Have Y.A. books ruined the novel?
Although Y.A. is marketed to readers age 12 to 18, adult women make up 55% of Y.A. readers, according to an article in The Atlantic. The Y.A. genre is reviewed in The New York Times, Bustle, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post. And this publishing trend is reflected at our local Barnes and Noble, where the Y.A. books now occupy shelves formerly devoted to adult fiction, science fiction, and mysteries.
Teen characters in novels have always had problems (think Holden Caulfield and Cassandra Mortmain), but the problems in today’s Y.A. novels must be trendy and sensitively paint-by-number. Y.A. books are dense with inter-species romances, occasionally between humans and vampires, sometimes cancer patients and robust friends.
But there are some exceptions: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books are Y.A. pulp fiction classics. I see Twilight as Library of America material, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. Meyer is a master of plot, pithy writing, and sharp characterization. But the most fascinating aspect of Twilight is its influence on Millennial women writers.
The Twilight effect can be traced in Catherine Lacey’s spiky, elegant novel Nobody Is Ever Missing, Natalie Stagg’s Millennial classic Surveys, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The heroines of these novels are smart but they are also passive descendants of Meyer’s heroine Bella Swann, a city girl with deadpan wit, who feels lost when she moves from Phoenix to Forks, Washington, to live with her father. It turns out the Northwest is full of monsters, especially vampires and werewolves. Bella is a klutz, and is constantly rescued by Edward, a glitteringly attractive boy who turns out to be a vampire. Who but a masochist would fall in love with a vampire? And certainly the heroines of Millennial novels metaphorically are involved with vampires.
In Twilight, Bella’s relationship with Edward is problematic. Edward refuses to have sex with her because of inter-species incompatibility. Indeed, there is no sex at all till Breaking Dawn (the fourth book), after Bella and Edward marry, and she insists on having sex, even though it means she gets bruises (and that’s at his gentlest). Similarly, many Millennial heroines in novels are lost girls rather than women, masochists in need of rescue, though they may have no rescuers.
Now I will focus on three Millennial classics (and have adapted these reviews from my blogs Mirabile Dictu and Thornfield Hall).
Natasha Stagg’s Surveys is a Millennial masterpiece. The narrator, Colleen, a 23-year-old college graduate, can’t find a job in her field (psychology), and her life is empty and troubled. She works at a marketing firm office at the mall, giving surveys to people who earn a couple of dollars for answering questions about products like a new Britney Spears perfume. And then Colleen and her co-workers must fake the results, because the marketing firm wants big numbers of people saying they like the product.
Her real life is spent online. She stays up all night updating her social media. And then she falls in love with Jim, a “semi-famous person” she meets online. She flies from Arizona to L.A. to meet, him and they become suddenly a famous couple, because of their exchanges on social media platforms, which they begin to manage and plan together. They have more and more followers every day. And they are paid for hosting parties at clubs. But, as you can imagine, it doesn’t last. It’s Twilight, without actual vampires or true connections.
Sally Rooney’s much-lauded Normal People is about Marianne and Connell and their hooking up and splitting up and friendship and depression and hooking up again. They’re rather like the characters in Girls, though less sympathetic than narcissistic Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her pals from Oberlin.
The protagonists grow up in the same town in Ireland. Marianne is a loner from a wealthy family, and Connell, the maid’s son, is popular and athletic. The two embark on a secret sexual relationship that improves Marianne’s self-esteem until Connell asks someone else to the prom. When they meet again at Trinity, their status is reversed: Marianne fits in with the rich, privileged students, while Connell is friendless and struggling. But for some reason Marianne pursues S/M relationships, and boasts about being beaten up. But why is she so unstable? The psychology is too pat.
In Catherine Lacey’s novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, the narrator, Elyria, a brittle woman named after a town in Ohio, leaves her life in Manhattan and gets on a plane for New Zealand without telling anyone. She and her husband, a math teacher, had bonded over her sister’s death, but the relationship grew increasingly unhappy:, and he is violent in his sleep–a kind of vampire? In New Zealand, she stays with a poet on his farm, but he kicks her out, because she is too troubled even for him. She befriends a transgender woman, but any relationship is too much pressure. Elyria runs deeper into solitude, sleeping on the beach, in a shed, and then settling for months in a caravan outside the cabin of a generous vegetarian hippie couple, Luna and Amos. By the end of the novel, Elyria has fallen to the bottom tier of society. She wants to be missing to herself. She is passive and empty.
I do see Twilight parallels in these three Millennial novels. And perhaps the influence is more widespread than I know. The difference is that Bella finally becomes strong and saves the world. That doesn’t happen in Millennial classics.