The Problem of Genre

I just read this post and the comments (omg comments that are actual discussion and not trolling! Weird!) on Pamela Regis’ The Natural History of the Romance Novel. It’s a book I have yet to get, but have been recommended it for my thesis because of its importance in romance scholarship. Since I haven’t read it, I can’t comment much on the book in general, but the author of the blog, Noah Berlatsky, brings up something of great interest to me: the problem of genre and its definitions and tropes.

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Regis refers to romance as having eight essential elements, which according to some, at once restricts the definition of romance to a set formula and chokes the potential for originality in the genre. Berlatsky is particularly critical of people who enforce the genre boundaries. He uses the example of an editor who sticks by the Essential Elements list to make authors change their stories to “better fit” the romance genre, thus influencing directly the limitations of how the genre is presented. Great literature is built on change, so he asks – do we actually need definitions?

Genres (and categories) are redefined all the time – they are “fuzzy and socially determined and always negotiated” (Berlatsky). Regis admitted in 2009 that her original definition including specific gender terms was excluding gay and bisexual romances, so the gendered terms turned into the neutral “protagonists”. There is also a problem in WHO defines the genre – genre is used most usefully by the publishing industry/process itself (including self-publishers). But readers are also important in the process (after all, that’s the whole point of publishing – to get the product to the consumers). The whole system of defining genres depends on each type of person invested in the genre. Look at the creation of the New Adult category.

Definitions are sort of useful in some ways. YA (a category, not a genre) is defined (by some) as “fictive texts which have an implied teenage audience; that is, books which either feature protagonists of a secondary school age (twelve to eighteen years), or, it is reasonable to suppose, would be read by those in this age group”. This is a rather loose descriptor, but fits quite well as it doesn’t impose rules. YA can be any genre. While YA is considered largely to be written in first person present tense, there is no rule saying it can’t be otherwise. There are trends and tropes, but they vary as well. Could a loose descriptor rather than a strict definition be the way to go?

IMHO, Genres (and categories) shouldn’t be used to limit new creations – society itself depends on creativity and change to grow (and society is always in a state of flux). As much as I’m not a fan of Deleuze, he referred to art as being its own form of philosophy, capable of true freedom from the strict rules of reality and able to bend the laws of time and space. I rather like that!

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Various Examples & Random Thoughts

  • Does romance require a Happily Ever After (HEA)? Where is the line between a Romance or a book containing romantic elements? (I’m having this very problem in creating criteria for my thesis)
  • Does the reliance of some fantasy writers on Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey restrict creativity? (E.g. This is not only used in writing books, it’s also used in analysing movies (thanks Ross for reminding me!). I have also read somewhere that George Lucas relied on it heavily for Star Wars.)
  • Some criticise YA for being too bleak and state that children’s/YA literature should always have a happy, or at least an ambiguous, ending, to inspire hope in the young readers – should this be an excuse?
  • Sometimes with popular books, they can cross genres/categories. If particularly popular, this will require a change in marketing and cover design (e.g. Harry Potter as the most obvious, Allison Croggon’s Pellinor). Some books might not be found if categorised in the wrong genre (meta-data=super important!).

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*Note: Funnily enough on the same day, I saw a link to an article about someone who went through and analysed the genres/categories on Netflix.

** Urge to go on about narrow definitions of monsters that lead to exclusion, but I’ll leave that for another blog. Until then, there is this blog about why sparkly vampires don’t suck as much as you think

Ideology and the Reader

This is a post of contention. The idea of ideology and meaning in fiction has long been argued about. I think the problem stems back to English classes where we are taught about authors intentions, deliberate meaning and relationship between the author’s feelings and own lives to their fiction. Now, this is ONE type of way to analyse fiction, but personally not one I go for.

This post is about exploring another way to analyse fiction. Nothing is right or wrong in academia (unless it’s written by a dead French guy, then it’s always right  /snark), so everything (that can be backed up with scholarly, peer-reviewed works) is legit.

** With thanks to Tim Coronel and Jodi McAlister for their input ❤ **

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Ideology in the Story

All text is considered ideological.

A narrative without an ideology is unthinkable: ideology is formulated in and by language, meanings within language are socially determined, and narratives are constructed out of language (Stephens 8).

