12 October 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: Forever... (1975)

Trade paperback, 209 pages
Published 2014 (originally 1975)
Acquired December 2016

Read January 2017
Forever... by Judy Blume

The great paradox of young adult literature is that it was created to communicate a genuine young adult voice, yet that purpose was immediately co-opted by adults. S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was a teenager herself in 1967 and created a whole new market-- yet not even ten years later, the mid-thirties Judy Blume was cranking out YA novel after YA novel. Mike Cadden of Missouri Western University touched on this in his article, "The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel" (2000). As he says, "Novels constructed by adults to simulate an authentic adolescent's voice are inherently ironic because the so-called adolescent voice is never-- and can never be-- truly authentic. [...] [T]he YA novelist often intentionally communicates to the immature reader a single and limited awareness of the world that the novelist knows to be incomplete and insufficient. It is a sophisticated representation of a lack of sophistication; it is an artful depiction of artlessness" (146).

Where Cadden goes with this is to classify YA novels into three different narrative strategies, based on the extent to which the YA reader is made aware of the inherent irony: is the reader taught that the viewpoint of the novel of "incomplete and insufficient"? It's a useful classification system; where Cadden ends the article is to promote a model for "ethical fiction": Cadden argues that YA novels ought to make clear the limited viewpoints of their narratives, and that authors ought to "help[ ] young readers detect and cope with irony, complexity, and contingency so rich in the world they hope so desperately to know" (153). This fascinates me because one of Hinton's purposes in The Outsiders was expressly anti-didactic, she was tired of novels for teens that delivered pat morals on how to liver properly. But Cadden sees an educational purpose for YA lit, and of the books I taught in my young adult literature course, surely none was more educational than Forever..., which is basically a 200-page brochure on sex for teens. It covers both the logistics and the emotions of it: Katherine visits Planned Parenthood for birth control in a scene that seems like it comes straight out of a brochure, but she also learns about how your first time might not be amazing as you dreamed, and how you might think your first love will last "forever..." but it definitely will not.

I would probably peg Forever... as what Cadden calls "Single-voicedness and Character Narration": "Each text provides a single voice that is so highly confident that it is ultimately unassailable within the text. These books and speakers provide only one argument or position on a matter, and most important, they fail to provide within the text the tools necessary to reveal the contestability of these immature perspective to the equally immature reader" (148). Indeed, Katherine is confident throughout Forever... in her love for her boyfriend Michael, and her belief that is meant to be and will always be. For the adult reader, at least, her wrongness is clear, and Cadden does allow that hyperbole is a tool for revealing what he calls "debilitating world views" (153): "Hyperbole [...] is harder to detect than either the contradiction provided by multiple perspectives or the doubt suggested by a more self-conscious narrator" (149).

But I think that despite the unassailability of Katherine's voice (her parents disagree with her, of course, but the narrative itself doesn't provide the kind of tools that would cause Cadden to classify a book as "Double-voicedness and Character Narration"), Forever... provides a different way of leading to questioning world views: plot and story. Katherine might think she is completely right, but the actual events of the book show that she is wrong, even if the narrative doesn't acknowledge this in a double-voiced way.

The thing is, though, that Forever... is terrible. Katherine's narrative voice lacks any of the spark of Ponyboy's in The Outsiders, or of later first-person narrators like Titus in Feed or Briony in Chime. She is plainly and obviously a way for Blume to disseminate information to the reader about teenage sex, and this makes the book unable to engage an adult reader in the way that most YA fiction can. My students weren't fans, but I didn't expect them to be: I taught this book because its purpose is so unlike that of The Outsiders, despite The Outsiders creating the very genre in which Forever... operates.

What really fascinated me about the book was how much my students reacted against it. I mean, I didn't like it very much, but they took particular exception to Michael, who they saw as violating Katherine's consent. Not that he rapes her or anything, but the pressure he applies to Katherine (at one point he accuses her of being a tease) is uncomfortable, moreso to a group of millennials in 2017 raised on discourses around consent and rape culture that I just don't think were there in 1975. Blume appended a preface to the novel at some point (I'm not sure when exactly, but it's in my 2014 edition and contains a web address, so that provides something of a range) indicating that the book doesn't say as much about STIs as it ought, but I think the pressure that Michael puts on Katherine, and Katherine seems to accept as normal, has dated far worse. Not to accuse my students of inconsistency (because the different viewpoints may have actually been held by different people), but after lambasting the book for how didactic it was, and also agreeing that one of the good things about The Outsiders was its lack of moralizing, they also thought it hadn't taught something it ought to have taught, they there was a "debilitating world view" that had gone unaddressed. I'm not sure what to make of this inconsistency in our expectations for young adult literature, one that would recur throughout the semester.

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