That Guy You Love to Hate

This week, I learned something about myself: I am the only person on the face of the e-earth who doesn’t hate Jonathan Franzen. I’ve written about J-Franz before when Freedom was released in 2010, but after a year of a post-publication quiet, The Franzen is back with a vengeance in 2012.

After just coming off He-Called-Edith-Wharton-Ugly Gate, he had this to say about Twitter:

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring “The Metamorphosis.” Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter “P”… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.”

Now, I love Twitter. During the week, I use it to talk about publishing news, queries I receive, writing tips, and Doctor Who. I started using Twitter to fit my role of literary agent, so I never get too personal. (Likes, dislikes, and political leanings are about as deep as I go. Hopes and dreams are for offline friends.) Of course, there are those who use Twitter as an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Perhaps these are the people Jonathan Franzen finds irritating. Or maybe he hates me too. Who knows?

If you asked me three years ago what I thought about Twitter, my response would not have been too far from Franzen’s. I didn’t get it. It was glorified Facebook statuses at best, and a complete waste of brain cells at worst. Then I found my niche, gained some followers, and learned that if it’s used effectively, it’s more about communication than it is about self-promotion. I’ve even made real-life friends out of people who were once only avatars, and have made contacts in my industry that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. For an introvert who skips every networking event I can, this was a big deal.

As a converted fan of Twitter, I read Franzen’s comment with the same level of attention I give my grandmother when she complains about Madonna being a floozy. I shrugged it off, and reasoned that it’s no surprise that guy who said ebooks are “damaging society” doesn’t really care for social media. My only real problem with Franzen’s quote is how melodramatic it is. 
Apparently, a lot of people had deeper problems with it. Twitter (of course) exploded with anti-Franzen sentiment and started the (often hilarious) hashtag #JonathanFranzenHates, which included “your mom” and “pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.” There were also a lot of “get off my lawn” jokes. Yes, Franzen is behind the times and is perhaps yelling about things he doesn’t understand. But why do we care? We use Twitter; he doesn’t. Lots of people don’t. If Franzen wants to go all Andy Rooney about it, then why can’t we just let him? 

The thing about Jonathan Franzen is that he’s an extremely talented writer, and one of the last of his generation of white male literary novelists who still use typewriters. Whether you read literary fiction or not, it’s hard not to respect him as an author. If he wasn’t a Great American Novelist, then no one would pay attention when he speaks. But now it seems we’ve reached a point where we’re looking for reasons to pay attention, when in reality we can probably just ignore him until his next book is published.
I don’t understand the scrutiny of Franzen’s remarks or the notion that it’s actually people like Franzen who are destroying society. No, they’re not. He’s not telling us not to use social media. He’s stating his opinion on it. In his usual style, it comes off as judgmental and harsh, but it’s not meant to be divisive. We’re doing that. And the irony is, Franzen doesn’t even know we’re doing it because he doesn’t use the Internet.

At some point between The Corrections and now, there’s been a collective glee in taking Franzen down a notch, but no one will explain why it means so much to them to destroy this man. If he misspeaks in the media, his haters not only make sure the story doesn’t die, but will take things out of context so he seems like even more of a monster. The worse he looks, the better they feel. 

It’s hard to pinpoint when Franzenfreude first started. Was it when he dissed Oprah? Was it that Time cover? Or perhaps the “feud” he had with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Piccoult, that was unbeknownst to him? I’m not defending Franzen’s personality. He seems exhausting, but he’s not unlike most other literary authors who have an inflated sense of self-importance. As I described him in my 2010 post, he’s pompous, sure, but he’s also socially awkward (which can lead to saying the wrong thing) and resistant to change (which often comes with choosing a field that’s mostly solitary). In simpler terms, he’s just kind of a dick. But is he a bad person? A purposely vindictive character in our literary world? No. 
Jonathan Franzen is the literary world’s Gwyneth Paltrow. (Until she decides to conquer our world too.) One wears a cloak; the other wears a cape. Gwyneth is not a bad person. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say she’s probably a very good person. The problem with Gwyneth is that she’s severely out of touch with reality, undeniably privileged, and doesn’t understand why everybody can’t buy the same $450 moisturizer she uses. She is very easy to roll your eyes at, and even more fun to flat out hate. She’s a symbol of privilege, a walking Monty Python sketch, but she isn’t someone who deliberately causes harm. 
Like the people who subscribe to Goop ironically, every time Franzen says something like his Twitter rant, I’m more amused than outraged. Oh Franzen, I’ll say to myself, You so crazy. Then I go on about my day. But when I see the indignation from people who seem to forget that he’s completely predictable, my inner monologue tends to sound more like this.

