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You! Out of my genre! January 10, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, reviews.
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This post was meant to be about Regurgitator, but when I woke up and saw that my LiveJournal friends’ page was filled with responses to a series of articles about YA books, I knew I wanted to give my 10 cents’ worth.

I spent a few hours digesting what the articles were saying, and will briefly summarise them here. (They are summarised in the order of the links I posted above.)

The first is a review and discussion in The New Yorker about Kathy Koja’s novel Headlong. I have not read the book, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the writers’ assessments, but I have read many YA novels in the course of my six years of YA book-reviewing (and, more importantly, my 16-odd years spent reading YA books). And what I would say to the authors of this review is ‘you are utterly, irredeemably, disrespectfully, inexcusably wrong’. The review not only damns all young-adult authors with its faint praise of Koja’s book, but also insults the intelligence of every teenager who has ever picked up a book and seen him or herself reflected back in its pages. The authors as one describe YA writing as ‘facile’ and ‘uncomplicated’, teenage girls as narcissistic and imply that YA writers have an easier time of it than ‘proper’ adult writers.

What is wrong with these people? If the best you can do in discussing YA writing is refer to The Catcher In The Rye and Twilight, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. If you think of YA literature as typically preachy, two-dimensional and unrealistic, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. If you are talking about emotionally and philosophically complex YA writing and you (as Americans) do not refer at least in passing to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which has been nominated for a Hugo Award, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, you are doing it so wrong you might as well not even do it at all.

All right, let me take a deep breath and move on.

The next article is from the New York Times, and looks at the way in which teenage girls supposedly read (they allow ‘a novel to carry them so effortlessly from one place to another that for a time they truly don’t care about anything else’), with a focus on the Twilight phenomenon. It’s a brief, sweet article, full of a yearning for the lost Eden of teenage self-absorption, and a recognition of the importance of books in the forming of identity. Something about it bugs me, though. It’s slightly patronising. Although the author is saying that this phase of reading is an essential step on the journey to adulthood, she’s saying it’s a phase. Something to grow out of. It’s as if there’s something shameful about reading something that’s badly-written, or seeking to be transported to another world, or hoping to find echoes of yourself among the words of others – as if to do so as an adult is childish, a sign of emotional immaturity.

I’m not even talking about the Twilight books here, because I have a whole range of problems with them that I may go into at some point. There’s just something profoundly unsettling about a journalist implying that teenage girls will read any old junk, as long as it appeals to their inherent narcissism.

The final article is from The Atlantic, and purports to be about ‘what girls want’. In actual fact, it’s an attempt to explain why what girls want is Edward Cullen. I’m still struggling to make up my mind about it. The writer certainly has a compelling argument for the appeal of everyone’s favourite sparkling vampire, one with which I’m inclined to agree – but that’s the problem. I find the argument disturbing.

Twilight is, in its essence, a story about teenage female sexuality, sans sex. (It is, as the author of the article writes, a ‘1000-page treatise on the art of foreplay’.) And yet Meyer’s extreme preachiness – her ‘true love waits’ abstinence-only views, her extreme pro-life didacticism – is not merely wrong, it is dangerous.

I remember reading an article about the appeal of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (and by extension Bluebeard, Jane Eyre and every other story where a mousy little girl loves a devouring ogre) and saying, ‘yes, and yes, and yes I agree’ to the following point:

It is the story of the ogre and the little girl, where she loves him because he may kill her, and he accepts her (and doesn’t kill her) because he loves her fear.  That’s why they can live happily ever after – as long as she doesn’t recognise the Gothic mansion of his appetite for what it is.  – Michael Wood, ‘At the Movies’, London Review of Books.

Nothing wrong with that assessment. It is entirely true. That is how some teenage girls (and some women) think about sex. It’s the abstinence and the anti-abortion (even if, as happens in the final Twilight book, carrying the baby will probably kill the mother) that disturb me. As I’ve said elsewhere, when a series is as popular as Meyer’s Twilight, there’s a serious cultural reason for its appeal. What worries me is what, in the common experiences of teenage girls, Twilight is talking to.

If you want a more honest, and less dangerous, depiction of female teenage sexuality, I would point you in three directions. The first is the entire Season 2 arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in particular the episode ‘Innocence’. The second is The Dead of the Night (the second in Australian young-adult writer John Marsden’s Tomorrow series). The third is The Amber Spyglass, the concluding book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. All of them are written by middle-aged men, and all of them treat female teenage sexuality with respect, dignity and responsibility.

There is some incredible stuff going on in YA literature, and there has been for some time. It’s fantastic that such institutions of the mainstream media are giving this genre the time of day. But until journalists stop filling their assessments of YA literature with qualifiers, equivocation and inaccurate and insulting representations of the genre, its writers and its readers, I’d prefer it to remain languishing in its current ghetto-like backwater. We – the young-adult writers, reviewers and readers young and old – know it’s fantastic. And we know why it is fantastic. And these New Yorker, New York Times and Atlantic journalists do not. Let’s hope that one day, they understand what they’re missing.

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Comments»

1. Anoria - January 10, 2009

I remember reading “What Girls Want” a few days ago and finding it quite offensive. What I saw it saying, and perhaps this is the author of the article rather than of the book coming through, is that this “true love waits” idea completely fails to acknowledge that sex is not the ultimate goal of a loving relationship. And for that, I’m very glad you mentioned Pullman in your recommendations. Who knows, perhaps it’s harder for YA readers today to identify with characters who exhibit love but not rabid sex drives, but I think the genre could use more of that kind of arrangment. Not to preach to kids, but to suggest that it’s possible.

2. dolorosa12 - January 10, 2009

I’m not sure if that’s quite my issue with the article, but you do raise a very valid point. My concern is not so much with the way that sex is presented as the ‘ultimate goal of a loving relationship’ (although I’d agree with you that it’s not – trust and respect are) but that Meyer explores sex (which *is* an important – much as I hate the word – issue for teenage girls) without even touching the moral, emotional and identity-forming problems that relate to it. You’re not sure if you’re ready? No problem, your sparkling, perfect, undead boyfriend decides unilaterally that it’s a bad idea. You get married at 19 to said undead boyfriend and finally sleep together – and it causes you so much pain that you’re covered in bruises the next day? No worries, because you love him so very very much it doesn’t matter. You get pregnant with a half-vampire baby that will slowly kill you? Don’t worry, as you die giving birth, your vampire husband will turn you into an immortal like him.

It’s such an irresponsible way to handle the subject matter. I know I’m always harping on about how wonderful Buffy is, but it’s true. Joss Whedon explores this issue with so much more respect, so much more complexity, and so much more responsibility. It really is quite depressing.


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