Young Adult Fiction is one of the few genres with a psychologically pervasive and accepted sociological function. Due to the nature of its readership, it is widely accepted that the novels demonstrate a drive towards achieving individual subjectivity, emergence from solipsism, and a narrative arc which mimetically associates itself with the adolescent reader. These publishing conventions are all bound by the commonality of growth, unsurprising considering the maturation period to which they try to relate. Authors attempt to show the change which can occur at the adolescent stages, through a tightly bound dialogue between conflict and resolution, and inevitably must deal both with things which impede or those which empower the individuals in their pursuits. Power, in both its absence and presence, directly influences the limits of individual agency, the catalyst through which change can occur. Additionally, adolescent fiction deals with notions of freedom as it pertains to power relationships, as well as freedom as a personal objective. Using the novels of M.T. Anderson, Marcus Zusak and Shyam Selvadurai, one can explore the ways individual growth is achieved through the situations of agency, power and freedom. Specifically, it is helpful to appreciate these novels as exemplary texts for the genre in the way they demonstrate three conditions often placed on individual agency; namely those of apathy, incapacity for change and realised potential.
Unfortunately, the omnipotent creation of such situations promulgates notions which are intensely ideological in their construction, portraying the desirable outcome as universally desired and achievable. It is important to consider the problematic nature of Young Adult fiction in relation to the educative role it plays within the adolescent experience. Caroline Hunt (1996) notices that “theorists in the wider field of children’s literature often discuss young adult titles without distinguishing them as a separate group and without, therefore, indicating how theoretical issues in young adult literature might differ from those in literature for younger children.” (4) Though both younger children and young adults are undergoing the formative stage of their identities, we must open the argument that young adult fiction carries a different weight due to the advanced psychological processes of its readers. Though all children are learning, and literature is one of the major modes of education, young adults are further exploring the notions of self and differing worldviews and are thus much more susceptible to a strongly positioned ideology.
Additionally, the irony created by the dichotomy between the adolescent narrator/protagonist and the author is problematic in its authoritative outlook, drawing from a more diverse life experience and choosing to favour only a narrow range of outcomes. Lefebvre (2005) states that “young adult problem novels are especially complex, even when their didactic messages are obvious. They are designed so that the values and attitudes within them-those assumed as much as those stated explicitly-will be offered to real adolescents on their journey toward adulthood.” He goes on to quote Nodelman’s thought that “the structure of the problem novel leads to an isolation of the protagonist’s viewpoint as a form of truth”, allowing character absolute confirmation of their opinions and values. It is undeniable that a young adult novel will carry elements of the author’s ideology, which could prove to be problematic when dealing with novels of dystopia, homosexuality and violent self-discovery.
Adolescent novels which deal with a sense of powerlessness perhaps have a greater tendency to favour one worldview, usually that which best aligns with the reader. They reveal an incapacity for change due to factors which (at the outset) appear to be out of the protagonist’s control. Though other worldviews can be portrayed in the process of power play, that which impedes the desired outcome of the protagonist is expelled from favourable consciousness in order to exacerbate conflict and create narrative drive. The intrinsic nature of emotional weakness is used as a literary technique, serving as a literary pause between actions and a self-reflexivity which stimulates the reader’s empathy for the protagonist. In The Messenger, Zusak is upfront about Ed’s low self-esteem, introducing himself early on as “typical of many of the young men you see in this suburban outpost of the city – not a whole lot of prospects or possibility,” (6) and later, stating, “my muscles are hugely normal. I should stand straighter but I don’t. I stand with my hands in my pockets.” By showing Ed’s low opinion of himself, Zusak sets the character up for growth through agency. Ed’s situation as a socially isolated young man allows him endless freedom for agency, which acts to focus the character as his own stumbling block. There is nothing to blame but his own apathy. Even as he carries out the events which catalyse growth, he is doubtful, struggling with the feeling of powerlessness as he carries out actions he cannot avoid.
