The Appeal Of Dark Paranormal Romance

What Is Paranormal Romance?

Paranormal romance is a literary subgenre of the romance novel. A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of:

  • Traditional fantasy
  • Science fiction
  • Horror

Paranormal romance may range from traditional category romances with a paranormal setting to stories where the main emphasis is on a science fiction or fantasy-based plot with a romantic subplot. Common hallmarks are romantic relationships between humans and vampires, shapeshifters, or fantastical beings (the Fae, Elves, etc.). Paranormal romances can also include characters with psychic abilities, like telekinesis or telepathy.

Paranormal romance is the new gothic romance, enjoyed by Jane Austen even as she parodied the genre in Northanger Abbey. (A letter written by Jane Austen shows that Austen continued to read gothic romance for years after making fun of it in her own writing. Surely she derived much pleasure from the genre.)

But why? And why do so many teenage girls and women enjoy the genre today? Paranormal romance is a strange contradiction. The genre is at once supremely sexist but is also a response to existing in a sexist society, providing escapism and wish fulfilment.

Say what you will about sparkly vampires, they worked.

Ty Drago, How To Write Middle Grade Horror

Cut All Ties

[A]las, making kids’ stories “dark” seems de rigeur these days. While the original fairy tales are violent and contain the supernatural, they weren’t meant to be categorized as “Gothic”; it’s only in recent years that they have been Twilight-ed and pitched to brooding teens. But it’s not just fairy tales that have been “darkened.” Consider the difference between Disney’s original “Alice in Wonderland” and Tim Burton’s creepy version. Or Spike Jonze’s film “Where the Wild Things Are” which took Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book and turned it not into a children’s film but “a film about childhood” by replaying Jonze’s own feelings about growing up as a child of divorce and resulted in a movie full of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, and injured recriminations.

Jerry Griswold

Not Enough Adverbs For The Both Of Us

A lot of people hate on the Twilight Saga, and also on the women and girls who are hooked on it. While I have huge issues with this series myself, I have an uncomfortable feeling that a bit of femme phobia is wrapped up in criticism of its fandom. If you have no intention of seeing the film adaptations (I’ve seen the first), you can find examples of both the femme phobia and the actual problems with the story in the spoof movie trailers from ‘Honest Trailers’.

Twilight

Twilight 2: New Moon

Twilight 3: Eclipse

Twilight 4: Breaking Dawn

For more on the gendered community of romance, listen to an interview from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books with Drs Joanna Gregson and Jen Lois, who are professors of sociology.

Pursue Your Dreams Babe

The following notes are from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode Five: Why Do People Read Paranormal Romance? and the presenters are ultimately respectful of readers of this genre.

The following books come up, and I’m sure you could have predicted at least a few of them!

  1. The Ravenwood Mysteries by Mia James, in which the first is By Midnight
  2. The Fallen Trilogy by Lauren Kate
  3. The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer

 

One of the hosts of this podcast (Clementine) does not like paranormal romance [nor do I] whereas the other reads them with a ferocity that ‘is very strange considering’ Lauren is aware they’re not the best quality. Lauren is a fan of Twilight and has read them numerous times. (She does say that New Moon is the boring one of the trilogy and explains why further down.)

First, they read an excerpt from the paranormal YA romance novel By Midnight by Mia James, in which the romantic vibe comes through in a way typical for this genre.

It would be easy to criticise dark romance book but this podcast is about why people read them.

NECESSARY ELEMENTS OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE

I'm Cruel But Not A Jerk

The unvaried plot is comforting to the reader. Readers expect certain specific things: a love story with a twist, appeals to girls, more scary than a normal love story, and supernatural elements which provide excitement and danger. A recurring theme is that no matter how much danger the girl is in, you know a heroine will ultimately be protected by the immortal or supernatural boy she has ‘chosen’ to be with. Readers want romance. If the book is going through a non-romantic sequence, sometimes the readers will skip it. The main character is not fully fleshed out enough to provide any interest in her own right. The Love is a character in its own right. It’s not about the female character per se.

