Thursday, May 13, 2010

Literary analysis

by Jessica

In this month’s Atlantic, author and staff writer Caitlin Flanagan argues that the success of books like the Twilight series, the romantic raptures of the High School Musical franchise and the syrupy stylings of Taylor Swift are related—indeed, they are a collective expression of an “insurrection” among young girls, which is taking place now. She hypothesizes that girls are hungry for “the Boyfriend Story,” because in the real world, where the sexual landscape is bleak, romance has been replaced by “hook-ups.” Hers is a controversial point, and Flanagan is not everyone’s cup of tea, indeed one blogger called her “the Phyllis Shlafly of the late Boomer set," and another “the antifeminist darling of the Atlantic.”  The Observer is perhaps most diplomatic in calling her “a provocatrice.” I was actually fairly surprised to see the fury she generates; there were on-line rejoinders to most every word she has written.

In any event, whether or not you buy her argument that in this trend toward the lovey-dovey we can espy “the fourteen and fifteen year olds of our nation” making “one of the last, great stands for human dignity,” it seems to me that this sort of conjecture (tendentious or not, I leave this up to you) is part and parcel of the ongoing discussion how books shape and are shaped by the public discourse. Indeed, Flanagan’s essay is at heart about a book—Anita Shreve’s new novel, Testimony, which Flanagan believes is a pitch-perfect portrayal of the grim world in which adolescent girls must operate. Flanagan’s penchant for peering into novels in search of larger reflection of the zeitgeist is hardly unique. You can find examples everywhere—including A.O. Scott’s recent New York Times essay, which connects Sam Lipsytes new novel The Ask, the Ben Stiller film Greenberg and Hot Tub Time Machine, and situates us squarely in what Scott believes is Gen-X’s “midlife crisis.” (As a gen-Xer myself, I find it impossible to believe.)

So, tapping into the cultural studies geek/provocateur in all of us, let’s indulge in a little trend analysis. What does it say that vampire books are huge? For a smart discussion on the new generation of ethical undead, have a look at the Millions. That mash-ups and steam punk and graphic novels are in vogue? That we are fascinated by the Tudors to the exclusion of much of the rest of British history? That books on the unseen forces behind common phenomena, a la Malcolm Gladwell, are so very popular? It’s tricky to make these sweeping statements about what we’re reading and why, but formulating wild generalizations is part of the fun.


  1. Anita Shreve’s new novel, Testimony, which Flanagan believes is a pitch-perfect portrayal of the grim world in which adolescent girls must operate.

    The curious word here is "new," since the novel came out in 2008. Still, I'm glad you say "which Flangan believes is..." because part of the point of the novel is that the girl at the center—the maybe-victim—is not particularly damaged by her experience and isn't all that introspective. Which sounds true of a lot of boys and girls of all ages. The problem she faces isn't the incident itself, but the adult reaction to the incident, which is somewhat similar to Francine Prose's novel Touch.

    It's the kind of adult overreaction that Flanagan's work might encourage, in other words, that's often the problem. And it's a problem without a solution, which is what Flanagan seems to be pointing at with a lot of her recent Atlantic essays: society has "abandoned" girls, somehow, and there's not an obvious way back, except maybe by reading her essays, which go back and forth quite a bit and provide a lot of material for the chattering and blogging classes.

  2. Intriguing questions. If you are trudging through the Sahara, you're going to crave a drink of water. The more barren your romantic landscape, the more you are going to crave over-the-top romance. That makes sense to me. And when you're having to navigate such a complicated world, wouldn't it be nice to have someone like a Vampire who seems to know all the answers and can provide you with excitement while protecting you from danger as you learn to protect yourself and become more than merely human in the process? YA Paranormal and Paranormal Romance in general are bastions of simplicity and hope where the good heroines still win and end up living, presumably, happily ever after. Does that make vampires the new Mr. Darcys?

  3. i honestly don't get the fad for teenage girls and perfect paranormal boyfriends. back in the good old days of the late 90's early 00's (yes so long ago i know) when i was 13 or so i really was not interested in boyfriend stories, my favourite books then were more about female friendships and teens in trouble. but then i also didn't watch dawson's creek or see titanic until i was in my twenties so maybe it's just me?

