Probably one of the more frustrating assumptions people make about me regards my taste in literature. At times, I’ve had wonderfully promising conversations with friends or strangers about books only to see those conversations stop rather abruptly when the person I’m talking to says, “yea, I’m reading Book X and really enjoying it, but I don’t think you’d like it; it’s not really high-brow.” I realize why the assumption is made, but I desperately try to eschew such polarizing characterizations for a few reasons. First, while this picture of the “ivory tower, tweed jacketed literature professor” exists for some—how many I cannot say—it certainly doesn’t speak to the majority of literature professors I’ve meet. In a political environment that attempts to marginalize humanities departments, this mischaracterization functions as an effective political fallacy rather than an accurate descriptor. Yet, the more pressing reason why this moniker frustrates me is simply because it isn’t accurate. Before you stop reading, I assure this is not an essay engineered to paint the literature professor (which I would not call myself due to the lack of a PhD) as more sympathetic and pedestrian by suggesting that lit professors, just like the rest of the unwashed masses, indeed digs Scandal. No, this is an essay about my self-enforced shift in literary sensibilities. While I read literary theory and Early Modern Drama more than most things (yes, despite not being in a PhD program, I’ve desperately attempted to construct the illusion), over the last two months I’ve dipped my toes into a new genre: YA (young adult) Fiction. To my surprise, I’ve actually enjoyed it, so much so, that I’ve spent more time than I would have anticipated thinking about why YA fiction is frequently derided. Is The Catcher in the Rye not YA fiction (some argue no because of the intended audience)? How are Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet not at least marginally affiliated with this genre (again, think audience)? Tackling YA fiction’s place in the literary canon is not my intention here. On the contrary, I want to spend a brief moment discussing John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I suggest attempts to move, but ultimately fails in this attempt, into a liminal space between the reductive and oversimplified young-adult/adult binary.
This books has received an increased amount of attention over the last few months due primarily but not exclusively to the film adaptation that will arrived in theaters this summer. The plot is, by my limited estimation of the genre, conventional: Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are star-crossed lovers navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence, but with a twist. Hazel has Stage 4 Thyroid cancer and Augustus is a cancer survivor though he lost his leg in the process.
Hazel narrates the novel, and she possesses a voice, demeanor, resolve, and wit that is reminiscent of many of Shakespeare’s female heroines. Think Beatrice, Portia, Rosalind, or Lady Macbeth (you know, minus all the murder). Yet, the problem I found with this novel is a systemic problem with many of the YA novels I’ve read over the last two months: female agency and subjectivity is consumed into a heteronormative paradigm once the inevitable romantic relationship is introduced. Hazel’s pithy, and at times petulant, but always earnest musings on the ontological status of the “cancer patient” seemingly disappears once the relationship takes off. This is precisely the big unreconciled question I have at the end these two months: is it possible to write a convincing YA novel without the romantic relationship trope as the linchpin for the entire narrative? When critics suggest that YA fiction suffers from a self-defeating shallowness, is this in one respect what they mean?
Yet I’m at a lose to envision what this novel would read like without the normative romantic relationship at its core. This is perhaps what the fictional novelist Peter Van Houten’s antithetical An Imperial Affliction is meant represent: an ambitious but utterly undervalued piece of literary marginalia that refuses to succumb to pathos-driven impulses.