‘I took that man up to the Cathedral and had a gun jammed into his head. I pulled the trigger but didn’t shoot him. I aimed for the sun.’ Treading over it like this doesn’t help. “He’s left town and hasn’t come back. I’m not sure if he ever will.”
‘Does he deserve to?’
‘What’s deserve got to do with anything? Who the hell am I to decide, Audrey?’
(Zusak 2002, 127)
On the other hand, M.T. Anderson’s Feed deals with the notion of powerlessness in a quite different way, by forcing the situation through the inclusion of a digital feed which supplies information on a whim. Though the technology perpetuates a myth of empowerment, the complacency it propagates leaves the characters apathetic and widely ignorant.
We have entered a new age. We are a new people. It is now the age of oneiric culture, the culture of dreams.
And we are the nation of dreams. We are seers. We are wizards. We speak in visions. Our letters are like flocks of doves, released from under our hats. We have only to stretch out our hand and desire, and what we wish for settles like a kerchief in our palm. We are a race of sorcerers, enchanters. We are Atlantis. We are the wizard-isle of Mu.
What we wish for, is ours.
(Anderson 2002, 149)
The term oneiric is interestingly chosen for the connotations it has towards lucid dreams, given that the feed seems to promote a state which challenges lucidity. Instead, the focus is on the present-tense, a sense of timelessness which negates the past and (more importantly) the future. The text establishes a utopian environment of free information and empowerment, uncovered as dystopic through Violet’s resistance of the feed. In a conversation with Titus, the author creates an analogy to the historical transition which has occurred, thinly veiled by Violet’s eccentric education.
You know Mayan?
They’re not in Mayan. They’re in Spanish. The feed’s translating them into English. I’m reading a spell to preserve dying cultures.
(Anderson 2002, 187)
Titus’ nonchalance, not only towards Violet’s cultural research, but also to the transition his own culture has undertaken, is typical of the character throughout. Anderson goes against the generic traditions by allowing Titus to be exposed to the catalyst which would ordinarily promote growth, and have him refuse to engage in the agency which change would require. To further exemplify the stagnancy of his dystopia, he also punishes Violet for her resistance where another novel would reward her. Here, growth is shown as an option towards a better life. Adolescent readers are still subjected to the ideological function of growth (despite Violet’s demise and Titus’ stubborn rejection) because of the way he is portrayed as a vacuous and emotionally limited character. Through a rejection of the reader-character relationship, the dystopic nature of the novel promotes growth as a rejection of negativity. Though it is certainly arguable whether Feed comes near to the extremes mentioned, Kay Sambell makes a case for the ideological manipulation which occurs in young adult fiction of a dystopic nature.
Post apocalyptic admonitory scenarios are rife, depicting horrifying visions of hostile societies that are shockingly indifferent to injustice, oppression, persecution and the suffering of the masses… the future is typically represented as a terrifying nightmare that child readers must strive to avoid at all costs…authors pull no punches in depicting brutally enforced inequality, horrifying violence and the systematic dismantling of individual rights in their future worlds… the dystopian form for children is used to make serious and daunting comment on where we are really going as a society and, worse, what we will be like when we get there. Its primary purpose is to puncture old myths and dreams, by proving, in the form of a literary experiment, what human aspirations and ideals are really likely to mean for the future of mankind. Above all, children’s dystopias seek to violently explode blind confidence in the myth that science and technology will bring about human ‘progress.’
(Sambell 2004, 247)
Furthering his point, Sambell later refers to one of the quintessential dystopic texts, George Orwell’s 1984, nothing that Orwell “unswervingly uses irony to show that this is not simply a case of the ‘weak’ Winston being unable to withstand the brute force of the powerful Party. Winston brings about his own tragic demise, because he is unable to see life in any other way than as a ‘heroic’ battle for power.”(2004, 249)
Seven-year old Arjie, in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy is similarly subjected to an external force which promotes a feeling of powerlessness, but unlike Feed, rather than being digital, the force is cultural. Arjie’s Sri Lankan background promotes a firmly patriarchal, and homophobic, system in which the young boy, experiencing early sensations of a homoerotic nature, is constantly restricted. While dealing with the period of pre-pubescence it is not possible for the author to show Arjie’s homosexuality through sexual action, and instead portrays him as a feminine cross-dresser, an inherently problematic stereotype. After dressing himself as the bride in childhood games, he is spotted by his family and the cultural system expresses itself in his father’s disapproval.
