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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More considerations on YA lit

As promised, I read my former classmate's YA novel over Christmas. As a frequent browser of the Barnes and Noble YA section, I bring you this and other news from the trenches of market-researched girldom:

Vampire sex mush is still in, and now even has an entire sub-section of its own called "paranormal romance." Melodramatic amoral "realism" is also still in, despite having probably exhausted its credibility. You know, the books where an innocent, straight-laced girl drinks one beer at a party and then ends up pregnant, a heroin junkie, and DEAD IN A GUTTER? Do girls still like these books? The convention is already 40 years old--authors too timid to suggest that maybe some adolescent behaviors are bad in principle, that they reveal a lack of restraint and prudence, say that make you a bad person, so they invent incredible (and, needless to say, incredibly unlikely) consequences to warn girls away from them. If conscience doesn't punish you for drinking that beer because conscience is too moralistic and the author doesn't want to seem judgmental, then the wrath of nature must. It seems like this illusion should wear off once girls realize that ending up pregnant or dead from a couple of beers is not, in fact, "realistic." And most girls know this by, what, age 13? So who's left to read these books except 10-year-olds and emotional voyeurs? Which, come to think of it, really encompasses a lot of girls.

Anyway, Sales's book admirably avoids both vampires and melodramatic amoral realism. No one dies from beer or pot. It also avoids the vulgarity, hyperactive sexuality, and adulation of low culture of the other books it shares shelf-space with at Barnes. There is no product positioning and no female characters who are, at the age of 16, utterly consumed by their passion for some guy in the grade ahead. Instead, the characters spend a lot of time doing homework. And, as some of you know, one of my greatest media-related desires is to see intelligence established in some way other than the mere repeated assertion that Character X is really smart, even though she never goes to class, does any homework, reads any books, or otherwise demonstrates the slightest intellectual inclination. Often, such characters will out of nowhere ace their SATs as a convenient testament to their latent genius. Like the outsized lust that would fit better in a novel with a voluptuous woman in the arms of a man with hair that could plausibly be described as a "mane" on the cover, this characterization of adolescence is a fail. Smart girls do a lot of homework. The characters in Mostly Good Girls do too, so I approve of this, although it still isn't all that intelligence portrayed could be.



And really, the writing is quite witty and the characters are well-formed. There are many things that are both funny and true (to, um, my own life, which is my only measure for YA lit), like the quest for dessert ("Personally, I will do many undesirable things, like babysit total demon children and eat dinner at my Uncle Rick's, if I believe a good dessert will come at the end of it"), and the badness of high school suicide poetry. On balance, I'm pretty sure that I also liked dessert more than any guy I met in high school. I realize I might unusual in this regard, but I think not extremely.

The only problem is that I have no idea what the point of the book is. There are two girls--one is the hard-working, level-headed narrator who wants to get good grades and date some cute guy, and the other is her best friend who is awesome at everything but then for some reason decides to sabotage herself because she feels she doesn't deserve her good luck, so after hooking up for a while with some loser Starbucks barista who lives in Somerville(!), she transfers from their exclusive prep school to public school (Brookline High!). Perhaps I fail to see the true magnitude of this precipitous fall from prep school to perfectly good public school, but I never understood why exactly Perfect Friend decided to fail (or, in her words, "to embrace [her] second, or third, or fiftieth best"), what this even means, or how exactly her behavior constitutes a notable failure in the end.

It's as though the plot of the story was supposed to be "stuff we did during junior year as narrated by witty, self-aware people" and then someone demanded that a poignant life-altering event involving elements of Modern Girl Dangers (of which there are three: sex, drugs, and bad grades) be worked in. I realize this is a convention of the genre. Ordinarily, I can accept this because even cheesy constraints can sometimes be a basis for inventiveness (as in, for example, Buffy!). The problem is that the convention of YA lead almost without exception to treacly garbage, and the pushback against this garbage is disproportionately weak.

Adults both produce and judge the merits of books intended for children, and children--contrary to the claims of realists that the reason that children don't like to read is because traditional books are boring and only books in which all the characters die of heroin overdoses can hold their attention--actually read whatever adults give them. (It's also true that some children don't read at all, but those children have also, for 40 years, failed to be won over to the activity by the publication of increasingly vulgar and melodramatic fiction. YA books about gang rape and drug addiction basically share their readership with Jane Austen--that is, they are aimed at girls who read, and those girls do so more or less indiscriminately.*)

Children, unlike adults, are a captive audience whose tastes are shaped by book marketing far more than those of adults. Fiction doesn't yet reflect to them a world they already know and whose truth they can judge by the standard of experience; it projects an image of what the world (and they themselves) should and will be like in anticipation of their experience of it. So girls don't reject bad YA lit when that's what dominates the world of books available to them; instead, they assume that this is what books basically are, and that their contents are what their near-future will and perhaps should be. It's either this, it seems, or dragons, and even I would rather read about anorexic meth addicts than dragons.

As a result, there seems to be very little incentive to break with treacle-inducing convention in YA lit and a lot of incentive to disparage the intellect of readers. But just because girls will read almost anything doesn't mean they should be offered only lowest common denominator stuff, if only because it forms them more effectively than beach reading does adults. I realize that the existence of libraries makes offerings cumulative--they have as much access to Austen as to Twilight--even as publishers have to constantly put out new material. Still, there are clearly better writers than Meg Cabot and the woman who wrote the Crank series out there who understand adolescent girldom as something other than either a period of endless horror or of endless shopping. Mostly Good Girls almost gets there, and clearly is an effort to avoid some of the genre's worst diseases. But I suspect Leila Sales can do better. She has great style; she should just come up with a plot worthy of it. Also, maybe better cover art.

