The Foundation and Building Blocks of Modern Young Adult Dystopian Worlds: Narratology, Appropriation, and the Evolution of a Literary Genre, by Maaike Zoelman.

Extracts from the thesis The Foundation and Building Blocks of Modern Young Adult Dystopian Worlds: Narratology, Appropriation, and the Evolution of a Literary Genre, by Maaike Zoelman. Currently nervously awaiting the resulting grade of this thesis, Maaike will be joining the University of Hull in September 2015 to begin her PhD research in Young Adult Dystopian literature and the effects of time and memory.

This research stems from the idea that the current populist genre of Young Adult dystopian fiction has become rife with returning tropes that I have coined as dysthemes (using Claude Lévi-Strauss’ considerations on myths). Using a structuralist approach, I considered a total of ten novels using the various returning dysthemes that I found connected all of these novels together. However, despite the over-commercialisation and sometimes trivial subject matter, these dystopian novels still hold true to the politics of the old literary genre of the dystopia as it was conceived in the early 20th century. Although I wish I could show you the entire dissertation, I am afraid I must limit myself to just the Introduction and an extract from Chapter Two. Soon, this thesis shall be made available in Igitur and a link to the work will be given once it is ready.

The Introduction:

Reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) for the first time some twelve years ago, I remember telling myself not to worry because a world such as the one he described would never come to pass: there would never be a Big Brother overseeing our very move, we would not become drones of society and our knowledge would not be dependent upon false information created by a Ministry of Truth. At the time, I was a naïve young reader only just embarking on my literary journey, unaware of how easily and quickly Orwell’s predictions would come true. The same happened to me when I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) just a few days later. Surely, I said to myself, this is an impossibility: we would never become so dependent upon our capitalist goods that we would lose all sense of reality, we would never be so focused upon artificial insemination that we would try and create the ‘perfect’ offspring, discarding what is deemed unnecessary or wrong. The foreword to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) holds perhaps the very best take on the dystopian futures Orwell and Huxley feared. Quoted here nearly in full, Postman considered the differences between Orwell’s and Huxley’s vision, firmly believing that Huxley’s view would become reality:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. […] In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. (xix-xx)

Although Postman was convinced that in the next ten or twenty years Huxley’s vision in Brave New World would become reality, we are now in a society where Huxley’s and Orwell’s visions have blended. The world is now divided into societies where books are banned, and the other half has people unwilling to read books. One half is being deprived of information, the other half gets so much information on their smartphones that they are unable to focus on one singular topic. Although most people are against corporations and governments spying on us through our computers, webcams, smartphones, etc., we have become so dependent upon social media – putting our very lives on Facebook and Twitter, wishing for easier ways to log on to bank accounts – we are in actuality perpetuating their espionage. In short, what we hate is becoming what we love, and thus both what we hate and love are destroying us.

Considering then, the continual decline of worlds’ societies and human individualism, it comes as no surprise that we have all become interested in imagining the perfect society: the eutopia. The perfect society – eutopia – is often mistakenly referred to as utopia, which is in fact the overarching term among the various literary and socio-political terms concerned with the creation of the ‘good place’ which is also ‘no place.’ As Claeys and Sargent attest, the word ‘utopia’ is derived from Greek: u meaning no, and topos meaning place (1). The utopia, therefore, would be something we would never be able to achieve in real life, despite our hopes and dreams. Although I do believe this is the case with the eutopia, the “positive utopia […] that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which the reader lived” (Claeys, Sargent 1) – or rather, the so-called perfect society in which nothing bad can ever happen, where all inhabitants are always fortunate and living in a working anti-capitalist and perhaps even communist society – the sub-genre that is now the dystopia has slowly started to become achievable in our contemporary societies.

The dystopia is an imagined society that is not only the opposite of the eutopia, but also the very society that comes closer to our doorstep with every single scientific discovery made to try and perfect human civilisation. Although these scientific breakthroughs may be the key to “an indefinite progress of the human species toward better health, a longer life, and the domination of nature in the interests of humankind” (Claeys, Sargent 3), history has taught us that humanity is, at this point in time, not capable of appreciating these possibilities without taking advantage: “every aspect of social order can be susceptible to human control” (Claeys, Sargent 3, emphasis added). It is important to remember that this human control is not something humankind is keen on giving away, which is precisely why the eutopia is impossible to achieve, and why the dystopia has become so close to reality.

