21 December, 2011

On YA Fiction: Political Messages

Recently, I've been noticing a trend in Young Adult, particularly in Science Fiction and its sub-genres Dystopian/Futuristic Fiction. There seem to be more and more books that revolve around a central political idea: over-reaching government.

Take Matched by Allie Condie, Possession by Elana Johnson, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, Gone by Michael Grant, Little Brother and For the Win by Cory Doctorow, The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and I could come up with others if I had more time. I'd also mention Divergent by Veronica Roth and Wither by Lauren Destefano, since they seem to be political based on their blurbs, but I haven't read those yet so I can't say for sure.

As you may have noticed, many of those are quite popular (*cough*The Hunger Games*cough*), and in addition, many of them seem to be rather anti-government. The Giver by Lois Lowry seems to be the exception, though it could still be taken as anti-government, since POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT one of the central characters is influential in preventing pain within the city--this, of course, also leads to more control, but everyone besides a certain few are oblivious to suffering.

Another element that repeats itself is revolutionaries/the resistance. In almost all of the above books, the main character joins or helps an organization (whether paramilitary or not) that, in turn, has some kind of showdown with the omnipresent government.

Now, while I don't mind politics in books, the constant battering of "Government Is Evil!" is beginning to make me wonder why it's cropping up so often.

Is it the political climate today, with a bad economy, constant protests, the Arab Spring, the war in Afghanistan and very recently Iraq? Is it a response to the perceived "rise of China" and Communism, the nuclear capabilities of other countries that might not have the Western world's best interests in mind?

Or is that reading too much of it, and it's just an attempt to appeal to teenagers that feel oppressed by their peers, their parents, society in general? But then again, it's not just teenagers reading YA; it attracts a wide range of readers.

What do you think?

And do you mind politics in the books you read? Is it something you're attracted or repelled by, in general?

-----The Golden Eagle


Sarah McCabe said...

It depends. If the theme is "This government is evil, here's where it went off the rails, and he's what WE can do to avoid the same fate" then I'm fine with it. If the theme is the somewhat less subtle "GOVERNMENT BAD! REVOLUTION GOOD!" then I find it very annoying and will probably put it down unless there's something else really hooking me about the story.

Kathleen Doyle said...

I think a lot of it is the author had a story to tell and they told it. I don't think there was any underlying "watch out for the government" theme involved, though I could be wrong. Out of the ones you listed, I have only read The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Wither. I see the books as character driven, and the only way these characters could exist was in the worlds the authors created for them.
Take Katniss from The Hunger Games, for example. She would never have existed as the character we all love if not for the world she lives in. Is there a direct correlation between her government and the growing dissent over our (American) government? I don't really think so.
It's an interesting question to pose though and I look forward to seeing what others have to say about it!

Stuart Nager said...

I feel it's a combination of things: yes, the political climate is not healthy, and is a bit scary, so it feeds the zeitgeist of our society/global society; publishers (and most pop media) find a trend that sells and it becomes the "next big thing", not caring (imo) how good the work is-just feed the machine.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the book. I mean, if you're reading a political thriller, it's to be expected. But if it's not central to the plot, I'm not sure the point of bashing it over the reader's head. However, I probably wouldn't put the book down if it's in there, again so long as it's not bashing over a head.

C D Meetens said...

I'm not very politically-minded, so politics in books isn't a favourite of mine, but equally, that means I might miss a political overtone.

Sometimes, I think a writer will just wander down a "what if" lane, without any idea of trying to broadcast a political sort of message. Something small rising up against an overarching power and winning has been a theme of several stories, so it doesn't follow that the theme here truly is "Government is Evil".

That's just one possibility.

vanyelmoon said...

I don't mind politics in the books I read and I do feel it is because of the current political climate you are seeing it show up so much in popular culture. People are tired of the government being so involved. Since 9-11, even though most people are not affected, the patriot act did feel a little like "big brother is watching."

I can't speak for the authors and whether they meant a political statement or if they were just riding a bandwagon, but it most likely started with one or two who did want to make a statement. Great question!

Old Kitty said...

I think it's because of George Orwell's 1984. Seriously!

That's my humble opinion about this not so current trend!

Take care

Madeleine said...

Ah now there's a great list of YA novels I'll be reading next year. I agree with Old Kitty it is a recurring theme in novels.It is a powerful theme that plays out in many films too.

