The most popular thing I published last year was the essay “On Cultures That Build.” In that essay I argued that “in the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not ‘how do we make that happen?’ but ‘how do we get management to take our side?’ This is a learned response, and a culture which has internalized it will not be a culture that ‘builds.’”1
In this week’s edition of City Journal I have a follow up of a sort to that essay.2 I begin this new essay with what might seem like an entirely unrelated question: why is speculative “Young Adult” fiction the most popular genre of 21st century America? My answer hearkens back to last year’s work: 21st century Americans are a people who feel stripped of agency. Speculative YA fiction are fairy tales custom-made to express the frustrations of this age. The stories of Katniss, Harry, and the rest are the myths of the over-managed.
Tanner Greer, “On Cultures That Build” Scholar’s Stage (18 June 2020).
Tanner Greer, “Escaping Only So Far,” City Journal (16 July 2021).
Before preceding with the argument, it is important to remind ourselves of just how broad based the YA phenomena is:
The rise of the young-adult novel is the most significant literary event of this century. The significance of the genre—often simply called “YA”—is best appreciated when juxtaposed with general trends in Anglophone reading. In an age that has seen both the average number of books read and the average number of hours spent reading steeply decline, YA readership has exploded, and not just among young adults. In 2012, one marketing firm discovered that slightly more than half of all American YA readers were older than 22. Just under one-third were somewhere between 30 and 44.3
The “big three” (Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games) were the best selling series of the century; in the essay I list another 18 series (complete with ten films and four television serial adaptations) that rode on the coattails of these three. It is important to remember: the majority of these books’ readers are full grown adults. The only other genre that has had this big a following—and this large an impact on the contours of our culture—are the super-hero capers (of which more will be said in a bit).
So what is it about this genre that resonates so deeply with the 21st century American psyche?
The simplest answer is that YA fiction is easier to read than other genres. YA is generally written at the 8th-9th grade level. Speculative YA novels are relentlessly sentimental; YA characters, even the evil ones, are stylishly likable and emotive. In an age of small attention spans and shrinking cultural literacy, YA novels have a staying power that less approachable and earnest genres lack.
But I think there is something more to the popularity of YA. Read through these series and you discover a set of shared conventions, themes, aesthetics that separate out speculative YA from the adventure novels of yesteryear. I introduce one of these by contrasting Twilight with Hunger Games:
A defining feature of both Bella’s and Katniss’s stories is the painfully limited agency of their respective heroines. In a world of supernatural individuals, Bella is weak, mortal, and helpless. She cannot save herself from the many dangerous situations she stumbles into, nor can she fulfill her wish to become a vampire, except by appealing to forces more powerful than herself. Katniss is more resourceful than Bella, but she, too, is the plaything of powers she cannot control. The totalitarian government that manipulates her behavior is far more malicious than are Twilight’s supernatural heartthrobs, yet it is just as obsessed as any love-struck vampire with the daily doings of a teenage girl. This preoccupation with authority, agency, and surveillance unites the two series.4
YA novels often explore this theme by building up an elaborate world of puppeteers pulling strings just behind the curtain:
From Harry Potter onward, the speculative YA novelist has been enthralled by dreams and nightmares of the clandestine. Under the surface of normal life exists a hidden world more vital, dazzling, and dangerous than most people ever realize. The YA heroine may enter this society as a stranger, but eventually discovers that she is the fulcrum upon which this new world turns—and becomes aware of the many powerful individuals in this world plotting to use her to turn it.
