Category Archives: Criticism

So Laura Has A Girlfriend

Ever since the idea for the novel I’m currently working on first sprung to mind, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Not so much the YA books, though (which, let’s face it, I should probably get around to reading because I know very little about the other books in my genre), as it is the criticism of them. Knowing what my main problems with (what I’ve read from) the genre is, I thought it’d be interesting to see what others’ were. Not so much to tailor my novels around it as to, y’know, just satisfy my Inner Judgmental’s curiosity. (I.J. loves to hear people complain about stuff.)

For those of you who might not know, people’s problems with this genre are plentiful, and while some are downright silly, there’s a vast amount of them that aren’t, and they’re made even less so due to YA’s intended demographic (yes, there are older readers, but the target audience is adolescents and young adults (which, by the way, Wikipedia doesn’t see fit to think is the same, so neither will I. We all know Wikipedia is never wrong)). Considering how crucial a time those years are, I understand the concerns voiced by those who wish these novels had more diversity in them – racial and social alike. Knowing how much of an impact Harry Potter had on its generation (granted, not a YA book to begin with, but there’s no denying it went there eventually), and Twilight on the one that followed, I understand why some wish that there were other role models to find in those novels than the white, heterosexual ones we’re presented with.

I’ve got a document called Food For Thought in the folder reserved for things for my novel. In it I’ve collected a multitude of quotes I’ve stumbled upon since embarking on this YA novel of mine, and one of my absolute favourites is one by Amber Benson, who played Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those of you who don’t know, she’s one half of a whole that was the first proper lesbian whole on US television (or so Wikipedia says, and we all know I love good, ol’ W). This is what it says –

‘I got letters from girls saying that I changed their lives and I met people who would cry about it, and that had such an impact on me. You don’t realise what an impact television has on people. But when you get letters from young girls saying, ‘I came out and I have a girlfriend now because of you’, it’s great.’

It’s a quote I’ve kept because I think it’s inspiring. It’s a quote I’ve kept because it’s a nice reminder of how something that to some people seems like a tiny thing – a girl liking a girl instead of a boy – can be a big thing for someone else. Being the straight girl that I am, I could never imagine the (potential) qualms of having to (and do shoot me if this is a horrible phrasing (mind you, I’m foreign and mean no harm)) come to terms with being in love with someone of the same sex in a society that generally thinks of girls as liking boys and boys as liking girls, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, those people, with those worries, those fears, that confusion. When I read the above quote, what I see more than anything is a platform. One that, yes, on the bigger scale was important because Joss Whedon here treated a relationship between two women as equal to that of one between a woman and a man (though let’s be honest – it did take several seasons for them to be able to kiss on-screen and, I’m fairly certain, even longer than that for them to do something that even remotely resembled sex), but, more importantly, on a much smaller and more individual level handed every girl who needed someone to relate to, someone to take those first steps with, someone whom they could do that with, because not only did Joss Whedon have a relationship between two women on his show – he had one girl’s transition from ‘into guys’ to ‘into girls now (too?)’. A transition met, in turn, with both accolade and concern, as some believed that ‘Willow’s lack of panic or self-doubt when she realizes she is in love with Tara [made] her the best role model a teen could ask for’ whereas others felt that Willow not identifying herself as a lesbian (she tells Buffy that the Oz situation is complicated because of Tara, thus indicating that she has fallen in love with the latter) was a failure on her (or, maybe more correctly, the show’s) part.

Which kind of brings me to one my personal concerns: how to satisfy these critics?

First off, let me make one thing abundantly clear – I will not be tailoring my novel to suit anyone’s preferences apart from my own. I know what my story is, I know what I want to say with it, and I stick by that. Does this mean I won’t be doing my homework? No. Last night saw a lesbian character make her way into my novel. As a result, a character who was, until then, straight suddenly turned bi, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit intimidated by both their sexualities. Partly because, within the confines of the novel itself, the character who just turned bi is one of the major(er-ish) ones (meaning she is of great importance to my main character), but also because it’s one of those things where, if you do it, you want to do it properly. Especially when you’re straight.