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't mind it at all, as long as the storytelling and writing are good. I think rising up against organized oppression is simply an archetypal human story.

Deborah Walker said...

Oh I find it so tedious if I feel the writer is trying to teach me something. Entertain me. Entertain me.

That 20 Something Virgin. said...

Like a lot of the other comments, I think it depends. Like in Hunger Games it's a huge part of the story, and without the oppresive Capitol forcing the Games, there'd be no book. So in that case it works really well. But if it has nothing really to do with the story, then it just seems pointless.

Robert Guthrie said...

With the target audience generally younger... I wonder if anti-government is related to anti-parent.

Emily Rose said...

What I've found in books like The Giver, and The Hunger Games, is that the author took our problems and warped them and made them more extreme. But I also agree that perhaps Governmental issues are simply an appealing plot to young readers, and that's why they're so common. Very interesting post!

Marsha Sigman said...

I'm not sure if there are really political messages in those books, or maybe I'm just being naive?

I think we look for the worst possible scenarios to put our characters in so they can shine and to many of us it happens to be these post apocalyptic settings where we have no control at all.

I also think that's more of an adult fear than a teenage one. Just my opinion.

farawayeyes said...

Rebellion is a part of human history and not necessarily a new theme. I don't mind it in fiction as long as it'snot gratuitous. In which case I would rather have the gratuitous sex.

J.L. Campbell said...

Good questions and I do see common themes, sometimes just from reading book blurbs. Dystopian for me equals sort of an us vs them story of young people fighting the establishment. I suppose it's the author's job to make his story stand out from the rest. Based on what's happening around us, there are a host of subject matters to choose from.

Susan Roebuck said...

I think it's already been said, authors writing contemporary novels write about the "climate" of the day - be it political or any other major event. I'm writing a contemporary novel and I just can't help the themes injustice and corruption making their way in.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't read young adult, but I imagine that angle appeals to the liberal side of youth. If it seems overload right now, it's probably just a trend. Or a conspiracy! (Watched too many X-Files episodes I guess.)

nutschell said...

I think its the political climate around the world. I mean, its been a bad year for dictators if you look at it. :) I"m not so much into politics, but as long as the book is well written, and the characters easily relatable I'll read it. Actually, I'll read whatever book as long as its YA.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I view these books as rather differently--not really anti-government. The Hunger Games, for example, I view as anti-war. And she showed that the rebels were not necessarily saintlier than the Capital, that power itself was a problem, that violence itself is a problem, and that sending our young people to die is perhaps not the best way of resolving our differences.

I think many of the dystopians arise out of the potential for technology to be intrusive in a way never seen before. When Orwell wrote the book 1984, about a civilization under constant surveillance, he was writing futuristic fiction. Now, there is the potential for surveillance in ways Orwell could not even dream of.

Carol Riggs said...

That IS interesting, and true. I even have a bit of that kind of thing in my agented novel.

It's a typical sci-fi theme to have an evil government; it's almost a cliche, in fact. It's a rather fascinating one though, as far as conflict--fighting the oppression and a usually very powerful entity. It can be good versus evil, though I think it shouldn't be that gov't in and of itself is bad. One shouldn't tout anarchy and rebellion just for the sake of being anti-establishment!

Anonymous said...

I have noticed this message increase in books lately. I'm sure it has to do with the political climate along with the appeal to rebellious teens. I don't mind it as long as it's not too strong. Sometimes politics overpower the other story elements or the author's voice is invading the story...then I don't care for it.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I think there's probably a lot of things going on in dystopian literature. Possibly everything you mentioned. Any sort of rebellious type of behavior in books will almost always appeal to teens on some level. It's the nature of adolescence to spread the wings and rebel. And in some ways, dystopian literature mimics the relationship of parents to teenagers. The young child never really questions the total control that a parent has over his life until adolescence when the ability to think in gray (vs. black and white) kicks in. They begin to recognize the autonomous creature within them, and long to set themselves free. So, I think that's a huge reason why dystopians are so effective as YA. If there are politics, it may be a response to the current economic and political situations, but I'd wager few authors give it that much priority when writing their stories. Some do, certainly--writers who aim to write with an agenda in mind. But most YA writers just want to tell a good story that appeals to teens, I'd say. And dystopians appeal to them.

As for Hunger Games, I've heard that Suzanne Collins had purposely included a strong political message in there, but I haven't read that for myself.