Surprisingly Soft

Typical in descriptions and reviews of paranormal romances:

  • a slow burning relationship that blossoms when you least expect it
  • the gift of eternal life
  • thrown together in a violent and unfamiliar world
  • a mysterious young man
  • an immediate and powerful connection
  • souls
  • warriors and other feuding factions
  • forbidden love
  • a regular girl just trying to survive high school
  • their love is so pure
  • he has been secretly in love with her forever and she is only just realising
  • has a secret that may tear them apart
  • the mystery of their past
  • the greatest danger might not be the warriors coming to destroy them but the forbidden romance that’s grown between them

 

LOVE ACROSS THE SPECIES

Central to all of these paranormal romance books is ‘forbidden love’. This is also how romance in non-supernatural romantic tales starts — a traditional plot. People have always read romance with forbidden love in it. But times have changed. Parents no longer get to decide who their daughters marry. There are fewer obstacles when people get together, unless the story is set in a more restrictive setting such as a country which has war, or with different political configurations. A paranormal romance gets round this issue by having a human girl fall in love with a man from a supernatural species, which is forbidden for reasons explained in any given story of this genre.

[See my notes on a documentary I watched about romantic cinema. Rom-coms have this same problem because there has to be something in the plot which keeps two lovers apart, otherwise there is no story.]

Reasons To Dump My Best Friend For Me

LOVE TRIANGLES

While not all paranormal romances have love triangles, many do. The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare features a love triangle between Tessa, a downworlder with a rare ability and two best friends. Will and Jem are Shadowhunters and parabatai and both of them will do anything to be with Tessa. It’s up to her to choose who she wants to be with.

io9 ranks The 10 Types Of Teen Heroes According To Wish Fulfillment and puts ‘The Hinge In the Paranormal Love Triangle’ at number three, and manages to sum up sex in YA paranormal romance:

Upsides: Approximately two supernatural hotties want you. There is smoldering. You’ll probably end up becoming supernatural yourself, one way or the other. You get to feel popular and important, even if ordinary people don’t understand you (bonus!). You’re like a misfit outcast whom everybody wants to marry.

Downsides: You don’t necessarily get much agency besides choosing between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. You’re stuck in a world where everybody thinks you’re weak because you’re human. There’s probably no sex, or at least not enough sex.

AN ANCIENT TRADITION

Although there has been a recent swing towards supernatural love stories, this is actually an ancient tradition. Greek mythology is full of such stories. Zeus impregnates different types of human females. Readers are aware of this. From looking at fansites, readers of paranormal romance are actually quite demanding regarding what they read. They’re not going to read indiscriminately anything – there has to be a twist for it to be interesting. There must be some kind of alchemy between romance and mythology, and the twist might be in setting it in a modern setting such as a school etc. This completely offsets the mythological and romantic element.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show in the 1990s which was part of this trend, which came from the work of Anne Rice, which itself comes from a very long tradition. [See The Evolution Of The Vampire In Fiction, again, notes from a lecture by David Beagley.]

White Knuckled Barely Restrained Sexual Tension

 

THE SPECIFIC NEEDS OF A READER

A reader review of By Midnight on Amazon shows that the reader appreciates this particular story for avoiding a ‘gooey’ female character, embedding the plot in a kind of reality. [Reality can obviously be placed on a very broad continuum.]

There are so many of these paranormal romance novels now that readers have generally honed their specific wants and needs. It’s a rapidly evolving genre as a consequence. They’re a bit like the teenage Mills and Boons, but updated for today’s teens. The love is also supposed to be very angsty and significant. They replicate the intensity of first love and teenage infatuation, making them more than hormone driven. There’s usually a worldwide significant event which has the ability to change the lives of everyone. [This fits the definition of ‘high fantasy’ as explained by David Beagley in his lecture Harry Potter and High Fantasy.]

Hypergamy In Paranormal Teen Romance

WHY DOES THIS GENRE SPEAK SO WELL TO A TEENAGE, FEMALE READERSHIP?