Her gaze finally came to rest on my father and for the first time I noticed that he was the only one not laughing. Seeing the way he kept his eyes fixed on his paper, I felt the heaviness in my stomach begin to push its way up my throat.
‘Ey, Chelva,” Cyril Uncle cried out jovially to my father, ‘looks like you have a funny one here.’
My father pretended he had not heard and, with an inclination of his head, indicated to Amma to get rid of me.
She waved her hand in my direction and I picked up the edges of my veil and fled back to the house.
(Selvadurai 1994, 14)
Unfortunately, it is not only his father who looks down upon his feminine antics.
Diggy smirked. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you remain Soyza’s friend, people will think you’re like him and you’ll become the laughing-stock of the whole school.’
(Selvadurai 1994, 232)
Though their expressions of power are different, all three authors show the way in which power struggles directly influence the potential for growth. All three demonstrate that the forces which hold them down can be overcome, and indicate that the elimination of such forces act as a catalyst for the agency, through which independent growth can occur.
Many novels in the adolescent fiction genre affirm notions of independence through discovered identity. In order to construct a relatable scenario, the character is given a journey which leads to resolution through their own discovery of self, whether it is a newfound inner desire for change or the realisation of individual influence. In fact, authoritative figures who might find solutions in real life are often removed as agents, delegated to absence or disinterest in order to allow the protagonists to find their own way. The notion of self-empowerment is perhaps the facet which most heavily deals with notions of power, agency and freedom, situating them within reach of both character and reader. Power is actuated through self interest, agency through the personal manipulation of one’s situation and freedom is expressed in its highest form, as something which begins with the self. In terms of the novel as an expression of functional ideology, this method is the most accessible for the young adult reader as it appears to transcend and overcome the limitations of sociological factors with little utilisation of any tools beyond the self.
In The Messenger, Ed finds the capacity for growth through a forced agency. Because he is constantly threatened with violence by an unknown orchestrator, he finds himself with no choice but to solve the problems given to him. As he watches a woman abused by her husband, he reflects on the nature of his agency.
He has sex with her and the bed cries out in pain. It creaks and wails and only I can hear it. Christ, it’s deafening. Why can’t the world hear? I ask myself. Within a few moments I ask it many times. Because it doesn’t care, I finally answer, and I know I’m right. It’s like I’ve been chosen. But chosen for what? I ask.
The answer’s quite simple:
(Zusak 2002, 44)
However, it is arguable whether individual growth arises from being forced to complete the tasks, or whether the reflection upon the tasks (situated squarely within Ed’s inquisitive personality) is what promotes the change.
Now, I’ve changed things. I’ve left my own fingerprints on the world, no matter how small…Maybe I truly am shedding the old Ed Kennedy, for this new person who’s full of purpose rather than incompetence. Maybe one morning I’ll wake up and step outside of myself, to look back at the old me, lying dead amongst the sheets.
(Zusak 2002, 250)
The self-reflexive nature of growth promotes an alliance between the protagonist and the reader, underlining that the ideal scenario which has played itself out can come to fruition in real life. Zusak engages with elements of metafiction to further drive home the point. By using the author as a character, he exposes the fictional nature of the piece, as a figment of imagination, thus making the emotional growth immediately tangible, as something that no longer occurs externally, but a transition which can be played out intellectually.
I recall the sensation of the town feeling painted around me, and of feeling invented. Is this happening?
It is, and the young man sits there rinsing his hand through his hair…
Eventually, I manage to speak again. ‘Am I real?’