The literary genre of utopian thought in the twentieth century was almost equally divided between literature imagining eutopian worlds and those of the dystopian nature: “twentieth century science fiction emerge[d] as the characteristic genre expressing both the hopes and fears of our own [then] era” (Claeys, Sargent 3). However, it is the dystopian school of thought that finally emerged as far more important for our modern-day readings, “[crystallizing] the anxieties that increasingly accompanied the onward march of progress” (ibid). Especially since the start of the twenty-first century, the eutopian imagined societies have made way for the far bleaker dystopian worlds that, today, crowd our bookshelves. Especially as a genre of Young Adult fiction, dystopian literature has become increasingly prominent. The downside of this emergence is that the quality of dystopian literature might have begun to decline with increasing commercialism in the book niche. However, as you shall see over the course of this dissertation, this is an oversimplification, as the issues these novels address remain as important as they were before the emergence of YA fiction.

The main focus of this dissertation is a set of recurring themes, literary archetypes and stock situations in Young Adult Dystopian literature, and the effects of using such stock situations on a literary genre. In order to consider this topic fully, I have two main questions that need to be answered:

How have 21st century YA authors appropriated themes from adult dystopian novels from the 20th century?

What kind of effects do these appropriations have on the Utopian genre?

In my final conclusion, I hope to answer these two questions as well as my final concern: In what manner do YA authors concern themselves with topics of political struggles while simultaneously working in a commercialised environment? 

In Chapter one I will be primarily concerned with critical theory surrounding children’s literature and the emergence of Young Adult literature. “Children’s and Young Adult Literature as a Literary Genre” will then, naturally, consider Peter Hunt’s assertions that children’s literature is most certainly a powerful genre that needs to be academically examined in their own right, and continue on with Carrie Hintz’ assertions concerning the fact that the Young Adult genre has seemingly emerged rather quickly in the last twenty years to much acclaim. Furthermore, I shall briefly consider Rachel Falconer’s thoughts on crossover literature, seeing as many readers of Young Adult novels are actually adults themselves. This will then be followed, in Chapter Two, by an introduction to Lévi-Strauss’ narratology of myths and how this dissertation appropriates his mythemes – themes by which the myths’ “narratives contain certain constant, basic and universal structures by which any one [of them] can be explained” (Cuddon, Habib 458) – into so-called dysthemes for the Young Adult Dystopian novels examined in Chapter three. This will then be followed by a very short introduction into the commercialisation of YA dystopias and their film adaptations. The theories created and examined within Chapter two will thus be applied in Chapter Three, whereby I will examine a series of novels that have all the makings of commercial successes. Three novels from the twentieth century will be providing the background for the Young Adult novels considered later. Koushun Takami’s late 20th century Battle Royale, and the two early 20th century novels Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and Lord of the Flies (William Golding) have all been influential for their original take on the imagined dystopian society. Each of these three novels are widely regarded as being more suited for adults than for children or even young adults, which is why they have been chosen to represent the adult versions of twentieth century dystopias – each from a different time period – which ultimately had consequences for the socio-political questions they consider. These three novels will each be examined with regard to the Lévi-Strauss narratological characteristics of myths, becoming then the building blocks of the twenty-first century Young Adult dystopias further considered. Analysing these novels in terms of dysthemes – recurring dystopian themes – will hopefully show how commercialism has influenced the dystopian literary market. Commercialism is the overarching problem and ties back to the beginning of this introduction. As was feared by Huxley, our reading culture, especially with young readers, has started to become trivial. Although we are not completely “preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies” (Postman xix-xx), the modern reader is more interested in finding something that is familiar than something that is new and creative. However, does this mean that these Young Adult novels are indeed part of the trivial reading culture? As you will discover, the various recurring themes do not just exist within the latter 21st century novels but in those from the 20th century as well. This would thus indicate that these dysthemes are a by-product of the literary genre itself and not a by-product of commercialisation.

