Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Derived VS Derivative: In Defense of Divergent

Try saying that title ten times fast.

I went for the movie poster rather than book cover because THEO JAMES!!!

Today, I'm talking about Divergent by Veronica Roth. I'm also talking about story and influence and what makes an idea "new" vs "tired and done." This won't be the last time either, so stay tuned! Today, I'm focusing on a book that catches a lot of flack for bearing similarities to others on the market and making an argument for why it deserves the love it gets anyway.

For those who don't know Divergent, here's the quick rundown:

Beatrice Prior is a sixteen-year-old girl living in a futuristic, dystopian Chicago. She's been raised in a society where people are segregated based on what virtue they most strongly identify with, whether that virtue is courage, truthfulness, kindness etc. These segregated groups are called factions and Beatrice belongs to Abnegation, the faction that bases its identity around service. While she admires those she lives among, she also feels stifled by the high level of self-denial the Abnegation insist on.

She hopes her faction test will help her make some sense of these feelings, as her choosing ceremony is coming up and she'll have to decide whether she remains in her own faction or transfers to another one. But when her test results come up inconclusive and she is forced to confront the possibility that she doesn't belong to any one faction, her understanding of her world begins to unravel...

Okay, so there's my version of the dust-jacket blurb. It gives a decent idea of what the book is about, but there is a much shorter version of the Divergent blurb that could also be given:

Divergent is Harry Potter's Hogwarts houses recast in a gritty, Hunger Games-esque environment.

And honestly, it's not a bad description of the book either.

This is where Divergent has hit some snags and criticism. Hot on the heels of Hunger Games and featuring a story mechanic reminiscent of another recent kidlit sensation, many critics are dismissing Roth's series as derivative and phoned in. The premise isn't unique enough and the books are just copycats.

Roth clearly did derive a number of her novel's elements from Hunger Games and Harry Potter. She's been very public about the fact that Harry Potter is one of her favorite books and dystopia is greatly overshadowed by Suzanne Collins's trilogy right now. But books are more than the sum of their parts, and this is especially the case with Divergent. Just because some of her novel's landscape can be traced back to other books doesn't mean that there isn't something unique on offer in Dystopian Chicago. So here are those two most common criticisms and some arguments for why they aren't quite fair.

#1: The factions are just Hogwarts houses but darker.
This, I would argue, is one of the strengths of the books. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, but even as a child, something about the Hogwarts houses bothered me. For instance, pretty much every villain the story saw came from one house - Slytherin. During the final battle for Hogwarts, Rowling states very clearly how many of each particular house stick around to defend the school. Courageous Gryffindors make up the largest amount, followed by hardworking Hufflepuffs. A smaller fraction of intelligent Ravenclaws stay and then, of course, ambitious Slytherin is absent because they're all evil.

If Roth did base her factions on the Hogwarts houses, she recognized that there were some problems with this clear-cut way of looking at virtue. The Dauntless Faction, for instance, value courage just like Gryffindor, but Roth's version points out that courage is only useful if it is placed in correct principles. And being gumptious and willing to jump into action when it is demanded is not a guarantee that someone is going to always know WHAT the right thing is. Dauntless is largely divided between those who value the power that comes from bravery and those that value the heroism.

Similarly, the ambition of Slytherin is in many ways at it's most dangerous when it's combined with the intelligence of Ravenclaw. Erudite Faction represents a more complicated fear - one of logic overwhelming principle. I'm not sure I entirely agree with her version of these virtues, but she does devote a lot of time to arguing her views, something I do value.

Roth's books engage the notion of a society organized by cardinal virtues more deeply than the Harry Potter books, sometimes with directly opposing points. In other words, she adds to the discussion. Whether you agree with her or Rowling, she does at least force some questions about just what drives someone to evil and what weaknesses are inherent in what we call our strengths.

#2: The plot is just another Hunger Games knock-off.
This criticism has a bit more bearing, and I can definitely see some similarities. There's something familiar about the pacing of the books and the dark, grittiness. It is a dystopia and there is a "stop the evil empire" plot and there are children put through recklessly dangerous tasks that our heroine, Tris, must "win" in a matter of speaking.

But there are some important differences, most of them coming down to a character level. Tris and Katniss are very different from each other and they confront their problems in very different ways. Katniss is constantly worried about the damage she might cause in someone's life, and so holds people at a distance, more comfortable using them for survival than receiving affection. Tris, on the other hand, actively pursues acceptance and new friendships. She wants a normal life, and incidentally, lives in a world where she's got a better chance at one.

Yes, the worlds are different too. Chicago's system might be broken, but it's no punitive dictatorship like Panem. As the novels go on, she's not even sure the answer is to end the faction system, since she can see the good and the structure that have come from it. Really, there IS no hope for Katniss within the status quo, so resisting the Capitol is an easy decision... or would be if Katniss was good at making moral decisions. Another key Katniss/Tris difference. Tris is much more idealistic and much more in control of her own destiny.

In fact, if you're looking for the king of Hunger Games knock-offs, I would say you don't need to look any further than Catching Fire, the second book in Collins' trilogy, which is almost identical in plot to the first one. One of Divergent's greatest strengths is its second book, Insurgent, which steps away from the plot line of the first by developing the encroaching war in an interesting, detailed way. The same issues are not rehashed and Tris's relationships with other characters grow and change in ways not seen in the first book. As the story goes on, the more Divergent and the Hunger Games - ahem - diverge. And that is very satisfying. Once again, it might have started in a similar place, but Divergent adds something to the conversation of YA fiction.

Divergent isn't the only YA book that gets accused of being derivative. As paranormal romance and dystopian sci-fi have ran their course, numerous books have come and gone that bare resemblance to one another. Now, we're even starting to see editors and lit agents mention not wanting another "sick child" or "cancer" novel because John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is too ubiquitous.

But all of these books owe their lineage to earlier stories. It's one of the outcomes of living in the world we do. There are thousands of years of stories preceding the ones currently bought and sold in your local Barnes and Noble. Hunger Games has been accused of being derivative of an earlier Japanese film, Battle Royale, but its origins can be traced to an even earlier time. Collins has stated explicitly that she was inspired by the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which youths where abandoned inside a maze with a monster and only one made it out alive. With her use of Greek and Roman names and imagery, its clear that Collins did derive much from these books, just as Divergent derives much from earlier stories. But they aren't derivative.

For me, the bench mark is the one I've stated a couple of times already - does the work of art bring something new to the conversation? Is it using the literary tropes already common in fiction in a new way? Is it reminding us of another way of thinking about a topic, one relevant to the way the world is today? If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, then I would argue the book is derived, not derivative.

So what then if you can't? What if a book adds nothing to the discussion? Or what if an element of the story adds nothing to where it is borrowed from? Well, stay tuned, folks. As mentioned, there's more to come.

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