The problem with Divergent

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that a couple of weeks ago I read the novel Divergent by Veronica Roth. I had seen a lot of marketing for the film adaptation and it looked kind of edgy and interesting, so I thought I’d read the book before it was released here. It was a decision I almost instantly regretted. By the time I was half way through, I was so annoyed that I kept wishing the thing would just catch fire and end my suffering. And by the time I got to the end? I was actually angry. Every time I see it on my shelf or hear mentions of it, I become angry all over again.

So why does a highly successful, best-selling novel with a 4 star rating on Amazon make me so angry? Well, because it’s shit. This isn’t popular opinion but hey, it’s mine.

For those lucky enough to know nothing about this story, it centres on Tris (Beatrice) Prior who comes of age in a dystopian Chicago divided in a ludicrous faction system. This includes selfless Abnegation (that her family belongs to), brave Dauntless, honest Candor, peaceful Amity and intelligent Erudite. 16 year olds take a test to tell them where best they fit, but they can still choose which faction they want to belong to. It’s a lifelong commitment with no going back and no fraternising. Tris chooses Dauntless but she’s actually divergent, meaning she has traits from different factions, and this makes her a threat to the system. It’s every bit as simplistic and half-baked as it sounds. Think Delirium meets Hunger Games with a little smidge of Fallout / The Village (because I did not have to google the plot synopsis of the rest of this trilogy to pick up on the fact that these idiots were obviously being contained.)

Look, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I expect a lot from the books I read. I demand a lot from authors – I expect them to know what they’re doing and I don’t want my time wasted. And this novel does nothing but waste my time.

I admit that I find it incredibly difficult to respect a book that begins with the protagonist describing themselves by looking in a mirror. It’s cheap and lazy and any first year creative writing workshop would tell you not to do it. Why does anyone think this is a good idea? This happens on page 2 of Divergent so it pretty much immediately put me offside. I know that it’s also meant to reveal something of the faction system, in that Abnegation are not supposed to look at their reflection, but it’s a weak defence. Why do they even have a mirror in the first place? That whole scene could have been done without it which might have given it a little more depth, and maybe then it wouldn’t have felt like such a glaringly clumsy piece of exposition. That is all it is. This novel is an exercise in ignoring the golden rule of writing – show, don’t tell.

Tris spends most of her time telling you she’s small, weak and divergent. Got it? Don’t worry if you didn’t, she’ll tell you again in the next chapter. And the next one. And the one after that. It never, ever lets up. This is endlessly frustrating not just because it’s boring (we get it Tris, let it go) but it also stunts the character. It distances her from the reader because you can never really get to feel her growth or her strength. It’s all telling, you’re being talked at, you’re being told what the development is, so you don’t feel it. To make the obvious comparison, Katniss is so wonderful in the first Hunger Games novel because her internal monologue is telling you her fears and reservations but her actions show her true self. She thinks she’s not strong enough but she doesn’t dwell on it, she responds to the situation. Everything she does is defiant, even if she doesn’t think of it like that. You never get that depth with Tris because she’s too repetitive in what she’s telling you. She is small and weak, small and weak, small and weak…so her minor victories are supposed to seem more impressive? She’s too busy telling you what she is to show you it. The same goes for the Dauntless’ fearlessness in general – I don’t need to have people constantly jumping on and off moving trains every other chapter, thanks, I get the point.

And then here’s the romance with Four, who is so obviously the Abnegation defector mentioned near the start of the novel it’s a miracle Tris doesn’t see it. Especially since she spends so much time wondering about him and she’s supposed to exhibit Erudite traits. I find their interactions and spats so ridiculously childish and painful, and yes, she’s a 16 year old girl, but I mean come on. Seriously? She keeps telling me she’s divergent, and everyone else keeps telling me divergents are special, so can’t she be a little more mature? Just a little, I just don’t want all this storming off all the time. And ok, yes, you could argue that she acts like a teenager – fine, I accept that – and she also acts naively because she’s from Abnegation, and so doesn’t have a lot of practical world experience. I could accept that as a defence if we were shown a bit more naiveté from her, a little more sense of her inexperience. There is nary a hint of that until her final fears test and you could call her many things, but I don’t think naïve is one. But maybe the problem is that Four has no real personality of his own. He’s supposed to be intimidating and broody…but he’s no Edward Cullen. Say what you want about Twilight but it hit all the right marks when it comes to teenage emotions, that’s why it resonates with people and that’s why it was huge. The characters in Divergent don’t feel multi-faceted, there’s no real emotional depth. They don’t make me feel anything they feel cause as far as I can tell, they don’t feel anything at all. Sure, they tell me they do, but I don’t see it. An actual visceral response is never initiated. So when Tris has what one assumes would be a terrible emotional decision to make in the climactic battle, coming face to face with her brain-washed friend, you feel nothing when she shoots him. Who is he really? Who is she? Same thing with her parents, am I supposed to be moved? I was never given any reason to care about them. Compare that to Rue’s death in The Hunger Games or Dobby in Harry Potter. You should care about characters dying, otherwise what’s the point even including them?

