Friday, July 5, 2013

Why Do I Read Shitty YA Novels?

I just finished reading The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, which I have been chipping away at on and off for the last month. For anyone who hasn’t heard of this series or is unable to make inferences from titles, it is a young adult fantasy novel that is quite simply not that great. I am probably going to see the movie, whenever it comes out this summer, despite knowing that the movie will inevitably fail to rise above its subpar source material. Last winter I played the exact same game with Beautiful Creatures (telling myself it was all for Emma Thompson), dragging Anya and my friend Starbuck down the rabbit hole with me (We kind of sort of mostly kept from laughing out loud during the movie until Anya had a feminism induced angry noises fest toward the end).

I am, of course, not the only adult who partakes in this evidently expansive market and I cannot be the only adult who is completely aware of the literary mediocrity of this specific genre. While I cannot speak for the general public (I also am extremely lazy and am not getting paid enough/anything to do any actual research in this area), I can attempt to break down my own bizarre behavior and pose some questions and possible theories on this strange, sad phenomena.

Snarky Redheaded Ordinary High School Student meets Snarky Bad Boy Jerk with a Heart of Gold.

“Now Paul,” you may be saying, “it’s not really fair of you to judge these books meant for adolescents by your sophisticated and mature set of literary standards.” But it is though. I may be beyond the target age of readers for this book, but that does not excuse the low quality of work on display here. Before I rip it apart, I will mention the few things I did enjoy in the book. I liked its use of the word “asshat,” and I am always a sucker for unrequited love (although I quickly got over that by the time the book introduced its third unrequited love triangle).

The plot is essentially a thinly-veiled reworking of Harry Potter with a couple of Star Wars-y twists thrown in at the end. Is that, in itself, a crime? Of course not. Harry Potter and Star Wars owe much of their stories to various fantasy and science fiction stories that came before them and the archetypal characters and plot points that have been used by storytellers through the ages. However, both Harry Potter and Star Wars were able to take genre tropes and tweak them into something new and special, with heavy doses of depth and style.

City of Bones relies far too heavily on readers’ knowledge of these genre tropes in lieu of a little something called character development. The book is full of flat, formulaic, and one dimensional characters who spend their time going through the motions of their roles. Does every character have to be a compelling and dynamic creation? Again, no, but, at the very least, the protagonists should be (or interesting in their pointed lack of charisma when surrounded by those with it). Instead we’re stuck with the Special Snowflake Audience Surrogate, Nerdy Love Interest Foil Best Friend, and Pretty Lethal Chef Action Girl. None of the heavy-handed characters ever feel like fully fleshed “real” people and it’s thus impossible for me, as an intelligent audience member, to give a shit.

You know what other book series can be classified under “Young Adult Fantasy?” His Dark Materials. And that shit is not only original, but heart wrenching and full of creative plot twists, mature themes, character development, and way more than fifty shades of gray. And Anya and I first read it when we were ten. There is no reason that this genre should be so chock full of lame, unoriginal supernatural romance with a side of “Surprise! They’re siblings/cousins/long lost brethren/mythical beasts living in the modern world!” You know what fucking shocked me as a twelve year old? Sirius Black being a good guy. And friends with the Potters!

And if J.K. Rowling does resort to some pretty old school literary tricks, at least it’s so well written that we don’t mind. Forgive me if I can’t get behind “his hair gleamed in the sunlight like the fire of a thousand suns, the strong yet delicate lines of his now vulnerable face showing her how gentle he could be” being really sneaky foreshadowing for a romance. COME. ON.

First of all, Swifty, cats, along with many other things, disprove this dumb statement. Secondly, gag.
Also, am I the only one that can’t look away from her hideous nails?

So I have now laid the issues with the series/genre on the table, but that does not explain why I read this specific book or why I will continue to dabble in this YA realm. I can critique and downplay my involvement with the book all day long, but I still read it. I spend the majority of my time questioning my motivations for doing everything, so I can only posit some possible theories regarding my actions here.

It basically boils down to two possible explanations. The first is that this is one way for me to cling to my fleeting youth and stay up-to-date on “what the kids are doing these days.” I am getting worse and worse at answering my mom’s questions of “Who sings this?” when listening to our area’s Top 40 radio station. I know nothing about sports, and my knowledge of television and movies has always been... specific. Reading these books makes me feel like I am able to peek into a small window of youth culture. I can see current ideals of art, beauty, gender, and morals, while also getting snippets of popular (or niche) hobbies. I can also blame it on the anthropologist within’s attempt to understand the various groups I encounter in the world. Right?

“You remember, you fail math, you flunk out of school, you end up being the guy at the pizza place that sweeps the floor and says, 'Hey, kids, where's the cool parties this weekend?' We've been through this.”

My other hypothesis is that these types of books provide a specific kind of outlet that actually relies on all of the negatives discussed above. It serves as a nice break from some of the meatier material I also read.
SCENE: Paul’s bathtub, night. One of my favorite character in A Song of Ice and Fire just bit it or I’m having an emotional reaction to the highs and lows of the human condition in Howards End? Let’s switch over to City of Bones for a bit.
It can be comforting in the sense that it is entirely expected and familiar, and there is a certain safeness in the absence of mystery. I know exactly what is going to happen to these characters and because I am completely unconcerned with the characters’ fates, I cannot be hurt by anything the book “throws” at me.

Those are my best guesses, although I remain unsure as to which theory is the sadder explanation. I do not see my behavior changing anytime in the near future, but I can at least find a small amount of solace in my acceptance of it and efforts at reaching a greater understanding of myself and the world around me. And we’re not even touching Twilight. Yet.


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