By how you write characters, story and events, you create particular attributes, values, morals, ethics etc. which are inscribed as good or bad. Where this gets messy is the concept of the author’s intention. Some believe that authors do this all deliberately, to imprint upon her/his audience certain messages. I’m of the belief that the author’s intention cannot be read within a text (check out Death of the Author) – the text speaks for itself.

All statements are mediated (at first created by the author, but then by the narrator – for more on narration, check here). The creation of any text does carry particular meanings within it regardless of intent. Ideology is not merely carried through deliberate action but by subconscious assumptions too. What is communicated is the story and it is communicated by discourse (the discourse states the story) (Chatman 31).

Story and Discourse Pg 26

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The Communication of the Ideology

The type of study I am doing looks at how the narrative structure and techniques can influence or lead a reader to a particular message or ideology. This is not to say all readers are blank slates and blindly accept whatever they are given (resistance is entirely possible – see Althusser or Gramsci). The story creates an implied reader position or audience. The audience for young adult fiction is, generally, young adults. But we know not everyone who actually reads YA is a young adult. With what the text assumes about what its reader knows, and how it presents information (particularly through narration), it positions the implied reader regardless of the real reader.

A narrative texts’ construction of communication is read thusly:

Real Author -> [Implied Author -> (Narrator) -> (Narratee) -> Implied Reader] -> Real Reader

The implied author is the reconstruction of the author by the reader from the narrative. The implied author has no direction in the work, it is how a reader might imagine an author to be based on the narrative. Perhaps this is where all those “the room was blue, this shows the author was sad” sort of statements come from?

Outside the brackets are the real world, you can take, give, resist or write as you, the individual. Inside the square brackets are what is drawn from or created by the narrative, which is established within the round brackets.

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Hollindale’s Three Levels of Ideology

  1. Explicit social, political or moral beliefs of the individual writer and his/her wish to recommend them to readers through the story. Intended surface ideology. Usually more radical/non-conservative.
  2. The individual writer’s unexamined assumptions. Even passive beliefs can be revealed through story. These are generally widely shared values.
  3. A large part of any book is written not by its author, but by the world the author lives in. This transcends the idea of individual authorship.

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Examples:

Applebaum’s research into YA science fiction is based on the proposal that as adults are the writers of children’s books, they influence the novel (whether deliberately or not) with their own fears and anxieties.

…the function of SF as a vehicle for exploring contemporary dilemmas within the context of scientific and technological discovers, a perception which is central to this book (Applebaum 3)

James’ study looks at representations of death in children’s fiction, as well as gender and sexuality.

…a culture’s representations of death may be read collectively as a text to give insights into its social systems, death ethos, conceptions of selfhood, temporal orientation, and religious and secular values (James 2)

Trites’ research is into power relations that are represented within adolescent literature. Teenagers must learn the negotiation of social institutions (power) to be able to grow successfully, according to societal rules and expectations.

Adolescent novels…invariably reflect some cultural biases, most of which are likely to be veiled in ideological discourses that affirm widely held societal views (Trites 27)

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Recommended Reading

  • Chatman, Seymore. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.
  • Barthes, Roland. Death of the Author. 1967 essay.
  • Applebaum, Noga Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People
  • James, Kathryn Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature
  • Trites, Roberta Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature
  • McCallum, Robyn Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: The Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity
  • Stephens, John Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction
  • Genette, Gerard Narrative Discourse
  • Hollindale, Peter, Ideology and the Children’s Book (This article is especially useful!)
  • Gramsci, Antonio Selections of Prison Notebooks
  • Davis, Helen, Understanding Stuart Hall
  • Althusser, Louis Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

Point of View & Narrators

Point of view is considered to be a bit of a loose description. In general, narration is the telling of a story, but there’s a lot of little niggly things about narration that make it complicated.

Also, as you all are fantastic readers, you all know that narration can be mixed up within a singular work. I’ve given a whole bunch of examples from excellent fiction to show how really complicated it can be. Screw the rules! Even the rules I’ve seen in academic books don’t ring true. Generally speaking, YA is considered to have a lot more first person than third person, but we can all quote a billion books which show the opposite. So, whatevs!

This blog post is more about the academic perspectives on narration (particularly through children’s and YA fiction books) rather than an author’s perspective (because I don’t have experience with that. There are a LOT out there by people who are, though!).