  4. If you want to know why teenage girls read something, you ask them -- not an out-of-touch old fogie like you, me, or Flanagan. ;-) I have yet to find a teenage girl who won't answer questions about her favorite book, if you ask her respectfully and without adult condescention.

  5. Agreeing with Tal Shannon, but Flanagan's point seems similar to several statements I have seen by romance authors lately, defending why they write romance. One argued that it reminded her of what she deserves out of a relationship. If Flanagan is right and young girls are frustrated with a hook-up culture, it makes sense to me that they would seek to read about the types of relationships they desire and feel they deserve (even if some of those romances, especially Twilight, are just a tad unrealistic. Or unhealthy, if we want to get into some of the deeper sociological issues, but let's just assume they're reading it thinking that Edward is the "perfect boyfriend.")

    Vampires are huge because since the advent of Dracula, they've been sex metaphors. Simple as that, I think. And since vampire love interests in romance novels tend to be "good" vampires--i.e. they often don't kill people or at least feel tormented about their need too, or they only kill bad people, etc.--it tends to give them a bad boy edge without making them too dangerous or immoral. This makes them exciting. The amount of sex associated with the Tudors, especially Henry VIII, probably explains that fascination as well. I can't explain steampunk and mash-ups so glibly, although I like both. Neither are as overtly sexual, so the reasons for their popularity are probably more complex. I think steampunk captures our imagination with its mix of old-fashioned Victorian underpinnings and its cool technology (which appeals to our modern sensibilities). It's past and future but not present.

  6. I guess it wouldn't be fantasy or escapism if it exactly reflected real life would it?

    The appeal to girls of Twilight, Buffy and Anne Rice was best summed up by The Simpsons: "I love vampires, they hate cheerleaders too".

    The more worrying thing is the appeal for women. Once you've touched a boy, the message of Twilight ('you can look at a boy, but don't touch') is pretty infantile.

    Kristin mentions steampunk ... well, Americans seem to have discovered this recently, but it's been huge in England at least since the seventies, and I think it's, again, for ignoble reasons. Post-Vietnam, we couldn't have 'heroic' war movies set in the real world, but you could have Star Wars. Post-Empire, the British knew they couldn't have 'heroic' Kipling stories, but they could have explorers meeting Martians instead of Africans. You get to wear corsets and pith helmets again, scrubbed of all that awkward racism and genocide. It's the British version of harking back to the fifties here, when everyone loved America, wives stayed at home and blacks used different drinking fountains.

    The US version of Victorian England has always been more cozy, more of a tourist trap. It's no surprise that our steampunk is weak tea by comparison. Compare the dress-up of Gail Carriger to the meatiness of Luther Arkwright. Weep that the British got there thirty years ago, and did it better.

  7. It's easy to see the temptation of coming up with a theory to unify popular social phenomena, some of which seem reason-defying.

    Thanks for the links and a very thoughtful post.

  8. My personal opinion based on my knowledge of history and early childhood development is that when the mothers of today's teens decided, most admirably, to raise their daughters to be realistic and strong, they left out a couple essential and universal female truths. I'm sure they didn't mean to.

    1) Girls must FIRST feel safe and protected before the can mature into fighting their own battles.

    2) Girls need to believe love can be forever.

    In a nutshell, a girl needs a daddy.

    Many girls today do not have dads who are with them every day, working hard to provide for them and stomp on bugs for them and take them fishing.

    Most do not have dads who are still lovingly and faithfully married to their moms.

    Notice how Bella comes from a broken home and then latches onto protective Edward who comes from an intact home and large, loyal family? Moreover, this vampire family could kill her easily and have her for breakfast, but they place her well-being before their own selfish desires.

    I'm not coming down on single parents here. I'm just calling it like a see it.

    We would all do well, regardless, to be my mindful of what our family, as a whole, is teaching our daughters and try to compensate when the ideal simply isn't possible.

    I'm in the camp who thinks Romance is a winner simply because real life is such a drag. A girl needs to be adored, not shagged.


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