Friday, February 02, 2007

Do Teen Novels Glorify Bad Behavior?

The wonderful Leila Roy over at Bookshelves of Doom is posting an interesting essay by a Philadelphia high school teacher who argues, basically, that today's teen books glorify anti-social behavior.
Recently, I was in the teen section of a large bookstore skimming books for my 10th-grade English class when I came across the young-adult novel Beautiful Disaster by Kylie Adams. Captivated by its provocative cover - a dripping wet, bikini-clad blonde relaxing on the side of a swimming pool - I opened the book and began reading.

Within a dozen pages I was introduced to a cast of characters so unscrupulous and trashy that I thought I was reading a romance novel by Danielle Steel. The only difference, of course, is that all the characters in Beautiful Disaster were minors. Their ages ranged from 15 to 17, but this didn't keep them from binge drinking, swearing, using illegal drugs, and engaging in promiscuous sex; one of the characters, a 15-year-old girl named Shoshanna, actually had breast implants.

As if the book's content wasn't shocking enough, I then stumbled upon Gossip Girl, the first book in a scandalous series by Cecily von Ziegesar. Like the characters in Beautiful Disaster, the teens in Gossip Girl have a passion for sex, lies, and expensive booze. The excerpt on the book's back cover best summed-up their lack of decency: "Welcome to New York City's Upper East Side, where my friends and I live, go to school, play and sleep - sometimes with each other."

Over the last five years, teen fiction has taken a nosedive right into the toilet. MTV Books, a joint venture between MTV and Pocket Books, seems to be on the forefront of the downward spiral. MTV Books has no qualms about using sex and violence to win over the attention spans of children. Although some of my colleagues feel this is an even trade-off because it keeps 16-year-old students interested in reading, I feel it is completely irresponsible.
In other words, it's yet another trashing-of-the-Gossip-Girls-genre. I like Leila's take:
I'm not going to get all revved about this because, honestly, if this is the first time that this guy, this teacher, has run into the Gossip Girl book, well... then he's probably not all that up on YA lit. Judging from his tenth-grade English II syllabus, he sticks to the classics. (Not that there's anything wrong with that or that it means he doesn't read YA lit in his spare time. Obviously I don't know that. But like I said, if this is the first time he's run across Gossip Girl, it's unlikely. They've been around since, what? 2002?)

I think I've made it pretty clear in the past that I'm not a huge fan of the Gossip Girl/ Gossip Girl readalikes*. But I don't find them quite as worrisome as Christopher Paslay does. I don't think that they'll cause "sexual frustration in hormone-laden young readers", leading to an "over-eager boy stalking a female classmate by making unwanted sexual advances, or sending her obscene text-messages". I just... think that's maybe going a little overboard.
Anyway. I don't even really care about the Gossip Girl books. We already went over all that when Naomi Wolf freaked out. My concern is this quote:

"Over the last five years, teen fiction has taken a nosedive right into the toilet."

Um, no. Gossip Girl et al -- that's just a fraction of what's out there.
I agree with Leila, but this is an interesting discussion because there is a ton of misunderstanding about the "teen" genre right now. People will read a few of today's most provocative teen books, compare them to the books they read as kids (say, Jacob Have I Loved or Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphin), and immediate freak out, thinking the whole genre has gone to hell.

What they don't understand is that the teen genre barely even existed thirty years ago. What existed then was middle grade fiction and a few--very few--teen titles, which didn't sell particularly well. If you think teenagers don't read teen fiction now, they really didn't read teen fiction in the 1970s: they went straight from middle grade to adult (often to very racy adult fiction, like Flowers in the Attic and Harold Robbins, which, for the record, is what folks should really be comparing Gossip Girls to, not Anne of Green Gables).

But all that changed in 1980s (due to school budget cuts, etc.). What resulted is a new genre that is, frankly, one of the richest and most diverse in the publishing industry--maybe even the most rich and most diverse. Authors of teen fiction are allowed to take big chances; we're given almost free reign. Fiction in verse? Sure! Cross-genre? Why not? A book told all in email? Well, why the hell not?

For the record? Writers of adult books don't get nearly this much freedom. And as a result, adult books are much less diverse, and the whole genre is a lot less vibrant.

That said, along with all the other stuff, is there also some racy YA, especially in the "upper" age limits? You bet. But is there more conservative stuff too? Absolutely. Do both kinds of books win rave reviews and awards? They definitely do.

Why do all these kinds of teen books exist, why the wild diversity? Because unlike in the 1970s, teen fiction is now market-driven, and there are markets for all these kinds of books. That upsets some people, but what's forgotten is that the richness, the diversity, extends in all directions.

When people say things like "Teen fiction has taken a nosedive right into the toilet," they seem to me to exposing their ignorance. They don't know the genre. When other folks advocate banning books, and challenging books based not on context, but on "naughty" words and lists of "innappropriate behavior," they're creating the conditions where this rich, wonderful, diverse genre just might go away.

Teen lit is in the middle of a genuine Renaissance, folks. But have you studied the Renaissance? The conditions that created it were so fragile, and the movement itself was so transitory. It ended, and it ended badly. Likewise, this teen lit Renaissance will not last forever. And when it goes, it will be the fault of the literal-minded Puritans so determined to "protect" children, people who see literature not as a breathing, changing organism, but as a collection of stuffy, unchanging museum pieces.

Today's teen lit is a fragile flame, folks. Protect it. Make it last.

5 Comments:

Blogger Justine Larbalestier said...

Well said! I can't tell you how sick I am of people dismissing an entire genre based on two or three examples. It's not only stupid, it's sloppy. And it horrifies me that someone teaching tenth grade English doesn't have basic research skills.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er. I don't know the author, and I might be wrong, but I wondered if a lot of the outrage is generated by miscommunication. If he has been watching the stuff that his teen students cart through school, then I think he knows that all teen fiction is not the gossip girls. I think he made a mistake. I know, I'm second guessing here, but I thought that what he meant by "teen fiction taking a nosedive" was that trashy teen novels have gotten way too trashy for him. the "trashy teen novel" is its own genre, a subset of "teen". and i think he is comparing trashy novels of today to "my happy summer date" books of the fifites instead of Flowers in the Attic. which i agree is a mistake. on the whole, it doesn't look like a well thought out, well written essay. of course, this is me with no capitals, but i think print journalism demands higher standards. this was really a knee jerk reaction more suitable for an off the cuff comment on a blog somewhere.

12:48 PM  
Blogger TadMack said...

I know I'm late to the conversation, but I also wanted to comment that MTV books has put out a couple of very, very good novels that we had the opportunity to read for the recent Cybils Award, so I KNOW that this lady hasn't read extensively enough to know of what she speaks.

Thanks for all of YOUR work on preserving the flame.

10:30 AM  
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