Thursday, June 30, 2011

bookish notes from an ACTUAL teen reader

The other day I had a conversation (through email, mind you, but no less authentic) with a teen reader (16, to be exact) and since she and I have very similar tastes, I often consult with her about books, trends, hits and misses, and so forth.
But she said something that really surprised me.
She'd just finished a book (Unearthly, in the spirit of full-disclosure), and the book she'd read just before that was Sapphique (the sequel to Incarceron). And what she said was probably just hyperbole, but no less intriguing.
She told me, "I am so done with girl-lead books."
I asked her to clarify, and she said, "From now on, if the girl is the main character, I'm not going to read it. I'm only going to read books where the guy is the narrator or main character."
It was all I could do not to point out that Incarceron & Sapphique's "main character" was a dude, but...
While I'm not going to copy and paste what she said, her reasoning in pretty interesting. She felt like YA girl protagonists hit two ends of the spectrum: uber-bitchy and self-centered (read: Claudia from Sapphique, Katniss, Katsa, etc.) or guy-crazy brainless wonders (read: Unearthly). And while I liked Unearthly slightly more than she did, I see where she's coming from.
It does seem like many girl characters are very...heavy. Heavy on the personality. And for one teenager, that heaviness is kinda hard to stomach. She said that it didn't really echo the complexity of being a young-adult female. She also raised a good point concerning romance.
It's like characters want to have it both ways, was her point. They want a guy they can hang on and kiss and stuff, but don't want them getting too close, because at the end of the day, it's all about the girl and what she wants (forecast reads: Hunger Games rant).

My favorite comment of hers? This is a quote: "It's like modern authors are afraid to let their characters really fall in love, because they think that having a girl care about a guy, and putting his feelings before hers, makes her some trapped 50s housewife. And a guy protecting a girl is some sort of crime, when really, I think it's sweet! It shows that he cares. That's selfless."

I told her that she may not be reading that many books in the future, as most YA authors seem to be women, and their main characters seem to be girls. But I just thought that was an interesting thing for a 16-year-old girl to say. Just an hour ago she emailed me with a "petition" in which her entire reading group vowed to take a 6-month hiatus from girl-narrated books... her book group has 87 young people, ranging from 14-23.
While part of me thinks that this decision is a little on the drastic side, the other part thinks that it's really cool that she and her friends decided to do something about their dissatisfaction. They're not abandoning the genre. They're not giving up reading. They're trying to make decisions that will better fit their needs. And really, I'm impressed that "normal American girls" are conscientious of things that I also happen to notice. There are a great many characters who are either limp noodles or she-wolves.
Where's the happy medium?
And my hot-shot-"I read ___ books a year!"-self attempts to answer that question by actually listing the "happy medium of girls" books**: Nevermore, The Looking Glass Wars series, The Books of Bayern, for the most part, the Wondrous Strange series, Wildwood Dancing, Chaos Walking (sans the last book), Percy Jackson series, eventually Divergent, Shiver, and lawd-o-mercy the classic authors do it best - The Chronicles of Prydain... but that's only a handful. And truly, when I think about it, most of the time when I compliment books in reviews, it's in regards to the creativity of the storyworld, or the action/excitement, or the pacing, or whatever. Usually it isn't in the characters, because I realize that my friend has a point. There's so much forcefulness in the average YA girl's personality. Forcefulness, snark, it starts off as fun, upbeat, but just turns into mean bitchiness. As my friend said, "Like Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew, only without Petruchio to spank her."
Hmm...not sure about the spanking part, but she has a point.

But what do you all think? Does she have a point, or is it bring on more snarky/googley-eyed gals?
And what about the resolution?

I will say that I absolutely LOVE having conversations with teen readers because as much as I (22yearold) enjoy YA, it's really written for them. So it's cool to get their perspective and see what exactly they think of certain things.
& when you've got reader-cousins, it's like free consulting work! :D

**and because of the subjectivity involved, my opinion-based-list may be different from others'.

8 shout-outs!:

Jordyn said...

It looks like you guys are both reading waaay more paranormal and fantasy than I do (considering I read none). I see where she's coming from and what she's saying but I can't help but think this isn't a YA trend so much as a paranormal/fantasy/dystopian trend that's skipping contemporary, because many of the books I read have excellent and complex girl characters.

