Young adult fiction

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And now for something completely different: a post on fiction. I was thinking of writing a third Maggie post in honour of Thatcher Death Week, but I think it’s time to take a break…for something that is oddly related.

So y’all who’ve been reading here regularly probably know what a geek I am — I mean, I’m calling myself “Mandos” — which really started from becoming an avid consumer of contemporary science fiction and fantasy from an early age. It affected a lot about me, my career choices, my political views, lifestyle, etc, although not always in stereotypical and predictable ways. (e.g. I didn’t become a Randroid.) I still read SF&F, but a somewhat more limited amount due to other demands on my time, but more importantly, my attention — rather than lack of interest.

While I loved reading, I didn’t really love what I was made to read for school, nor did I really appreciate my own parents occasional well-meaning attempts to “broaden” my tastes to fiction of more “mature” quality. A lot of (non-fantasy, non-SF) literature just left me cold, particularly the Young Adult variety, which are supposed to be specifically written to “relate” to the “concerns” of growing up young people and help us understand ourselves and whatnot. I couldn’t think of anything more tedious. But I could never express what I didn’t like about it until now, when I have just come across this passage from the relatively recent Hugo-winning novel Among Others by Jo Walton that expresses it so perfectly:

I helped Miss Carroll stamping and shelving some new books. They all looked awful, being of the category of books about teenagers with problems — drugs, or abusive parents, or boyfriends who push for sex, or living in Ireland. I hate books like that. For one thing, they’re all so relentlessly downbeat, and despite that you just know everyone will overcome their problems in the end and start to Grow Up and Understand How the World Works. You can practically see the capitals. I’ve read half a ton of Victorian children’s books, because we had them lying around at home: Elsie Dinsmore and Little Women and Eric, or Little by Little and What Katie Did. They’re by different authors, but they all share the same kind of moralising. In the exact same way these Teen Problem books share the same kind of moralising, only it’s neither so quaint nor so clearly stated as the Victorian ones. If I have to have a book on how to overcome adversity give me Pollyanna over Judy Blume any day, though why anyone would read any of them when the world contains all this SF is beyond me. Even just within books written for children, you can learn way more about growing up and ethical behavior from Space Hostages or Citizen of the Galaxy.

It’s so exactly right. Non-SF teen fiction, particularly the kind on teacher-prescribed reading lists, almost always seemed to me to be an adult’s view of what a teenager should be concerned about. Like the plots were conceived by cranky old people shaking their heads and saying “kids these days”, and then handed over to authors who know how to write in this simplified, stilted style, as though using language that challenges and draws people in will scare off the stupid teenagers from ever reading again. Is this what worked with other teenagers? I had no idea, I didn’t socialize that much with the non-geeks, if I could help it…but if it were so, and if it were truly the case that the junior high English teachers knew what they were doing, well, it kind of makes me feel more justified for the snotty geek superiority that I couldn’t help but feel towards…not all, but many of them. (You know, it’s a miracle I didn’t turn out all Randroid, now that I think about it.)

Anyway, the funny part is that Walton’s book is exactly and consciously a teen-angsty sort of story about a girl with Teen Problems — the teen problems of being an SF-consuming nerd in a non-nerd world. Said girl consumes a mountain of what are now SF classics, but what others may consider escape, the book presents unapologetically as liberation.

Why is this related to the Thatcher theme? Only incidentally, of course. The book is set in 1980 around the time when Thatcher took power, and the class politics of Britain and mine closures in Wales and so on form a little, almost peripheral bit of the backdrop of the story, but crucial. But despite those differences and other differences — I’m not female, I’m not Welsh, I’m not physically impaired — I found that I very closely related to the character and her inner world, and that she explained nerdy me far more than e.g. those clowns on the Big Bang Theory.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on April 12, 2013 11:51 AM.

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