Regardless of the weak execution of a concept, one-dimensional characters that show no growth and a lack of heart, the novel’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Maybe I could forgive it all these things if not for the fact that there is a legion of dystopian fiction novels out there. Obviously The Hunger Games comes to mind because it’s the leader of the pack, having been published in 2008, and it’s in the public consciousness because of the films. It’s not a series without its flaws (first book being brilliant, second being ok, and the third being a huge disappointment – I’ve always felt that Suzanne Collins was forced into writing a trilogy and that we all got short-changed as a result) but it definitely blazed the trail for this kind of fiction. The other novel that instantly came to mind for me was Delirium by Lauren Oliver, released in January 2011, 3 months before Divergent. If there had been a bigger gap between publication times, I’d say Roth borrowed a lot from Oliver but as they came out practically at the same time, it was obviously just a zeitgeist thing. The two novels are extraordinarily similar, in style and execution.

Delirium is set in a future where love is a disease and the pockets of civilization exist in cordoned off cities. A surgical cure for love is mandatory for all citizens as soon as they turn 18 but shortly before the protagonist, Lena, is meant to have her procedure she falls in love with an Invalid – i.e. someone who didn’t have the procedure and lives in the wild unregulated territory beyond the border of the city. There is a resistance in the wild that opposes the government and the cure, and the premise of the novel is Lena fighting to decide whether she’ll acquiesce to society’s expectations or join the resistance and fight for love. I read Delirium when it was first published and I can’t say I immediately liked it. I found Lena a bit tedious to start with but I was intrigued by the idea so I kept reading, and it slowly got more engaging as the novel went on. I would not have thought particularly well of it or even remembered it all these years later if it wasn’t for the ending though. It has such a satisfying final chapter. I later discovered that it was part of a trilogy but I’ve never read the other books because furthering the story would rob the ending of its power and, as it was the ending that redeemed the whole thing for me, I like to pretend that was how it all ended.

It’s because of Delirium that I kept reading Divergent. I kept hoping that it would have a redeeming moment too, that it would have an ending that would make me sit back and go, ok, yes, I get what all this was about. But, it didn’t. And that is essentially why I think it’s a huge waste of time. I’ve seen it done before, and I’m not being offered anything remotely different, new or better.

Truth be told, that is what really pisses me off the most. The success of the The Hunger Games had Young Adult publishers rushing to sign dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels in the same way the success of Twilight saw the market saturated with supernatural romances. It’s a band wagon thing, YA is all about trends. That upsets me because it means publishers will sign things they may not normally sign just to make sure they can cash in on the momentum. It’s not about quality at all. The YA market is too small to tolerate this kind of BS. If an adult novel does well and triggers a trend, that’s not nearly as damaging because the scope of adult fiction is so much bigger. There were tons of Fifty Shades of Grey inspired novels but it didn’t impact on the overall variety available because you can look beyond erotica and romance, and find that there are still fantasy/sci-fi sections, mystery sections, literature sections. There are options. When the YA market is flooded, there’s nowhere else to really go. And it’s flooded for capital reasons, sacrificing on content and quality for a quick buck. YA readers are just as diverse and just as important as adult readers (and there’s nothing to stop young adults reading adult books, and vice versa, of course) and it infuriates me that it is somehow seen as a lesser market that can be exploited in this way. We should expect the same quality and diversity in YA lit as we do in adult lit.

Be better. That’s all I want.

But hey, my indignant anger is what fuels my own desire to write a YA novel, to write the novel I always wanted to read. God knows if I don’t do it, apparently no one else is going to either.

Music: Do I wanna know? – The Arctic Monkeys

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