On Friday I wrote about the treatment of homosexuality in youth literature, a topic I’m not quite done with. We notice more novels that normalize homosexual behavior popping up on bookstore and library shelves, but there’s something about them that doesn’t get much comment. The quantity of titles doesn’t equal quantity of readers. There’s a whiff of “social responsibility” about such books that says, “Read this. It’ll be good for you.” Teenage (and younger) readers of these novels may be curious or Questioning (in the LBGTQ sense) or just compulsive bibliophiles. But I don’t see gay-themed books attracting a huge audience or striking a resonant chord with a great number of young readers, simply because the vast majority of them do not experience same-sex attractions. What hits the greatest number of readers (i.e., girls) where they live is still old-fashioned romance. While Ask the Passengers gets 22 reader reviews on Amazon.com (mostly from adults), Twilight and its sequels rake in thousands of breathless raves. Likewise the Hunger Games trilogy, which would not have achieved the level of success it did without a strong love angle—or actually, triangle.
But as we saw last year, romance has taken a hard turn with Fifty Shades of Grey and its spawn. (E-readers take some blame for that: the advantage of downloading explicit novels in the privacy of one’s home is obvious. “It’s why romance and porn are doing so well,” remarked Simon & Shuster YA editor Megan Tingly, at a publishing conference last fall. The audience was amused.) Publishers are considering a category for novels a little too edgy or graphic to be lumped under YA: New Adult. “New adult” novels would feature characters of high school or college age, who . . . fall in love? A lot of authors are blunter than that: their female protagonists freely admit to lusting after certain well-muscled males. Check out this cover of The Vincent Boys (a YA top-seller; 400+ reader reviews) and see if it doesn’t remind you of those old trashy romances featuring Fabio lookalikes.
Book-industry professionals are debating whether a new category is necessary, or whether it’s just a gimmick, but booksellers admit to some confusion about where to place certain titles. For instance, one children’s book buyer in Jackson, Miss., has been putting YA titles that seem to have a wider appeal in the Popular Fiction section, which leads to uneasy pairings like Fifty Shades next to The Fault in Our Stars. (Wow.)
Maybe a “New Adult” category would make youth publishing less schizophrenic. For in fact, one of the most explicit YA novels I know of was published way back in 1975 by Judy Blume: Forever. Though often challenged, it lingers on to infect new generations of impressionable minds as young as eleven. The story is very simple: Katherine and Michael, both 16, meet at a party and fall in love. Over the months their attraction grows, with a corresponding sexual tension. Eventually they do it—but not before talking about it, studying up on it, and researching forms of birth control. It’s hard to imagine these high school kids being so cerebral. In spite of all the preparation, their first experience is awkward and somewhat disappointing. But of course it doesn’t stop there, and they get better with practice. Their love seems bound for eternity until Kathy takes a summer camp counseling job and falls for an older guy. Michael is devastated . . . but he’ll get over it. From the publishers’ blurb: “Is this the love of a lifetime, or the very beginning of a lifetime of love?”
Forever is praised for its candor and honesty, but I find it terribly deceptive. The whole idea of “Forever” love turns out to be ironic: Michael will find someone else, as Kathy did, and eventually they’ll each encounter a soulmate, and get married, and settle down to real forever love. Or not. Though she preaches fervently about the possible physical consequences of teenage sex (pregnancy, that is, not so much STDs) the author glosses over emotional consequences, especially for girls. It interesting that Kathy turns out to be the “adventurous” one, and Michael feels kicked in the gut. It’s usually the other way around. Girls long for stability and protection in the arms of one who will love them forever, while boys are prone to wander, especially if they’re not held to a higher standard. Forever, and novels like it, seem to give official sanction to a lower standard.
Judy Blume has said that she wrote the book as a response to her daughter’s request for a graphic teen romance where nobody died at the end. Voila! But the relationship dies, and something else as well—a sense of caution and respect. When I was in high school, everybody knew the girls who “did it,” and though it was socially acceptable to go as far as one could without crossing the line, all the way wasn’t cool. I don’t recall hearing the term “having sex” until the mid-seventies (I’m sure it was around; just not in use among teens). That’s because sex wasn’t something you had. It was something that had you—that demanded a little too much and carried too great a risk (not merely physical) to indulge this soon. We all knew girls who “had to get married” or drop out of school in order to have a baby. We didn’t learn this from YA novels because there was no such designation; from the age of 14 we roamed the adult stacks at the library and passed around steamy paperbacks like Valley of the Dolls. Even those books, while feeding our prurient curiosity, also communicated warnings about risk and consequence.
In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision officially dispensed with risk and consequence; younger and younger people started “having sex” and Judy Blume wrote Forever. Yes, there’s a connection.
Nature can be manipulated but not thwarted; what is indulged in one area comes around to bite us in another–or else why do two generations of smart, educated, “liberated” women gobble up three volumes of sludge about sexual bondage? Why do fatherless men beget more fatherless men? Our desire for permanence battles with our desire for novelty, contributing to the devaluation of marriage, which leads to marriage meaning whatever we say it means, which leads eventually to meaning nothing at all. Christians need to understand the extent of the problem, but not to wallow in defeat. We have everything we need for a godly calling (II Peter 1:3) and where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.
For more about the revolution in YA publishing, see “Young Adult or Adult Youngs?” Our coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey concludes here, (notice the links), and be sure to get in on Emily’s book recommendations and giveaways from yesterday. Finally, if you’ve wondered about the romantic appeal of vampires, see “Looking for Love: The Paranormal Teen Romance” and “The Twilight Effect.”