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As dark clouds move in, literary lessons in survival

Before Wall Street crashed and the real estate bubble burst, the divide between the haves and the have-nots wasn't so sharp. In fact, for some it could be fantasized as just a few house-flips away. This marked the heyday of chick lit for the publishing industry.

In fact, my first novel, Girl Talk, published in 2001, was dressed in a pink jacket and became a national bestseller. I'm still not sure my novel actually upholds the genre. But I fell into a trend, and my novel was swept along in its current — a trend marked by a kind of posh Sex in the City shine.

Fast forward 11 years to harshly different economic times, and I find myself accidentally swept along in an opposite trend — the rise of post-apocalyptic fiction. Pure is a young adult/adult crossover post-apocalyptic thriller, the first in a planned trilogy. Last May — a full nine months before its publication — Pure was written up in an Entertainment Weekly article called "Find Me a Twilight," listing novels with film deals and franchise potential. Most were young adult dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels.

I realized that Pure was part of a much larger trend, an exploding one. Though Pure is nothing like Twilight, I felt like a savvy trend-hopper. But I wasn't. The truth is that writing apocalyptically felt necessary — on a deeply personal level — probably for the same reason the publishing industry, which is feeling a little apocalyptic itself, is drawn to the genre and the same reason readers have fed the trend.

During a deep recession in a shaky global economy with a fractured, contentious government, wars, the threat of nuclear weapon proliferation and environmental crises, it's no wonder American readers are looking for books that address their fears. Some will always prefer the escapism and wish fulfillment that many novels deliver; I certainly love smart, sharply funny novels that make me bark with laughter. But how can we read about the materialistic foibles that reigned in many chick-lit novels in this economic crisis — while out of work or strapped and struggling, while, as a nation, feeling embattled, beaten-up, and scared?

I argue that readers of dystopian fiction aren't drawn to these narratives because Americans are depressed and want to wallow in darkness. Quite the opposite. We are, in fact, looking for stories of survival and hope.

When I set out to write Pure, I wanted to exorcise my darkest fears, but in the process, I realized that I wasn't as obsessed with our destruction as I was with what survives destruction, what human traits — like the need for faith and hope, the desire for love, the search for beauty and home — endure.

Part of the post-apocalyptic, dystopian trend is that it seems to go hand in hand with young adult novels. Maybe that's because it's not simply the adults who are aware of the current crisis. Teens are the ones who are being told, again and again, that their futures are in jeopardy. The teen years can feel dystopian even in the best of times. But I don't think we realize how much pressure and feeling of doom we're passing down to our teens. Post-apocalyptic novels are often a place where cross-generational fears meet.

My oldest daughter is 16, the age of my main character in Pure. I read an early passage of the book to her and she became the book's greatest champion. She told me it was the best thing I'd ever written and urged me to finish it. For the two of us, it's become a touchstone.

By writing a dark, doomed world of haves and have-nots, of those protected inside of the Dome and those 99 percenters who were left to die but who, against all odds, survived — albeit scarred and disfigured — I could acknowledge not only my own fears but hers. And what we found is that her fears and mine are more similar than different. The future looms darkly, and that's why we are writing and reading narratives of extreme survival. That's what post-apocalyptic novels can offer — a common well filled with day-to-day hope, one we can all share.

Julianna Baggott is a novelist and poet who lives in Tallahassee. Her most recent novel is Pure.

As dark clouds move in, literary lessons in survival 02/12/12 [Last modified: Sunday, February 12, 2012 3:30am]
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