It took me less than a day to do my first searches and read-throughs of what a bisexual thinks it means to be bisexual. Non-scary stuff thus far, and I admit that I feel very encouraged to go about it the way I initially intended to, which is the Joss Whedon way – treating it like any other relationship (only difference being that the B’s and L’s of this relationship will undoubtedly be addressed at some point). Because, surely, the love part is the same, no? I mean, love is love, after all.

Why then the mention of the critics? Undoubtedly because of the lack of LGBTQ characters in YA literature, which has left some LGBTQ writers asking where they are. As far as my novel goes, they’re (finally) there. Neither is a main character, mind you, which I know some of said writers have also complained about – them being degraded to secondary characters (those so-called sidekicks) – but in the interest of being honest, genuinely honest, and maybe casting some light on why we may not include them as much as they should be included (at least, this is the reason I know I have erred on the side of caution), it very much comes down to the importance of them, as contradictory as that may sound. Because, as mentioned earlier, if you do include them, you have to do it properly. Not just because there will be LGBTQs out there, reading it, critiquing it, but because, with a YA novel, odds are that your words may just fall into the hands of someone who needs them to be the right ones, real ones – their ones.

Which brings about what I suspect might be one of the issues: the worry. Because I do worry about whether or not I can provide that – their truth in lack of a less cheesy word. I worry about whether or not I can pull it off, because I’d want to be able to do that, and splendidly, too, I may add, if I finally went there (regardless of main character or side-kick status).

That said, I am curious as to which is worse: a YA novel void of LGBTQ characters, or one that has them, but less good ones (think: stereotypes)?

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Filed under Criticism, Sexuality, Writing, Young Adult

Cornershop Sessions #001: GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS

I’ve recently found that I do most of my writerly worrying on my way to and from the cornershop. It’s a semi-daily thing, that – going there. Especially these days, what with assessment deadlines falling left, right and centre, and nothing helps writing, I find, as much as a Cadbury bar and a mug of milk. The cornershop, as it just so happens, has both. (Milk and bars, that is. Mugs are my own, but enough about that.)

I cornershopped it tonight. Put my headphones on and pressed play on the 4 AM Writing Sessions playlist on my iPod (six hours early, yes, but yeah – whatever), which does nothing but inspire. Seriously, it’s amazing. Then I left my flat and as soon as that outer door closed shut behind me, my mind pretty much picked up where it left off last – with those girls who like boys.

First off, let’s face it. They’re a pretty common thing in YA literature. At least, to my limited knowledge, they are. L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries has Elena, The Secret Circle has Cassie; Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga has Bella, and The Host has Melanie/Wanderer. Hell, had there been less Hunger Games for Katniss to worry about, let alone participate in, in Suzanne Collins’ series of the same name, odds are she would’ve probably spent more time in those woods with Gale, and something was bound to have come of that. I mean, come on. What he said (at about 1.46, but yeah – the rest of it’s pretty true, too). And as for Hermione Granger? Well, she might have started out as a kid, but by the time the coolest girl in the whole wide world (song starts at around 4.00) became a young adult, even she eventually fell for one Ronald Weasley. Of course, they didn’t all fall in the same way, and that is undoubtedly what makes the difference.

Stephen King once said that ‘Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity’ whereas ‘Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend,’ and that’s stuck with me for some time now. Mostly because my former main character would undoubtedly fall closer to the Twilight end of that spectrum than she ever would the Harry Potter one, and I could tell from that quote, from the way the disdain kind of just reeks out of it, that that was not something you would or should want if you wanted your book to be at least somewhat good. But I wonder, now, if that is a fair point to make? Because, let’s face it, apart from both works being written works, they have nothing in common and I don’t think they ever intended to.

Harry Potter is, as King says, about confronting fears. It’s about the return of what is supposed to be the greatest evil and about how everyone must, at some point down the line, take a stand, for or against. Yes, there is love in it and love is a huge part of it, but it’s not a love story. Sure, some fangirls around the world squealed like fangirls do when Ron and Hermione finally kissed, when Harry and Ginny finally kissed, because they’d been rooting for that for years by then, but it wasn’t the biggest thing in the novel, it never would be. Harry beating Voldemort was. Harry sacrificing himself for those he loved was. Harry doing the right thing was.

