Pity the poor publicist. That’s not a cry you hear very often, is it? But I’m feeling their pain right now. Here’s why:
The Hunger Games blasted onto the scene in 2008, breathing fresh, dystopia-scented breath onto a literary scene wallowing in stale Harry Potter retreads and hot, sparkly paranormal guys. The books sold like hot cakes! And so did the sequels! And then there were movie deals! Kids started taking up archery! It didn’t take any time at all for The Hunger Games to go from book to bona fide phenomenon.
And when a book reaches phenomenon status, dollar signs start to float in front of publishing executives’ eyes. Pretty soon they were everywhere, dismal worlds in which one or a few brave teenagers were pitched against an often senseless, tyrannical adult authority. Girl in the Arena. The Maze Runner. Candor.
In 2009, Kirkus reviewed 17* dystopian-themed books for teens; the number rose to 20 in 2010. Many of these early works had clearly been in the pipeline before The Hunger Games burst onto the scene, but new ones were being added at a feverish pace. The 2009 number doubled to 34 in 2011, and it nearly doubled again, to 62, in 2012. While a few of those in this new dystopian bubble were stand-alones, the vast majority were trilogies. What works for Suzanne Collins and Scholastic should work for everybody else, right?
More and more, these dystopias began to look like they were rolling off the conveyor belt, with names and circumstances slightly changed, but for the most part, each looking depressingly like the one that came just before it. Some patterns began to emerge, and they weren’t good ones. Most were set on some future Earth, but worldbuilding tended to be so slight that the circumstances that brought our current civilization to its knees were never disclosed, at least not in the first books. How, in some, were women reduced to abject servitude mere decades after Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state? How, in others, did creatures of mythology evolve to populate the planet in reality?
Vague hand-waving led readers to some kind of global-warming catastrophe here, nuclear apocalypse there. Conveniently discovered diaries often attempted to make matters clear but usually called further attention to the artifice. Too obviously, far too many of these books had been rushed to publication in an attempt to grab a sliver of the dystopian market and, with a little luck, a movie deal.
As the trilogies ground on, it became clear that this rush to publish resulted in bloated storylines stretched over far too many pages, just for the sake of the trifecta. Middle volumes tended to see characters figuratively marching in place or literally marching far away and then marching right back to where they started for a conclusive showdown with the Man. The obligatory love triangles teetered one way and then another, straining to generate romantic tension despite shoddy foundations.
This is not to say that every dystopia, or even every dystopian trilogy, was a failure. Kirkus found the characters and themes in many to hold up over three volumes and 1,000-plus pages; Ally Condie’s Matched and Lauren Oliver’s Delirium each launched trilogies in 2011 that we felt held up all the way to the end. And some dystopian trilogies managed to successfully coattail on The Hunger Games, becoming blockbusters in their own rights: Divergent, anyone?
By the time 2013 (80 titles!) rolled around, twists in the white, female-centered, heterosexual formula began to emerge. Erin Bowman’s Taken features a boy at the apex of the love triangle; Alex London’s Proxy features a gay protagonist; and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince features both characters of color and sexual ambiguity. But these sparks of originality are mere drops in the dystopian ocean.
Now it’s 2014. I know that I, for one, am sick to death of dystopia, and it’s getting harder and harder to find a reviewer who isn’t sick of it too. And it’s not just book reviewers. Agent Molly Jaffa was quoted in Publishers Weekly in September 2013 as saying, "There are editors who you sense want to curl up and die when you mention it." When I read that (under the subheading “Ding, Dong, Dystopia’s Dead”), I cheered.
But just because agents started finding it difficult to sell dystopias in 2013 doesn’t mean relief is immediately in sight. Remember all those trilogies they signed during the boom years? They are still coming out, as contracts demand.
Which brings me back to those pitiable publicists. The editors who were once pushing trilogies through the pipeline as fast as they could may have turned their attention elsewhere, but the publicists are left holding the bag. They need to draw attention to the dystopian detritus as best they can, but when the entire industry has apparently turned against their product, how much luck can they have? Talk about a losing battle.
Yes, pity the poor publicist.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.