Wednesday, 7 September 2011


So lately I seem to be regressing inexplicably back to my teenage years in every single way (fashion sense, emotional maturity, eating habits, pop-culture references) and due to this I just finished reading a stack of John Green books, as well as fitting in a quick re-read of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (and to the doubters, the naysayers, all I have to say is shut up shut upppp I will always have a place in my heart for good YA fiction).

The John Green book I completed most recently was read in a night and is called Looking For Alaska. It was the first book Green wrote and it focuses on angsty 16 year old Miles and his search for what he calls 'the great perhaps' - a search that leads him to boarding school, a roommate with poverty-ridden blood, and the first love of his short life, a girl named Alaska. The idea of 'the great perhaps' comes from writer Francois Rabelais's last words - at death, he believed that it was what he was going to seek. The ambiguity of Rabelais's last words, the lack of conviction, is almost delightfully morbid to me.

Back to the book. Miles, our 16 year old protagonist, is obsessed with last words. He reads biographies of famous authors, poets, musicians, etc, and he classifies these biographies as failures if they do not include the words the various subjects uttered on their deathbeds. Add to this a kickass philosophy teacher, a lot of teenage alcoholism and heavy petting, and references to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and you have a winning combination. I mean, awesome. A 16 year old as idealistic and alcoholic and death obsessed as I used to be. How could I not fall in love with this book?

Weirdly, Looking For Alaska offered me a lot more than the rose-tinted nostalgia I expected. It comforted me. At first, I felt weird and slightly perverted at feeling this about a book aimed at teenagers - as if it's just further proof that I'll never turn 'fully adult', that I'll never obtain the life I wish due to the ultimate failure of not being able to grow up properly. Looking for Alaska is the kind of book I needed when I was 16, not just for its tragic undertones and realistic/optimistic psalms on teenage life, but for its constant mention of death and what happens when we die. 'The great perhaps'. It's fair to say I was death-obsessed as a teenager. Who isn't? 16 years old was probably my turning point, the year I realised that I was not invincible.

I spent a lot of time listening to The Smiths, having 3am existential crisises, setting my alarm clock to ring habitually through the night so that I would know if I was gonna die in my sleep and successfully be roused from it (how a ringing alarm clock would ward off death if I truly was at its door, I obviously never really gave much thought to...). It was dark, it was miserable, it was unhealthy and it was morbid as fuck. Most of these feelings stemmed from embarrassment, the very English school of thought of keeping a stiff upper lip and Not Talking About It. I wrote about death and its effects constantly for english and philosophy assignments, turning the essays into Chuck Palahniuk-esque one shoulder shrugs about the futility of life, its utter banality and lack of importance (I was 16, okay, and I'd never read anything as blase as fight club before in my life).

Therefore, Miles' obsession with death in Looking For Alaska is, to use that familiar cliche, a breath of fresh air in teenage literature. I was recently reading through a list of banned books aimed at teenagers and was interested (but not surprised) to see how many of them were banned due to being sexually explicit or pornographic. I noticed that hardly any of the books, if any at all, were banned for containing death and death-related topics. This isn't because these issues are accepted by the book-banners (what an ominous name for them, by the way - I didn't mean to make it sound quite so ominous, but I think it sums up the ridiculousness of these people pretty well) and society, but simply because hardly anyone is writing about death, not least specifically directed at teenagers and their obsession with death. It's often been said that sex is the last taboo in our society and, looking at the above list, this may appear to be true until you realise that these 'pornographics' books are only plentiful in being banned because so many authors are desperate to write about these issues. So maybe sex isn't the last taboo - death is. This is why I wish Looking For Alaska had been around when I was 16 - sex was intimate and awkward and everywhere, and death was just as intimate and awkward, only we didn't have a guide written by Jacqueline Wilson on how to deal with it.

Basically, the point of this (long-winded, rushed, haphazard) post is that many people who consider themselves true readers may eschew the YA genre and stick only to their penguin copies and their modern classics. I remember a year or so ago, I got the craving for some good YA fiction that only a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower could solve. I dug out my copy (which is really a lie, I didn't have to dig very far) and read it everywhere except in public. On the bus to work, I carried a copy of White Noise' instead. On the train, I read a collection of poetry by Richard Siken. I was ashamed to be seen with a teenagers book, to be marked out as illiterate or slow or uneducated. I could delve a lot deeper into this, write an essay about how the problem with this situation lies within those judging the reader and not the reader him/herself (or his/her choice of reading materials) - but basically, my point is that people who believe young adult fiction is only for teenagers, and therefore both the teenagers and the books are gossipy and bland and throwaway, are doing both the authors and the readers of YA fiction a great disservice.

My days of reading YA fiction may mostly be behind me, and I might now spend most of my time on amazon browsing the adult fiction section, but YA fiction is what guided me through the first awkward stages of adult life. David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite writers, but I learnt about the Pixies and escaping town from Brave New Girl. Richard Brautigan is the only man I'll ever love, but Hairstyles of the Damned coached me in teenage fumblings and punk music before I even cared about love. Bukowski taught me how to drink like a fish, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower taught me how to drink poetically and be good to my friends. And then there's the big one, the behemoth, the novel that all future YA writers secretly aspire to write the sequel to - The Catcher in the Rye, and it taught me about loneliness and how to cultivate it, perhaps the most important lesson you can learn at 16.

A lot of people think that YA adult novels don't teach anyone anything new and instead rehash the past and present it to more impressionable audiences, therefore rendering the genre useless. The truth is that they do teach us, and more than that they're also a reference point for us as we get older - they keep us in check and offer us a place to reflect on where it all went wrong or right.
To quote John Green in Will Grayson, Will Grayson', "Unrequited love can be survived in a way that once-requited love cannot". Thankfully, my love for YA fiction is both unrequited and neverending. How's that for a lesson?

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