I’ve also tried to be very good and not give away any spoilers!

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Narrative Voice and Focalisation

One of the reasons why ‘point of view’ is a bit loose is because there are two aspects to what makes up a point of view: narrative voice (who speaks) and focalisation (who sees). The narrator says what the focaliser sees. The narrator allows readers to envisage the world, and in all cases, limits the reader’s perceptions (perhaps to what is important to the story, perhaps hiding a mystery from them etc).

  • Is the narrator someone outside the story (hetereodiegetic narrator)? E.g. another character who knows what is happening
  • Is the narrator also a character (homodiegetic narrator) who is talking to someone? E.g. such as through a diary, recollection etc.
  • Is the narrator also the protagonist? (autodiegetic narrator)
  • Is it the character’s own internal narration? E.g. stream of consciousness/interior monologue.
  • Is the narrator overt (showing; clear personality and opinions coming through) or covert (telling; more objective, detailing events)?

This will have an affect on what is revealed and how it is revealed. Other effects on the narration can be the chronology – is it told linearly or back and forth? Sometimes these methods can be reflective (see Winds of Heaven), or reactionary (see A Gathering Light).

The Emily series by L M Montgomery is extremely interesting in terms of narration and focalisation. While the events are spoken of in third person omniscient form, the narration is limited to Emily’s perspective (sometimes in the form of letters, sometimes it goes directly into her mind). But occasionally, the author steps back in as narrator. Here is an example from the third book, “Those of you who have already followed Emily … must have a tolerable notion of what she looked like. For those of you to whom Emily comes as a stranger let me paint a portrait of her…”(Also known as an intrusive narrator).

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly is an example of reactionary narration. In effect, there are two narrators. One is Mattie, a young girl in the turn of the century trying to come to terms with what she wants in life. The other is Grace, a dead girl found around where Mattie lives. Grace’s narration only comes through Mattie’s reading of her letters to her beau. Reading Grace’s letters (written in the past, clearly since she is dead), changes Mattie as to how she acts now. She reacts to them.

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First Person

In first person, limited narration, you are restricted to that one point of view. This works to make you sympathetic to that point of view. First person is used to show the ‘true’ character, and give a sense of reality – but it also binds you to the character’s personal bias in giving only their idea of the story; it is inherently unreliable. First person narration is also referred to as intradiegetic narration – characters who only know about little bits of the narrative, who exist within the story. They will also use language as it is familiar to them, with jargon or slang, rather than sticking to the formalities of language use.

Feed by M T Anderson is entirely narrated by Titus (also getting his Feed interruptions). Readers are restricted to his point of view. From memory, we don’t even know Titus’ brother’s name, he just refers to him as Smell Factor.

Ideologically, the implied reader is positioned to oppose Titus. We would get on much better with Violet, but she is not the chosen focaliser. I find this rather familiar in dystopia, that you are always first in the head of someone who agrees with the society and how it is run, and then follow them as they learn from others how it is wrong. This is a process of defamiliarisation – stripping away what is normal to the implied reader.

Multiple first person is not much better in terms of reliability; it may give outside perspectives on what is happening, but those points of view could be just as biased or tainted in their own way.

Junk by Melvin Burgess is a great example. There are two main protagonists (Tar and Gemma), but they aren’t the sole focalisers. There are numerous characters in Junk who are granted a focalising role, with each chapter sub-titled by who is the current narrator. Each character, however, has their own personality that filters their vision of reality. While there are a range of characters to give outside feedback on how Tar and Gemma change, they are just as biased and unreliable as Tar and Gemma themselves are. The story itself is warped as you lose all sense of time and place, particularly due to this narrative strategy.

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Third Person

Third person narrators stand outside of the events of the novel, and can be omniscient or  limited. It depends on whether the narrator is aware of everything everyone is thinking and doing, or if the narration is restricted to the character the narrator is following and does not reference things unknown to that character. An omniscient narrator, one outside of the text, is also called an extradiegetic narrator. Third person narration is considered more reliable, less prone to informal language. The narrator can still step in with ‘I’ or ‘we’ in commentary. (I will make a short note here that epic fantasy does tend to rely on third person narration a lot – again, you’ll find examples to break that).