Which, to be honest, is quite close to what Bella Swan spends most of Twilight doing, too. I mean, doing the right thing? Kind of check, what with the self-sacrifice to save her mum. Self-sacrifice? See aforementioned check. Beating the evil? She didn’t, really, and wasn’t intending to, but was Harry? I can’t remember, but as far as I recall, he was pretty sure he was going to die until he did, but didn’t, and then Dumbledore dropped by and said hi, because that’s what happens when you’re in Limbo? Is it me or did Harry Potter just totally jump into that death, head first?

If one were to compare, I think, in my books, Twilight’s saving grace is the fact that Bella Swan does what she does at the end to save her mother, not her lover. I always forget that when I do that annual Twilight watching, and every time it annoys me, greatly, until the end comes around and I remember she goes to that ballet studio to save Renée, and I’m all cool with it again. However. That is if one were to compare, which, as I mentioned somewhere above, I don’t necessarily think one should. Why? It’s quite simple. Twilight’s a romance novel. It’s about the love story. Harry Potter? Not sure what exactly I’d pigeonhole that as, but romance sure as hell wouldn’t be it. You can compare the writing (which is why I’m fine with King also stating that, ‘Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good’), but you can’t compare books that fall into different genres, you just can’t. Twilight may be unideal in more than one way, but it does what it’s supposed to – it gives us Girl Meets Boy, They (Eventually) Live Happily Ever After.

Which brings us back to the cornershop worrying because my main character isn’t on a mission to save her mum (though, I admit, I have thought about this). She is (as of a week ago when my novel had a sudden change of main character) on a mission to save her late ex-boyfriend (as opposed to my last main character, who was on a mission to save her late husband). Yes – she goes through all of her troubles for a guy. Did she give up her life for said Guy? No. I wouldn’t say so, but there is no denying that he had an impact on it, and a big one at that. Does she give up her friends for said Guy? No. They were there before he entered her life, and they are there after. Were there when he was there, too, so they noticed said impact, which might just be why they all decide to do theirs to help her out come Ex-Boyfriend’s death, and her suicide mission to bring him back.

Why, then, do I worry? Because the world makes me feel like I should: it’s King with his quote; it’s the Girl Cares About Guy, which, for reasons (almost) unknown, feels like such a no-no route to go down (though, I admit, that may just be me over-thinking it); and it’s the (fanatical ones among the) feminists with their anti-Guy attitudes – more than anything, it’s them. Because God forbid a girl actually liked a guy that much.

Do I think the Twilight love story is ideal? No. Probably not. Do I get where it’s coming from? Yes. Probably not to a Bella-extent, but yes. My mother and grandmother aside (the latter of whom outrode me on bikes well into her seventies), the people who have shaped me have undoubtedly been male. From my father leaving my mum when I was 10, to the first guy who found my ridiculously insecure 17-year-old self kiss-worthy, to that first boyfriend that I hurt, to that guy who told me he wasn’t good enough for me (and, what’s more, meant it), the moments that truly define me have been male-induced – from the lowest lows to the highest highs, I am who I am because of the men in my life. And I say that as someone who quite cherishes her female friends.

Which is why, quite frankly, I don’t get what the big fuss is about because, surely, I can’t be the only one – I can’t be the only product of the males in my life, can’t be the only girl who’s liked a boy too much, the only girl who remembers how willing, at one point or other (though, I suspect, usually in those teen years because weren’t they just a downright pain sometimes? I know some of mine were), she was to sacrifice just about anything for that one love because the thought of living without it was just unbearable (seriously? Do you remember those years? No wonder Bella Swan’s all f*cked up). I know I do – remember them – and I remember the Edward Cullen of that time. I remember two full years of unrequited, of just feeling hollowed out, of painfully despairing misery, of unsteady breaths, of repeated blows to my stomach. Non-literal ones, those last ones, but still – they sucked. And do you know what my only thought here is? At least Bella Swan suffered through all of that for a guy who had the decency to suffer through all of it with her. She may have been willing to give up her life for him, but he sure as hell was willing to give up his for her in return, and that’s something. Something they often fail to mention.