So, let’s all calm down and keep things in perspective. Maybe Franzen does think women are ugly subordinates (he doesn’t). There are real attacks on women going on in this country right now. As a feminist, I don’t want to waste my efforts on a man who may or may not think he’s a better writer than I am based solely on my gender. If there are men who think that, then that only speaks to a larger issue in our society that needs attention.

Similarly, there are real implications of resisting change. We do need to adapt and modernize and understand what’s necessary to survive. Using social media to complain about a guy who doesn’t use social media is not in our best interest. It only proves him right.

Social media is for connecting with others, giving ourselves a platform, and showing people like Franzen that it can be useful without attacking them for not joining in.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s for talking about Doctor Who.

YA: Then vs. Now

If it weren’t for having to remember all those dates, I would have loved to have declared a history minor for myself in college. I like seeing how things go from Point A to Point B, and have a special appreciation for the past. But, sadly, history is about learning a lot of facts, and since I was more interested in the ideas behind those facts, I chose English, a very close relative of history, in my opinion.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the history of YA literature. How did we go from its roots as an undefined, confusing genre to one of the largest markets in publishing today? Like most things in history, seeing this evolution is pretty fascinating to me. Understanding that progression wasn’t as easy.

For being such an important part of the industry, YA is practically a baby. It’s a genre that keeps growing, not only in numbers (though that is true too), but in definition. Novels for teens used to be its own category, relegated to the back of the bookstore with a simple sign above it reading “Teen Literature.” Today, there are as many sub-genres in YA as there are in adult fiction. YA sci-fi, YA romance, YA mystery, etc. After Twilight, Barnes & Noble even created a section just for “Teen Paranormal Romance.” You can’t categorize them under one blanket term anymore; it would be impossible.

Part of the reason for this is that people are finally realizing teens aren’t all the same. They are as complex and unique as adults, and each have different preferences in what they watch, read, and listen to. The word “teenager” didn’t even come into existence until the late 1940s and early 1950s. People between the ages of 13 and 19 existed, of course, but no one thought to put a name to them as a group. This makes teenagers relatively new to the world, but also sort of old. With over 60 years of recognition, society still tends to think we go from childhood directly to adulthood. Teens are the third option that no one likes to talk about. If they’re talked about, it means they matter. It’s just easier for adults to mock their hairstyles and taste in music, and ignore the fact that that teen-hood is not just an extension of childhood. It’s something else.

When I thought about the changes in YA, I decided there was a clear difference between “writing about teens” vs. “writing for teens.” YA novels published in the past decade tend to fall under the latter. The voices are edgy, hip, modern, and are void of adult interference, regardless of the age of the author or the characters. YA of the last ten years has taken on a new attitude about their audience, which is that they are savvy enough to know the difference between authenticity and pandering. 

There’s something downright old-fashioned about the books we thought of as YA, and I wanted to find out why this was. When did it shift? There’s no clear-cut example of “the book that changed YA.” There’s no way for me to say, “Oh, well obviously YA is different now because…”

The truth is, there are a lot of reasons, and those reasons can be boiled down to the idea that things simply progress naturally. An entire genre does not change overnight. Instead, it creates sub-genres like the ones I mentioned above. It’s finding new topics to explore. It’s pushing boundaries and making adults uncomfortable. Just like teens are supposed to.

I am 27 years old. My coming-of-age happened in the mid-to-late 1990s. Admittedly, this does not feel like that long ago. On paper, it looks as if it was practically yesterday. But, thinking of how much the world has changed in the past twenty years, and remembering it is 2011 (the second decade of a new century), it is, in reality, pretty far gone. I read a lot as a child, but when I think of books I read as a teen, they were mostly for adults. YA novels were much fewer and farther between in the ’90s, but they were still there.

In my quest to find this shift in the history of YA, I took to Twitter. Asking only people ages 25 and older what books they read as they came of age, I got some overwhelming results. I don’t think I’ve gotten more responses to anything I’ve ever said on Twitter. Or in real life, possibly. There were so many responses, I can’t list them all here, but there were many repeated titles that I thought were particularly interesting.