Colin Smith said...

I'm probably repeating others, but I don't think these authors are trying to tap into the current political sentiment. The theme of the "little guys" battling against oppression, whether in the form of the work place, society, or government, is a common story theme and has been for years. An oppressive and ubiquitous government is particularly popular because there is seemingly no escape for the hero. This makes for more conflict and tension--things that are essential to a good story.

So, I wouldn't be too concerned about writers using their novels to preach politics. Call me naive, but I think they're just trying to tell good stories.

Jake Henegan said...

I don't think this theme is really current. Like some of the others have said, revolution is an age-old practice.

Most of the anti-government stories are probably not specifically anti-government, but rather just fighting back against a figure (or figures) of authority that treats you unfairly. It is a good vs evil wherein the evil has authority over the good, thus putting the good in a bad position from the start.

The "evil" government thing is actually just a different version of the "evil" king you get in much older stories (and medieval timed stories).

Nezzy said...

I have to say it just depends on the story to be told. I have several of my eight grandkiddos who would fall into this readin' category.

I do feel that one can be obsessed and over do anything, includin' political themes at very impressionable ages.

It does make my hear sad to think of our world as a war ridden, terrorist seekin', government controllin' world. We do need to lift our youth up and give them some choices with positive influences.

'Nuff said..........

God bless ya and have yourself a bright and beautiful Christmas!!!

Deniz Bevan said...

Interesting. I wasn't sure what I thought, as Lowry's is the only book I'd read with that theme. But I just read Sarah's comment and I agree with her!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Wow. Really astute observation. There really good be a number of motivations going on here. Many people do like the idea of government taking care of us from the cradle to the grave. There are others who see that as a problem if the government decides that what you want doesn't fit in with what it thinks is good for the "whole". The potential pitfalls make for some juicy possibilities for story material.

But I agree there is the potential for feeding the distrust that already exists where our politicians vilify each other rather than recognizing that they are all working for what they believe to be good for the country but merely see different ways to achieve that. When I was growing up I was part of the generation that was told never to trust anyone over 30, and definitely never the government.

I guess things haven't really changed all that much after all.

Brian said...

I think Susan Roebuck nailed it!

Amy Saia said...

That's very interesting--hadn't thought of that. I would imagine it has something to do with a representation of a teen's parents and their wish for freedom. But, like you said, it could actually be a direct reflection of our political system. In any case, it's an intelligent way for them to digest and work out their place in either relationship.

Samantha Sotto said...

Not political or YA related...

Just wanted to send you warm thoughts this season :)

Sarah Pearson said...

I think you're right and it's partly to do with things going on around the world, and partly because rebellion per se is such a big thing when growing up.

Theresa Milstein said...

The Giver is old and 1984 did that way before this current trend since The Hunger Games. A too-powerful has always been a concern and I think it's in response to Communism, so really not an new idea. On the other side, there are also books with the theme of lawlessness, after a plague or nuclear bomb. I think both types of books represent losing the comfortable middle ground between security and freedom that we want in our democracy. And these books also show how a few things gone wrong could make us lose what we have, whether it be through war or global warming or used up resources or disease. Or a combination.

....Petty Witter said...

Not something I can say I've noticed, mind you I probably wouldn't as I don't tend to read a lot of this genre. What I have noticed though is there seems to be a lot of books full of various conspiracy theories doing the rounds at the moment.

Tara Tyler said...

interesting, but i think its just good v evil. when the world ends there will be a power struggle and bad guys rule with an iron fist to bring order quickly, then when the good people stand for it while secretly planning to overthrow it, logically. we have fought indians, comminusts, aliens, vampires, and now the world ends so we fight the bad guys in charge =) wall street is next, right? ha ha

merry christmas!

The Golden Eagle said...

Sarah: I agree. If it's put in the latter way, it's just taking a side without considering the bigger picture; and there's never a straight line when it comes to issues like that.

Kathleen: Interesting point. But the author created the characters, and I'm inclined to think there's some reason behind that creation. The uniting factor seems to be political, and if it appeals to a wide audience, people must relate to the situation the characters are in, right?

Stuart: Good point. Publishing's a business--and if they can make money off a certain type of book, I'm sure they'll go after it.

Joshua: Definitely. But there's not much political thriller in YA . . . at least, that I can think of.

Same here. I'll continue reading if it's not blaring its message at me.

