Teen fiction: gore and gruel foster shallow self-esteem

JOHN swore he'd never write one, and he never has. George has written three of them, but is entertaining doubts about doing it again. Pam, who has just signed a new contract, did so with misgivings. These three authors are reacting to the state of young-adult fiction, a hodgepodge genre united only by its perceived audience. It embraces works as American as the Horatio Alger stories, as tender as Marjorie K. Rawlings's ``The Yearling,'' and as cynical as the bubble-gum romances peddled to teen-age girls.

Young adult fiction is frequently about growing up. It takes the venerable form of a Bildungsroman, a novel that discloses the formation of personal character.

There have been young-adult novels for as long as there has been a substantial audience of literate 12- to 17-year-olds. Because teen-agers are the focus of considerable parental and institutional worry, the genre provides the opportunity to broadcast tendentious moral imperatives.

These pronouncements are not just about expectable themes, like parent-child relationships, career choices, and awareness of sexual difference. Browse through a large public library's holdings of past and present young adult fiction, and you will find a catalog of national concerns and causes reaching back into the last century.

Charges of pandering and irresponsibility have followed young adult fiction from the first. Horatio Alger's Western stories were criticized for being sensational and violent. Similar charges are made today - repeatedly linked with the assertion that Stephen King is the most popular writer of young adult fiction.

The best young adult literature has ignored or openly scorned the genre's limitations. Consider, for example, Mark Twain's ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'' It opens with the author's injunction that people attempting to find a moral in the story will be banished, then introduces the redoubtable Huck, who smokes, swears, and resists being ``sivilized'' from the book's opening page to its last.

If young adult literature has always been accused of dumbing-down, dulling-out, and otherwise simplifying serious fiction, why are John and George and Pam so worried about it now? They claim the scope of what editors will accept in young adult fiction has narrowed in the past 10 years.

They argue that a book like ``Huckleberry Finn'' could not be published today. Its protagonist is too complex, its writing too discursive, and its message, if it has a message, too morally ambivalent.

Pam and George point to the escalating war between profit and moral effect in young adult fiction. The so-called young-adult problem novel demands that authors concoct a highly sympathetic, yet uncomplicated, main character. Often the character is a boy, since it is believed boys will read only about boys, while girls will read about either sex. The main character needs not only to be likable, but also must either be trendy or come in contact with current teen-age fads, ranging from footwear to slang.

In the problem novel, the protagonist, emptied of particularities, with the edges of his character beveled off, is thrown into a storm of oversimplified contemporary issues, such as mental illness, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, race relations, pollution, and the arms race. The stereotype confronts the trite, and the losers are young readers attempting to negotiate depthless issues from the point of view of cardboard characters.

Because of the increased pressure to produce formula books, John, a retired physicist who writes children's books, refuses to turn his talents to the young adult category. He notes that the reader of young adult fiction is often an unskilled reader, with a gnawing grudge against reading.

The linear prose of the genre, which permits no digressions or flourishes of language, can fall well below the complexity of the unskilled reader's life experience. Rather than exciting an interest in books, as teachers may hope, the flat text bores and frustrates the unskilled reader. As the genre has grown in this decade and been purchased for use in libraries and schools, it has made sub-literacy more politically and psychologically acceptable.

All three authors believe teen-agers should also read adult books, and they hope the back-to-basics emphasis in the schools will reverse the tendency to compromise the interests of poor readers. They note with dismay the marketing of young adult ``slasher'' novels along with ``retold'' classic horror stories, like John Polidori's ``Vampyre,'' Bram Stoker's ``Dracula,'' and Mary Shelley's ``Frankenstein'' - books calculated to counter the tedium of a simplified text with shock and violence.

In fact, the emergence of young adult horror novels points up a basic problem that no amount of sloganeering against gore and gruel will alleviate. The Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell shrewdly observed that in America, failure to have fun lowers one's self-esteem. Teen-agers, for whom self-esteem is a fragile thing, may read piquant romances and horror stories because the quick payoff makes them feel good about themselves. Formulaic fiction for young adults takes the endemic condition of teen-agers and exacerbates it with the promise of fun-filled, painless experience.

In the end, the state of young adult fiction shows the extent to which teen-agers have been targeted as a special market for consumer items, and it reflects the extent to which the values of a consumer society extend beyond the mall.

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