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters uses third person limited narration. While there are multiple focalisations within the book, the text limits itself to focalising one character at a time and narrating through their perspective in the third person. One character is sitting and thinking, but we only get his interpretations of the events around him. The perspective does not change by chapters but by sections. The reader is in one mind. Then a break. Then the reader is in another mind, elsewhere, maybe even at the same time as the previous event.

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Multivoiced and Multistranded

Multivoiced narratives have two or more focalisers from which the events are narrated. Multistranded narratives are two or more interwoven narrative strands. These can be either in first person or third person.

Wake by Robert J Sawyer has a very curious manner of multivoiced narration. There is a nameless (at first) focaliser who talks in the first person, while the rest of the narrative – the majority of it – is written in the third person with a few focalisers, such as Caitlin and Dr Kuroda. The perspectives shift to focalisers who at first don’t seem in any way related to the main story, and it becomes part of the mystery to unravel.

The Winds of Heaven by Judith Clarke is a good multistranded narrative. The chapters are split between time and the two focalisers, Clementine and Fan. There is a greater arc overall as the beginning clearly puts the timeline into 2009, then retreats to 1952. The different parts of the novel are of different time periods. Then each chapter changes as to who is leading the narration. It is a reflective text, these focalisers are meant to be compared to each other.

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Metafictive Techniques

A metafictive technique is where the text self-consciously refers to its status as a fiction text and blurs the boundary between reality and fiction. It could be the character directly addressing the reader, or the author stepping into the novel.

Liar by Justine Larbelstier is an exceptional piece of art, in both story and technique. Micah is the ultimate unreliable narrator (duh, the title! Of course she is). She varies her stories from fantastic to down to earth, but is never boring. She is the autodiegtic narrator – the only one who tells her story. As well as this limiting narrative technique, the structure of the novel deceives and confuses. I would call it stream of consciousness, except for these almost random disturbances and lack of linearity (or is that what a mind is, flipping constantly between events and unable to stay in one time?). Chapters are titled by words such as “Promise”, “Lie Number #”, “History of Me”, “Before”, “After”. Micah also directly speaks to the reader, “you”. She is self-consciously teasing the reader, with promises to tell them the truth, then turning back on them and admitting she was lying.

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Recommended Reading

  • Baldrick, Chris The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 2001.
  • Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An essay in method.
  • Cadden, Mike. “The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 25.3 (2000): 146–154. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.
  • McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction. New York: Routledge. 1999 Print.
  • McCallum, Robyn. “Metafiction and Experimental Work.” International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. 1996. 397–409. Print.
  • Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. New York: Longman. 1992. Print.
  • Trites, Roberta S. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 2000. Print.

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Recommended Fiction

  • The Emily Series by L M Montgomery
  • Feed by M T Anderson
  • A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
  • Feed by M T Anderson
  • Junk by Melvin Burgess
  • Generation Dead by Daniel Waters
  • The Winds of Heaven by Judith Clarke
  • Wake by Robert J Sawyer
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Uhoh! There was a monster in my bed*

Last night I was with Kate Forsyth and Matt Finch at the NSW Writers’ Centre talking about monsters. This post will be a bit of an overlap between what was said then and some extra things I wanted to throw out there for writers and readers of children’s and YA literature on how academia views the novels you write/read, how gaming constructs narrative and more on zombies, because they are awesome.

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Being an Academic

There’s usually a fair gap between academia and the actual artists (Apart from my two lovely panelists!). Artists accuse academics of reading things into their work that they didn’t actually put there, academics will try to locate artists work in the greater sense of social/cultural identity. So I’ll give a quick rundown of some of the more general things academics say about children’s and YA authors in particular.

All writing is ideological. Whether you intend it or not, a lot of scholars see writing as something that reflects, reenacts or rejects society in some way. The way you present what a child is, is ideologically based. As Kate said, our construction of childhood is entirely modern and not at all how past, future, or even other present societies view childhood! As an example, you’ve no doubt seen the rise of the ‘tween’ in the past decade or so. This is not something that goes against our entire history of being. It is something created, but all our categories and definitions are (changing definitions/words in the dictionary are another excellent example, language is a living thing).