Extract from Chapter Two, on the concept of Dysthemes:

A group of young adults is forced into a separate and remote location to fight for their lives with weapons given to them at the start of this strange game until there is only one survivor left. During this game, they are forced to not only fight against their fellow peers, but they are waylaid at every turn by a seemingly psychopathic game master who deliberately turns their environment against them, forcing them together into smaller sections of the arena. The winner of this horrible fight will then be allowed to go free, but they are in actuality chained by the leader of the state, until he or she decides to rebel against not just the leader but the entire state itself.

Am I talking about Koushun Takami’s 1996 novel Battle Royale, or Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel The Hunger Games?

I am, in fact, talking about both. Both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games series have this exact plot, and work in exactly the same way. Although both novels are written in different ways, the theme of the novel is not just similar- it is the same. This is what I call a dystheme: a constantly recurring theme within dystopian novels that, although it may be coincidental on the part of the writer, is somehow connected to the very theme of dystopian writing.

To explain the dystheme is to first explain Claude Lévi-Strauss’ narratology of myths, which is the principle on which my concept is based. Lévi-Strauss believed that the narratives of every myth “[contained] certain constant, basic and universal structures by which any one [of them] can be explained” (Cuddon, Habib 458), and even created scientific formulas to corroborate this statement. Lévi-Strauss was “convinced that the number of these systems is not unlimited and that human beings (at play, in their dreams, or in moments of delusion) never create absolutely; all they can do is to choose certain combinations from a repertory of ideas which is should be possible to reconstitute” (qtd in Doniger 197). This statement by Lévi-Strauss perfectly exemplifies the idea that everything has already been written: all writers use ideas, themes, and concepts already used before, and by examining these principles on their basest level we can explain their work. Lévi-Strauss’ myth analysis was of course based on those very myths that “explain the origin of [man’s] institutions” (Deliege 96). This does not hold for dystopian novels, seeing as these novels do not often explain any kind of real-life world. However, as Deliege later states: “myths play a role in maintaining the social order; they express social realities and are therefore closely connected with reality. For psychoanalysis, myths enact fundamental conflicts in the psych” (Deliege 96-97). Seeing as YA dystopian novels are especially forceful in expressing social realities and close scientific discoveries, it does seem prudent to consider them – in these terms only – as a type of myth. If we go further into structuralism, into Edmund Leach’s modifications to Lévi-Strauss’ principles, we see even more connections between the myth and the dystopian novel:

[The] myth is not a structure; it is a narrative; the myth adds to the structures speculations about the sequence of events, about causation; it says, this happens because. Structuralism does not arrange the pieces chronologically or sequentially or causally. The narrative does, and when it changes the arrangement it changes the point of the story. The myth does not settle for elementary structures; it modifies them and qualifies them in many different ways, and often even rejects them. (Doniger 199-200)

The principle of the dystheme, therefore, holds even with this modification: the author changes the arrangement of the various themes, modifies them slightly, until the resulting work is an essentially different novel. Different enough that the novel is picked up and published, despite the almost glaring obvious similarities to other novels. Later, as Doniger states on the concept of the mythemes, we do have to venture further into psychoanalysis: “at the beginning stage of the analysis, it is enough to identify certain unifying structures. Later, when we begin to search for the meanings of the structures, and to locate those meanings in particular historical situations, we must venture into the symbolic territory” (Doniger 200). For the dystopian novel, we do not necessarily need to locate the meanings in historical situations, but we do need to analyse these works for anthropological, sociological, and environmental meanings.

Although for the dysthemes, I am not going so far as to introduce a scientific algorithm, I am suggesting that the various themes and components of these novels have a separate meaning that is hidden in a deeper layer- that very same layer I spoke of in chapter one where the meaning of the text is different for the adult reader. Especially within the various recurring components there has to be a deeper meaning: if Suzanne Collins truly never read or saw Battle Royale (Dominus), how is it that she still comes up with such a similar narrative? This is why the dystheme can be categorised into two categories:

1. An overarching narrative dystheme whereby the main structure of the novel’s plot is similar to that of others.

2. The component dysthemes whereby there are several recurring components in the narrative that return in novels, with or without the narrative dystheme being present.

