Switching allegiances: On Allegiant, unhappy endings, and the writer-reader relationship

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Veronica Roth took the phrase “murder your darlings” too seriously, and quite literally, when writing Allegiant, the much anticipated finale of her dystopian trilogy, which held top spots in the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult novels since bursting onto the scene in 2011. There can be no thorough discussion of the novel without divulging plot spoilers, but the online reaction is indication enough: the fallout was bad, even for a genre that can only offer happy-ish endings at best.

But Roth fans went online to vent their sadness, anger, and disappointment, and John Green went on his soapbox. Anybody familiar with contemporary YA knows him as the NYT-Bestselling author of YA coming of age, manic pixie dream girl-fueled narratives, and he tends to speak out in favor of fellow YA authors. This time around, he admonished Allegiant readers to respect authorial intent, or in his words, fulfill their responsibilities to the text.

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This prompted a dubious acquisition of Allegiant, to find out what the fuss was about, my gut saying that hardcore fans wouldn’t feel bad without due cause.

Now, I’m no fan, but I wanted to root for Veronica Roth. I thought Divergent was a pretty solid debut novel: serviceable prose and strong heroine, not unlike The Hunger Games. I appreciated how her heroine Tris had regular teenage issues; the immediate sequel, Insurgent, addresses the nuances of having a young romantic relationship amidst a troubled, futuristic milieu. But her world-building was pretty basic, with a lot of dystopian tropes and high school stereotypes, and cliffhanger endings were cheaply used.

The tl;dr version: Roth had some good ideas, but could use a little more fine-tuning. I also thought that she was laboring under the demands of a strict publication schedule—all books came out within a year of each other—and the pressure of differentiating her books in a genre that is rapidly becoming oversaturated.

Emotional ramifications of plot aside, Roth fans have reason to feel shortchanged. Changing narrative structure from a single POV to the alternating first-person perspectives of Tris and her boyfriend/fellow insurgent Four, should have added depth to the storytelling. But the voices are too similar, interchangeable even, for two characters with vastly different underlying motivations; it muddled characterization instead of clarifying it. (Many other readers also protest the implausible strategic decisions and reactions of certain characters). The late change in structure also suggests that Roth wrote herself into a corner and needed Four’s POV to narrate events without Tris’s physical presence. The pacing is uneven: glacial at the beginning, but then goes into warp speed at the drop of the hat. Plot developments are not allowed to percolate in readers’ minds, and the new villain lacks the screen time to trouble readers with his evil intentions.

And then there are the limits of genre. Reading genre fiction often enables readers to fall back on certain conventions. Amazon classes Allegiant in the Love and Romance sub-category of its Teen books section; the book also devotes more time to the Tris and Four relationship. So it is understandable if readers harbor expectations in this regard, and express disappointment when there is no satisfactory conclusion to the romantic plot.

Green asks Roth’s fans to read her novel generously. But he seems to forget that is the extent of their responsibility, for readers are in no way obligated to like the book, and have every right to disparage if if they find it lacking. Those feels posted online are substantiated, and if you take a look at Allegiant’s reviews on Amazon, there are very detailed, rational explanations for their dislike. There are positive reviews as well, but this is par for the course for bestselling authors, so a deluge of negative comments from an otherwise vocally supportive fanbase must have come as a surprise.

These days, barriers between author and reader are broken down by social media, and an author who regularly engages the fan community can only be aware of the fans’ investment in their stories and characters. Roth was one such author, a darling of the Goodreads community, and she cleverly used the internet to generate publicity: digital downloads of Four-centric stories fueled fan interest in the months leading to Allegiant’s release. Roth broke this trust, not because she denied her readers a happy ending, but because she was unable to convince them of the necessity of her preferred conclusion.

There is a post-script to this tale: Roth has taken to her blog and explained at length why she chose to end the series the way she did. It is to her credit that she took the time to address her readers and acknowledge their feelings, and to cynical minds, arrest fan fallout to sustain interest in the books’ movie franchise. But a good writer wouldn’t have needed to, the ending would have spoken for itself.

Veronica Roth’s note on Allegiant’s ending can be found at: http://veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com/2013/10/about-end-of-allegiant-spoilers.html

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