In writing a story, scholars say, you are positioning the reader into a particular view. If writing a realist novel (recently, I read Junk by Melvin Burgess, so that can be my example), you don’t really expect the reader to come out of reading it thinking drugs are totally awesome and they should go out and try them now. Not just for ethical, moral and legal reasons, but you use certain words, certain strategies of writing and of course plot to try to align the reader. In fantasy, you may not expect someone to think The Dark Lord is awesome and they should totes go join a gang of evil peeps now! Readers, of course, will take from the work what they will (and you can’t stop that! Everyone brings their own experiences to a text).

What you intend, as much as how you use narrative strategies to position one character as “good” or the hero, and another as bad, is important and from this, an ‘ideal reader’ or ‘subject position’ is created – as far as what I believe and the academics I follow, the authors intentions are not  literally able to be read in the text, it is only through narrative strategies that we ascertain this subject position. What you don’t intend, to the academic, doesn’t matter as much as your story. I used the example last night of how there are quite a few dystopias around the idea (or ideological positioning) of technology as something that is cutting us off from nature. While you may just be intending just to write a good story about a world falling apart, there are criticisms (as you would expect in reviews anyway) that maybe this intensely negative view of technology is actually teaching children to fear the future.

Being a writer, you are given great power. Childhood and adolescence is considered a time when we are forming our idea of what our identity is and where we fit in society. Some academics say that it is even the role of fiction – Children’s literature is for affirming the self and personal power, but YA lit is for inducting the adolescent into society, our structures and institutions. It comes at a time in their lives (assuming the ideal reader – I’m an adult and I read YA!) when their sense of self is malleable and adapting to the new information they are drinking in, and that doesn’t have to come only from non-fiction.

Recommended Reading

  • Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. New York: Longman. 1992.
  • Trites, Roberta S. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 2000.
  • McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction. New York: Routledge. 1999
  • Applebaum, Noga. Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People. New York: Routledge. 2010.
  • James, Kathryn. Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. New York: Routledge. 2009

sekhaBeing a Gamer

I have somewhere about 500 or so books … I think. Haven’t sat down and catalogued them all for a while. But with games, I generally go back to the same two (the others are more seasonal playing), World of Warcraft and The Sims, and they are very different in terms of storytelling.

World of Warcraft is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game with two factions that hate each other – The Alliance (your typical European humanoids, humans, night elves, dwarves, gnomes, werewolves (called worgen)) and the Horde (your traditional villains, orcs, trolls, tauren (which are half-cow, half-human), undead, blood elves and goblins). There is an overarching storyline, following on from the other Warcraft games, where the Orcs invaded Azeroth through a Dark Portal and the humans defended their land, but at one point, the creation of the Portals between worlds actually tore the Orcs homeworld asunder and they were isolated from their people. Each race has their own story of how they came to be (e.g. Blood Elves are elves that got addicted to fel or demonic energies) and there are also quests in the game which contain mini-stories.

While you play as a Hero (for whatever faction), essentially you don’t have any control over the storyline or influence. While there are numerous options with what you can do each day (crafting, dungeons, exploring, farming, pet battling, playing Player vs Player), you can’t change the storyline. Even if you might agree with the big villain of the expansion (there’s always at least one big villain), you cannot change the outcome and probably, if you raid, you will have to kill them anyway. You can manipulate your own perception of your character, even if you don’t role play specifically, choosing clothes, companion pets (which don’t fight with you in battle, but are more like little pokemon), titles (such as Elder, Noble, Kingslayer, etc).

The Sims on the other hand, is more a sandbox game. You don’t have to do anything, nothing is set in stone and there’s no path to follow. A few pre-made families have their own background story and personalities, but anything that happens is up to you. You can only control one family at a time, and you can guide them to their dreams of becoming a CEO, or build a wall around their pool and forcibly kill them. The Sims doesn’t use English either, it’s an invented language called Simlish, so you can even make up what they are saying.

There’s a lot to love about the Sims because of the freedom in storytelling. You can tell the Sim where to go and what to do, and (forcibly) influence their whole life. The Sims community is extremely inventive as well! They share stories, videos (called machinima), their families, even create self-sims to explore how they want to live their life. You can take Sims from birth to death (and even beyond death, as you can play as ghosts too!), fulfill their dreams or ruin them, and from generation to generation.

