Tuesday, May 11, 2010

But...but...it's depressing!

I've given up telling people I don't know that my novel is dystopic, even though it is. Invariably, they ask what dystopia is.

"It's like a utopia," I say, "but opposite."

*blank stares*

Eventually they get it. And then they ask, "But why? Why would you want to write something so depressing?"

But...it's not. Not really. At its heart, dystopian literature is anything but depressing.

OK, sure. The society is depressing. The environment. The government. But dystopian literature isn't about those things. Not really.

It's about the individuals.

Think of THE HUNGER GAMES, arguably the most famous dystopic work out right now. The world is empty, dark, dreary. Government not only lets people die of hardship--it actually holds competitions in which children fight to the death for the entertainment of the rich.

OK, yeah. That's a bit depressing.

But then think of Katniss. Not how her father died, or her mother was depressed, or her sister was nearly selected. Don't think about how she left Gale, or how she entered the Games. The blood and pain and hunger and hardship.

Because that's not what the story is about.

The story is about how a girl, in that world, with that pain, can still be human. Can still love.

That's why dystopic literature isn't really depressing. Because it's about the strength of humanity beyond the cruelty of the world.

If the characters were always happy, always good, and never had to worry--what would be the point of the story? How is it a triumph when two people fall in love when they live in a world where love is lauded? If you don't have to fight for the basics of humanity, is it little wonder we don't appreciate them?

Dystopic literature is a dark frame around a beautiful picture.

It's not the dark, bleak, black; it's the spark of light flickering within it.

And just in case the topic still depresses you, here, have a video:


Sherrie Petersen said...

Katniss is the ultimate hero. Her hope and love for her family is what keeps the novel from being depressing.

Unknown said...

Great discussion on dystopian literature. I loved The Hunger Games because it explored the human condition to the tenth power. You're so right: who wants to read about lucky people with everything they need in life who fall in love. B-o-r-i-n-g!

Have a great day!

S.A. Larsenッ said...

Thanks for such a great explanation, Beth. When I was first introduced to writing genres, I was clueless about the big 'D'. Hunger Games is still on my to-read list. Can't wait, now.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Thanks for explaining the beauty of distopian novels, like I said before, I haven't read all that many, and this helps me understand them more. :)
However, I disagree with the implication that if a novel isn't dystopic, than 'the characters were always happy, always good, and never had to worry...How is it a triumph when two people fall in love when they live in a world where love is lauded?'
This leads me to ask, "What about Romeo and Juliet? Or Guinevere and Lancelot? Or Wesely and Buttercup?" I've never read a novel where the world is perfect, and personally, I'd rather read about a world that I can relate to, where true love conquers issues I have. Where virtue overcomes struggles I know about. Not an oppressive government, but the ideals of the people I care about. Not a tyrant wrath, a teacher's disapproval.
It seems to me that dystopian novels are throwing into relief the best of human nature. Good - that's fantastic. I understand why lots of people read that. (and that they can address issues it's harder to address in a real-world setting.)
But this world is hard enough sometimes. And when 'mainstream' writers can make me feel the same way as dystopian novels in a world I know and relate to, even if it's fiction, even sci-fi, even fantasy, then that's what I would prefer to read.
This is TOTALLY a personal thing. 'But.. but... it's depressing!' doesn't quite cover the reason I don't like to read dystopian novels. That said, thanks for posting. :) I did comment before that I found these novels depressing and frightening (Maybe that's because the last Dystopian novel I read was Running Man by Stephen King?) but I'm glad you challenged me to think farther than that. :) Thank you!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Wow, sorry for the book. :( I guess I'm what the ladies in the 1900s would call, 'opinionated.' :D

Unknown said...

I think it's great that someone is bringing this to light, so often people just assume that it's dark and dreary and why would anyone want to write it but then when you name novels off they realize they aren't that dreary, the showcase strength and that through struggles happiness does show through.

lotusgirl said...

I love your explanation. I think the bleakness of the setting makes the humanity of the characters more vivid.

Tez Miller said...

I just spent most of the afternoon and evening reading Susan Beth Pfeffer's This World We Live In. Books like these prove that dystopian YA has the most fascinating and engrossing stories. Loved it. Looking forward to loving your novel, too :-)

Aisley Crosse said...

