The first printing of the conclusion to Veronica Roth’s dystopian YA trilogy, Allegiant, was about two million copies. Thousands of people turned out to buy the book at midnight on Monday at stores across the country. Roth’s books are being made into films starring Shailene Woodley. She is becoming one of those people, like Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins, who will be a household name, at least as far as the teenagers of America are concerned. She is also undeniably being made pretty rich by this process, and just in case you are not already feeling like retrieving that old novel draft of yours from college off your hard drive, by the way, she sold the first book in this series at 21.
But it’s not all rosy in Roth’s world. Check out Allegiant‘s Amazon page, and you find a rash of bad reviews from people who claim to be fans of the first two books. Mostly, they’re upset about the fact that there’s an important death embedded in the conclusion, which fans never like.
And this is the part where I warn that I’m about to spoil it, because I have to in order to discuss it.
Roth decides to kill her protagonist, “Tris,” in this last book, and thus has her sacrifice herself in a Christlike fashion to save the world. I’d like to tell you that I think this was a masterstroke of brave originality from Roth, whom I’ve previously said more or less drew her books straight from The Hunger Games, but in truth I think the sources of the choice are pretty clear. As it turns out, Roth’s a Christian convert, and a Harry Potter fan, and in both those cases there is at the climactic moment a similar decision to die for everyone’s sins. There’s a reason this story is archetypal, and also a reason Roth was therefore not wrong to reach for it even if it wasn’t “original” in the strict sense.
In both the biblical and Book of Rowling storylines, of course, the sacrifice allows the Christ figure to escape (permanent) death. Not so with Tris: she’s dead as dead can be.
The fans, of course, didn’t like it. Among the more reasonably phrased grievances:
I didn’t cry while I was reading but after I put the book down and thought over it then the tears started to flow. I think that was closer to Four’s reaction, that sense of lost and not being able to comprehend.
And then there’s this:
If I could give this book zero stars I would. Not because I’m mad at the author for being ‘bold and edgy’ with her decision (though, really, Veronica, bold and edgy this was not). But because she broke one of the cardinal rules of fiction writing, and did it for a very stupid reason.
Curious about the content of that “rule of fiction writing”? The reviewer doesn’t share. There is this, later, though:
I think Veronica Roth either didn’t like being a popular author or was trying to shock the heck out of readers so her version of a dystopian future would be remembered. Unfortunately, if the latter is the case, I think she just ended her YA writing career–and a movie franchise with it. How did her editor and publisher allow this? I just met Roth at a signing and told her how upset I was with this book. Her flippant reply? “Maybe you should go get some ice cream or something so you can feel better.” I completely agree that these are her characters to do with as she wishes, but as a school librarian, I won’t be recommending this series to my students any longer. The thing about YA dystopian fiction is that it always leaves the readers with a sense of hope.
Of course, one doesn’t want to get into a match of wit and reason with an Amazon book reviewer, but what strikes me is the particular way that last one describes the trajectory of her upset — insisting first that Roth’s personal self-destructiveness was involved, then taking the time to actually go to Roth’s signing and convey these grievances in person, that struck me.
Roth has told the press that she has a problem with anxiety, and she describes her specific trigger as the Internet. She told the Chicago Tribune, recently, that it was precisely the one-star Amazon reviews that paralyzed her. (She also said that her problem was serious enough to get treated by a psychologist, and that she had become more adept at fielding the hate.) Still, I can’t imagine any 25-year-old — and that’s Roth’s age — who could easily shrug off people coming up to her and airing their grievances with her book.
This is one of the costs of commercial fiction, of course; if you view your books as “serving” an audience (read: customer base) it is hardly strange that they in turn feel entitled to all the usual treatment from a proper returns and complaints department. But it’s hard not to feel sorry for Roth anyway. She was so young when she started to play this game, and now she’s in it whether she likes it or not. And while people are entitled to have bad opinions of her book, there is a strange personalization effect. The particular kind of betrayal her readers feel depends on their diagnosing her motives.
The problem of idolizing writers afflicts every kind of reader, of course. (Ask a few popular memoirists about the people who come to their readings.) But it’s particularly acute in the young, largely because when you’re a teenager you’ve yet to learn that everyone disappoints, sooner or later, because people are people rather than paradigms of virtue. The cleverness of something like John Green’s brilliant A Fault in Our Stars — in part about what it means to love a famous author — is that it forces its readers to confront that. And I think it means his fans are accordingly respectful. But in your ordinary YA-genre book setting, idealizing is so directly correlated with sales that a young person like Roth can hardly avoid it.
Pair all of that with the pace, anonymizing and the chutzpah of the internet, and you get the kind of toxic stew that Allegiant, in its short two days of existence, is leaving in its wake. I hope that YA continues to flourish and grow; I think it’s an incredible genre. But episodes like these are giving it a bad aftertaste, lately. We’re in need of some mouthwash.