A few weeks ago I read the recently popular Divergent by Veronica Roth. The book was mostly what I expected it would be - exciting and fast-paced in the style of The Hunger Games, with the unreasonably kick-butt heroine and the ominous oppressive dystopian society, but it is otherwise uninspired. Despite the fact that I was interested enough to read the book late into the evening, I struggle to call it a good book. This is largely because Divergent has a disturbingly black-white view of the world.
This happens in young adult literature... a lot. It's been happening too frequently. Young adult literature has advanced tremendously over the past decade, but in some regards it is still its own genre. It still has its own definitions and cliches and predictable pitfalls. The predictable romances found now within the pages of almost every single young adult title is a troubling trend that alienates boys*. The current fad of dystopias-lite ignores the original purpose these novels served. And worst of all, there is a growing trend of explicit one-sidedness: there are good guys, there are bad guys, and there are the masses. This is a problem.
Divergent highlights this problem all too well. Main character Beatrice is obviously our good guy - she has to be, by definition. She is described as small and plain, but she nonetheless is special and strong. She is unique. She, aside from her love interest, is practically the only one who is unique. From a literary perspective, this is obviously a flattening of a potential character in order to make her more appealing, but I'll let it slide. No, I'm looking past the bland Beatrice to the bigger issue - everyone else. Divergent is a novel about factions that are determined by a certain personality trait or frame of mind. This already leads to gross over-simplification, in an attempt to set the stage for the sequels and to emphasize the dystopia-ness of the world. But even when I ignored this (for the sake of the story), the lack of depth in the other characters became increasingly disturbing.
Veronica Roth tackled her world with all the grace of an elephant. The good guys have "Good Guy" practically emblazoned on their foreheads. The "bad guys" are obvious from a mile away. This is all still well within the normal realm. Even when characters abruptly switch sides, it didn't feel like complexity, it felt like cheap manipulation on behalf of the author. The problem gets even worse when Roth attempted to add additional layers. Suddenly we have a layer of those who manipulate and those who are manipulated. Instead of creating believable, breathing characters with realistic motivations, Roth ensures that every character will be absolutely one-sided.
A lot of this has to do with the world of Divergent, which determines a specific character-trait faction for every character. I kept getting the feeling that Roth wanted me to see how she's "toying" with these definitions, and how she's showing that people are not defined by a single trait. But she didn't do that. Instead, almost everyone belonging to a certain faction has the same general personality and motivations. There is absolutely no grey. Except, of course, Beatrice (and possibly her love interest). I'm sorry, but I don't call that depth. I call that bad writing**.
I see the appeal of a book like Divergent. Heck, even I technically enjoyed the action of the book, until I really started to think about it (about five minutes after I finished it). Just because you know your book is going to have sequels doesn't mean that you can ignore developing your world at first. Just because you want to create a stark contrast in your "dystopia" doesn't mean you need to oversimplify your characters. Roth's mistakes aren't overt, but they're subtly problematic for any reader who takes a step back and thinks about the book for a moment. Why are we encouraging oversimplification? Why aren't we fighting this?
* And no, I don't understand how this trend flips itself for adults, such that books geared towards women are often shunted to a lower class while books geared towards men gain literary acclaim. It doesn't make sense to me either.
** In general I wasn't thrilled with Roth's writing. I'm not always a big fan of present tense and I felt like a lot of Roth's straight-up writing wasn't too clean.