Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pity the Paper Parents

           My roommate and I were watching the pilot of the new show Revolution last week, and she recognized the actress playing the protagonist’s mother as Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost. Right away she said, “Oh, damn, I like that actress!” The damn was because she knew, right away, that the mom character was toast. Parents never survive long when the young hero of an epic adventure is about to be launched on his or her journey.
            Revolution is a dystopian T.V. show, which is just further proof that YA literature is now in charge of the world, at least in terms of entertainment. I was a little disappointed in the pilot, as they seem to have forgotten to have a writer look over the final draft. Hey, remember that time we walked all the way to Chicago, and then we found the one person we were looking for in the first building we randomly walked into? Good times! At any rate, Charlie, the heroine of the story, loses her mother off-camera, after a mysterious power suck turns off the world (including items with fully-charged batteries, for some reason). Then, in short order, her father goes and gets himself shot, over a flash drive cunningly disguised as a sort of space-hippie necklace. And, viola, Charlie is launched on her adventure. She, as previously mentioned, walks to Chicago, which takes about one commercial break, and then finds her uncle. The uncle character should be safe for a while because A) he’s not her parent and B) he’s Bella’s dad from the Twilight movies. Also, the bad guys obligingly wait in a single-file line to fight him, which is so thoughtful of them.
            So why did Charlie’s parents have to die? If you think about it, most of the young heroes, particularly of adventure/quest stories, are orphans of some sort. Are all writers just working out their childhood issues with all this patricide and matricide? No, orphans make for compelling heroes, in more ways than one. I think Margaret Atwood said it best (she usually does) in her short piece “Orphan Stories”:

How swiftly the orphans set sail! No sooner does the starting gun fire than they’re flying! Their yachts are slimmer, their lines trimmer than ours – than our stodgy barges. They drag no anchors, they haul no ballast, they toss all baggage overboard, and the one flag they ever hoist is blank. No wonder they pull out of the bay ahead of the rest, no wonder they round the cape so briskly!

Two parents means rules, resentments, issues. There’s more room for the minor stuff: sibling rivalries, pressure to be good, get good grades, be nice to Aunt Eunice, be a doctor. One of the only rebellious things I ever did was to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in defiance of my parents’ wishes. They had predicted I would be assaulted or murdered. I was even more careful than usual on that trip, mostly because I was bound and determined that my parents would not be proven right. Also, as a pathetic side note, I was twenty at the time. This is not the stuff of epic adventure stories. This may also be why I am more about writing comedy.
And so an alarming number of parent characters have been slain by writers—dating all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, who really knew how to mess up a kid’s life. Harry Potter was just the most recent in a long line of heroes whose own call to adventure happened on the day their parents died. The tragedy was necessary to make Harry into the Boy Who Lived, of course. In fact, Dumbledore admits that a Harry who had not been raised by the Dursleys might have been a very different boy. If Harry’s parents had lived, there’s certainly text evidence to support the notion that he would simply have been a mini-James, pantsing the nerdiest wizard in his year, and learning to transmogrify himself just so he can sneak out after curfew.
Harry belongs to the full-orphan category, along with Luke and Annakin Skywalker, and my personal favorite, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride—and many more. Some of them even have “orphan” right there in the name, like Little Annie.

           But a lot of young heroes lose one parent. Often the parent who’s left is either symbolically gone, like Katniss’s ineffectual mom in The Hunger Games, or too busy being a god (see all of Zeus’s heroic sons).
Real-life parents can be pretty helpful, but the paper ones are paradoxically heavier—rather than keeping them to weigh the hero down, or hold her back, writers often cut them loose. As Atwood observes, orphans don’t have to decide to leave, “For orphans, all roads are necessary. How can they be kicked out of home? They’re out of home already.” And as another orphan, Frodo, learned all too well, after you step that first foot out on the road, away from home, that’s the plot—that’s where the story happens.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Canon Fodder

Can YA ever be considered Great Literature? Should it be?

This question is important to me because I teach literature…and I do teach some YA titles to my ninth graders. The question also comes up because I teach AP Lit: one of the three essay questions on the exam is called the open question, and students can select the novel they write about. College Board gives them a short list and instructs test takers to choose a book from the list, or write about “another work of comparable literary merit.” What my students usually want to know is A) can they write about their favorite book?—and B) about that whole “literary merit” thing—who decides?

Sometimes my students ask such great questions.

The answer to A, usually, is of course no. The answer to B is related to the answer to A, and it’s more complicated.

First, of course there are some seventeen year olds whose favorite novel is War and Peace or Ulysses. That happens once in a blue moon. But for most young adults, if they do have a favorite book, it’s usually something more modern, and it’s often a YA title. But unfortunately, I have to give my AP kids the best advice I can, and that advice does not include writing about Harry Potter or Hunger Games on the exam.

