Thursday, November 25, 2010

self-destruction's kinda dumb. but if you do it well...

Points for identifying the lyrics in the title!

This is a train of thought that has been brewing in my head for quite a long time, so I'm not sure if it's coherent anymore. It's also based heavily on my own personal experiences/feelings, so I'm sure not everyone will agree with me, and I would love to hear your thoughts! Basically I have been reading YA (young adult) fiction for many many years, and throughout my teenage years (and before and after) and for a while I stopped because some stuff about it annoyed me. Here is my rant:

I remember when I was around 15 a friend recommended Sonya Hartnett's 'All My Dangerous Friends', about a girl starting university who goes out with a bad boy, falls in with the wrong crowd, steals, takes drugs and then leaves because she sees the dark side of it (in the form of the 'crowd's' violent retribution against a man who abuses one of their own). The basic plotline there feels a little familiar. It did to me then, I was thoroughly annoyed. An annoyance that I directed toward YA fiction in general over the next few years. I think in fact my reaction was stronger than was warranted, there is some good stuff in there, but we will get to that later.

The main problem for me as a teenager was that I was a quiet bookworm, far from dabbling in drugs or theft, and I had long resented the portrayal of kids and teenagers in the media/society. Teenagers are trouble, self-absorbed, with no thought for consequences or the wider world. By contrast I saw around me friends who were thoughtful and intelligent and generally trying to do their best. To my mind fiction aimed at teenagers was interested more in how adults perceived teenagers, in portraying 'us' as difficult, even to ourselves.

Now I know I am not everyone. I have read authors talking about how they write for the kids or teenagers who feel different, who are seen as trouble, that they want to write about the problems people face in a real way and not shy away from difficult subjects. So exploring these topics can be a good thing. But word to the writers out there- please try not to be didactic about it.

Didactic books in and of themselves can be annoying. But writing a book where the lesson is learnt through tragedy can have the unfortunate side effect of making the behaviour they're talking about more appealing. To summarize: saying that risk-taking behaviour is bad because it might hurt you ignores the point of 'risk-taking'. As a fairly well behaved teenager drug taking never seemed more appealing than when it offered the prospect of going down in a blaze of glory/fast living. I think the best YA books understand their audience, are relatable to, and are not too preachy. In a way I think 'All My Dangerous Friends' does well here, it says 'drugs are appealing, but they are not as glamorous or dangerous or edgy as you might think' (this is mostly taken from one scene, I don't think drugs were the main theme of the book). But then again the 'bad crowd' are wild and cool and slightly tragic, so they retain some of that appeal.

There is also the danger of going the other way, of mocking things rather than taking them too seriously. So for instance emos are famous for bad self-esteem, misery, feeling isolated and self-harm. People's reaction is to laugh at them and say self-harm is funny. Personally I don't think it sounds like a good idea to take a group of people who feel sad and misunderstood and further alienate them by saying the things they care about are stupid and their emotions are dumb. I think it's an extension of the way people often talk about teenagers- oh, you have teenage angst, that's a silly thing we all got over. Because knowing that other people are going/have gone through the same things IS helpful, but only if it's personal and shows some understanding of the other person. Just being dismissive is surely only going to fuel feelings of being misunderstood? Just because in hindsight your teenage angst seems ridiculous doesn't mean someone going through it will have the same perspective.

Sometimes it can be so easy to mock, but I know when I was miserable as a teenager that attitude would just bewilder me, because it didn't take away my problems or help me deal with them, it belittle me and made me feel my problems were not worthy of sharing. Better to have people talk about their problems, however stupid they sound, and feel like they have supportive people around to help, than to push them into isolation.

To sum up! Self-destruction can be appealing, even if it's shown as a warning. The best books relate and provoke thought, they don't try to cram a viewpoint down your throat. Be nice to sad people.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Here's an update on a future thing appearing on this blog, I know you will all be on tenterhooks to hear what I will write next.

After reading Housekeeping I wanted to go out and read everything else Marilynne Robinson has ever written. But where to start? The obvious place is Gilead, perhaps her most famous book. But should I read that or Home, written later than Gilead but set parallel to it? Musing on Twitter my friend Sam commented that he was keen to read Gilead and, long story short, we decided to do a parallel read- he read Gilead and I read Home. Next step: we both review them, swap and repeat. So I'm sorry if this blog starts to give you Marilynne Robinson fatigue, but I have a lot more coming up!