Young adult fiction needs a new formula

Judging a book by its cover seems to be the only way publishers know how to market Young Adult fiction. Many recent entries in the YA genre have been obvious imitations of “The Hunger Games“ or “Twilight.” Because those two series have very distinctive covers, every publisher announces the next band wagoner with extravagant cover designs, all the while trying to appeal to the female-dominated YA market.

Consider “Wither” by Lauren DeStefano, the cover of which features the heroine in a flouncy dress on a shiny purple background. It looks like a seven-year-old’s birthday cake. Like a cake, I’d enjoy sticking a knife in it. Dressing books up like candy outlines the underlying problem with the genre: A pretty presentation cannot hide an empty idea.

The aforementioned novel,  “Wither,” is about post-apocalyptic arranged marriages, but the dreadful writing makes it read like the demon lovechild of “Twilight” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The book’s more dystopian elements seem to have been tacked on at the last moment to join the “The Hunger Games” bandwagon.

Many entries in the YA genre read like non-dystopian stories reworked to contain dystopian elements. “Matched,” by Allie Condie, has all the set pieces of a story set on another planet, like super-advanced technology and a culture built on distorted remembrances of the past. Unfortunately, Condie grounds her earthbound dystopia in a love triangle as forced as it is dull.

Moreover, her evil dystopian society never does anything very evil, so the readers find themselves tromping through all the hallmarks of YA like an intoxicated tourist at the Louvre. They recognize all the famous scenes, but none of it makes much sense.

Reducing a genre to a checklist of plot devices takes the heart and soul out of it. The best books result from much suffering on the writer’s part. When writers turn to clichés and conventions, they do not suffer trying to come up with tension and conflict on their own, so part of their individuality is lost with the suffering. While the industry doesn’t technically require these clichés, publishers like low-risk novels based on popular ideas.

If “Twilight” spawned a mind-numbingly popular franchise, then any love triangle featuring a shirt-phobic werewolf, a metrosexual vampire and a two-dimensional girl will rake in millions, right? “The Hunger Games” is built on this triangular trend, even though the question of whether Katniss would choose Gale or Peeta was nowhere near the central conflict. However, Suzanne Collins actually used the love triangle effectively to build on the plot. Many authors since have just added an arbitrary second love interest for convention’s sake.

Notably, a love triangle has nothing to do with dystopia as a genre. A dystopia is an attempt at utopia gone astray, and it usually critiques our current society. When a dystopia is simply a set piece, it reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of the message. The author may take issue with some facet of society, but they have no idea how to recreate that in their writing. Both “Wither” and “Matched” feature a vaguely malevolent society. Occasionally, the reader hears that a bunch of nameless characters have been massacred, allegedly by the antagonist’s forces, but this creates zero pathos.

YA itself suffers from being clumped together as a single genre in one section of the bookstore. While paranormal romance and dystopia tend to be in the YA section, they are two individual genres that have little to do with each other. When on the YA shelves, they need to blend together with stories as cruddy as the covers are sparkly. If there was no distinction between adult and young adult readers, the quality of books marked as YA may improve. But as long as publishers assume they’re catering to a pack of ravenous, tasteless teenage girls, they’ll keep publishing candy-coated carbon copies of previous best-sellers.