So why aren’t these books considered Literary with a capital L? Well, first, though I chose two very well-written examples there, there’s the small matter of the Big Movies that have recently been made of these works. Those books may have some Hollywood cooties on them right now. There’s also the stain of having been written for a young audience. Standing between these books and canonical status is not just the fact that they were written for kids, though—the very fact that they were written with a specific audience at all puts these books squarely in the category of commercial fiction. And if there’s an opposite to Literary Fiction it’s got to be Commercial Fiction.

Great art has to be difficult to slog through, and it certainly cannot appeal to the masses—I’d argue that’s a tacit belief that helps determine which books we’d proudly read on a plane and which one’s we’d rather have on our e-reader, with the title and cover safely hidden. Of course, with some teen titles, there’s no question it’s a guilty pleasure. If I’m reading Vampire Boarding School 6: Hearts at Stake, I’m under no delusion that it’s great art, and I’m glad for the plain black cover of my Nook.

But for writers like Rowling and Collins, will their work ever claw its way into the canon? I think it might, but it will take time. After all, The Catcher in the Rye fits all the parameters of a contemporary YA: teen protagonist, set partially at school; Holden speaks like a teenager, and the book is about dealing with the problems of growing up. But Catcher’s cracked the canon. Why? For one thing, it’s a brilliant book. But for another it was published in 1951.

Time has a way of turning what might once have been popular or commercial into Art. After all, no one bats an eye if I assign Dickens to my students, but we all know he was once a mercenary writer of pulp fiction serials. Time has given the work of Alexandre Dumas a patina of literary merit, but books like The Count of Monte Cristo were the Bourne series of his day: popular adventure yarns that made Dumas a lot of cash. Today, though, the nineteenth century diction alone means the work is now Hard to Read. Boom: canon status.

I think if Dickens and Dumas can earn the serious label one hundred years on, the fact that some of today’s YA was once commercial and was intended for teens won’t be an insurmountable hurdle. Of course, that’s assuming people are still reading in 2100.

In the meantime, if you want to be taken seriously now, you should probably write something very complex, possibly even incomprehensible, about terribly unhappy people and their gritty, gritty problems. I probably won’t buy it, but then again, you don’t want to be too popular anyway.

Although, if your character winds up on the side of a Burger King cup, maybe not even a hundred years will help you break into the canon, if you ask me.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I Can Believe It’s Not Butter

One thing that depresses me about the future, as depicted by SF and dystopian writers, is the state of the food. A lot of the time in these worlds, people are stuck eating these super practical protein-pellet sorts of things. It’s like, now we’ve perfected nutrition, and it comes in this little blue square, so bon appetite. Like all of a sudden human beings are going to say, oh, you mean cheeseburgers are bad for me? How silly of me! Hand me that blue pellet at once!

In Matched, for example, I personally thought it was less depressing that the government chose your mate for you than the fact that they also selected (and measured) your food for you. Every day. The Matched world is sort of like what would happen if eHarmony took over the government, which, as dictators go, doesn’t seem like the worst possible choice. I mean, they match you up based on all your preferences and personality quirks! It’s almost thoughtful. Of course, if two people were matched based on their love of French cuisine, say, they’d both still end up with the blue pellets at the end of the day (so I guess they’d both be equally disappointed and they could bond over that).

I think the idea of taking away the day-to-day little choice of what to pull out of the fridge or order from a waiter could really wear on a person.  I also think we all realize, on some level, that these authors are probably right. If the government ever does turn into one big, micro-managing parent—they’re coming for our bacon first. And of course the real butter.

I’ve had a roommate who’s stocked that butter substitute in my fridge for years, but I’ve eaten it about twice. If butter were outlawed, I’d actually rather just eat the muffin dry and remember butter how it used to be, in better days. I am not fooled by the name—or the taste. It doesn’t really matter to me if the real thing's not good for me. I like it; I’ll eat it. Because it’s my choice, and because I can.

We want the ability to make our own bad choices. As Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World, one of my favorite books (another world of protein-pellet dining): "But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin." My favorite pop-culture version of this manifesto comes from the movie Demolition Man. Denis Leary’s Edgar Friendly rebels against the perfect future world he lives in, because he wants the freedom to do the wrong thing:

I'm the enemy, 'cause I like to think; I like to read. I'm into freedom of
speech and freedom of choice. I'm the kind of guy who likes to sit in a
greasy spoon and wonder, "Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the
jumbo rack of barbecued ribs with the side order of gravy fries?" I
WANT high cholesterol. I wanna eat bacon and butter and BUCKETS
of cheese, okay?

I love this movie (mostly) because of how much I love this speech. In the Demolition future, all restaurants have become Taco Bell, which also seems like the kind of dystopian corporate world we are probably heading toward. Even though the movie is silly at times (see: Sylvester Stallone’s beret, and all his dialogue), the story essentially depicts a perfect world and shows how human beings are just not going to live in it for long. The urge to reclaim free will is just too strong.

I realized as an English major in college that every story was, in some way, about the Garden and man’s choice to fall. I got a lot of mileage out of this observation in all my lit classes. I know the tree was labeled KNOWLEDGE and all, but what the snake was really selling was the ability to decide, hey, I think I’ll eat that thing I’m not supposed to. Because I choose it. And because I can.