He barely even thinks about it. He doesn’t need to. ‘Look in the folder,’ he says. ‘At the end. See it?’
In large scrawled letters on the blank side of a cardboard beer coaster, it’s written. His answer is written there in black ink. It says, ‘Of course you’re real – like any thought, or any story. It’s real when you’re in it…’
For a moment, I panic. It’s that feeling of falling when you know without question, that you’ve lose control of your car, or made a mistake that’s beyond repair.
‘What do I do now?’ I ask desperately. ‘Tell me! What do I do now?’
He remains calm.
He looks at me closely and says, ‘Keep living, Ed… It’s only the pages that stop here.’
Here we can see the intensity of ideological narrative, imploring the reader to find faults and change their lives. The demand can be an imposition, however, if encountering readers who feel as if they cannot control their situation (as shown above), or those who have no inclination towards individual agency. The first in a crescendo of agency is, of course, a lack thereof – expressed simply as apathy. Traditional expression would lead us to consider an apathetic character as one who is completely resilient to action and thus easily relegated from protagonist. However, this is not always the case. A character does not have to be holistically apathetic to engage with the difficulties which that inclination presents. There are moments in many narrative systems in which the protagonist has doubts of his own capacity for agency. Such doubts intensify the inevitable shift towards individual progression by providing a benchmark against which action can be compared. From the three novels chosen, M.T. Anderson’s deals with notions of apathy versus agency most interestingly by introducing a factor which forces and perpetuates the emotion. The feed from which the novel takes its name can be viewed in two ways: firstly, as a source of information, easily accessible and endlessly helpful, secondly, as an intrusive source of advertising which precludes free thought and perpetuates cultural solipsism and apathy towards education.
The same emotion is dealt with in Zusak’s The Messenger, but it is introduced in a different way. Rather than an unavoidable intrusion, apathy is introduced as a character flaw. Ed, through years of rejection, has come to see himself as somewhat of a loser, without the capacity for anything greater. Through a trained consciousness, he is completely convinced that he is destined to be a “nobody” forever. By being forced into action he finds release.
Funny Boy does not necessarily include a defined sense of apathy. The narrative arc is much wider, and though Arjie finds his identity, it is a slower progression that occurs through a series of catalytic experiences. Rather than being traditionally apathetic, he is unaware of the need for change. Though he knows that he is different, his sexuality is innate and therefore it is not a matter of becoming a different person, but finding a way to fit in and escape the oppression of his sexuality. He does this by focussing his efforts on other characters which encourage this lifestyle and the novel, yet again, shows a strong ideology in narration, glorifying those who accept Arjie (Amma, Radha Aunty and Shehan), and demonising those who do not.
I was ecstatic now, all my earlier disappointment forgotten. Things were working out better than I had anticipated. I never imagined that I would actually have a hand in deciding what the bridal party would look like. The most I had expected was to be allowed to view the wedding preparations without being chased away. Radha Aunty had turned out to be different from what I had expected, but better. She was definitely my favourite aunt.
(Selvadurai 1994, 52)
Arjie is empowered through the expression of his sexuality and this directly influences his capacity for growth. What could be seen as problematic for this self-expression is that the character, beginning at seven years old, cannot portray his sexuality through physical experience. Instead, the character is expressed as being feminine, and enjoying cross-dressing with make-up.
From my sling-bag I would bring out my most prized possession, an old white sari, slightly yellow with age, its border torn and missing most of its sequins. The dressing of the bride would now begin, and then, by the transfiguration I saw taking place in Janaki’s cracked full-length mirror – by the sari being wrapped around my body, the veil being pinned to my head, the rouge put on my cheeks, lipstick on my lips, kohl around my eyes – I was able to leave the constraints of myself and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self…I was an icon, a graceful, benevolent, perfect being upon whom the adoring eyes of the world rested.
