Teenage angst: A life in books

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Teenage fiction is riddled with difficulties of audience and authorship, both struggling for originality against deeply ingrained preconceptions. Too often the adolescent audience is considered as an amorphous group existing between child and adult, and this frequently manifests itself in the predictable coming of age novel, or bildungsroman. These novels are dominated by plots subordinated to the character’s progress towards maturity, through the inevitable stages of rebellion and love that culminate in an ending promising a new beginning.

In an effort to escape such a Scylla and Charybdys, a clearly defined genre of teen fiction has emerged, developing two subsets whose legacy is to be rewritten into banality. There is either the dystopian future novel where a teen protagonist almost inevitably overthrows a previously stable fascist society, or those books that my sister and I termed ‘indie-kid novels’ – these invariably feature a seemingly ordinary teenager blessed with unusual profundity and a uniquely quirky set of friends. It would seem that both these stereotyped scenarios arise from the authors of teen fiction. 

They fiction are invariably adults, nostalgically looking back on their own teenage years and comparing them with the news reports of youth today. Concerned by a growing generation of technology that they cannot sufficiently understand, they continuously re-invoke the warnings of Orwell’s 1984 to create a veritable universe of possible futures where virtuality has come to dominate reality, causing widespread inequality and despotism. Similarly, the adult reflecting on their adolescence, and naturally seeing it in a succession of concentrated ‘experience’, inevitably creates teenage characters of unexpected insight and fearless nonconformity.  Problematically, a mostly adult authorship is writing for a readership that they perceive through a bizarre combination of nostalgia and concern for the future.

A secondary problem is the centrality that first love plays in teenage fiction – this love is inevitably heterosexual and characterised by uncomplicated under-confidence or indecision.  Almost any plot concerning protagonists of the opposite sex requires the development of their romantic attachment or a neat pairing off of each to another. It appears to be only through this new relationship that each character can find a truer version of themselves. Though such a relationship might be delayed or interrupted by a conflict of revolutionary ideals, or a war for the greater good, teen fiction almost universally teaches a once-in-a-lifetime love story. I am as guilty as the next person of being entirely taken in by these apparent unifications of reality and romanticism, but such a predictable outcome cannot help but engender disappointment for the reader.  

And yet all this is not to entirely discount that fiction which I read late into the night for so many of my school years; like so many others, I sobbed over Gus’s death, unconcerned by his unlikely pretentions to poeticism, and was inspired by the roles that all those underdogs rose to. For me, the most important effect of teen fiction was its promotion of happiness and importance for all those character’s whose reticence and sense of un-remarkability I understood only too well. Yes, teenage fiction often seems to be a recycling of old tropes and plots, making it easy to disparage, but the improbable success of those teen protagonists is comforting for all of us as we struggle to emerge ourselves in metaphorical revolutions and battles of identity.

When I began this article I planned a call to arms for adolescent authors to re-develop the teenage fiction genre so that our novels are written by our own generation.  However, reflecting further, I think that the adult abstraction is often fundamentally important to developing a sense of realism and perspective in teenage fiction – we often read those books searching for some profound revelation that might guide us through the next struggle. How could we hope to anticipate such assistance from our contemporaries struggling similarly?  Instead, a better proposition might be a faster progression from young adult to adult fiction; when cynical disparagement crept in, we ought to better heed this indication of increasing maturity and confront that intimidating freedom that is there for the taking in bookstores.

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