Ostensibly a review of Anna Day’s The Fandom, Sean’s piece is also a consideration of dystopia YA, a subgenre of the ever-popular “speculative fiction.” His review also makes me think that YA’s ripe for something new… I wonder what it will be?
The Fandom is an intriguingly meta-textual take on the now well-worn tropes of YA dystopian fiction. The protagonist, Violet, is obsessed with the YA novel The Gallow’s Dance, and when she visits Comic-Con to meet the cast of the film adaptation, she is miraculously transported into the world of the story. Accidentally causing the death of the novel’s protagonist, Rose, Violet is forced to play-act as her heroine to fulfil the narrative pattern and transport herself back home.
The Fandom is highly self-aware about its generic identity, as Violet frequently comments knowingly on the creaky predictability of the plot she is forced to re-enact. The novelty of this self-awareness soon rubs off, however, and I found myself longing for a text which not only winks at conventions but actively challenges them. The Gallow’s Dance storyworld is a straightforward replay of familiar YA dystopian conventions. There is the stark social divide (between the genetically modified Gems and exploited Imps), and of course, the rebel girl who leads a rebellion. This means The Fandom adheres religiously to the plot formula it pretends to subvert.
More interesting is the attempt to capture the strange phenomenon that is the dystopian fandom. The boom in the popularity of dystopian YA has transformed an often grim genre into something more akin to high fantasy, with elaborately rendered storyworlds and mythic narrative patterns supplanting social commentary and political parable. It is difficult to imagine Brave New World or 1984 stimulating enthusiastic fandom creativity in the same way as Divergent or The Maze Runner. The engagement of these texts with the contemporary is often ambiguous or marginal at best, calling into question what exactly ‘dystopian fiction’ means here outside moody cityscapes.
Violet’s entry into Gallow’s Dance registers this generic confusion, as she realises her favourite dystopia is not an exciting wonderland but a brutally unequal place with a toxic political culture. Similarly, her admiration for the romance between Rose and Willow vanishes once she meets Willow and registers his disinterest in changing the corrupt political system from which he benefits. Violet no longer hero-worships Rose, deciding that to prioritise love over a political cause is selfish rather than romantic. Her own romance with the good-hearted Ash is, by contrast, pleasingly equitable. I have read too many YA dystopian novels in which the heroine ‘learns’ rebellion from a male mentor, or else is chastised by a more radical male paramour for her timidity and passivity. None of that happens in The Fandom and it is a refreshing change.
However, other problematic elements of YA dystopia remain troublingly intact. Female friendship has a chequered history in this genre: think of the toxic frenemies Shay and Tally in Uglies, or the bullying and sabotage between the eves in Only Ever Yours. Although this text is ostensibly centred on the friendship between Violet and Alice, I was disappointed by how much Violet -and the text itself- seems to despise her. Violet’s resentment of Alice’s talent, glamour and confidence is palpable, and when it appears that Alice may have betrayed her, Violet immediately assumes the worst and gleefully participates in slut-shaming her. She never questions her misogynistic treatment of her supposed best friend, and Alice is kept at a narrative distance for most of the text, conveyed to the reader as narcissistic and self-absorbed, thereby potentially justifying her treatment.
Even more troubling is the novel’s muddled treatment of race and racism. The dynamic between the Imps and the Gems is a simplistic rendering of inequality lifted directly from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. This exaggerated binary bears little relevance to contemporary dynamics of inequality, but it is given a modern gloss through clumsy references to pseudo-racist rhetoric. The Imps are frequently disparaged as “apes” and “stupid monkeys”, but the text provides little nuance to the theme of prejudice outside this language. Worse, the characterisation of the only named black character, Thorn, perpetuates racist stereotypes. Thorn is a violent psychopath whose physical strength, mentally instability and threatening sexuality render him the sub-human brute of racist fantasy. Although Violet seeks to undo the regressive connotations of the romance plot, she never questions the canonical characterisation of Thorn as a frightening and intimidating figure. That she is outraged by being described as a “stupid monkey” also reconfigures the experience of racist abuse to centre a white girl as its victim. The narrative is in part a process of Violet learning the transformative potential of political rage, but Thorn’s rage is only ever conveyed as excessive and in need of containment.
Representation of race is at the centre of contemporary debates about YA, both in the growing recognition that #WeNeedDiverseBooks and in the call for #OwnVoices better able to convey subjective experiences of marginalisation. in this context, The Fandom‘s half-hearted and muddled rendering of race makes it both surprisingly outdated and all too familiar. YA dystopian franchises have been consistently criticised for their failure to think more deeply about race, both in the disturbing normative whiteness of texts like The Giver and Uglies, and in the centring of white perspectives in narratives of oppression. This is one convention of the genre ripe for critique, but The Fandom limits its satirical gaze to lower hanging fruit.
Nonetheless, the novelty of The Fandom‘s premise does manage to inject some new life into a now saturated sub-genre. Sitting uncomfortably between love-letter and lampoon, it is perhaps most valuable in its registering of the curiously modern phenomenon of the dystopian fandom, and its casting of the fangirl as a masterful creative in her own right.
Sean Donnelly is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, and he currently has a CFP out for Reading YA, a half-day symposium at UoB.