at the very end in order to fill the minute left they needed to fill.) The viewers watched the show to get away from thinking about the riots and such, and didn’t want that to be thrown into their faces. Star Trek became popular during that time, and more so in years following, because it presented such a positive view of where man would end up, also based upon humanistic/secular views of man.

It would be an interesting exercise, one I don’t have time for now, to examine the top selling novels during the 60s to see what their themes were, to see if they were overly negative or hopeful in outlook, or whether they tended to more provide escape from the chaos surrounding them like the TV shows tended to do.

But I think the theme you see in a lot of literature is the “black and white” evil vs. good, where they are well defined. There are obvious exceptions to that, but I think the desire to have that part figured out defines a lot of literature, so they can move onto the battle and you *know* who to cheer for and who to boo, whether good or evil ends up winning.

Movies like Vanishing Point tend to buck that trend, and may be why they never gather a really big following, like say, Star Wars.

Guy Stewart January 9, 2011 at 4:56 AM

For a DIFFERENT opinion and a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY on the “popularity” of Young Adult/Teen Dystopian Novels, try mine:


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