*Yes, yes, I know that like five adolescent girls in the entire country are exclusive readers of scifi and fantasy. Fine, let what I say be inapplicable to them, and that still leaves 90 percent of the teen girl book market.

14 comments:

Withywindle said...

This dislike of dragons ... I actually wouldn't be surprised if more than 10% of girl readers now focus on F & SF, if only from the Harry Potter influence. But I think this would be a relatively recent development -- I could imagine the trend line breaking above 10% only in the 1990s or 2000s. And I have no statistics. But since a largish majority of all readers of fiction are female, as I recollect these matters, I suspect that fantasy & SF, including the YA branch, wouldn't have such vibrant sales with an exclusively male readership.

Miss Self-Important said...

Hard to say. I too lack statistics, and moreover, have never read Harry Potter (as I said, I really hate dragons). However, my understanding of Harry Potter is that it's extremely character- and relationship-driven, which is an emphasis that is very appealing to girls and one that's missing from all the SF I've ever read and I assume through extrapolation (but not actual reading because, again, dragons) fantasy as well.

Andrew Stevens said...

I seem to recall a number of young women who appeared to read absolutely nothing but Stephen King. There has also always been a fairly sizable female F/SF readership, since well before Harry Potter, a great many of whom wouldn't be caught dead reading YA novels. They're harder to see than the boys because they're not very vocal about it, at least not until Livejournal.

Withywindle said...

You should, by the way, go (back) and read some classic kid's lit. I say you start with Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

Miss Self-Important said...

Why? I read Treasure Island in grade school and wasn't that much more excited by pirates than by dragons. I liked A Child's Garden of Verses though--too young?

Withywindle said...

What did you like to read as a kid?

Miss Self-Important said...

Depending on the stage of kid-hood, Hans Christian Anderson, the Babysitter's Club, Judy Blume, immense amounts of Holocaust-themed garbage, Anne of Green Gables, and, in middle school, YA books.

Withywindle said...

Anne of Green Gables, yay; at least the first book, since I never read the others. Do you still like any of these books? I ask because I'd like to get a sense of what you like, and why, as a way to better understand your critiques.

Miss Self-Important said...

I still like Hans Christian Anderson and the first two or three books of Anne of Green Gables; they get pretty dull after Anne grows up--or so I thought at age 10 and I haven't re-read them since. Also, Little House on the Prairie sticks in my mind as a good series. The other books happened to be accessible to me at the time and appealed to my inner emotional voyeur, but were, in hindsight, hugely wasted time. (Although there is one YA author--Robert Cormier--whom I can't totally repudiate because even though he must be one of the most vulgar children's writers ever, his plots were intensely compelling and are still memorable to me.)

There were other books I came across later like Little Women and Austen that I know I would've liked had I read them earlier. I read a lot of fiction between the ages of 8-14, all of it from the public library, and I couldn't yet discern the difference between high and low literature, so I read everything that librarians deemed "children's literature." I think children's publishing seriously underestimates this flexibility in children's tastes and panders too much to the elusive "non-reader" demographic to try to induce them to read on the mistaken belief that a failure to devour fiction at an early age will permanently diminish a person's intellectual capacity.

I also think children are far more open to Victorian and Edwardian moralism than the YA writers of the 1970s would have you believe. I read YA lit to indulge my useless fascination with an almost fantastic level of human misery, not to learn how to be a better anorexic meth addict myself. I suspect that is the motivation of most readers of this stuff. But Montgomery and Alcott offer something to girls that they do want--an image of adulthood that is actually much more realistic than all the anorexic, pregnant 15-year-old meth addicts of YA lit. Their characters are smart, willful, and very self-absorbed girls who don't yet realize what kinds of sacrifices and compromises of their will be necessary to get by in the world. Fundamentally, I think these books addressed the Rousseauian problem of amour propre--that we each want everyone else to be as interested in us as he we are in ourselves--and while that desire never quite dies in us (nor should it, since it is the source of our individuality), we have to at least become conscious of this paradox before we can become civilized adults. Anne and Jo March learn self-restraint and sacrifice, and however much that might be taken as anti-feminist now, it's no less useful for living with other people.

This, and not coping with a meth addiction, is the real difficulty of growing up for most readers of children's lit, but YA offers no answers for children to the social question, how can I become an adult? Instead, it either touts the physical symptoms of puberty as the signs of maturity, or it suggests that only "real"--that is, tragic and miserable--life circumstances can lead to maturity. And if you don't "grow up fast," you apparently never grow up at all.

Withywindle said...

Interesting, thank you. I will mull.

David said...

I picked up an interesting YA novel, "Revolution," by Jennifer Donnelly. The protagonist initially fits what seems to be the norm for such books these days: self-absorbed, very depressed (to the point of self-mutilation) about guilt surrounding her brother's death; her parents have split up; her mom is pretty much crazy, etc etc. But then she establishes some sort of mystical connection with a girl her own age who lived in revolutionary France, and it is actually a pretty powerful book

Miss Self-Important said...

What was the point--if you think your life sucks, just imagine living through the French Revolution? Or, if your life sucks, learn history?

David said...

Not sure there was a point, per se, but I thought it worked well. Teenage-girl-angst novels are pretty far from my normal reading orbit; OTOH, I do tend to like fiction that explores the past from the vantage point of a modern-day observer, as in much of Connie Willis's work and Jane Yolen's "Devil's Arithmetic" (about a present-day Jewish girl who is somehow transported to Poland in 1940), which was turned into a very good made-for-tv movie by screenwriter/blogger Robert Avrech.

Miss Self-Important said...

Avi's books were often written like that (modern-day kid, usually without significant emotional baggage, gets transported to the past), and I remember liking them. The combination of YA bleakness and historical fiction though is news to me and seems like it would have a rather tenuous connection. How exactly is the self-mutilation logically related to the French Revolution?