This is the defining feature of the YA fictional society: powerful, inscrutable authorities with a mysterious and obsessive interest in the protagonist. Sometimes the hidden hands of this hidden world are benign. More often, they do evil. But the intentions behind these spying eyes do not much matter. Be they vile or kind, they inevitably create the kind of protagonist about whom twenty-first century America loves to read: a young hero defined by her frustration with, or outright hostility toward, every system of authority that she encounters.5
The theme is further emphasized by the aesthetic sense of speculative YA fiction:
The story takes place in a world not quite modern. Different devices might be used for this purpose. In some series, this means a future so dystopic that the earth has retrogressed to an earlier age; in others, fully modern settings serve as camouflage for a clandestine society whose language, dress, and grooming evoke a more aristocratic past. Thus, Harry Potter’s wizarding world has steam locomotives but not a single television set, Bella’s love interest is literally an Edwardian gentleman, and the dystopian landscape of The Hunger Games is a pastiche of Dust Bowl America and interwar Europe. Other YA series take the genre’s love affair with the turn of the twentieth century even further, placing their teenage heroes in a steampunk-inspired or magic-infused Victorian past. In all cases, the fictional society of the YA novel is classy. Beneath its repressed social rules and rigid social hierarchies is an elegance not found in the mundane humdrum of twenty-first-century America. Evil, when it appears, is distinguished by refinement and good breeding.6
To my knowledge, the first person to make this point was literary critic Adam Roberts. Roberts raised the same basic examples from Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight that I just did back in 2014, and then extended them through other series in the genre.7 He wrote that post before half of the series I mentioned had even been written, but the general point remains the same. The imagery of the YA novel, be it a dystopian drama or a spells-and-elves quest, is drawn squarely from the twilight years of the European ancien regime. 1870 and 1940 set the outer bounds for this aesthetic vision, with the dystopian yarns leaning harder into the imagery of imperial and Nazi Germany (or occasionally, as with Shadow and Bone, imperial Russia), and the lighter fare drawing mostly from Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
Adam Roberts, “21st Century YA: The Meaning of Victoriana,” Sibilant Fricative (19 March 2014).
I could fill this post with a detailed list of examples, but it might be best to do this visually. Here are the covers of 15 of the most successful speculative YA fiction titles of the last two decades:
Notice anything they have in common?
Here we find novels set far in the human future, on different planets, in alternate timelines, in fantasy universes, and in contemporary times. There is nothing inherently turn-of-the-century about any of these settings. The generation that grew up reading Chronicles of Narnia, Earthsea, and The Black Cauldron assumed fantasy meant a journey to a quasi-Medieval imaginary; science fiction titles like Dune and Star Wars put sword duels, monastic orders, and royal princesses at the center of their science fiction sagas. This is the entire point of speculative fiction: the author can create whatever world they wish to see. So what is behind the 21st century tilt into Victoriana?
Robert’s answer goes something like this: both the sleek futuristics of Star Trek and the high pageantry of the shining knight are at too far a remove from the central set of problems these novels all grapple with. This is partly a matter of accessibility: YA publishers are convinced that YA must be as “relatable” to teen readers as possible (thus the surplus of teen protagonists). The mindset of a medieval monk or Anglo-saxon warlord are simply too alien for the modern reader to grasp without effort.8 The Vienna, London, or Paris of 1910 are different. These locales are distant enough from the present moment to act as visual stand-ins for “the past” while still being modern enough to drop a teenage protagonist with 21st century sensibilities into.
Roberts has written an entire essay on this problem that is worth reading: Adam Roberts, “The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien,” Strange Horizons (16 July 2007).
But that still leaves the question: why do these novels need a visual stand-in for the past in the first place? Why should a story set on Mars, or in a far off dystopia, or in a magical shadow world in the modern day be so preoccupied with the past at all? Robert suggests that none of this is really about the past: “what these YA Fantasies all share is a fascination with history not as history, but as a way of conceptualising the parental generation.”9 Speculative YA fiction plotlines often turn on the failings of the last generation past: sometimes, as in Harry Potter, Twilight, and a Series of Unfortunate Events, protagonists are forced to solve problems and resolve conflicts they have inherited from their parents; in Hunger Games and its sister dystopian thrillers, the problem that must be solved is the arbitrary power wielded by the parental generation itself. There is an obvious analogue between the inscrutable authorities whose obsessive interest in the YA protagonist pushes her into rebellion and the real-life authorities that control the 21st century teenager’s life. In the words of film critic Jonathan McAlmont, speculative YA is “very much about living in a world where parents discuss things out of earshot.”10 The trick of YA fic is to elevate these normal teenage impulses into a grand socio-political drama. In book after book the average teenager’s quest for autonomy is transformed into and glorified as a general contest over social order. The Edwardian imagery of these novels thus serves as a visual short-hand for the sort of traditional authority and repressive social codes that the cloisters the American teen in real life.