Do I think Twilight is the golden standard? No. By no means, no. Do I think people should stop complaining about girls who like boys? Yes. Absolutely. Because we do and we did (those of us who, y’know, like boys, anyway), and you know what? Sometimes they deserve to be liked – they really do.

Even the ones who don’t think they’re good enough for us.

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Filed under Cornershop Sessions, Criticism, Stephenie Meyer, The Twilight Saga, Writing, Young Adult

How Bryony Pearce Restored My Faith in YA.

I bought Angel’s Fury by Bryony Pearce on July 12, 2012. Read the first three sentences (at the very least) on August 1, and wrote to her on twitter that very day to let her know that I’d just ‘had my faith in the entire genre restored’. Why? ‘No adjectives whatsoever!’
……. Bryony’s debut novel is the first supernatural novel I’ve actually read since starting work on my own series. I stumbled back into fantasy territory some two years back after five years spent happily apart, and I was surprised to find it a more daunting task than first imagined. Undoubtedly because I’d moved more as a writer in those five years (heck! In the last two of those five years) than I did in the eight years leading up to eighteen and my finally giving up on the genre, which meant that my approach the second time around was quite different. Two years with the National Academy of Writing, spear-headed by Richard Beard and his masterclasses, taught me to read as a writer as opposed to a reader and that, that is the most important thing that’s happened to me yet. It’s also the reason reading Bryony’s Angel’s Fury was such a two-level thing for me in a way that few other novels have been, because my writing in the genre and, maybe more importantly, doing research in it, really has added to the experience of reading novels from it. Coming at it with my own thoughts and ideas and worries (not to mention downright fears) and questions in mind, there’s something utterly intriguing about seeing just how others have gone about doing these things, not to mention something utterly encouraging, which is what Angel’s Fury was to me – encouraging. Why? Let me count the ways.
……. There’s that aforementioned writing. When I first realised that I was indeed going to have another go at this genre, I did what seemed like a pretty good idea, albeit discouraging (and I had a feeling it would be) – I went to Waterstone’s and got, I think it was, five novels from the shelves that I reckoned my series would end up on. Of those five, I remember two were by L. J. Smith, just because I so loyally tune in and watch an episode of The Vampire Diaries every week, and one was by Charlaine Harris. (Ain’t nuffin wrong with a bit of True Blood either, is there?)
……. Of the two, Smith stood out to me the most. Undoubtedly because her writing was far worse than Harris’ (which, I must admit, hasn’t made a lasting impression, but considering what it took for Smith to make one, that may just be a good thing), and it bothered me. Mostly because I wouldn’t have minded re-acquainting myself with Damon, Stefan and Elena, but there’s only so much wanting can carry you through.
……. When I mentioned those adjectives to Pearce in that tweet, and my excitement at their absence, it’s because they’re my biggest pet peeve. Not just in genre fiction, but in fiction in general. Granted, a fan of keeping it simple, keeping it clean, I’m biased. I’d rather have one too little than one too many. Smith? She seems quite fond of them. Moreso in groups of three or four at a time. ‘It seemed cheap and nasty and unnecessary and cruel’? That one will probably always spring to mind when Smith comes up in conversation. Also when adjectives do. Most definitely when that whole commercial versus literary debate takes off, because if this is what people think of when they think genre fiction – and considering how well Smith has done for herself (one successful TV adaptation and a failed one, which, yes, is a failed one, but an adaptation nonetheless), she may just be what some people think of when they talk genre, or the one whom some people know best (I wouldn’t know, but I suspect some people are diehard The Vampire Diaries or The Secret Circle fans before diehards of any other fandom) – if this is what they think of, then I can hardly blame them. Even less so because the sentence that follows that one and its four adjectives, which kind of all mean the same in that particular situation, is summed up in yet another one, which is the adjective ashamed. As in ‘[s]he was ashamed to be part of it’, which, as far as I’m concerned, means she might as well have scrapped that other sentence altogether. Why? The fact that that last adjective covers what she decided to spend five to say aside, this is a prime example of writing making me feel like my intelligence is expected to be at least somewhat below average – Smith pointing it all out to me. You know, just to make sure I got it. Kind of like how Cassie keeps saying Portia’s name at the end of every sentence in chapter one (fact: might be exaggerating here, but still) just so I wouldn’t expect her to be talking to one of the other groups of people on the beach. You know – the ones that are by no means sitting right by them and their conversation. God.
