This week on the blog we’ve got two very different guests posts about YA (or not YA) and coming of age in dystopia fiction. We’ve invited Antonia Honeywell, whose book The Ship is published by our sister imprint, W&N, to tell us about the process of writing YA Dystopian Fiction. Tomorrow Sarah Pinborough will be back on the blog discussing YA or not YA. Londoners can see both Antonia, Sarah and an incredible line up of authors at 7pm at Drink. Shop. Do.
I have a bit of a problem with the labelling of books. Labelling suggests that it’s desirable for a reader to open a book knowing exactly what to expect. Once, on a writing course, my written feedback from a fellow student consisted of a scrawled statement saying, ‘I don’t read dystopian fiction so I haven’t bothered with this.’ It was a pity for me – I was seeking all the feedback I could get – but, I’ve come to realise, still more of a pity for my fellow student, who was shutting himself off from a great many rather brilliant novels. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, for example. E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops. Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, and sections of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. In creating a dystopia, a writer is examining the world in which they’re writing, as well as the world they’re striving to create.
This makes a dystopian setting perfect for a coming of age story. Coming of age narratives concern a character’s attempts to make sense of the world around them, and coming to terms with their own willingness (or lack of it) to take a responsible role within it. When a setting is alien to the reader, a character who’s trying to come to terms with it is the perfect guide. In The Ship, Lalla, at sixteen, grows up in post-collapse London. Post-collapse London is a dystopian world of scarcity, of military rule, of the tyranny of technology. A working screen (and access to the information disseminated through it) is the only means of survival. Lalla understands how her world works, and by narrating her experience, she renders her society familiar to the reader. But when Lalla is taken on board the ship, she is presented with a new world. The boot’s suddenly on the other foot; Lalla can no longer guide the reader, but the reader’s assumptions and experience become essential as Lalla struggles in a world of plentiful food, of constant running water, of friendship and of choice. What are her responsibilities? What are ours?
Because the reader is familiar with the nature of the world Lalla is trying to negotiate, the reader has a genuine investment in the answers Lalla formulates, and in the decisions she is forced to make. Everyone else on the ship has suffered so much that their critical faculties have become scarred and numbed. Alone on the ship, Lalla can afford to ask questions. And her answers – and the terms she sets out for her own adulthood – are as much of a commentary on the world in which I wrote, as they are on the world her father has created for her.