I just finished reading a great piece over at IDIOM about teen lesbian novels. While the excerpt from They’ll Never Make a Movie Starring Me offers a ridiculous yet classic example of the teenage-girl-protagonist “voice,” I was really struck by the author’s analysis in the final paragraph:
The more refined these coming-out stories are as instructional tools, the less literary they become, and the less true. It is second nature to judge their politics; it is the responsibility of being an “actual lesbian.” But the best thing that could happen to the young-adult literary world would be for somebody to slip up and say what they really feel.
I’ve dealt with several of the novels she mentions in my academic work, and I always struggle to come to terms with the ways in which the books manage to be progressive and yet deeply conservative at the same time. Describing the work of Roal Dahl, children’s literature scholar Peter Hollindale suggests “subversive narratives exist within a conformist metanarrative” and I tend to think that’s an apt description for most YA fiction.
Like the author, I also *didn’t* read most of these texts when I was a teenager. I was reading YA fiction in fifth, sixth, and maybe seventh grade, a period in my life marked by, you guessed it, intense friendships with other girls. But I also had a number of close guy friends and about 0 interest in sex. With anyone. So why would I have read books where the characters were grappling with their sexual identity?
Though my obsession with certain older girls might have been some sort of warning sign, by the time I had any inkling of the fact that girls could even be attracted to other girls, *like that*, I was fifteen and reading Jeanette Winterson alongside Poe, Dickinson, and the Brontes. (Plus I find it rather hard to picture my nerdy, vintage-clothes-wearing, goth self wandering over to the YA section of the public library to investigate the–I assume–meager selection of gay-themed novels in my tiny, gossipy, hometown.) It wasn’t until later, long after I’d come to a sense of my own identity, that I discovered a trove of “gay” YA “problem novels” that could have been teaching me how not to be a queer teenager all along.
I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I didn’t read these books as a teen. Though when I get accused of trying to reenact or recreate some sort of adolescent reading experience of my own (a charge I’ve heard from several academics) I just laugh and say, “But I didn’t read books like that when I was a teenager.” So now I have to wonder, who exactly is reading these books? And are any of these “actual readers” teenagers?