The example I gave at the beginning of this chapter is a narrative dystheme, whereby the plot structures of two novels are so similar it is difficult to differentiate between the two. Within an overarching narrative dystheme, some of these component dysthemes do recur, but the same does not have to hold for the opposite. However, as we will find in chapter three, sometimes a novel might have many characteristics of not one but two overarching narrative dysthemes. The component dystheme is most similar to Levi-Strauss’ considerations, and is the main principle that will be discussed in the following chapter:

If you take an early story (more precisely, a story that was recorded early, since no one knows when it was first told) and compare it with later tellings, it is as if the first story was dropped and broken into pieces, and then put together differently – not wrongly, just differently. The broken pieces are the atomic units of the myth, [the] mythemes. (Doniger 202)

This, precisely, is what the component dysthemes are: broken units from older 20th century (adult) dystopias that have been reused by YA novelists. However, once again, Suzanne Collins continues to assert that she had never read or seen Battle Royale, and the same has been said by other novelists when told their works are too similar to others. This principle is not something that just occurs in between the utopian genre: this occurs almost everywhere, as you can see within the fantasy genre. One of the most obvious examples would be that of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as it is widely known that much of his work was derived from the old Anglo-Saxon myths, including Beowulf, written between the 8th and 11th century. Another example, returning to J. K. Rowling, is that of her work compared to that of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch. Both series are about young magic users struggling with their powers, going on many adventures and saving the day: both magic users are the subject of prophecies, and both are destined for greatness.

For Lévi-Strauss, this strange coming together of various components would be called bricolage: “storytellers can build a potentially infinite number of stories by rearranging a limited number of known mythic [and thus dystopian] themes” (Doniger 203). Through this, we are then able to “identify stories within our corpus [of dystopian literature] and to see their structures patterns. It alerts us to things to look for in each stories; it helps us to see the connections, to determine degrees of affinity between the structures of variants” (ibid). Most of all, this enables us to ask a very obvious question: why are some themes more prone to be recycled than others, and what effect does this recycling have on the genre? Why, for example, is the narrative theme of the enclosed city so prevalent in many stories? What kind of importance does this have? For Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent, the enclosed city is an example of a utopia of “human contrivance” (3), one of human control whereby every aspect of social order” is held in the trust of a single overseer. We can, indeed, see this in the novels with the enclosed city as major theme: each of these novels have a dictator in control of all aspects of daily life, and thus we can ask ourselves why this is such a popular theme within these novels.

Although in this thesis I will be concerning myself primarily with a structuralist approach to the novels, it might also be possible to consider them adaptations instead of bricolage, taking into account that the term adaptation does not just entail creating a film based on a novel. An adaptation is,

An acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works.

A creative and an interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging.

An extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work. (Hutcheon 8)

For this thesis, the second concept is perhaps most interesting, as salvaging seems to be quite similar to that of recycling, and it is the term appropriation which is most prudent to note when considering the 20th century works with that of the 21st century. These early works are often too difficult and sometimes even too offensive to be acceptable for a young audience, thus writers need to appropriate their work. This is not new either: many English classics have been made available for children and teens by rewriting the stories into an acceptable format. When I started researching these novels I had the impression that some authors consciously adapted certain works for a younger audience, such as Suzanne Collins with The Hunger Games set against Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. However, as the conclusion will show, there are too many differences in the evolvement of the stories themselves for this to hold true. Although it may not have been a conscious adaptation, I do believe that the various dysthemes make it prudent for me to consider the practice of adaptation.

Adaptation is not just there to make works available for a wider audience, it is also comforting: “repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise. Recognition and remembrance are part of the pleasure (and risk) of experiencing an adaptation” (Hutcheon 4). This takes us back to my introduction, where Huxley feared that our culture would become a trivial one, a culture where we would be stuck in a pattern we could not escape. One other risk is that of commercialisation: “it is not just at times of economic downturn that adapters turn to safe bets […]. It is not simply a matter of risk-avoidance; there is money to be made […]” (Hutcheon 5).

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