Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Hanging with Chloe and Manolo: Teen Lit, Branding, and the Reading of American Girls

Note: This is a continuation of thoughts expressed on the column, “From Tween to Teen and the Sex In Between,” read that first and the full thoughts left by readers.

Also let’s just define my “I’ll be back with my own thoughts after I get back from work” as “I’ll really be posting tomorrow.” I meant to type this up last night, but I got distracted by making dinner, doing dishes and taking emergency action to save my suddenly dishpan hands. So just bank that “little” definition in your Bookseller Chick dictionary along with planogram (awful, awful word) and other word that I threw out in my quest to explain the life of a chain store bookseller (although this one probably solely applies to me).

Okay? Okay.

JMC brings up an interesting point in her response to yesterday’s post and it really leads into where (I think) I want to go with this:

…I'm not sure who the recipient of the diatribe was supposed to be. The authors for writing what she thinks is materialistic crap? Parents for not paying attention to what their kids are read[ing]? Publishers for putting a product on the market?

To me, it appears, she's blaming the publishers and the authors, not the parents, but we'll get to that in a minute.

It was a coworker who brought the Wolf article to my attention on Monday. She—an avid reader of the Gossip Girl and Clique books—asked me what I thought about Wolf’s stance on the subject manner, and when I confessed that I wasn’t up-to-date on my NYT Book Review reading, she summarized. She felt that Wolf over-emphasized the sex and drug aspects of the Gossip Girls books, agreed with her “Mean Girl” stance on the Clique books, but overall felt she missed the point of why these books are popular. “It’s not like these kids can’t see worse on television. I mean, look at The OC.”

Indeed, Gossip Girl et al are representative of the media culture presented to youth on television and movies. The absentee parents, the rampant materialism, the quest to be the most popular: all of these themes are featured regularly on The OC, One Tree Hill, and other teen drama shows. Even Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls—shows lauded for their writing and acting—use these as plot points. In their defense they don’t seem to invert the parent/child power structure to the extent that Wolf claims the Clique does (or wipe them out all together as in the Gossip Girl books), but it’s there. Veronica’s rich friends have no parental controls at all and drive hummers and porches, Rory gets a Hermes bag from her boyfriend; pop culture references abound.

What I find interesting—and what Wolf leaves out in her article—is that these books (like these TV shows) have a secondary audience. Sure, they are marketed to the 13 and above Young Adult crowd, but they also appeal to adults. Sarah Weinman at GalleyCat refers to them as her “total guilty pleasure complex,” and she is not alone. My coworker is in her early twenties: smart, very literate, but capable of discussing Marc Jacobs in as much detail as she does feminist theory. Her materialistic quest to possess a Chloe bag does not detract from her ability to define herself outside of societal ideals. She just really wants that Chloe bag. Does her desire for a two thousand dollar bag keep her from making an informed decision? No.

Wolf argues that the through the inversion of the core “tradition [that] has been the opposition between the rebel and the popular, often wealthy antiheroine” has created a world where teens “try on adult values and customs as though they were going to wear them forever…offer[ing] the perks of the adult world not as escapist fantasy but in a creepily photorealistic way, just as the book jackets show real girls polished to an unreal gloss.” In the cases of my coworker and Weinman, she would suggest that both realize the unrealistic qualities of the world portrayed whereas teens would view themselves in this warped funhouse mirror and take the reflected image as truth.

This opinion is detrimental in two ways because it both denies a teenager’s ability to make an intelligent and informed decision and implies that parents should just buy other books, placing the onus of the shame and corruption of the teen mind that these books apparently cause on the writers, publishers and booksellers. In blame shifting this responsibility to the sellers and creators, she effectively denies the role of the parent, just as she claims these books do. Perhaps instead of focusing on the books, we should look to see why books about sex and drugs, why publishers feel the need to acknowledge the clothing designers on the cover, and why books on Mean Girl culture and parental absenteeism are so popular.

These are only symptoms of a greater disease. You can’t blame Gossip Girl, the A-List, and the Clique for latch-key children, teen credit debt, and a culture that tries to brand you as soon as you are able to have cognitive recognition of a symbol or word. You can’t blame them for creating an ideal because it was an ideal that put them in this situation. With both parents working sixty to seventy hour work weeks to achieve the American dream, the loss of after school programs and activities, overworked teachers, and the absence of a reliable teen mentorship program for all, it’s no surprise that teens redirect their focus outward and define themselves by what they know: advertising and products.

In some ways, these books go where a lot of parents don’t. They acknowledge that there are teens having sex and doing drugs, even if they glamorize it; they acknowledge that there is a culture of the mean girl—a culture that carries on into adulthood—something that books like Queen Bees and Wannabees and Tripping the Prom Queen are only now admitting to in the feminine world; and they acknowledge the power brands and the teenage buying public, which has been discussed thoroughly in the nonfiction book, Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers. While they exaggerate and gloss over the alternatives and cons to the lifestyle, these books recognize—on some level—issues that teenagers actually deal with on a day to day basis.

