Feelings about the Bildungsroman genre

I don’t think anything marks your exit from adolescence as sharply as the severe cringing that occurs when you remember the years you’re passing by. That 13 year old death metal playlist seems embarrassing instead of cool. Embarrassing not only because I had no idea how comfortable and privileged adolescence is but also because I had not encountered death and sadness and the true dark adult grief that comes with the passing of time. Who was I then to claim that the lifestyle of angry, unresolved feelings and upset was something I could relate to?

As my essay grades have explicitly declared, now is the time for me to declare a thesis. I’m writing this post to wonder why a genre like Young Adult exists and what did I feel I got out of it.

There’s a coming of age YA writers don’t write about. The one when you shed the possibly plastic scales of fitting into a group and go out completely alone, completely vulnerable and learn to be okay with it.

The one where your major achievement is securing an independent apartment at a reasonable rent, instead of “loving your angst-ridden boyfriend’s emotional problems away”.  The one where it is more about being a person than finding a person. The one where losing a job is a more real threat than being attacked by vampires.  The one where the vibrancy of daily, ordinary life are rendered with glory. The same glory that the awkward unnoticed kid might feel when Some High Authority Of Popularity Etc. deigns to elect him/her as One of The Clique, Part of The Empire, The Selected One.

This is not the coming of age of a child compressed into adulthood because of difficult circumstances or problematic families, because I had a perfectly fine childhood and a perfectly fine network of support for me (friends and parents). How, in the midst of all this normalcy, did I feel like I identified with those characters? How is it that our personal stories of achievement, whether in similar construct or content to those of our protagonists, are simply not cool enough to write best sellers about?

I had no boyfriend and did not have many opportunities to seek one if I wanted to (Many YA books strongly recommend this for some reason). Most of the books I read (and which are being released frequently on the market today) deified the girls who had more male friends than female ones, and implied that they were perhaps all attracted to her. My friends’ circle is largely female and it is only now (+7 years) that I realize that having such a group of friends means I have in part, conquered the internalized misogyny all girls deal with.

I shouldn’t have opened up this Pandora’s box, but let me not stop you from finding and encouraging writers who are willing to portray more holistic images of women and girls than the template attractive, emotionally immature for no reason characters who were beautiful only because they “don’t know what makes them beautiful”, who are willing to tolerate the tantrums of attractive guys because they are attractive and are willing to complain about shouldering their female friends’ because they’re female. This piece suddenly turned out to be unintentionally feminist, but I make no apologies.

I was not an orphan. I was not a vampire. I was in a perfectly rigid school system and a very tight-knit family so I didn’t experience a fraction of that anguish which all the protagonists seem full of and for what? For a change of school? For the terrifying lack of friends? For the even more paramount lack of boyfriend(s)?

Who writes the very normal and very underrepresented story of a normal kid learning to be, in their estimation, a normal adult?

I had such a realization today when I unfollowed 7 popular “Young Adult” authors in a sweep.

I’m suffering from the same problem that I begrudged adults when I was a teenager. I can’t take them seriously

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2 thoughts on “Feelings about the Bildungsroman genre

  1. Really interesting piece. At some point during adolescence I made the leap from Enid Blyton and choose-your-own-adventure books to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and a seemingly endless parade of sci-fi and fantasy from then on. I have no doubt that YA was the target audience for much of it but it did seem a lot less angst-ridden than the more recent offerings (I speak from hearsay and zero experience). I can completely relate to the cringing from death-metal (and, additionally in my case) eighties/nineties hairspray-rock and general bad pop playlists – only difference being they were mix-tapes back then and I can now recreate them digitally for fun via Deezer 🙂 On a serious note however I think your call to go and discover characters who are far from the cookie-cutter template that is seemingly used in the books you are referencing is spot on. There is nothing more tedious than the obvious and overdone in any genre.

    • Nik, thank you so much for your valuable input! (Especially since I got back to writing after a long time). I was also struck by the remarkably common plot themes used in works like Divergent or The Hunger Games (which are considered to be the “reading girl’s Twilight”) and romance works like Twilight. There’s always one female protagonist, who is gloriously awkward and unrecognized, is unable to have any stable female friendships, is always involved in a love triangle with two attractive boys and somehow caught up in the big-picture survival of the story arc. Recently, I was reading Crewel (by Gennifer Albin), which is listed as science-fiction fantasy. I loved her writing and the story concept but I was very disappointed that it fell so squarely into the plot themes I described above. It’s almost formulaic at this point.
      In all honesty, Enid Blyton and J.R.R. Tolkien were my staples too along with Asimov 😀 The only other true “Young Adult” work I’d read was Harry Potter and perhaps a few of the glamorized Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen series (which had a stark difference in that it established the strength of a twin-sister bond despite the “adversity” of not finding a boyfriend, managing a separated family, etc.)
      But I think people in general read those authors less and conform to a genre that fits their age-bracket. After all, YA has been proven to be more accessible than others, simply because teenagers can relate to it. But it’s also alarming how the themes it propagates are so out of sync with the real world, or even real-world scale issues.

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