Rachel's Blog: Sex and Books and Quoting Neil

Fri, 24 Mar 2006

Naomi Wolf wrote an essay last week damning "pink books" for teens - glamourous looking YA novels aimed at girls. I haven't read any of the series she's critiquing ("Gossip Girl," "A-List" and "Clique") or even any "Babysitter's Club", so I can't comment directly. She answered some readers questions this week, so now I'll state my piece.

When I was in year nine I inhaled Virginia Andrew's Flowers in the Attic series. Maree and I would meet at the back of the Number 314 bus after school. She would lend me the next book and we'd compare notes. Notes on incest, miscarriage, more incest, kidnapping, murder by arsenic, shallow graves, more incest and cute boys. (The boys might not have been in the novels; year nine remains thankfully blurry for me.)

I knew at the time that these were not works of high literature. I read them half-shamefully but, to their credit, my parents did not try to stop me reading them, although they did raise all four eyebrows. As a disclaimer - I come from an almost impossibly highly literate household (and am now cultivating my own).

When the Australian soapie A Country Practice included a school reading controversy in one of their episodes, around the teen-sex surfie novel Puberty Blues, Mum showed me where it was on the shelf in the hallway. It was around this time that Dad handed me a copy of The Iron Heel. Which I read, but didn't really "get" until I read it again last year.

It doesn't matter what teenagers read. Books are fashion items. When you're fourteen sex is cool (talking about it - not doing it), politics not so much. And by twelve or fourteen there's probably very few ideas that kids need to be protected from. It's also a matter of need. At fourteen I needed to know what different experiences of sex could be. I didn't need to know about politics (at least, it didn't have any immediate resonance with me). Wolf says:

They [the "pink books'] may not change the girl's behavior; but they do posit a model of what the dominant culture says holds value. I know from the girls in my own life that they often feel quite alone these days when they do hold out for kindness or integrity in a social setting. Is this a new problem? No, but in past generations the dominant culture of teen fiction did not make this behavior seem so geeky and aberrant.

The point she's missing is that while, yes, the girls in her own life are feeling maligned, and this is awful, they need to read about the same things happening to other girls. It's a way of play-acting the scenes. If a girl can see in some way that being a teenager is survivable, then she is more likely to attempt to survive it rather than bow her head and accept her aloneness.

If a girl were to read the book Wolf is dreaming of, the one where the good girl is good and the bad girls get their comeupance, she is more than likely to dismiss it as unrealistic, or even boring. I'm not saying that Virginia Andrew's reflected my life (far, far from it) but it wasn't boring and it is a tale of survival. Ditto Puberty Blues.

I would like to quote Neil Gaiman at this point, lest anyone suggest I'm promoting trashy and/or sex-filled novels to kids of all ages. (Actually I can't find the quote I had in mind, which is something along the lines of "generally kids will choose to read books that they are ready for and won't read ones that they're not". But this quote is kind of relevant too.)

The enemy is the fact that most people don't buy books. Most people don't read for pleasure. It's like the teachers who proudly stop kids reading R.L. Stine or Enid Blyton or comics or whatever, proud that they've stopped them reading the Wrong Things, without noticing that they've also stopped them reading for pleasure, reducing the chances that the kids will ever go on to read things that the teachers think of as the Right Things...
- Neil Gaiman, 11 September, 2003

I can't change what the dominant culture says holds value, but I'm not letting my daughter into it unarmed.

Comment by cobungra on Thu, 30 Mar 2006

... I was never for a moment worried. Now there are six eyebrows.