It’s not my job as a bookseller to make these buying choices for the parent. Book Nerd points out (in the comments of the last column) “there's no way [that] trying to censor these books is the right answer. We have to give girls some credit for knowing the difference between an accurate representation of their experience and a fantasy.” Not only that, but we have to place the responsibility of teaching this difference on the people that will have the most influence: parents and teachers. As Lady T said in her column, it’s the parents who need to “Take the time and the responsibility to see what your kids may or not be influenced by.” Take the time to read the back of that glossy book before you throw it into your shopping cart or if you see it lying around the house. Maybe even take the time to read the book so that you can have an actual discussion with your child. Maybe then you’ll see that they are capable of distilling the truth from the advertising, or at least you’ll be able to send them on that direction.

Not too long ago I was helping a woman look for a book for her daughter, and she mentioned the girl really wanted to read the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. When I asked the woman how old the girl was she replied that her daughter was twelve.

Because I had read and loved the books, I was aware of certain content, so I mentioned, “Well, one of the characters has sex in the first book, so—”

“They have sex? Never mind then,” the mother snapped, “I don’t want her reading about sex.”

I explained that one character—not all of them—has sex before she is ready, and the books deals with the fallout. I explained that teen sex wasn’t the main thread of the story, it was female friendship. I even mentioned that a lot of adult book clubs had chosen the book to review, so maybe it was something she could read and discuss with her daughter. The mother, however, had made up her mind about those books involving teen sex, and she didn’t have time to read everything her daughter did; she was just there to pick up a book because her child was actually reading!

She eventually came up to the counter with a Clique book.


Your thoughts as a parent? Bookseller? Author? What can be done to help treat the disease, not the symptoms?


Milady Insanity said...

These books are getting published because there clearly is a market.

While I've not read the books, it seems clear to me that parents simply don't want their children to turn out like the characters in the books.

Some things to keep in mind: Are the children really being influenced by the books, or are they simply reading a book that fulfills a fantasy?

In the latter case, isn't it just like why romance is popular? Because it fulfills the fantasy of finding your own happy ever after.

Another point to keep in mind: Don't teens who read books like Clique and A-List read other books as well?

My 14 year-old cousin reads them. But she also reads Jacqueline Carey, Holly Black, Lisa Gardner, and Scott Westerfeld.

I'm going to fallback on the old communication line. Read what you can of what your kid is reading, and make it clear you'd be happy to discuss with her/him anything they want to ask you about.

Bookseller Chick said...

Good points all, Milady, and that last part is all any of us can ask.

Book Nerd said...

I think your coworker is right: this IS the same stuff that's on TV. In a conversation I had with a coworker over the Clique/Gossip Girls/etc., the only conclusion we could come to was that reading wasn't any "better" (more virtuous or more educational) than watching TV, if this is what reading means.

Heck yeah, parents ought to pay attention to what they're buying for their daughters, as well as what else is going on in those daughters' lives and heads. But the thing that's upsetting from a book industry perspective is that this means publishers are taking their cue from teen TV, instead of vice versa.

It's the old sequel mental block: this sold a million copies, so let's make another one just like it! The strategy may or may not work in terms of sales, but it never works for long, and it's a sucky way to run a business or create works of art.

Publishers and authors ought to be setting trends for the culture, not just following them. And that's my dorky idealistic opinion. =)

christine fletcher said...

I'm really not sure there's anything new here. I mean yes, the existence of these series aimed at YA are new. But back in the day, we read the same stuff; we just swiped it from the adults. The only Judy Blume book in our house was Wifey. Judith Krantz, Jacqueline Susann, whatever trashy novels were riding the charts, I devoured them. My folks knew what I was reading; after all, they'd bought the books and read them first.

I laughed when I read BSC's description of the mom who didn't want her kid reading Sisterhood OTTP - a novel that has 1 episode of sex that takes place off the page. Good lord. At that age, I was already reading Scruples.

I mean, I liked S.E. Hinton, and all. But compared to Princess Daisy? Come on. And it wasn't just me -- everyone I knew was reading the same stuff.

I don't want to be an apologist for these series books - I've skimmed a couple, and I thought they were dreck (which is pretty much my grown-up opinion of Judith Krantz. Sorry, Judith.) But Does Naomi Wolf think that if the Gossip Girls, et al, weren't available, that teens/tweens would read only - what? Little Women? (which, I was delighted to learn, Louisa May Alcott herself called "moral pap for the young." No offense to any LW fans out there.)