You see, when I polled my peers on what YA (MG acceptable too) books they loved when they were that age, the majority of people gave me the following titles:

The Babysitter’s Club
Nancy Drew
Sweet Valley High
Goosebumps
Wait Til Helen Comes
The Indian in the Cupboard
A Wrinkle in Time

Then there were “all novels by” Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Louis Sachar, Katherine Paterson, and Paula Danziger (who I had to Google and am ashamed about).

Do you notice the same pattern I did? None of these books are YA! Some are Middle Grade, yes, but most of them are books we would have read before we turned 11.

The next biggest group of responders referenced TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and ENDER’S GAME. These books, along with my beloved CATCHER IN THE RYE, feature incredibly strong child and teen protagonists. We read these books as teens and enjoyed them, but fair readers, these are also not YA. They were not written with us in mind. We just read them because they were there (or because we had to) and the main character was our age, so we responded positively. Still, they fall under the “books we read as teens” category. Close, but no cigar.

Then, because Twitter never lets me down, the magic four authors were named:

Gail Carson Levine, ELLA ENCHANTED
Caroline Cooney, THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON
S.E. Hinton, THE OUTSIDERS
Lois Lowry, THE GIVER

I was waiting, hoping, for people to list these titles specifically, but it wasn’t until I thought about them again in terms of the evolution of YA that I realized they were the answer to my original question the whole time. Only, I shouldn’t have been asking when YA shifted; I should have asked when it started.

These books, or more specifically their authors, are who I hereby dub YA Pioneers. (Proud to say 3 of the 4 happen to be members of the Curtis Brown family!) Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t the only four, but they are arguably the most widely read of their generation. They not only made the genre popular, they made the genre a genre. They are the reason bookstores started Young Adult sections. They weren’t just writing about teens; they were writing for them.

[Digression: Sadly, they were not the reason the New York Times finally decided to give YA props by including their own Bestseller section. That honor went to J.K. Rowling after the newspaper was tired of Harry taking space away from the “real” books in 2000.]

Anyway, remember when I said that teenagers have been around since the 1950s, but no one paid attention to them as individuals until recently? To give you an idea how recent YA – as a named, recognized genre – is, each of the above four novels, with the exception of THE OUTSIDERS, was published in the early 1990s.

[Note: THE OUTSIDERS, of course, was published by a teenage S.E. Hinton in 1967, and had to wait over 20 years to be defined. It remains, more often than not, the exception to most rules in literature.]

These books didn’t only feature teenage protagonists, they offered a teenage perspective. Obedience, betrayal, alienation, and oppression are all things teenagers feel every day of their lives to varying degrees, but not many people were willing to give them a voice before these books came along. Yet, for all their forward-thinking and barrier-breaking, they were tinged with one fatal flaw. They sounded like they were written by adults. Granted, they were written by adults who gave teens a lot more credit than most people at that time, but adults nonetheless. They read as if they are telling a story to their audience, and even though the authors describe the feelings of their characters remarkably well, going back and reading these novels now don’t offer the sense of being there in the same way YA novels published today do (examples to follow).

[Another interesting exception to a rule I found was that while Levine, Cooney, and Lowry’s novels were written in the 3rd person past tense, which creates the most distance between the author and her characters, teenage Hinton wrote THE OUTSIDERS in1st person.]

There are still authors of “the old school” who continue to have voices that resonate with modern teens. The above-mentioned YA Pioneers, along with the likes of Judy Blume, are examples of authors who seem to defy the laws of evolution and whose classic novels are as strong as ever with their key demographic. Others don’t pass the test of time as well, but it doesn’t make them any less important in their contributions in starting a genre.

As big as YA is now, I’m convinced that we are still in a transitional period. Perhaps that’s why I cant tell when the shift happened – it’s because we’re still in it. My fellow over-25 readers and I grew up with books that are now considered classics. They are important and they should continue to be read by generations to come. But, tides are changing, and these classics should no longer be considered the standard. Writers today are no doubt influenced by them, so we exist in a time where both old and new voices are spoken simultaneously.

The YA Pioneers made it possible for late-’90s/early ’00 books like THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, SPEAK, and MONSTER to exist. They allowed the characters they created to be taken into new areas – specifically, the taboo, the banned. Suddenly authors were giving a voice to the parts of being a teenager that adults didn’t like, or even know about – sexuality, drugs, abuse, rape, injustice. Not exactly the stuff Disney movies are made of. (But it could have been the stuff WB shows were made of, a network also born in the late ’90s. In retrospect, that might not have been a coincidence.)