A lot of other teenage books don’t validate these feelings. Paranormal romance takes a ‘hormonal fact’ and gives it an almost spiritual dimension, as if confirming to the insecure teen that their feelings are so real and tremendously important that they have to live them fully. This concords with the completely narcissistic view on life that adults often conclude teenagers have, [and one could argue that these books encourage it].

The physical symptoms of the protagonists blushing/heart palpitating/breathing patterns and so on is not really described in any other genre. The love is therefore interpreted as all-consuming: the love is not just in your head; it’s in your whole body. This lends the love more significance. Teenage girls can really relate to this.

These feelings that feel uncontrollable to the teenage reader are validated: These feelings you have are from some supernatural event which is indeed outside your control. Or, you inherited them and it’s not your fault. This is comforting, and allows the teenager to access a feeling very powerfully. Love is presented as something that happens to you rather than a choice. It’s as if the love is predetermined.

Like the young heroine in a book, a reader is preconditioned to fall in love with a supernatural man. A lot of the stories make an attempt to explain the love interest’s appeal. Often it’s his handsomeness, which is a very uncomfortable fact given the lack of choice the female protagonist feels she has.

i-want-to-sleep-with-you

 

‘COMMITMENT PORN’

Why do people respond so well to these troublesome ideologies? Is it a response to living in a society which is full of sexualised images of women? Because ironically, paranormal romance is incredibly chaste. There’s no sex until after marriage. This storyline is escapist if a teenage girl feels her body is constantly being judged. Girls perhaps like these stories for the same reason teenage girls prefer non-threatening, boy-like, almost asexual partners a la the members of Hansen. [I have heard this referred to as ‘the erotics of abstinence’.]

 White As Wonder Bread

THE NATURE OF THE FEMALE PROTAGONIST

The female protagonists are created in such a way that as many readers as possible are meant to identify with her. A lot of her attributes play on the insecurities of teenage girls. A very common trait is the heroine is never popular. She’s never someone surrounded by close, real friends. [Genuine female friendships in YA are rare, as explained by Kate DeGoldi in her review of Code Name Verity – a rare example of female friendship well done.] She’s always a bit of an outcast, that she doesn’t fit in. [She feels she isn’t beautiful enough – there has to be something wrong with her. This isn’t limited to this genre, but is common across all YA genres. Here are my views on that.]

Coincidentally, the male love interest in paranormal romance is the only character who has ever really understood her.

A ‘Mary Sue character’ is a term given to female characters who are basically devoid of character traits. [The term is used in various different ways, as explained at TV Tropes.] She is generally weak, clumsy, insecure. Empty shells allow the reader to comfortably fit inside.

Divergent by Veronica Roth is not a dark paranormal YA romance but is rather a dystopian one in the vein of The Hunger Games, but like Twilight, the protagonist is a blank character upon which a young reader can easily superimpose herself:

Despite the constant assurance that Tris is courageous, clever and kind, her own first-person narration displays a blank personality. No matter; all the “good” characters adore her and the “bad” are spiteful and jealous.

Kirkus Reviews

 

Kissed

REASONS NOT TO DISMISS THE READERSHIP

Many fans of paranormal romance are highly articulate. They explain very well on forums why they like one book over another.  Posts can get quite close to literary analysis.  For this reason it would be a mistake to dismiss readers of paranormal romance as unsophisticated. They are enchanted by these books but can be critical of them. The books obviously offer something upon which to base critique. Breaking Dawn came under heavy criticism from Twilight’s most hardcore fans, who subsequently wrote an open letter to Stephanie Meyer via her blog. Fans had problem with the ideology behind the ending. This proved that an author can’t just wrap up a story in babies and weddings and vampires.

