Saturday, March 28, 2015

Cut back the self-justification in YA

There’s no better way to lose an audience than to tell them they’re the problem. That’s why I think Jesus spoke in parables to illustrate the hard truths, and never directly gave questioners what they wanted to hear, but always indirectly what they needed to hear—especially if they were self-righteous. The Pharisees, who tried to entrap Jesus by having Him rule one way or the other, logically reduced his responses considering the kingdom of heaven so as to be self-explanatory and irrefutable (e.g., “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”). If, however, Jesus had told everyone what they wanted to hear, satisfying a soaring market demand for self-justification, He would have been the richest, most popular figure in Israel, as opposed to the most divisive and most instructive.

This is true for young adult (YA) fiction writers, whose audience also yearns for self-justification. Those writers who deliver it in spades are multimillionaires by offering stories of anxious teens unexpectedly ridding the world of violent oppressors who are keeping them from living out the truest expression of themselves. That’s how every teen imagines his struggle against his parents and teachers is like. Disillusioned with the world, they just want to be left alone, and they value freedom even though they don’t know what to do with it. The notion that the greatest danger is the self doesn’t register in YA, unless you delve into C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, of a half-century ago. YA protagonists are much too self-assured and focused in their quest to destroy unoriginal permutations of Big Brother than to bother identifying how decent people go bad by being led gradually into darkness by their sin.

That is a shame, considering YA is training tomorrow’s adults to see someone “imposing” order by threat of force as evil, instead of examining that order and the degree to which reality informs it, and the degree to which seemingly harsh or unnecessary punishments exist to teach. No man in his life was ever not subject to some order. Teens are missing out on developing the tools to recognize the temptations within, the pull of radical egalitarianism and the nihilism of the will. The more likely tyranny is the one we blindly impose on ourselves, the one we fall into easily enough on our own because it’s popular and cool, because it’s the zeitgeist.

Gracy Olmstead writes at the American Conservative:

Why we haven’t seen more diversity in the dystopian genre as of late? It would be one thing if these were just films: we’re used to seeing the same underdog sports story, the same superhero films, over and over again. But these are book adaptations, plots created by authors who are regurgitating up the same tired stories at a ceaseless rate.

It could be that Hollywood has not discovered some unknown gems that may lace the dystopian genre—and if so, hopefully such works will begin to surface. But we still need some new novels—if not for our own sakes, at least for the young adults who more consistently read them. They needn’t be entirely new and brilliant; but couldn’t we at least write something more along the lines of Brave New World than 1984? It would feature a contrasting world, a diverse yet interesting array of characters. It would look at the consequences of hedonism, rather than the consequences of authoritarianism.

But perhaps the reason Huxley’s dystopia is the less popular of the two, is because it hits too close to home. It’s more fun watching domineering bad guys get crushed by upstart teenagers than it is to see a pleasure-centric society killing itself with ignorance and lust.

Related: “Unweaned masses.”

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