There’s nothing to say what the future of storytelling in games are, but there are some games, such as by Telltale (including the Walking Dead game) where it’s more like a choose your own adventure, you are given a world and a character and a situation, and then choices on how you act and what you say – and those decisions influence the story. This is a very particular gameplay slowly on the rise. Could gaming have an impact on how we organise novels and stories in the future?

9199346Being a Zombologist-in-training

There are two types of monsters or villains that I like best – one is the villain that believes they are doing the best thing, for society or themselves or their family; the other is the relentless enemy that you can’t stop or reason with – the zombie!

Between the panelists last night, we agreed that for us, monsters are representative. Freud believed monsters to be a symbol of repression – whether on a societal level or personal level, something that was once familiar and homely, now foreign and Other. For children’s and YA, the slaying of this monster can be hugely empowering on many levels. I rather think that monsters can also be un-embodied entities, such as a whole society. While it can be a horrendous and heartbreaking journey to defeat one enemy, imagine battling all of society for justice – the odds are not in our favour.

That is essentially what zombies are. They are seen to be many things, our fears or anxieties about race (originally when zombies were misappropriated from Haitian lore into Hollywood, it was all about showing the barbarism and danger of blacks, particularly the danger of black men/magic controlling white women), consumerism (of course, Dawn of the Dead!), and more recently, terrorism and economic crisis and refugees. These days, zombies are the conversion of a HUGE chunk of society into mindless beings that only want your flesh or brains (the eating of flesh comes from Romero, the eating of brains from Return of the Living Dead and O’Bannon – it’s not “the original zombie” at all! *insert long-winded rant here*). The history of the monster is the history of the culture itself (just as how childhood is a historical and social construction).

There are other theories of course, that monsters are a psychological universal. Derrida argued that monsters are created by the unrecognisable and the unpredictable; once it is recognised, it’s no longer a monster (perhaps an argument for evil, seducing vampires -> sparkly, vegetarian vampires?). Could go down the path of “it’s the author letting out their own subconscious fears and defeating them”. Multitudes of theories!

But monsters and villains and evil is important, particularly in children’s/YA. I mentioned last night that there is quite a bit of criticism from the academic community that it is expected that children’s/YA lit needs a happy ending, or at the very least, an ambiguous ending (of which some other scholars believes subdues the actual effect of the literature, particularly dystopia where the moral of the story is that we need to act now so we don’t lose our humanity in the future, but you’ll never see a child get the same ending as Winston from 1984). Of course, we can all think of examples where that is not true, where the character does not triumph, dies, or falls into depravity, but a positive or ambiguous outcome is the cultural expectation. For the reader to feel empowered, there usually needs to be a resolution (Kate used the example of someone literally throwing down a book that had no real ending). With ‘traditional’ (Romero) zombies, it’s particularly hard to create a happy ending because everything is just gone. Society is gone, humanity is gone, all that is left is a life spent scavenging and in hiding. A tough play for an author, if you only stick to one view of what a zombie is…

Recommended Reading

  • Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Ed. Stephanie Boluk & Wylie Lenz. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2011.
  • Triumph of the Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s zombie epic on page and screen. Ed James Lowder. Dallas: Banbella Books, 2011.
  • Zombies are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Ed. Christopher M Moreman & Cory James Rushton. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2011.
  • Bishop, Kyle W. American Zombie Gothic. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010.
  • Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader Ed. Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui. New York: Bloomsbury. 2013.
  • Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. Eds. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro. New York: Fordham University Press. 2011.
  • Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy. Eds Richard Greene and K Silem Mohammad. Chicago: Open Court Publishing. 2010.

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Conclusion

If there is anything to take from the talk last night, it’s from what Kate said: Darkness is NECESSARY in children’s and YA literature. If you take away that, you take away the power. There’s an importance in retelling too, as Kate said ‘as a creative artist it’s our job to recreate tales, and find new ways to tell stories.’ That’s very true for monsters as well. Monsters adapt and change as society does. They fill a certain void that we need filled (yes, even the romantic ones!). As much as people cried out “Those aren’t zombies!” when Warm Bodies came out, their idea of what a zombie IS is tainted by cultural tradition (as much as we all love Romero, he didn’t invent zombies, he reinvented them!). That’s the power of the author, scriptwriter or storyteller. To tell the story that needs to be told, not what society dictates the monster or villain traditionally is and always should be.