Readers will say they like these books for the ‘danger’. But these books are dangerous in another way, if the reader fails to read them critically and discerningly. You can be asked to absorb viewpoints that can be damaging to your development as a teenager. It’s worrisome that these books are sometimes held up as a romantic ideal. They’re best when viewed as a complete fantasy. But in 2008 and 2009 when Twilight was at its most popular, girls were apparently dumping their boyfriends because they weren’t enough like Jacob or Edward. The story sets up an ‘ideal’ that real teenage boys are never going to live up to. The stories can also set up an expectation for how girls are to be treated by boys, which is not just unrealistic but damaging.  It is presented as good to be overprotected and have a boy who controls you.

Nice Manly Cry

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An article in The Guardian about Bollywood Film and depictions of sex shows how much viewers want romance and erotica in fiction, and Indian film makers go to great lengths to get around censorship, to the point where visual metaphors are now arguably more sexual than brazen Hollywood depictions:

There is the popular misconception that Bollywood films do not show scenes of a sexual nature: they do. However, when comparing the screen time or manner in which kissing (or more “bedroomly” activity) is portrayed in Bollywood versus Hollywood, Bollywood is a blushing ballerina, whereas Hollywood is as brazen as a pole-dancing stripper.

In Bed With Bollywood

See the paper: Hopelessly Devoted: What Twilight reveals about love and obsession by Candence Malhiet Robillard.

The Dark Lover series by J.R. Ward (notice the less gendered initials in place of the full, feminine name of Jessica) is currently beating Twilight as most popular paranormal romance on Goodreads as of 2017.

L.J. Smith, S.M. Parker and G.S. Predergast are other examples of paranormal romance authors using initials as author names.

Cassandra Clare may not agree with her paranormal urban fantasy series being designed ‘romance’, showing there is a disconnect between what marketers/publishers/readers think a book might be, and what genre the author perceives their work to be:

For a long time with these books – and they’re very classic urban fantasy – they’re stories about teens growing up and being surrounded by supernatural threats and demons and there’s a lot of mythology and whatnot. But for years and years they were treated as romance novels. And it drove me nuts!

The Independent

Cassandra Clare also alludes to the phenomenon whereby if a woman writes a romantic subplot, her book is ‘romance’, whereas when men write romantic subplots their work is designated something else, be it thriller or whatever.

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 19: Traditional Literature

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

 

What is ‘traditional’?

  • A ‘tradition’ must follow a pattern that’s been set down and repeated over time. It can be traced through history.
  • Traditional ‘templates’ keep being used across generations and these templates are partly what make stories traditional.
  • The pattern must be ‘fixed’ in some way, which do not change over time. But there also must be elements which have changed. So tradition is a mixture of very old patterns and new variations. Without variations it’s not a tradition but a ‘repetition’.
  • Much of traditional literature derives from the oral tradition.
  • The printing press worked to fix a single version of a story, when in fact they tend to evolve. (In so many cases we think of the Disney version.) Modern marketing and publishing leads the audience to think of one particular version of a story.

Folksongs

  • Happy Birthday To You
  • He’s A Jolly Good Fellow
  • In Australia a lot of them derive from military songs. For example Melbourne’s Grand Old Flag is taken from an American song. Collingwood Forever was a marching song from the Boer War.
  • So many of these are a cultural marker, used to help define a particular group because they derive from a shared history. The Brothers Grimm collected a huge number of stories particularly from the Germanic countries (there was no country called ‘Germany’ back then. There were lots of separate Germanic states and each state was a separate country.) The Grimm brothers were trying to bring these groups together with a shared culture. Eventually they came together as Germany. [Was it the folktales, then? Ha ha]

 

Folktales

  • A folktale is the ‘generic’ tale that is used for all the tales/puns/jokes etc that can be lumped together, garnered from the oral tradition.
  • Folklore includes superstitions/remedies/old wives’ tales.
  • There are various categories of these.
  • Lots of beast stories.
  • Fools and Innocents: Jack and the Beanstalk, [Simple Simon], Brer Rabbit, Anansi (a spider in African lore)
  • Pourquoi Stories: how and why things happen. [pourquoi means ‘why’ in French]
  • Domestic Stories: The Elves and the Shoemaker
  • Human Traits: King Midas, Icarus, [The Emperor’s New Clothes]
  • Moral Warnings

Fairytales

  • Fairytales are a subset of folktales.
  • Fairytales include fantasy. Think of ‘faery’ as a place or a state, which was its original use. A fairytale is set in this parallel fantasy world.

