Divergent is a bad book, but its accidental brilliance is that it completely mauled the YA dystopian genre by stripping it down to its barest bones for maximum marketability, utterly destroying the chances of YA dystopian literature’s long-term survival
Sure. Imagine that you need to make a book, and this book needs to be successful. This book needs to be the perfect Marketable YA Dystopian.
So you build your protagonist. She has no personality traits beyond being decently strong-willed, so that her quirks and interesting traits absolutely can’t get in the way of the audience’s projection onto her. She is dainty, birdlike, beautiful despite her protestations that she is ugly–yet she can still hold her own against significantly taller and stronger combatants. She is the perfect mask for the bashful, insecure tweens you are marketing to to wear while they read.
You think, as you draft your novel, that you need to add something that appeals to the basest nature of teenagers, something this government does that will be perversely appealing to them. The Hunger Games’ titular games were the main draw of the books, despite the hatred its characters hold for the event. So the government forces everyone into Harry Potter houses.
So the government makes everyone choose their faction, their single personality trait. Teenagers and tweens are basic–they likely identify by one distinct personality trait or career aspiration, and they’ll thus be enchanted by this system. For years, Tumblr and Twitter bios will include Erudite or Dauntless alongside Aquarius and Ravenclaw and INTJ. Congratulations, you just made having more than one personality trait anathema to your worldbuilding.
Your readers and thus your protagonist are naturally drawn to the faction that you have made RIDICULOUSLY cooler and better than the others: Dauntless. The faction where they play dangerous games of Capture the Flag and don’t work and act remarkably like teenagers with a budget. You add an attractive, tall man to help and hinder the protagonist. He is brooding and handsome; he doesn’t need to be anything else.
The villains appear soon afterward. They are your tried and true dystopian government: polished, sleek, intelligent, headed by a woman for some reason. They fight the protagonists, they carry out their evil, Machiavellian, stupid plan. You finish the novel with duct tape and fanservice, action sequences and skin and just enough glue and spit to seal the terrible, hollow world you have made shut just long enough to put it on the shelf.
And you have just destroyed YA dystopian literature. Because you have boiled it down to its bare essentials. A sleek, futuristic government borrowing its aesthetic from modern minimalism and wealth forces the population to participate in a perversely cool-to-read-about system like the Hunger Games or the factions, and one brave, slender, pretty, hollow main character is the only one brave–no, special enough to stand against it.
And by making this bare-bones world, crafted for maximum marketability, you expose yourself and every other YA dystopian writer as a lazy worldbuilder driven too far by the “rule of cool” and the formulas of other, better dystopian books before yours. In the following five years, you watch in real time as the dystopian genre crumbles under your feet, as the movies made based on your successful (but later widely-panned and mocked) books slowly regress to video-only releases, as fewer and fewer releases try to do what you did. And maybe you realize what you’ve done.
one quibble: hunger games was intense and sincere and the writer had worked for tv and knew exactly what she was talking about when she wrote how media machines create golden idols out of abused kids and then leave the actual people inside their glamorous shells to rot. hunger games had a genuine core of righteous anger that resonated with a lot of people. the hunger games was genuinely angry about shit that is genuinely wrong.
but divergent was clumsy make-believe the whole way through. it aped the forms and functions of dystopian lit but the writer didn’t actually have any real, passionate, sincere anger to put on the page. she didn’t know what it was talking about, so she didn’t have anything worth listening to.
there’s a difference between anti-authoritarianism as a disaffected, cynical pose and anti-authoritarianism as a rallying cry by people who believe in a bitter world. and the former is something corporations and industries and publishing houses are so much more comfortable with. so divergent and the flood of books published and marketed alongide and after it showed how the dystopian genre was no longer truly revolutionary, no longer a sincere condemnation of corporate oligarchies. the mass-market dystopian genre was now nothing more than an insincere playspace for people who were writing dystopia as a safely distant, abstract make-believe stage for their pretty girl heroes, rather than a direct allegory for everything that needs to be torn down in this world today.