I'm wondering though (partly because I don't want to fall into this trap with my own female MCs)... what's "too big" of a personality? Isn't it possible to have a forceful/"bitchy" character who ISN'T self-centered... and if so, is that a problem character as well?

Amelia said...

That's a good point, Jordyn. I emailed her to ask, but I know that she reads more contemp than me. Of course, most folks read more contemp than me, haha :D

Bearing in mind that the characters I normally have a hard time stomaching are the ones that the majority of readers tend to like & support, I'll attempt to answer your question with my honest opinion: yes and no, I don't think it's possible to have a forceful/"bitchy" character who isn't self-centered, because for me, bitchy is self-centered. I look at why the character feels the need to act that way to others. If it's occasional, or something that a certain situation warrants, that's one thing, because it's not the character's ENTIRE personality, you know? But I try and look at *why* a character feels the need to be forceful. If that's the entirety of their personality, than yeah, there's usually an inability to put someone else's feelings first. It's okay to temporarily lose your filter, but when some characters seem to ALWAYS do it, then it's "bitchy." I think that's what she was saying, and we had just had a rant about the HUNGER GAMES series in particular, so some of her thoughts in particular probably stemmed from there.

Jordyn said...

I think I'd have to disagree about Katniss being self-centered. Even though she's harsh to Peeta and Gale, I would think that how she thinks of and acts for her family would counter some of that. I think that a lot of the personality we see from her IS situation/environment-oriented in that for so long she's been the primary provider for her mother and sister and now her main concern is survival so that she can continue taking care of them. I don't find that self-centered at all.

And maybe our definitions of a forceful character or personality are different because I think it's possible to be forceful without being self-centered. To me a forceful or bitchy character is one who stands up for herself and what she wants or thinks in a very forward way... this doesn't always mean bulldozing others, but I'm not quite sure what character to compare this to since we haven't read many of the same books.

Amelia said...

I actually agree with the Katniss thing up until MOCKINGJAY, but as the story went along, she seemed to develop this inability to respect or even handle anyone who didn't agree with her. I can't speak for Lauren, but for me it's funny how Cinna seemed to be the only "adult" character that she didn't somehow challenge or complain about. Her lack of respect for authority was...interesting. With her family, I think she said the only person she ever "loved" was Prim...and suspicious me thinks that's only because Prim, as a child, wasn't a challenge to her. Anyone who was her peer or superior elicited mistrust and contempt. Some of that may be Panem and the world she lived in...but by the last book, it just got hard for me to stomach.

And I think that you and I actually agree on character personalities, we're just using different vocabulary. I completely agree with what you said about "one who stands up for herself and what she wants or thinks in a very forward way...", I would just call it assertive or self-confident/aware. For me (and Lauren, I guess), "forceful" has a negative connotation, and is like overdoing it, to the point of being rude or inconsiderate. What you described, I'd call "assertive" or just being self-confident. And I think that's admirable. Those were the girls I listed in my girls-who-rule list in the post :)
If anybody can write a kind-but-sure-of-herself character, it's you Jordyn! :D

Jordyn said...

Okay, we may have to just agree to disagree re: Katniss, but I do agree with the rest of this... I think our definitions are a little different but the general feelings are the same. Hopefully the character I'm writing now (and one character from a former book that I'm worried about) work out!

The Flashlight Reader said...

I have 3 comments.

1. You need to read Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's great. AND it's a male POV.

2. I can see your friend's point. I've been reading a lot of PRs lately and they're getting on my nerves. It's like the writers themselves are feeding in to some cliche that they think we (as readers) want to encounter. It's driving me crazy because I feel like I'm reading different versions of the same story over and over again.

I had a 3rd point, but I forgot it. I'm sure it was brilliant though. =) oh well.

Jillian said...

Amelia! Not sure why but I wrote a very long comment for this post :/ But it's not showing up?

Katie said...

This is such an awesome post!. Sorry for the delayed response, I was away. I love hearing actual teens reflect on the material that is written for them, basically by adults. I think we sometimes expect less of them, that they are incapable of thinking critically about what the read, and your friend proves that is not true! Plus she did have some valid points. :)

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