Myths and Legends

  • A myth is a story that explains the world. Many derive from early religions because they were the best explanation people could come up with at the time, with the evidence they had. These are not for entertainment, originally made up to explain how the world came about.
  • A legend is usually about a single person (sometimes groups), but focuses on the lives of individual people. These people might not be real. Robin Hood, Joan of Arc, Ulysses are all characters who make certain groups proud to be a part of that group. In Australia we have The Man From Snowy River and similar, which perpetuates a particular image of Australia. Legends can be misused. (See: The Nazis.) [See again, Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan.]
  • Myths and legends all derive from reality and all function to explain the world to a particular culture.
  • Related: See my post What Is Mythic Structure?

 

Nursery Rhymes

  • These are often a child’s first experience of literature. [But is that still the case? Do modern children still have old nursery rhymes read to them?]
  • There are now nursery rhymes which have been ‘authored’. (We know who wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.)
  • Nursery rhymes are a huge mess of the created, adapted, the melodied. These exist for the purpose of play.

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 14: Social Issues In Realistic Fiction

In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

I Am The Cheese cover

David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture available on iTunes U

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Readings

  • Only Connect by Sheila A. Egoff. In the second edition is a very good article about the ‘Problem Novel’, which was starting to become prevalent in YA fiction. [I’ve also heard ‘Issues Novel’ a lot.] Rather than an adventure in which the MC goes away on an adventure, the problem exists at home.
  • Robin Sheahan-Bright talks about this [exact work not given in the audio]
  • Maureen Nimon (retired 2004, University Of South Australia) looks at the idea of censorship — what are the boundaries that adult mediators (especially librarians) set for children? Where do they draw the line? (John McKenzie disagrees with Nimon’s position quite strongly.)
  • Robin Klein’s Came Back To Show You I Could Fly is about a young boy who moves into a new house. Something has disruped his family and he meets the next door neighbour who is a bit of a rebel/streetkid. She is teenaged, heavily tattooed, pregnant, heavily into drugs. The 12 year old boy learns to deal with what he has discovered.
  • Dear Miffy by John Marsden caused a huge furor and a lot of people changed their attitude towards Marsden. Marsden is very good at portraying female characters. All the voices in his other works are spoken by a teenage female — very direct, very good. And then this one is a diary by a boy. People were surprised at the drugs/sex content, but also the language, which people saw as ‘un-Marsden-like’.
  • Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and its sequel Girl Underground — issues around boat people and detention centers. Two Afghan boys are desperate to play for Australia in WC soccer. But they’re in a detention camp. As with all Gleitzman’s stories, there is a wonderful surface of humour, but underneath is a tough story.

The Child Within The Adult

  • John Marsden’s made the following point at a conference: As adults, we’re very happy to accept the notion of the ‘child within the adult’ and people are allowed to be as young as you feel. Once past the age of 18 you spend the rest of your life revisiting that part of your life. But what we’re not comfortable with is people who haven’t reached adulthood yet.
  • Now we have an age-group called ‘tweens’. (For Hallowe’en costumes that means up to five feet in height. Ten to twelve year old girls. [See ‘Sexy Hallowe’en Costumes — there has been a lot more about this over the past few years as costumes get sexualised for ever-younger girls, in particular.]
  • Obviously, the realistic must begin with the ‘real’.
  • Childhood and adolescence is a time of change. Childhood and adolescence are made up of continual change, physically, emotionally, intellectually. Adults look for stasis: a regular income, a house, a steady relationship etc. The adolescent’s life is continual change. So why write about the everyday? Because everything will be different next year. Adolescence is turbulent, so therefore the fiction ought to be turbulent.
  • What a lot of writers do is take the extreme end of that turbulence: the bad. The Bad initiates the change: sex, drugs, abuse, war, AIDS, violence — all those sorts of things.
  • The Resilience Centre has resources such as Rosy and Jack, which deals with bad touching.