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* ❤ Lady Gaga

 

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Taboos in Young Adult Literature

So recently, article writers have been misunderstanding the difference between Young Adult and New Adult and spreading the moral panic that since 50 Shades of Grey, there are now sexy erotic books being written for 12 year olds.

Riiiiiiiiight.

I do love Young Adult (YA) Literature (or YAL). Mostly the paranormal types (zom-com-roms) of course. I’m interested in the idea of censorship around children’s/YA books. I’m not a fan, personally. There always seems to be some panic, whether it’s because the work is too realistic or too fantastical. Should there be disclaimer labels on books, so parents know what their kids are reading? Should parents be trying to control what their kids are reading anyway?

This is just a collection of comments, I’m not a psychologist and I haven’t read every single YA book ever. Most books I have were written in nineties or 2000’s, and most are paranormal romances. So some of what I say – or all of it – can be disputed with a certain text (in reading about these taboos, I’ve found mentions of much older texts that do include these topics!). The point of this is not to say that these topics are never discussed in YA lit. It’s a springboard for ideas.

Religion – is hardly an issue in most books I can think of. There are particular Christian YA books, but these are not mainstream. Beliefs are mentioned, maybe a heaven or hell here, some Wicca-influences there. Sometimes the paranormal is combined with Christian mythology (think Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz). Is religion a turn off? Is it that beliefs vary so much, it would be hard to create a book that focuses on religion without isolating someone? Another alternative is to have a made-up religion specifically for the text.

Incurable Illness – While death is not so much a taboo, it happens a lot in paranormal YA (Car crashes are an instant orphan-fixer), what I think may be more taboo is lingering illnesses or disabilities.  There is, however, a sub-genre that deals with this in great detail. I haven’t read any before, but here’s an article on it. Cart uses the example of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and how it influenced novels, but society (the US) was reluctant to deal with it in ‘the real world’ by providing sexual education at school. 

Self-harm – of course this is controversial, there is belief among some circles that teens will copy the behaviour, or even “catch” depression. It’s a very dark topic, but one that is more and more in the media and in teens lives. Rates of suicide and depression in young adults are terrible.

Abuse/Violence – this one is tough and triggering, but a comment I tend to see a lot (and relate to myself) is that in reading it, the victim feels that they are not alone. This is also written by Chris Crutcher, young adult author and a therapist working with child-abuse victims “I believe stories can help. Stories can help teenagers look at their feelings, or come to emotional resolution, from a safe distance. If, as an author, I can make an emotional connection with my reader, I have already started him or her to heal… I am not alone is powerful medicine”(Quoted in Cart).

Sex – the obvious one! Are peers worse with pressuring kids about sex? Is TV a bad influence? With the sorts of books I’ve read, sex is not completely unknown, but the characters are careful. Again, with the ones I read, young love is eternal, it is destined (Oh so much destiny and fate in pararom!), so there’s not much question around whether it is right. There are questions around how explicit to make it as well, there are a lot of fade-to-blacks. Cart writes “Not to include sex in books for young adults is to agree to a de facto conspiracy of silence, to imply to young readers that sex is so awful that we cannot even write about it”

Homosexuality – is pretty much limited to the best dude friend who the main girl goes shopping with and talks to about everything – all the stereotypes! – and I can’t think of any book I’ve read where a homosexual character is the main hero/ine. Cart describes that homophobia is so bad in society, that not only do most homosexual characters die violently, but the books with the ones who don’t die are censored. Although this book is over 15 years old, this is still this deep division in society that is impossible to ignore. (UPDATE: My friend told me to look up Will Grayson, Will Grayson and David Levithan)

Diversity – Even as recently as 2009, race is still put to the sides. One of the best YA books I own, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, was the center for a storm of controversy where, despite the clearly defined black character with very short, nappy hair, the publisher decided to put a white girl with long hair on the cover (which was later changed). Apart from a few instances, most main characters in the books I’ve read have been white. Their close, but minor, friends are allowed to be different. A separate ‘marker’ of difference could be body shape – heroines are much more likely to be described as lanky, tall, thin, although they can have a friend who is fat or curvy -(and if described as curvy, that friend is more sexually experimental or outspoken).