BSC, you called for remedies for the disease, and I have to admit I have none. But I do believe that if all such books were banned tomorrow, with the notion of keeping such nastiness out of the hands of the impressionable young, the impressionable young would simply turn to the adult shelves for more of the same.

So I'll just add my voice to others, especially milady insanity, who said it better and more concisely than I would have.

Eileen said...

Interesting discussion. At the risk of sounding selfish- as a writer I don't write with the intent of changing minds or shaping society. I'm writing a story I want to tell. I don't write YA, but if I did it certainly wouldn't be in the hope to corrupt their minds. I'd give them a bit more credit.

Patry Francis said...

As a writer, I take this as a challenge. If you don't like the books that are being read or purchased, write better books and find a way to make them marketable. The desire to read something good and uplifting hasn't gone away. It just needs to be fed!

Diana Peterfreund said...

I don't see these as being particularly different than the type of mean-spirited series books for teens that were out when I was younger. Some of the things Jessica did to Elizabeth!!!

And Wolf completely neglected o mention that YA fiction has exploded all over, and that alongside these shallow sexfests of Gossip Girl, etc. there are some truly thoughtful adn though provoking teen literature out there. But the bottom line is, just because it's betweent eh covers of a book and not on MTV doesn't make it deep.

I really hope you told that woman what her daughter could expect from a Clique novel! If I wanted something for my 12 year old I'd be pointing her in the direction of Lois Lowry.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Okay, to be fair, she did have as idebar on some more upmarket teen reads out, on which she even mentioned Scott Westerfeld, one of my faves...

And I think in general that parents are watching out for what their kids read.

In fact, when I blogged about a recent YA book I recommended, I got a bunch of comments from parents saying they were itnrested in teh book for their kids but wanted to know about "adult themes" in the novel.

lady t said...

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants customer reminds me of an encounter with a gentleman returning a copy of Judy Blume's Then Again,Maybe I Won't. My co-worker in the children's department had recommended it for his 8 year old son(She actually thought it was about bird watching,I kid you not) and I could understand him wanting to get something more age appropiate.

However,after I expressed that opinion to him and was exchanging that title for another one for his child,he told me that it was a terrible book. I said"Well,maybe when he's older..." and then,he said"It's a terrible book for anyone!" This man was a high school math teacher,btw.

Since his kids were present,I didn't go any further with that(also,he was not a plesant fellow to begin with). I grew up on Judy Blume so it was sad to see any of her work rejected unfairly.

christine fletcher said...

BTW, BSC: Lovely post over on M.J. Rose's blog! For those who haven't seen it (I don't know how to do links, sorry):

jarvenpa said...

Being a bookseller in a very rural area (you will run into everyone at the postoffice and market; if you give their child a book the child loves they will remember that for 10 years; if you corrupt their darling they will also remember that forever--and gossip about it)I take a very simple line: if your child is reading, rejoice.
I've had many a conversation with concerned parents on the sex/violence/adult reading question. I encourage them to send in the kidlets by themselves (because yes, I am sneaky). I work with local teachers on issues of slow-to-fall-in-love-with-books children. (It is wonderful when we finally get a young person excited--often in those cases the trick is finding nonfiction, actually, that fits with something the child or teen longs to know more about).
Only once in all my long years as a bookseller did I have a mother complain about a book her son selected (it was a contemporary mystery, heavy on the sex/violence). We traded for something "suitable"(and, frankly, boring). Young man returned the next year (he was 17) and bought more of the mysteries.
Of course, I have my personal history of reading everything when I was young--my mom sent a letter to our concerned librarian granting me all the "adult" reading matter I desired. A good thing, too.

Sam H said...

I am fortunate enough to work for a library director who is very into having a wide variety of YA books. It seems like the selection is better than it was when I was a teenager about 15 years ago. Back then I read the fire out of V. C. Andrews which can't be any worse than what's out now. I do have one co-worker who makes negative comments about them and keeps complaining about the librarian ordering "all those horror and sex books". You have to understand that if it was up the this woman we would have nothing but christian fiction which a lot of our YA is not.

christine fletcher said...

V.C. Andrews! I'd totally forgotten! For a while way back when, I loved those books -- and you're right, not much could be worse.

Nick said...

Tragic that the mom chose a Clique book over Traveling Pants. I suspect the reason wasn't so much that the character had sex, it was that Mommy Dearest wasn't prepared for the inevitable questions it would raise. I'd lay odds that Mom probably read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. None of this is new.
I applaud your honesty, BSC, at the risk of losing a sale to tell the mom the truth about the book. How much easier it would have been just not to say anything!
None of this is new! I remember distinctly having to obtain parental permission to read "Then Again, Maybe I Won't" just because the adolescent protagonist has a wet dream. I was too embarrassed to ask for Mom's signature but I was intrigued -- so I borrowed it from the library.