Culture Vulture

Romantic dystopian fiction is setting feminism back a century

Young Adult fiction needs to stop creating lovestruck heroines and start building three-dimensional characters

Romance is killing my love of young adult fiction. I grew up reading writers such as Joan Aiken or Susan Cooper, who focused on giving their female protagonists adventures, not affairs.

The undying trend of romantic fantasy is setting feminism back about a century.

For almost a century now, adult fiction has been marketed according to gender stereotypes.

Young adult fantasy fiction used to be the one genre where story and character trumped sexual stereotyping.

Female protagonists were not ruled by social diktats about their eventual relegation to home and hearth. Male protagonists could cry and otherwise freely express their emotions.

Young adult fantasy fiction used to be about exploring fabulous new worlds and meeting exciting, three-dimensional characters.

Young adult fantasy fiction used to be about exploring fabulous new worlds and meeting exciting, three-dimensional characters.

In a series written over 40 years from the 1960s to the early noughties, British author Aiken created a 19th-century England peopled by steampunk technology and trickster urchins.

Sisters Dido and Is were as smart and funny as the Artful Dodger written by Charles Dickens.

In the 1980s, American writer Diane Duane brought together science and old-school wizardry in the still ongoing Young Wizards series. Schoolmates Kit and Nita joined an interstellar network of magic users trying to slow the heat-death of the universe.

They travelled to new planets, defeated sorcerers and stayed friends for several books instead of instantly falling in love.

These were old-school romances involving dire peril, great deeds of heroism and extraordinary courage from ordinary teens.

Love was also important and it included friendship, familial affection and a sense of perspective about where infatuation should be in the roster.

By the end of Dido's adventures, she and fellow orphan Simon had something brewing between them, but first, they had to save London.

After several books and adventures, Kit and Nita too went on a date - after saving the universe.

Then came Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight phenomenon. Young adult books about supernatural beings had been popular before that, but nobody could have predicted the multi-million-copy success of Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.

The quartet published between 2005 and 2008 revitalised booksellers and made publishers grab every similar manuscript that featured an ordinary girl torn between two men with superpowers.

She need not have any special abilities, she was merely a placeholder for readers to project their own wish-fulfilment on to.

Even if she had powers of her own, her adventures should not distract from cow-eyed mooning over unsuitable love interests.

So we had Lauren Kate's Fallen series (2009-2012) where a teenage girl was torn between two fallen angels.

Similarly, Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series (2007-2014) was less about a teenage girl hunting demons than about who she was dating in each book - her childhood friend or the brooding male in their cohort.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) provided a breath of fresh air.

Yes, there was a love triangle between Katniss, Peta and Gale but it was clearly secondary to the goal of overthrowing an evil empire.

Its imitators lack the same perspective. Writers begin not with building a new world but with the skeleton of a love triangle, clothed hastily.

Sometimes, this is ridiculously obvious, as in the case of Ally Condie's Matched series, about a dystopia where teenagers are paired up in arranged marriages in a severely restricted society. The rebellious teen heroine is, of course, torn between two men.

Tahereh Mafi's Shatter Me series, started in 2011, is about a teenager who can kill with a touch.

The books are not about her using her powers for great good or for evil.

No, more important is whether she should go with her childhood friend or the obsessed - but really handsome - army officer who has kept her captive.

I had high hopes for Lauren Oliver's Delirium series (2011 to 2014), about a world where love is outlawed and teenagers subjected to surgery to ensure they will not give in to their hormonal urges and make rash decisions as adults.

I should have known better.

A romantic triangle takes precedence over the teenage protagonist's search for her missing mother - a mother ripped from the family home for the crime of daring to love her children.

It is enough to have me grabbing and re-reading my old favourite, The Dark Is Rising series by American writer Cooper. She reinvented the stories of Merlin, Guinevere and King Arthur in five books written in the 1960s and 1970s.

In a feat unimaginable to many readers and writers of contemporary Young Adult fiction, the three main characters - wizard Will Stanton, Bran the son of Arthur and ordinary girl Jane Drew - became close friends.

They joined forces to defeat evil. They stayed friends. No triangle but a tripod, a much stronger and three-dimensional structure.

YA authors, take note.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'How dumb romance killed adventure'. Print Edition | Subscribe