Carol Platt Liebau: The Real Problem with Teen Lit

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Real Problem with Teen Lit

Mark the occasion -- I'm actually agreeing with Tim Rutten's assessment that a lot of today's teen lit is garbage.

He's right that it isn't the fact that the books are being turned into commodities through slick packaging -- that's been happening for decades, as any fan of Nancy Drew (as I was) can attest.

No, it's that too many publishers have, indeed, forgotten that "young readers, more than any others, want to be transported and shown not just other lives but whole worlds utterly different from their own," as Rutten notes. Instead, they get "a focus-group-driven literature of solipsism."

But I'd add one point: Even solipsistic books can be excellent if they speak to smething real and true in teen life. Instead, as I've learned through my recent experience reading teen chick novels, many of the books are vulgar, rotten to the core and profoundly unrealistic (the heroines of Cecily von Zienegasar's "Gossip Girls" series seem to do little besides party and engage in heavy flirting -- to use a euphemism -- and somehow win acceptance to Ivy League schools, notwithstanding a penchant for shoplifting and cheating on tests).

It's the literary equivalent of arsenic-spiked cotton candy: Although at first exposure it may seem like easy, entertaining reading, it leaves a bad aftertaste and is profoundly bad for the young girls reading it. If this is the stuff being purveyed to them, it's easy enough to understand why some teens may eschew reading.


Blogger wrabkin said...

I couldn't agree with you more. This current brand of teen "literature" is produced by the same kind of cynical adult mindset that gave us Britney Spears et al a few years ago -- it's devoted to sexualizing pre-teens simply because it's easier to sell with sex, and you can't sell with sex until the kids know what sex is about.

But I agree even more with your first point. When I was a kid, my reading -- although tending more towards science fiction and fantasy than Nancy Drew -- was aspirational. I wanted to read about adults, because that's where the adventure was. With a few obvious exceptions (Narnia and the like) books about children didn't particularly interest me.

But I noticed by the 80s that more and more kid's entertainment was centered solely on their contemporaries. There were constant iterations of young Sherlock Holmes and young James Bond -- teens pressed into watered-down versions of adult life. When I was a kid, I wanted to read real James Bond novels, not pale copies.

Right now, all publishing is about the brand. It's tie-ins and series and dead authors still churning out books. Books for kids are in even worse shape.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Alan Kellogg said...

Really, it's not about what adolescents are interested in, it's about what some adults think adolescents should want. So instead of tales of adventure and mystery, we get soft porn aimed at the ace bandage bra crowd. And the blithering crowd wonders why kids don't read.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Alan Kellogg said...


It's not just children's literature. Even adult fiction has continuing series etc.

Yesterday I bought the A Game of Thrones RPG published by Guardians of Order. (It's based on the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.) As part of the introduction to the game there is an essay on the history of fantasy fiction. The section on modern day fantasy is largely about the various shared worlds and universes, franchises, and continuations that make up a large part of fantasy publishing.

People are comfortable with the familiar. Kids more so than adults. Familiar characters in familiar settings going through mostly familiar situations (but with enough difference to spice things up) sell.

As long as the publishing business is feeling insecure you'll see series and franchises and the rest of it.

10:15 AM  

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