Always on Those Books: Millennial Taste in Fiction

Millennials are often characterised as a generation that can’t be bothered to get off their digital devices to read. But recent Pew Consumer reports indicate they might instead be the generation that reads the most—it just so happens that they read through their digital devices. Fiction and storytelling occupy a place of incredible importance to millennials, perhaps more so when compared with previous generations. But with all the other major shifts in consumption habits and technology, a major change in taste for fiction has divided the millennial generation from those who came before them—and it’s worth asking why.

A readily apparent difference, and one often lamented by literary commentators, is millennials’ rabid  (and lasting) love for young-adult (or YA) fiction. The YA category wasn’t discovered by millennials. In fact, some point to its beginnings as early as 1740 with the novel Pamela, which detailed a 15-year-old girl’s struggles to protect herself against sexual harassment in the repressive environment of 18th Century England. But YA fiction continues to resonate with millennials long after they grow out of the target 12 to 18-year-old demographic. A 2017 study conducted by Macquarie University found the median age of YA readers was 30–34: clear millennial territory. Furthermore, a lot the mass-consumed literature defining millennials—including Harry Potter and The Hunger Games—falls within the category of YA.

So young-adult fiction clearly resonates with the millennial audience. The question is why? The derisive commentators associate it with a general lack of maturity plaguing millennials. But the dark adult themes and pointed political messages central to many of these works argue against this idea. Popular YA fiction has focussed on death amidst the holocaust, children with terminal illnesses and serious mental illnesses, suicide and racial profiling (among many other serious issues). The tendency to tackle complex and difficult topics is the antithesis of the common ‘easy and disposable read’ YA is often assumed to offer. This perception is more rooted in stereotypes surrounding millennials as a generation—that they are vapid and in need of constant stimulation—than in the realities of YA fiction, which is a diverse and often challenging form of literature whose only consistent trait is a focus on issues to do with coming of age. And that is something millennials, torn between the adult expectations and economic factors that keep them in a suspended adolescence of dependency, can definitely relate to.

Speaking of confronting narratives, millennials also seem to favour a particular strain of dark narrative fare—dystopian fiction. Dystopias are clearly resonating with the larger culture: resurgent sales of classic dystopias such as 1984, and the rise of new dystopias, led The New Yorker to declare this a ‘golden age of dystopian fiction’. Millennials certainly seem to be unusually drawn towards depictions of the dark and the apocalyptic. The sheer number of bestselling dystopian fiction marketed to millennials—including classics like The Hunger Games alongside recent fare like The Power (depicting a world where all women suddenly gain deadly powers) and The Wolves of Winter (which envisions a disease-ridden post-nuclear holocaust wasteland)—testify to this fact.

Clearly there is something about the end (or at least severe dysfunction) of the world that resonates with the millennial reader. It is hard not to link these events to the increasingly divisive and turbulent political climate we live in today—and of course many commentators have done just that. Millennials are indeed stepping into a world with a horde of complex problems—not limited to the housing crisis, economic collapse, irrevocable climate change, structural inequality and increasing division between the left and the right—that have no immediate solution. This combination of clear-eyed awareness of society’s ills, and a lack of political power to motivate change, clearly plays into the relatability of a dystopic setting.

But perhaps more significantly, dystopian settings also allow for authors to comment on specific cultural and societal problems. The Hunger Games is a clear allegory for class inequality and media manipulation. More recently, Naomi Alderman’s 2017 novel The Power examines sexism and institutional inequality through a ‘flipped’ lens of female dominance, while Tyrell Johnson’s 2018 novel The Wolves of Winter resurrects fears of nuclear war and terrorism. These issues are problems millennials are painfully aware of—so the desire to consume works that confront and depict these fears is only natural.

This willingness to engage with difficult political and social issues is a defining feature of popular millennial literature. A dystopian or YA ‘frame’ is not necessary for books to dive headfirst into complex issues. Literary fiction either written by or targeted to millennials has shown a recurrent willingness to savagely confront the social problems their generation has been mired with. A clear example is Gary Shteyngart’s popular 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story, which envisions a shallow society dominated by social media and materialism poised on the edge of economic collapse. More recently, Sally Rooney’s (an author described as the ‘first great millennial novelist’ by The New York Times)  2018 novel  Normal People examines gender roles, male fragility and romantic abuse in a decidedly cynical take on a love story.

This demand is so strong it extends beyond the page too. American author Lionel Shriver, in a tirade defending author’s right to cultural appropriation, illustrates how millennials are generationally leading the charge towards socially progressive and inclusive narratives. They are having a practical effect on narratives that indulge ethnic stereotypes or co-opt minority experiences by actively protesting them. Millennials don’t merely want social responsibility from their authors and narratives; they are loudly demanding it.

Generationally, they care deeply about the literature they consume. Like all readers, they want it to resonate with their values and personal experiences, which have been profoundly shaped by the society older generations have left to them. An increasingly interconnected global society, incredible advances in communication technology over the last decade and dawning awareness of the tidal wave of societal problems millennials will be tasked with—how could this fail to colour their relationship to fiction?

Viewed in this light, it is astoundingly obvious why millennials are drawn to YA fiction that depicts difficult coming of age processes, dystopian fiction that tackles a central social ill and progressive fiction that tackles important social issues and respects other cultures. Contrary to popular opinion, millennials don’t’ read less or ‘worse’; they simply relate to the world differently than prior generations.  And they require a literature that reflects that.

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Cover image can be found here.

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Image supplied by author.

David is a current Master’s student at the University of Melbourne and a freelance contributor to Monster Pictures.  He is also marketing lead for Grattan Street Press. 

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