 

A Brief History of Issues Novels

  • When did these stories start? Treasure Island, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Little House On The Prairie... In most of these stories, if they’re not just like the Anne stories — explanations of everyday life — they are stories where the hero with a relatively stable home life goes away to an adventure. This is usually a big change. Something happens from outside. As in The Little Princess, the big event affects the everyday life at home. The child protagonist becomes the hero who deals with this issue, overcomes the situation and changes it. The adventure is outside the expected norm.
  • In the late 20th century (the 1960s and 70s) this sort of story changed. Colin Thiele, Storm Boy, Blue Fin, Paul Zindel’s My Darling My Hamburger, Judy Blume’s books which depict teenagers actually having sex, Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs about incest (1995), David Metzenthen’s Tiff and the Trout is not quite as extreme, being about divorce and the break up of a family. Instead of the normal being stable and nice, the normal is the problem. Nothing has come from outside. So instead of being the ‘hero’, the MC is now the victim. This is a big change in how a story is told.
  • The Dickens stories featuring children were about protagonists who started off with stability, were cast out, and then come back to stability. In Oliver Twist’s case, the normal is before he’s born, his mother’s situation — he eventually finds his way back to that.
  • When nasty is the normal state, ‘escape’ is much, much more difficult. Sometimes, survival is the best an MC can hope for.

 

Issues Around Issues Novels

  • Didacticism: preachy, teaching. The reader is expected to absorb a clear message. To what extent should kidlit be instructive rather than just entertaining? It’s an interesting exercise to google search for lists of banned books. This is a big issue in America. A lot of it comes from the nature of the school system in America. Here in Australia, the NSW school system is pretty much the biggest school system in the world because most countries run their systems on a local basis. When education is run by local people, those local people are very responsive to pressure groups. So if someone gets a bee in his bonnet about a particular book, it’s more likely to be opposed. Local people can kick up a fuss.
  • And Tango Makes Three is an interesting example of a banned book. At a zoo in the United States two penguins paired off. They were both male, so the keepers put an egg there because they were getting really stressed without one. They hatched the egg and brought up the baby and the baby was called Tango. (This is a true story.) But people of course raised objections to it, for ‘promoting homosexuality as normal’.
  • Are children even old enough to connect the behaviours of two male penguins with the behaviour of two male humans? Children are defined by a ‘deficit model’: They are defined by what they are not. They are not old enough. They do not have experience, they do not have the vocabulary. They are not ready to make moral decisions. They therefore need a mediating adult.
  • Is children’s literature the place for warts-and-all reality? Can’t they live in that rosy-glow we associate with childhood, running around, climbing trees? Should literature reflect what is already there, or should it lead children into the new and unknown?
  • If we accept the necessity that there is a need for some mediation — as most people would — perhaps simply because they don’t have the language to deal with particular things, or (in the Piaget model of childhood development) that they don’t have the capacity to think further than the concrete until about the age of 12 — if we accept this sort of model the books need to be mediated.
  • There are two ways of mediating. The first, protection. The reader is shielded, by limiting access to this particular great mess of the adult world. The alternative, vaccination. By giving the child small doses of awfulness we can prepare them for when they encounter horrible things in real life.