Not only were topics and stories getting more to the heart of the teen experience, but the way these stories were being told started taking risks too. PERKS is written in epistolary format, MONSTER is told as a screenplay, and SPEAK takes on the rarely-done-well 1st person present tense that puts you exactly in the moment with the main character.

In turn, these books made it a easier for titles like THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, and CRANK to be published. Which, of course, will be responsible for the YA we see released tomorrow. Things shift, the way things always do, and the way things should. Sure, it’s a little sad to know that your kids won’t enjoy the same exact things you did, but every generation experiences the effects of the previous one, so nothing is ever really lost. Books are no different, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the next generation takes what we give them and evolves.

**Author’s Correction: Commenter Manette Eaton has brought to my attention that Ella Enchanted is also written in 1st person. I’m sorry to have led you astray.

Unlikeable Heroes… and Villains

This week I watched Glee (obviously) and was thoroughly entertained as always until something awful happened. Without getting into specifics in case it is still saved on your Tivo, I will just say this: THEY ARE TRYING TO HUMANIZE SUE SYLVESTER!
If you don’t watch Glee (sigh…), then all you need to know is this: Who was once the perfect villain is now developing a “softer” side which makes me want to scream. Whether in literature or on screen, sometimes people are just mean. Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter  novels, recently touched on this in Entertainment Weekly, saying “My Dexter pretends to be nice. [TV’s] Dexter is trying to become nice.” And it’s true – TV Dexter now has a family and a conscience – and for what? So people can relate to the serial killer main character? 

Now, I’m all for creating dimensions in your characters. In fact, they need complexity in order for a reader to remain interested in their story. However, if I may turn the conversation back to where it started, with television, let me say that some of the better shows on television right now (other than Glee) are Arrested Development (in our hearts!), The Office, House, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And they all feature unlikeable characters. We root for Michael Scott despite his insensitivity and cluelessness. We secretly want to be members of the Bluth family. We are Dr. House. 

This trend was perfected, and therefore started, by Seinfeld, whose characters were so selfish and trapped in their inabilities to show common decency, that they were imprisoned for it. And yet. We LOVE them. They are not characters who we want to date in real life, or even have as our close friends, but we love them.  

OK, so why do we love them? For me, it’s because in real life, in adulthood anyway, there is rarely “character development” in the day-to-day. If a tragedy befalls you or your circumstances change in ways that you have to keep up with, then it is natural to alter a piece of your personality (if not your whole being). That means that if you write a story in which your character must change by the end, then I’m sorry to tell you that that is what you must do. 

This is actually something the boyfriend and I have discussed recently. One of our favorite jokes at the moment is mocking the new Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. Specifically, this dialogue:

Woman: “You’re changing that boy’s life.”
Sandra: “No, he’s changing mine.” 

Not all changes need to be that dramatic (and preferably not so poorly written). In life, changes take time and are not usually so declarative. Be subtle in your writing, but remember that if your story is more character-driven than it is plot-driven, chances are there won’t be any huge internal changes by the end anyway. In the way that a Jane Austen wedding scene makes one question the couple’s future happiness, characters like Nick Hornby’s ever-adolescent men “change” by reluctantly accepting society’s expectations.  

While keeping in mind that not everyone needs a Carrie Bradshaw “and suddenly I realized” moment, don’t be afraid to create some unlikeable characters either. Sometimes they can be the most interesting characters to read, whether protagonists or, for example, the walking embodiment of evil. Don’t feel obligated to “TV Dexter-ize them” unless you think it will better serve your narrative. Or, as the BF put it while we were discussing this, “If a character is a rapist, do we necessarily have to know why he’s a rapist?” 

An example of this that comes to mind is Push, the bully, in the Stanley Elkin short story, A Poetics for Bullies. He is by no means a rapist or murderer, but who’s to say he won’t grow up to be one? Push narrates, opening with: “I’m Push, the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys, and kids who pass pencils and water the plants – and cripples, especially cripples.” 

Elkin gives us glimpses as to why and how Push is the way he is, but he never implies “and this is why you should feel bad for him.” He just is what he is, and not to ruin it, but he doesn’t exactly become a better person in the end. And yet. We care. And even if he doesn’t want us to, we end up loving him.