As sales for '1984' and 'The Handmaid's Tale' skyrocket, independent bookstores tell EW about the resurgent dystopian wave ... and the other genres where they're seeing readers gravitate
After the blockbuster success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games franchise, dystopian novels became the Next Big Thing in the YA world: Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave, Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy, Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy, and Lauren Oliver’s Delirium books, to name a few.
But after years of bookstore and box office success, that trend seemed to be waning. By 2016, the Divergent movies were performing so badly that the final film was basically canceled and replaced by a still-unformed TV series.
But although the dystopia wave sputtered, it didn’t completely die — and recently, it came roaring back to life. After the presidential election, critics of Trump christened themselves “The Resistance,” as if they were underground freedom fighters straight out of a dystopian novel. As President Trump railed against the media as “fake news” and his adviser Kellyanne Conway talked about “alternative facts” on national television, it only furthered the perception that we might be living in an Orwellian dystopia of newspeak, and sales for classic novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt even put out new editions of the novels to capitalize on the interest.
“With our current president, people’s taste in reading has definitely changed,” Molly Ash, the newsstand buyer at Book Soup in L.A., tells EW. “1984 is still on our paperback best-seller list.”
The Handmaid’s Tale’s resurgence in popularity obviously benefitted from the recent Hulu adaptation, but the story has also resonated with people upset about the current political situation. Women’s rights activists have started showing up to protests clad in the infamous red robes and white bonnets of the book’s titular handmaids. Ahead of the TV series’ debut, Atwood herself wrote an essay for the New York Times examining the book in the context of “the Age of Trump.” Considering Atwood also has other post-apocalyptic novels to her name, The Handmaid’s Tale has become a particularly good launch pad readers interested in what the genre can tell us about our current moment.
“It’s hard to tell if some of those are one-shot deals, but a lot of our good customers have picked up 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale or It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, and some of them have been like, Hey, I’m into this dystopian fiction, give me something else like this that’s more modern,” Cody Morrison, the buyer at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, tells EW. “You see it being a gateway to other books with similar premises.”
Bryan Samsone, manager of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, has seen something similar: “Because Atwood’s back catalog has other books like Oryx and Crake, she is probably benefitting the most from that. It’s kind of gone from that old boy’s club of classics to a lot more female protagonists and authors who are following the Atwood trail.”
This trend isn’t just confined to old classics, however. There’s also a new crop of dystopian novels this year. Ash highlighted The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, which reimagines Joan of Arc as a far-future freedom fighter battling a corporate police state. Samsone pointed to Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, which paints a world where citizens are monitored for subversion and language starts to lose its meaning. Morrison mentioned Omar El Akkad’s American War, in which a second Civil War breaks out in a future U.S. over fossil fuels and differing responses to environmental devastation.
In a recent essay for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore theorized that the continuing dominance of dystopian literature has to do with the lack of utopian books. Dystopia, after all, does not exist in a vacuum; the genre first arose to point out the flaws of downsides of the utopian societies imagined by Thomas More and Edward Bellamy. Most of the famous dystopian novels are critiquing a specific utopian ideal; for 1984 it’s Soviet Communism, and for The Handmaid’s Tale it’s the “Moral Majority” proclaimed by Reagan’s America. But without new utopian visions to replace them, we remain stuck in dystopias. Lepore writes, “Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and Infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one.”
But maybe things are changing. All three bookstores agree these newly best-selling dystopian novels are bringing customers back for more — but they aren’t always asking for the same genre.
“What we’ve seen since then is these classic dystopian books are actually leading people to buy books in our activism section,” Samsone says. “Now we have a big display on Fight the Power and Resist kind of thing. It’s taken people from going, ‘Okay, we know we’re in this dystopian frightening world,’ to going ‘Okay, what do we do about it?’ We’re seeing a lot of sales going to our activism/politics section.”