Monday, March 13, 2006

Naomi Wolf on Young Adult Fiction

It’s easy to make fun of Naomi Wolf, with her mainstream success, her good looks, and her often narcissistic mastery of the obvious feminist observation of the moment (beauty has a hold on us, we can be straight women and feminists at the same time, childbearing and rearing changes us). But I want to praise her restraint in yesterday’s book review. Given the opportunity to review a new genre of young adult literature full of brand-names, sex, and cliques in yesterday’s Times book review, Wolf actually sticks to description.

I haven’t read these books, but the description damns the genre well enough. As others have said, all those dropped names grate on my nerves:
The mockery the books direct toward their subjects is not the subversion of adult convention traditionally found in young adult novels. Instead they scorn anyone who is pathetic enough not to fit in.

And, at the end of the piece, Wolf allows herself a smart comparison between these books and the classics (among which she includes Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Brontes, both books for girls* and books for adults that girls have gravitated to):
The great reads of adolescence have classically been critiques of the corrupt or banal adult world. It's sad if the point of reading for many girls now is no longer to take the adult world apart but to squeeze into it all the more compliantly. Sex and shopping take their places on a barren stage, as though, even for teenagers, these are the only dramas left.

Frankly it would have been hard for me, given this material not to write a rather screeching polemic. It would be easy to decry these books as corrupting and easy to lament, in some fashion, the decline of the youth of today, etc., etc. Instead, Wolf describes and then, at the end, gently rebukes the values of these books. End of review.

This is not what you would guess from reading responses to her around the blogosphere (two particularly good ones are Gwenda’s and Scott’s—which he linked to in Gwenda’s comments). Some seem to hear her calling for censorship, to fear that she’s advocating parental warning labels on these books.

This readiness to cast Wolf as being on a rant when she actually avoids the most obvious, easy rant strikes me as particularly ironic in a week where the review also includes discussion of a book on “Moosewood Conservatives” (a goofy but interesting category of conservative hippies). Pankaj Mishra’s very funny skeptical assessment of David Foster Wallace and in which, elsewhere, in the Times Jason Reitman quips “Nothing says, 'I want to tell you how to live your life' more than Birkenstocks." We are all tired of this righteousness. What’s nice about Wolf’s piece is she lets us pass judgment.

There’s another thread in the comments of others that I have more sympathy with. Those commentators remember those V. C. Andrews books or tattered copies of Forever and remember, too, knowing at eleven or twelve, the difference between a book consumed in a fever pitch the way one might read Seventeen and a life-changing good book.

My friend who writes romance novels began that career as a fan of the stuff. Her father, disdaining the romance, struck a deal with her: one classic for every romance. She tore through all of Twain in order to get to the romance books. We had another brand of derision in my house. Flush with the pleasures of Damien and Siddhartha, I ran to ask my father if he had ever read this Hermann Hesse.

“No,” he said thoughtfully, “but I believe they are books that people your age like.”

I slunk away and pulled something else of the shelf: Margaret Mead? Lord of the Flies?

I plan similar stratagems of mockery and trickery when the dear one’s reading doesn’t quite match my hopes.

*I know that lots of boys and men read these books, but it’s the female readers who interest Wolf (and me) here.

3 comments:

genevieve said...

My sister-in-law, a musician, tells a similar story about a friend who was only allowed to listen to pop music in the car if she provided vocal harmonies. I can't help feeling sorry for people nudged into consuming 'higher' culture in this fashion - there is a place for teaching children to evaluate whatever they see, hear and otherwise consume without destroying their initiative in a backhanded way.

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