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One of the things I hate most about criticism of YA is that it is “dumb” or “lesser” than adult fiction and less complex. Or even worse, accuse it of being formulaic (let’s ignore the constant cover designs of the back of a girl in a long dress in a forest – that’s the publishers deal). Or that it is cheap crap and, of course, it’s not “real literature”. Pretty much all of these criticisms have been applied to other genres or styles, romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror.  All the good stuff!

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Related Reading

  • ADDED: A recent article on banning and censoring YA
  • For the above article, these tweets were written:
    The Book Club @thebookclubabc: How adult is TOO adult for ‘Young Adult’ fiction??
     @capheinated: @thebookclubabc “Too adult” is usually just shorthand for “we really can’t be bothered discussing difficult things with young people”.

Australian Zombie Authors

Tomorrow I’ll be tweeting for ABC’s Radio National, talking about zombies of course (10.05-11am with academic Sarah Juliet Lauro, the Showrunner for The Walking Dead Glen Mazzara, and Rob Hood and Chuck McKenzie). RN had an interest in Australian zombie writers and while they don’t quite have the programming to cover everyone I’ve read and loved, I’ll just post it here!

I’ve tried to keep it short, but all of them have many more writings and awards than I can list – so I’ve provided links so you can see their full awesomeness. The first listed publication/s are their main zombie work/s.

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Narelle M Harris (@daggyvamp)

Holly Kench (@stuffedO)

  • Secret life of a zombie fan
  • From a project In Fabula Divinos established by author Nicole Murphy to assist in editing and publishing of new authors
  • Holly also manages Visibility Fiction for promotion and publication of inclusive Young Adult fiction
  • Interview

Martin Livings

  • Short stories, Eeeewsday, working on zombie James Bond novels
  • Author of: Living with the Dead (Shorts), Rope (Historical Horror) and Carnies (Supernatural Thriller)  – and a huge list of short stories
  • Author awards: Winner of three Tin Duck awards (WA Speculative Fiction) for short and long works
  • Interview

Gary Kemble (@garykemble)

  • Dead Air – Robert N Stephenson’s Zombies, reprinted in best Aust Dark Fantasy and Horror 2008
  • Author of: numerous short stories
  • Author Awards: Honourable mention in the 21st Years Best Fantasy and Horror, two wins for One Book Many Brisbanes.
  • Interview

Jason Fischer (@jasonifischerio)

  • Quiver – a collection of novellas into a novel from Black House Comics, Everything is a Graveyard (shorts – forthcoming)
  • Author of: and a whole lotta short stories
  • Author Awards: 1st place winner of Writers of the Future
  • Interview

Rob Hood

Angela Slatter (@angelaslatter)

  • The Dead Ones Don’t Hurt You, The Girl with no Hands and Other Tales, Ticonderoga Publications and Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
  • Author of: Midnight and Moonshine, Sourdough and Other Stories, Black-Winged Angels (all collections of shorts) and many short stories
  • Author Awards: First Australian to win British Fantasy Award 2012, twice winner of Aurealis Award (one for Best Collection, one for Best Fantasy Short Story)

Chuck McKenzie

  • Notions Unlimited Bookshop in Chelsea Victoria
  • Author of: Confessions of a Pod Person, and a variety of short stories
  • Author Awards: Nominated for six Ditmars and an Aurealis
  • Interview

Sean Williams

  • Castle of the Zombies (Book 1 of the Fixers series)
  • Author of: Books of the Cataclysm, Books of the Change, Astropolis, Star Wars, TroubleTwisters (with Garth Nix) and insane amounts of other works
  • Author Awards: Multi-award winner of the Aurealis and Ditmar awards in various categories

Garth Nix

  • Old Kingdom series
  • Author of: Keys to the Kingdom series, TroubleTwisters (With Sean Williams)
  • Author Awards: Numerous wins of Aurealis and Ditmar awards and many more

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And for those interested, some erotica and romance:

  • Flesh and Skin and Room with a View by Kylie Scott @kyliescottbooks (erotica set in a zombie apocalypse
  • Lust Plague by Cari Silverwood @CariSilverwood (erotica set in steampunk universe during a zombie apocalypse)
  • The Seven Signs Series by Erica Hayes @ericahayes (apocalyptical paranormal romance)
  • Scary Kisses 1 & 2 short story anthology of paranormal romance with a variety of creatures published by Ticonderoga Publications