I would have been one of those people who asked you to explain - so thank you! And I can see dystopian literature, or at least themes, in a lot of books now that I understand it. It's not unusual. But it definitely is riveting!

Samantha Clark said...

Great post, Beth. I love the "dark frame around the beautiful picture" description, the flicker of light. Yeah, Katniss is that.


Marcia said...

I think you've gotten to the core of it: the genre is about what flap copy has often called "the indomitability of the human spirit." It's about people who rise above the worst things imaginable. You can crush and oppress whole societies, but that spark will arise in some hero; you can't extinguish it.

Unknown said...

Nothing to add except that I cannot wait to read Across the Universe!

storyqueen said...

"Dark frame around a beautiful picture."

What a great way to explain it!


Kelly Polark said...

To me, the character and his/her main conflicts make a story depressing or not depressing to me, not the surroundings. I'm reading a contemporary right now (that is very well written and a best seller), but it just depresses me so it's taking me a long time to get through it.
The Hunger Games is absolutely incredible!

Matthew MacNish said...

OMG I can't watch this at work, but I love Jimmy Cliff, yay!

As to your novel are these writers that you are having these conversations with? Just curious.

Personally I totally get it, I wouldn't mind reading a novel where the world is grim and terrible. In fact one of my favorite recent reads The Road is really depressing until the very end.

It's always the characters that matter in the long run, not the setting I think.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Precisely. That is why I love dystopian, too. And I love these posts.

Carol said...

Well then, perhaps you should start describing your book differently then, I mean use a different word. You're a writer, you can do it.

B. Miller said...

I appreciate the idea of a dystopia as a backdrop for a powerful setting. I don't think it's necessarily too depressing to write or read about.

JEM said...

I love how hard and practical the characters get, how their love for others is more tangible because it's so often challenged. The decisions they have to make in regards to keeping that other person safe are so much bigger, so much more life threatening, that their affection solidifies in their mind without the typical existential angst. Love it!

Crystal Cook said...

Wow that's so true. The part you said about Katniss, about a girl being able to love, actually gave me chills!

Tere Kirkland said...

That's why I loved The House of the Scorpion. It might have been a bit dark, but it was about the triumph of the human spirit and had such a great premise. I wish I could read it again, but I mailed it to someone to share the awesome. ;) I'll have to content myself with reading Catching Fire again.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm an optimist and that's why I love dytopias. I know, makes no sense. :)

Carolyn V. said...

Dystopians rock. They usually have a choice,conflict, plus good and bad fighting each other. So cool. =)

Anonymous said...

Boy, you nailed that one on the head. A dark frame around a beautiful picture.

Shannon Morgan said...

I had a similar conversation -- with a fellow author, no less. I mentioned I liked THE HUNGER GAMES and she said she read it because her daughter wanted to read it. She let the girl read it, but she (the author) said she didn't understand the impulse: "It's so depressing!"

I gotta say, no story of survival has ever depressed me - there's too much to root for!

Christina Farley said...

Yes, it's about humans overcoming their humanity. And that gives us hope. So yeah, you're right.

Miriam Forster said...

I've never been hugely into dystopian fiction, but I LOVED the Hunger Games. And I find it intriguing that so many dystopians start out with an attempt to create paradise. Like Incarceron, which I am currently reading and enjoying a lot.

Myrna Foster said...

I have a sister-in-law who refuses to read dystopian novels, but I noticed her boys that I'm friends with on Goodreads both loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

Great post! I have a dystopian in me that wants out, but it has to wait it's turn.

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Vanessa said...

"Dystopic literature is a dark frame around a beautiful picture."

Perfectly phrased. I love dystopian lit, but have a hard time explaining to people why that is. Now I will just quote you to them.

Dystopian lit is just so human. These are the books that make me cry because they express such strength and hope in the midst of despair

PJ Hoover said...

LOL, Beth! There are just certain terms that I explain as soon as I say them. If a person happens to know, they can stop me. Otherwise, I make it automatic.

mit-chan007 said...

I have to say I think your reasoning is great! Ever since I read the Hex books, I've been very fond of dystopian books, and I find that the end of the book has much more impact. The environment and governments and what-not in dystopians just make you love and become so much more attached to the characters!

Great post :)

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