Friday, July 20, 2012

Thank God for YA fiction

If you have had a reasonably good childhood, or at least a reasonably repressed one (same thing?), or maybe even a miserable one, becoming an adult means losing your illusions, letting go--accepting a more tawdry and depleted reality than what you have been used to experiencing. Among the many illusions our students are due to lose, among the many wonders that they will have to let go of, is the pleasure of reading fiction. So I'd like to take a moment, as an English teacher, to give thanks for YA fiction, in which our students are lucky still to be immersed.

Serious contemporary fiction is pretty grim fare. I picked up the New Yorker magazine before dinner last night and read Junot Diaz's story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love."  I can't believe I read the whole thing.  Diaz's narrator, a writer not unlike Diaz himself, tells about his love life over the past several years--though "love life" is too good a term for the miserable history of infidelity and failure from this guy who calls women "hos" and manages to cheat on his girlfriend 50 times in the course of a few years.  Why would I want to read about this loser?  Of course by the end of the story we see the narrator and his buddies lonely and longing for family life, and according to an interview with Diaz that I read this morning his narrator is poised for some kind of maturity: "Perhaps now, for the first time," Diaz says, his character "can cohere an authentically human self—but only future tales will tell."  Okay, but why would we want to read these future tales?  Why do we want to read this one?

After I finished the Diaz story I thought, wow, are there any YA books as pointless and unentertaining as this story?  Then this morning after watching John Green and his brother discuss Fahrenheit 451 (which I think they made sound better than it is), I went and bought The Fault in Our Stars from my local store.  I hope it's good.

(My other thought was, Wow, grown-up non-fiction is really better than grown-up fiction!  The only grown-up fiction I've liked a lot recently has been Edward St. Aubyn, but that's almost non-fiction, and I can't imagine others less gifted than St. Aubyn producing anything nearly as good.  The mind-bogglingly amazing Katherine Boo book, however, might be approximated by any number of good reporters who were willing to put in the extraordinary time and energy Boo devotes to her task.) 

Update: Even YA authors like John Green himself are apparently worried about fiction. Green's anxiety is in fact so intense that the author's note in The Fault in Our Stars is entirely devoted to a defense of the validity of fiction itself, and he makes the following wild, desperate claim: "the very idea that made-up stories can matter .... is sort of the foundational assumption of our species."

1 comment:

  1. Can't say I've picked up any contemporary fiction in years. In fact I think the last was something by Mary Gaitskill that I couldn't imagine being worse than it was! The last novel I loved in a boyish uncritical way was a book called Veronica by Nicholas Christopher (is it odd that the Gaitskill book is called Veronica too?). But I don't think I've been moved by a book since Sabbath's Theater (Roth). I have been deeply involved in the John Crowley books (4) that comprise Aegypt, but not so much, "moved." Something in Sabbath bit in to me and wouldn't let go.

    However, I have been swimming with immense pleasure, wonder, astonishment in Melville's expansive sea. And to use Frost, it has made quite a difference to me.

    How often can you find a book or multiple books by an author that you can quote (apply to, think with) in every situation of your own life!?

    As for YA...I read to my boys every night--30-60 minutes and we tend to get stuck in "series" land--the YAs know how to make money. From Artemis Fowl to The Alchemyst and all stops in between. Trying to take a break now and have started a book recommended by the Howard Zinn project, "Fire in the Hole" about a labor strike in a mining town.