C D: I'm sure I miss some overtones in the books I read; the things I'm more sensitive to are politics and science.

That's true--it is a fairly common theme. But it almost always seems to be government in YA.

Vanyelmoon: I agree. There are undoubtedly some authors who do want to make a political statement!

Old Kitty: I've never read 1984; I know it's iconic and I really should, but I can never find a copy at the library . . .

Madeleine: I hope you enjoy them! :)

Matthew: There's definitely appeal in that sense of empowerment.

Deborah: I don't mind if the author tries to teach, so long as it doesn't feel like they're forcing their ideas onto me and just providing an opinion.

That 20 Something Virgin: That's actually part of my point--the oppressive government is a central player. I'm wondering why such a situation seems to be the case so often.

Robert: Possibly! I think it has to do with it, at least to a small extent.

Emily: Definitely. A lot of Dystopian expands on problems or threats we face today; it's an interesting technique (and a bit scary, if it's done well :P).

Thank you!

Marsha: I don't think you're being naive. I might just be reading too much into the issue; I tend to look to political statements whenever government is involved . . .

Well, I can't speak for all teenagers, but I tend to see it the opposite way. Teens are usually under their parent's control, after all. Then again, maybe it's just a universal fear--perhaps why YA appeals to a wide audience?

Farawayeyes: I agree about it being gratuitous; like anything, if there's too much, no matter what the subject it will put me off.

J.L.: Hmmm. You know, the more I think about, the more I can't come up with a Dystopian story with adults as the main characters; us vs them does seem to be a common theme.

Susan: I find my writing influenced by current events as well. Even Historical Fiction authors must take into account what's happening today, I'd assume--at least to some extent.

Alex: Probably a conspiracy. ;)

Nutschell: Yup. And I'm certainly not complaining about that.

Backatcha. :)

Jennifer: I only read the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy, so I can't say that I really know the rest of what happened; however, I did get an anti-government feel from the first book. Perhaps if I read the others I'd see it from a different perspective.

It's unsettling to think how thoroughly people could be and are watched.

Carol: I agree. It's when it gets cliche that I start to object to that sort of structure . . .

The Golden Eagle said...

Medeia: Me, neither. If it's just politics, politics, politics, I'll either abandon the book or strongly dislike it afterwards.

Carolina: It's true, there are certainly parallels between the Dystopian setting and parent-child relationships!

I hadn't heard that about The Hunger Games before. I'll have to see if I can find some kind of article about it . . .

Colin: Now that's a good point. If it's a power like the government that's the antagonist/enemy, he'll have a much harder time escaping that enemy.

Jake: I hadn't thought of kings before, but yes, it is a similar situation!

Nezzy: I agree; and it is sad to think of what the world could be like if things began to slide. And it seems like it becomes more and more possible as time goes by.

Thank you! :) I hope you have a very merry Christmas!

Deniz: For a while, The Giver was the only book I'd read that fell into this kind of category, too.

Donna: Thanks!

That's still a current theme. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow had a very strong message that "old" people could not be trusted; anyone over 25 was the "enemy".

Brian: I agree with her, too.

Amy: Books are powerful that way! Though I do think it can be overdone in some cases.

Samantha: Thank you so much. :) Same to you!

Sarah: And in the rest of life, I'd think. I don't think anyone of any age really likes being controlled or told what to do.

Theresa: Interesting points! They do present extremes, whether government-themed or not; either in the form of utopia with constricting regulations or as the environment is destroyed because of human activity.

Tracy: I haven't actually come across a conspiracy theory in any fiction lately; there are definitely books with that as a theme, though. And they're all over the internet!

Tara: Well, that's what the Occupy movement is trying to do . . .

Thanks! I hope you have a great holiday. :)

Simon Kewin said...

I like that depth to a book - and all mine (I hope) have it if you want to look for it. They key, though, is obviously to make it a great read without the "message" getting in the way. And, I guess, to present a debate rather than just one's own opinions.

The Golden Eagle said...

Simon: It's interesting to consider what the author's opinions might be after reading a work with a message--though I agree, the best method is to showcase the debate between the two (or more) sides.

Rachel Morgan said...

I hadn't realised that this theme appears in so many YA books. As far as enjoyment goes, politics in stories hasn't negatively affected my reading experiences. Yet. I'm sure it would if I read too many...
Very interesting to read people's comments on this topic.