Roberts, “21st Century YA: The Meaning of Victoriana.”
Jonathan McAlmont, 20 March 2014 comment in the thread of Roberts, “21st Century YA: The Meaning of Victoriania.” McAlmont would expand his thoughts into a longer essay in “Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” Videovista (March 2014).
Robert’s theory is compelling. But it does not address an important question: if speculative YA is about reproducing the teenage experience of agency and authority on the page, why is the genre so fantastically popular with full grown adults?
As I point out in the City Journal essay, these adolescent themes also saturate speculative fiction targeted at older demographics:
These same narratives also saturate the fairy world of adults. X-Files (1993–2002), 24 (2001–2010), and Lost (2004–2010) set this pattern for television in the new millennium, their writers discovering that nothing keeps modern audiences hooked like an episode-by-episode descent into conspiracy. Award-winning serials such as Orphan Black (2013–2017) and Mr. Robot (2015–2019) would perfect the art of the conspiracy thriller, but even lower-budget procedurals like The Mentalist (2008–2015) and The Unit (2006–2009) would pivot away from their original “mission of the week” fare toward season-long arcs devoted to uncovering secret combinations. The lavish production standards of prestige dystopia—such shows as Black Mirror (2011–2019), Man in the High Castle (2015–2019), Westworld (2016–2020), and Handmaid’s Tale (2017–present)—betray a similar impulse. These adult dystopias drop the interwar imagery and teenage angst of their YA counterparts but have shed none of their paranoia. Prestige TV is just as preoccupied with decisions made out of earshot as any teen novel.11
Greer, “Escaping Only So Far”
What is going on here? Why are Americans gripped by adolescent anxieties?
Perhaps because our dependence on inscrutable authorities has become increasing, well, adolescent:
It is not just twenty-first-century teenagers who feel buffeted by forces beyond their control. Bearing the brunt of a recession we did not cause, facing disastrous wars the stakes of which were unclear at best, the citizens of the liberal West spent the last two decades nursing the wounds of lost agency. This loss extends past grand politics. A series of studies have traced this process in the United States. Increasingly, Americans “bowl alone”: the social clubs, civic societies, and congregations that once gave normal people meaningful social responsibilities have declined significantly. Most issue-oriented action groups that remain are staffed by professionals who seek only money from their members. As a growing number of Americans live in crowded cities, government becomes more remote and less responsive to any individual’s control—a problem exacerbated by the increasingly national cast of American politics. More important still, one-third of Americans now find themselves employed by corporations made impersonal by their scale. The decisions that determine the daily rounds of the office drone are made in faraway boardrooms—rooms, one might say, “where adults discuss things out of earshot.” What decides the destiny of Western man? Credit scores he has only intermittent access to. Regulations he has not read. HR codes he had no part in writing.
…Our fairy realm’s preoccupation with the problems of the micromanaged life resonates. Its paranoia reflects a culture that has lost faith in its own ruling class. The YA novel’s adolescent attitude toward authority speaks to the experiences of the many millions shaken by their own impotence. The mania for dystopia is a literary sensation custom-made for the frustrations of our age.12
There is a lot more in the essay—including a few thoughts on the appeal of the “chosen one” trope that dominates the genre—and I encourage you to go read the full thing over at City Journal.
If this post on literature and American culture has caught your interest, consider reading my some of my earlier essays on similar themes: “We Were Builders Once, and Strong,” “On the Tolkienic Hero,” “Pining for Democracy,” and “A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, Facebook page, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible. —————————————————————————————