When Did Dystopian Become a Dirty Word?

Dystopian.

It used to be a genre, a category, a trend. It still is a trend among readers and the media. But in the publishing and agent world, it has become a negative, an insult. A dirty word.

Labeling a manuscript dystopian is like slapping it with a big red rejected stamp. Signing its death warrant. Condemning it a pariah that no one would touch with a 10-foot-pole.

In order to have any chance of being considered by an agent or publisher, a dystopian cannot be called as such. Instead of calling a pig a pig, there needs to be a spin–it’s a blood-soaked thriller, a story of futuristic war, an epic love story of star-crossed lovers. Which, I am not necessarily blaming the agents and publishers. It is a business for them. And right now, dystopians seem like bad investments (which I blame trendchasers for, and talk more about in this post)

Why am I so riled up about this? Big deal, dystopians are over. Get over it.

I am frustrated that because of the connotations dystopian brings with it, manuscripts are killed before they have a chance. Who cares about the characters, or the world, or the storytelling? If there’s anything that even remotely stinks like dystopian, it’s done.

This is especially frustrating to me because (surprise) I have dystopian elements in my book. There a thousand other elements to it, but because there is a rebellion against power, it is often labeled a dystopian. But as I talked about in my Hipster Dystopia post, it didn’t come from wanting to be a part of the cool dystopian club, it came from having something to say about society and power. I saw these characters, and this world, and this conflict, this struggle. I saw the story in it, and I explored it.

We live in an era of conflict, unrest, and change. A recent post on Distractify brought this sharply into view (check it out here) and summed it up well by ending with: “When students in the future look back, they will see us as one unified generation who overcame incredible obstacles and made swift social progress, despite little certainty of what lies ahead.”

If you don’t feel like scrolling through 100 of the “100 Iconic Photos That Forever Define the 21st Century So Far” (but it’s really worth the time) here are some particularly powerful photos:

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Especially this last one (Kiev, Ukraine before and after the revolution). All of these were photos taken during events that happened in the last decade. This is real. And this is powerful. There are stories here. Thousands, millions of stories that have the power to change things, change people. This is what I was writing for. A world in conflict, on the cusp of change. With thousands and millions of people rising up and crying out for justice, for a better world. People putting their lives in danger, sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

We live in dystopia. Arguably, we always will be. It is part of human flaws, and human nature. There will always be  corruption, abuse of power, greed, violence, casualties, war.

This is the story I am writing. About a world on the brink. About the catalyst, the snap, the break. About that ember turning into a spark and spreading like wildfire.

I am tired of dystopian being a dirty word. I am writing the world I see, in a pill easier to swallow.

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9 thoughts on “When Did Dystopian Become a Dirty Word?

  1. I understand your frustration but don’t get discouraged. There is always someone saying what we should or should not write but I believe that if you have a good story that people want to read, you will get published. Zombies have been overdone for years now but ‘Warm Bodies’ was still published and made into a movie. Long as you have something new to say, I say write and if no one wants it right now try again in a year or two. Trends are circular. If something was popular once, it will come around again.

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  2. Love this, and completely agree – I describe my novella-in-the-making as ‘dystopian’ but actually never really thought about it negatively until I read this. Like yours, it has elements of rebellion, particularly against the government and advertising. It’s a common thing, I guess. But I did a report/film review on ‘The Hunger Games’ in my second year of university and I saw and wrote the word ‘dystopian’ so many times that now, that’s what comes to mind when I see it! I think it’s a shame if the word is actually put to waste by publishers and the like because it’s just an easy, lazy word to sum up a plot or a story. Fuck ’em – I’m gonna keep using it!

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    • Thank you! That’s how I’ve always viewed dystopian, for what it is and what it means. But unfortunately the market has become oversaturated and a lot of people write manuscripts off without examining the story itself, assuming it’s just another dystopian. The word has come to represent tropes and canned storylines, when not all dystopians are like that. And I’ve had people who critiqued my queries etc. actually use it as an insult. But I totally agree 😉 Let’s take the word back and make it awesome again!

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  3. Ugh trends. They’re somethin’, aren’t they? Halyley makes a great points about trends being circular. Vampires, angels, zombies, dystopians. There’re more. It all happens in its own time.

    I know how it can get frustrating when a fad comes up just as you’re ready to share with the world something you’ve been working on for years… before people even knew what to call or how to spell “dystopia.”

    It’ll pass. If you believe in what you have to say, it’ll show.

    (P.S. Screw the gatekeepers. But that’s just me haha.)

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  4. Wow.. I’m so glad I found your blog! I love what you have to say and the fact that you say it so well! I am an aspiring author too and I’m in college which leaves little to no time for writing so I’m glad to have found a space where there are other people like me trying to do what they can while they can! By the way I know this post is old but I just wanted to say that I agree 100% keep doing what your doing:)

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