Monday, April 2, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Is there such a thing as a specifically teenage literature?

In the sense of literature written by teenagers, the answer is obviously no. There has been the occasional teenage literary genius, like Thomas Chatterton or Arthur Rimbaud. I once read a reference (by Anthony Burgess, I think) to Frankenstein as “the most brilliant novel ever written by a teenager”, though this is true only by a whisker as Mary Shelley was 19 when she wrote it. There’s a formidable list of successful adult writers (like Carson McCullers, like Truman Capote) who began publishing as teenagers. But most of the novels that are regarded as classics about adolescents were written by adults. Alain-Fourner was 25 when he wrote Le Grand Meaulnes. Robert Musil was in his early 20s when he wrote Young Torless. J.D.Salinger was about 30 when he wrote The Catcher in the Rye. (It appeared in 1951, but you note that all the movies its hero sees were movies made in the late 1930s – when Salinger himself would have been a teenager). John Knowles was 32 when he wrote A Separate Peace.

So, with very few exceptions, there is virtually no published literature by teenagers.

Published literature specifically for teenagers does now exist, but it is a comparatively new invention.

Until fairly recently, it was believed there were two kinds of writing - books for children and then books for adults. Childhood stopped in the upper reaches of puberty –13, 14, 15 – then, if you were still in the habit of reading, you read grown-up stuff.

People who wrote Wild West dime novels or penny dreadfuls in the nineteenth century assumed they were writing for boys. Ditto Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote most of his novels, although he strained at it in some of them (Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped, comes close to being an adult love story). Louisa May Alcott assumed she was writing for girls in her Little Women series. W.E. Johns’ long Biggles series was consciously kidstuff. For most of the twentieth century, teams of hacks (working under corporate pseudonyms) churned out, for the same American publishing company, books about the Bobbsey Twins or the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries. They knew they were writing for kids.

Of course many adults furtively enjoyed reading the kidstuff, but their reading most often took the form of reading out loud to their own children. At bedtime-story time, many a bedroom rang with fathers, thoroughly enjoying themselves, doing bad Robert Newton imitations as Long John Silver (“ARRRR Jim lad!”), or mothers acting out sensible, ambitious Jo March.

But as for the notion of writing targeted exclusively at “young adults” or teenagers – it didn’t exist.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when C.S.Lewis wished to express some basic Christian propositions in the form of novels, he wrote one series for children (the Narnia fantasy series) and one for adults (the Science Fiction series including Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus and That Hideous Strength). Teenagers were not an option.

Yet there is now a huge publishing industry built on perceived teenage tastes, and the most successful products are those that can grab unashamed adults as well.

I have to admit that I have not read any of the teenage-targeted Harry Potter books (even though I’ve seen all the film versions), basically because fantasy is not my thing. But my adult children as well as my teenage children have gobbled them up. This is the dream of current writers for teens - the crossover book that will get both the teen and adult markets. I am not privy to the statistics which her publishers doubtless keep, but it is likely that it is adult taste as much as teenage taste that has made J.K. Rowling a multi-millionaire. A similar feat has been attempted with the woeful, doleful teen-vampire Twilight series, but it appears not to have achieved the same momentum and its core audience remains pubescent girls.

Why has there been this explosion in reading specifically aimed at teenagers?

This could be the cue for a worthy socio-historical lesson on the whole invention of the “teenager” post-Second World War (the word was hardly used before the 1950s) – the arrival of adolescents with discretionary spending power first in affluent postwar America, then in affluent postwar Western Europe and other parts of what is loosely termed “the West”.

But you don’t want to hear me rehearse what you already know about this from a thousand documentaries.

The basic economic fact was that teenagers – as well as their elders – were now seen as a legitimate market. So on comes the merchandising of things (music, clothes etc.) to appeal to this market. Publishing is simply part of the process.

There has also been the compulsion of high-school teachers to find things that teenagers would actually read, in an age when movies, TV etc. had limited their attention spans and made older adolescents impatient with the effort required to read real grown-up books.

Hence the creation of what I would call the “high-school lit” genre, respectable enough to teach to teens, but hardly adult fiction.

Prime specimen, and template for many imitators, are the novels of S.E. Hinton, which were all the rage in classrooms about 20 years ago and all of which were filmed. (Susan Hinton mainly wrote about tough teenage males; hence she used her initials only, to disguise her gender and not alienate male readers. In fairness, I should also note that her first novel was published when she herself was a teenager.) I think you are less likely now to find Hinton’s short novels imposed on Year 10 or Year 11 classes as often they used to be, but she still has her followers.

I do not deplore and am not criticising the existence of teen-oriented literature. When I happen to review it I attempt (as with The Future of Us) to criticise it on its own terms, and remember the readership for which it was written. I do not expect teen lit to be War and Peace.

On the other hand, I do have some caveats.

First, I usually take it with a pinch of salt when an adult enthusiastically  recommends a teen novel to me as something I must read. Sorry, but I have yet to find the teen novel (other than the classics mentioned above) that stands up to serious scrutiny in adult terms. Adults (apart from publishers, reviewers and high-school teachers) who read teen lit for preference are adults who believe that the world of sitcoms and soaps is reality.

Second, overwhelmingly teen novels are American, frequently reflecting a very materialistic and narcissistic world – especially when they are set in high-schools. Those who react against this environment (often the protagonists of teen lit) do so in terms of personal sensitivity rather than social critique. There really are lots of cues for teenagers to feel sorry for themselves, and develop their egocentricity, in teen lit.

Third, and this is a pedagogical matter, I do wonder whether feeding teen lit to adolescents in classrooms actually limits their reading. The theory is that it can be the threshold to more adult reading. The reality is that teaching it takes up much of the time that could be devoted to introducing kids to something more challenging. More grown-up.

These are purely personal responses, of course. Years before the term “teenager” was popularised, the adolescent Judy Garland sang a song about being an “awful in-between” – too old to play with dolls but too young to think of marriage. I’m not belittling adolescent experience, but I keep that resonant phrase in my head because something in me says it’s better to teach adolescents that that “awful in-between” phase of their life is something to grow past – not to wallow in. 


  1. I hate to say this, but I kind of feel that you're committing the same fallacy I'd be committing if I were to read The Da Vinci Code and then use it alone as representative of all adult fiction.

    I would really love to know your thoughts on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and Feed by M. T. Anderson, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. To name but a few.

  2. Nicholas, I can't argue with you when you point out that 'teenagers' were singled out in the 1950s as being a great, new, target market for a series of products that weren't previously attributed to them and that has also changed various genres in books, music, etc.
    I also can't argue with you when you point out that the *majority* of young adult fiction seems to focus on the narcissistic lifestyle of kids in American high schools. HOWEVER, there is still a great amount of young adult fiction which doesn't have this setting, which does achieve bringing some intellectual enlightenment to an adult reader and which is an all-round entertaining novel. I would point to Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' novels but (goodness me)you have stated that fantasy is not your thing.
    One of my main observations is that many sci-fi and fantasy books are more likely to appeal to the teenage market than the American, high school setting you have described.
    So I think your main flaw in this particular blog post is that you haven't really taken into account the broad scope that young adult fiction covers. In essence, I think there's a dilemma here: young adult is an umbrella genre, and there are other genres within it.
    As a result, suggesting that adults who enjoy some young adult fiction apparently "regard sitcoms and soaps as reality" is certainly a wee bit insulting. (Not that I would regard the fiction I read as young adult but I can't deny that the line does get blurred sometimes.)
    Nevertheless, good food for thought.