……. Pearce, though, she doesn’t do any of that. Not the adjective overkill, not the condescension. She takes one for Team Subtle, takes her time to get to where she wants. Touches upon things, such as Pandra’s natural dislike for Seth, with such ease that had you any less confidence in her skill as a storyteller, you might think she forgot about it. (Dear reader – she didn’t.)
……. A friend of mine, who is undoubtedly the writer I have the greatest respect for out of all the lots in all the lands, once said to me that the most common mistake among writers, in her humble opinion (which is totally legit in my opinion, but again, I may be biased), is that people don’t give the story time to unfold at its own pace. I think that might be why I liked Angel’s Fury so much – its, to me, complete disregard (and rightly so) for the (expected?) pace. Which kind of sounds like a negative, but it’s not meant as such, because what it does that I don’t feel like novels (to my very limited knowledge) always do properly in these kinds of genres, is that it puts the character at the centre of it all – not the action, not the plot, but the character. I like some stillness in-between the storms. I like some interactions and dialogues that actually pique my interest because you kind of feel like something is being said even though it’s not said explicitly. In short, I like to use my brain. And I like characters that make me want to do that, characters I want to engage with, ones I could actually see myself having a talk with – and a proper talk at that – if I ran into them in the street. To me, Cassie, the main character of Angel’s Fury, is just that.
……. Other things of note as far as this novel’s concerned? (Possible SPOILER ALERTs ahead!) I loved that there wasn’t a love triangle at the heart of it, which mostly seems to be the norm these days. For a moment there, I thought there might be some history (clever, innit? Using the word history of all the words out there) between Pandra and Seth, and while I probably wouldn’t have thought less of the novel, had that been the case – because I honestly think this is a writer who would’ve been able to put a proper spin on it and somehow give the most unoriginal of plotlines an original twist – I was so excited to see Pearce go down a different route that didn’t have a love triangle at its core. (Mind you, the lack of overly hormone-driven teenagers did make for one surprised reader when that office scene went down.) I admit I didn’t see that one coming and it was refreshing. As was the introduction of Seth far enough into the novel for me to start wondering altogether whether or not we’d get a male character to root for (I know. Silly thing to question), and, even though the dreams were obviously unusual, the fact that we weren’t introduced to the facts earlier actually made me start wondering whether or not we’d have supernatural entities despite the fact that the blurb on the back clearly states that they’re there.
……. All in all, more times than not this novel had me questioning pretty much everything, and in those moments when I thought to myself that I didn’t know if Pearce would be able to pull it off (I vividly remember eventually thinking, as Seth had yet to turn up, that we’d gone so long without a love interest of some kind that I didn’t know if it’d feel right if one showed up), she proved me wrong (all he had to do was arrive and I was like, ‘f*ck yeah!’) and that may just be what was most interesting to me, as a writer, throughout – that slight doubt that crept in every once in a while, and how easily Pearce squashed it time and time again. If that isn’t the sign of an author doing something right, I don’t know what is.

Oh, and the cover –

 photo b6b1bbe2-f936-40e2-8651-c9ee9a8050d7_zps23da70f6.jpg

– isn’t it gorgeous? Doesn’t have one single black-haired girl in a black dress standing around, looking all emo on it. Marvellous!

__________
For the Author Q&A, stay tuned.

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Filed under Bryony Pearce, Criticism, Writing, Young Adult