 

Various Attitudes Towards Issues Books

  • The protectionist view (from The Lion, The Witch and the Drug Addict from Egoff’s book): Children are helpless. They need someone else to do things for them. But they live in an adult world, which sees them not only as helpless but also as a good market (‘pester-power’) — just look at what is at the cash register in the supermarket, at child’s eye-level. Susan Smith says it is more important than ever to give them models for them to learn from. On the other hand, if children are spending so much of their life surrounded by exhausted parents working long hours, Smith wonders if it’s really necessary to give them all this for their bedtime reading as well? Can’t we just give them warmth and security at bedtime? Is this the normal we want children to accept and therefore perpetuate?
  • The vaccination idea works on the basis that the reader needs to do as much work as the author. The reader comes up with potential solutions to the problems presented by the story.
  • Realistic fiction will always be contentious because real life is contentious.
  • Nimon’s view is that we should trust the reader.
  • The real ‘you’ is kept private. We never really know what’s going on in the ‘inner life’ of another person. The ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ lives of characters are an important dichotomy. In Terabithia, the outer realities (Leslie’s death) cause the inner realities (the emotions, the responses: denial, anger, self-pity, blame, depression, and the gradual realisation and acceptance, and the choice to let someone else into Terabithia).
  • Each reader is different. As readers read, though, we follow a similar trajectory of emotions. We may look at Jessie’s turmoil and apply it to similar situations/emotions in our real life. Although reading is a vicarious experience, the feelings we have while reading are real nonetheless. By feeling these emotions and learning them, is the child therefore better equipped to deal with them when they become real in our outer realities of real life?
  • Nimon looks at how we find the balance between the inner and the outer reality. Where do we intervene? The mediator does and must, therefore when and how? There are two points at which we could intervene.
  • First, by looking at the maturity of the reader. We label: child, tween, YA, adult. When does a child become an adult? When they are able to make their own moral judgements and take responsibility for their decisions. The rules around sexual activity reflects our ideas of teenage-ness. But if we’re going to vaccinate them, they need the stories before they reach the situation IRL.
  • Second, we can mediate by defining the literature itself, by looking at it in terms of its quality. Is it good literature? Nimon talks a lot about this. Does the story simplify the topic? Does it preach and judge right/wrong rather than letting the reader do the work? Does it smack the reader in the face with a message? Does it suggest that extreme problems are simply normal?
  • After all, stories are still just stories. The genre label of realism is actually talking about the author’s approach. It’s not an instruction manual they’re writing. Fiction writers are not journalists. The stories are not documentaries.
  • Morris Gleitzman, Elizabeth Honey, Christobel Mattingley are good authors who deal with reality without making the stories too nasty.

 

This lecture reminded me of teaching English in a low socio-economic girls’ high school in New Zealand. The New Zealand curriculum allows teachers to choose their own novels, movies, short-stories and poems to teach to the kids in front of them, which is a wonderful freedom not afforded in countries with government approved reading lists. At the school where I was a young teacher, one of the films chosen for study, for 16 year old girls, was Once Were Warriors, based on the book by Alan Duff. This story is one of the few to star a New Zealand Maori girl, and until Whale Rider came out, it may have been the only one. Bear in mind that at this school, a larger-than-you-may-think proportion of the students had been abused in some way, often by a family member, as these things go. However, the (entirely white, middle-class English department) took ‘The Literature As Vaccination’ view — that by studying this story, the students would be better prepared for it in real life. However, when the Year 10 Dean found out about it, she was shocked. She took the Protectionist View. This was no doubt due to the fact that in her role as Dean, she had a better idea of what these girls were dealing with at home, and she predicted the film would be triggering  rather than any kind of comfort. She felt that school should offer protection from ruptured and dangerous home lives.

The film (and book) continued to be studied, because final decisions come down to the head of English. But that film, along with some of the short stories of Witi Ihimaera, deal with issues very close to home for those students and to be frank, I’m glad I don’t have to teach those any longer. In any classroom, a single story can be a ‘vaccination’ for some students while being ‘traumatic’ for others, and we never know exactly who is who. It is also very difficult as a teacher to mediate classroom discussions around such delicate issues as rape and suicide, and I noticed that certain students fell silent, while others (most always white and middle class) were the most vocal, and often ill-informed.

All of this shows how very important it is to train and retain the best of the best to work as teachers in our schools.


 

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Dimensions of YA Literature, a paper by Hallman and Schieble argues for the coverage of relevant and sometimes difficult social issues in young adult literature.