28 September 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: The Outsiders (1967)

As I often do when I read books in order to teach them, I'm going to write up the novels I taught in my young adult literature course in the context of how I approached them as a teacher. This (mostly) biweekly feature will run from now through March 2018. I taught the class in the Spring 2017 semester at the University of Connecticut, and began writing up the novels that summer.

Trade paperback, 180 pages
Published 2012 (originally 1967)
Acquired November 2016

Read January 2017
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

I actually never read The Outsiders before I taught it in my young adult literature class; I somehow missed this classic of young adult literature. And when I say classic, I mean it: The Outsiders is widely considered by critics to have created a genre. The teenager had really only just been invented after World War II by marketers and advertisers who needed to name this demographic so that they could target it. Thomas Hines, in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, argues that what defines teenagers is their awareness of the world connected to their powerlessness: "[teens] are exposed to all the violence and economic insecurity of the society at large, but, unlike their predecessors, they have few avenues for bearing real responsibility to improve their situation." Previously, this had not been the case: when you discovered society's insecurity it was because you were an adult and thus you were able to do something about it.

Hinton, so the story goes, noticed that there were no books that addressed the world the way she experienced it as a teenager-- and so she wrote one, the book she wanted and needed. Fascinatingly, this is as true within the text as it is outside of it; within The Outsiders, the novel itself is Ponyboy's homework for English class, written for "boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn't believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand them and wouldn't be son quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore" (179). The book is for teenagers in a way that previous books were not, designed to help them through the problems of their lives that were uniquely teenage, and speaking to them through a distinctly teenage voice, from a distinctly teenage perspective. This is a world of sex and violence, where advice from adults is either nonexistent or completely useless. (The adults, after all, were never teenagers themselves, as teenagers hadn't been invented yet.) And the book has to signal that is by-a-teen-for-a-teen within the text of the novel because that hadn't been done before.

Young adult literature is a tricky genre to define, which is why it fascinates me. Is there any other genre defined so much by audience and marketing? What unites The Outsiders with Twilight other than the age of its protagonist? Yet age is insufficient, because you can have a novel about a young adult that is still not young adult literature. In considering what teenagerhood (teenagerdom? teenagerness? teenagerity?) is like, I think, we begin to discover an answer. Young adult fiction is preoccupied with the questions of teenagers.

I have a friend who criticizes people who identify with The Outsiders: most teenagers, he says, do not have friends who get killed in fights, experience social divisions that lead to murder. And I guess this is true. But The Outsiders captures what being a teenager feels like, that violence that you are so sure is simmering underneath everything. And maybe, most importantly, the uselessness of adults. The Outsiders literalizes this by making Ponyboy and his brother orphans, and having Ponyboy's older brother Darry act as a parent. You have no one who can give you the guidance you need and/or the people who give you advice actually don't know much more than you do. It's a teenager utopian dream, I think, to imagine a world without adults, but The Outsiders depicts that as a dystopia, a horrible hellscape where teenagers prey on each other without oversight. Because, if you're a teenager, that's what teenagerhood feels like, even if an adult (like my friend) would know better. The Outsiders doesn't know better (though Ponyboy begins to have glimpses that this isn't true as the book goes on, so this might just be a pose on the novel's part), and that's what makes it young adult literature.

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