(Selvadurai 1994, 4)
Given the stereotypes which exist around homosexuality today, this portrayal is problematic as it perpetuates a stereotype amongst adolescents which could be harmful. Lefebvre (2005) refers to the political implications associated with the presence and absence of homosexuality in adolescent fiction, showing dismay at the fact that “young male characters – when they exist at all – are largely confined to secondary roles that rely on clichés of effeminacy, passivity, and self-hatred.” (288) Although Funny Boy does not confine homosexuality to a secondary role, the character of Arjie is certainly quite effeminate and passive, the first stemming from a stereotype, and the second from a lack of understanding for his own sexuality and its elements. Lefebvre then goes on to discuss Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy and Brian Payton’s Hail Mary Corner, observing that “the homophobic attitudes of their protagonists are not directly challenged or problematized, and no alternative to categorical rejection is put forth.” (289) That said, the novel favours Arjie quite heavily throughout and thus the stereotype is, in a lot of ways, normalised by the text, which could preach acceptance if successful. Stereotypes aside, it is easy to see how the close relationship between the reader and a minority character can influence a reader’s perception of that minority in real life or, if they themselves belong to that minority, how they might begin to come to terms with their place in the world.
The nature of authenticity within adolescent fiction is also immediately problematic because of the dichotomy between author and reader, and mediated through character and narrative. Although the central characters (and, quite often, the narrators) are figures of adolescence, complete with youthful folly and a limited worldview, their creators are not. The author, with the awareness of multiple worldviews and a greater scope of human experience, writes in order to create the perception of an alliance between protagonist and reader, presenting a limited experience, constructed almost purely as the means to an end. Not only is this practice sociologically dubious in its heralding of one world view of another, it is done with a hindsight which includes a complete understanding of the adolescent journey. While Young Adult Fiction claims to align itself with the adolescent struggle towards achieving individual identity, it does so by creating a constructed field whereby characters play their part in achieving what is, in essence, an ideological utopia. Given that the adolescent reader does not, for the most part, have the experience required to dissect the unreliable nature of the text/reader relationship, the genre is problematic due to the irony of narrative function.
This irony is intrinsic to the same power play which plagues political systems worldwide, the fine line between story and ideology. Mike Cadden points out that there is an inherent irony to the narration of adolescent fiction.
While any novel is an ideal site for studying the different layers of narrative relationships, the young adult novel that features the consciousness of young characters is especially interesting because of the unique and ironic relationship between author and reader in this age-based genre. Novels constructed by adults to simulate an authentic adolescent’s voice are inherently ironic because the so-called adolescent voice is never and can never be truly authentic.
(Cadden 2000, 146)
Though it is possible to stop the exploration of the author-reader relationship at authenticity, the power-relationship which exists between the two must also be taken into account. Nikolajeva (2002) points out that the novel is constructed in a “dialogical tension between two unequal subjectivities”, that of the adult author and a child character. It must be noted that she doesn’t refer immediately to the power-relationship between adult author and adolescent reader, but I believe this connection is implied and equally problematic. Rather than situate the inequality as something which can be overcome, Nikolajeva sees the discrepancy as inevitable, and unavoidable. Given the different stages of life each inhabits, I agree. Though it is possible to diminish the impact of the relationship, there will always be a discrepancy purely based on life experience.
A children’s novel is constructed in a dialogical tension between two unequal subjectivities, an adult author and a child character…a general consensus about children’s literature seems to be that adult writers can easily recreate a child character’s mind, while logically it should be infinitely more difficult than to reflect the mind of another adult. This scepticism is based on the unequal power positions, in which the “oppressors” presumably have limited possibility to understand the mentality of the “oppressed.” Even though all adult writers have been children once, the profound difference in life experience as well as linguistic skills creates an inevitable discrepancy between the (adult) narrative voice and both the focalized child character’s and the young reader’s levels of comprehension.”
(Nikolajeva 2002, 173)
Literature is obviously an extremely vital part to a child’s education, whether at the young adult stage, or even earlier. However, as with anything intrinsic to education, its motives must be heavily analysed and speculated upon to promote awareness of the impact upon younger readers. It should be recognised that authors have an increasing level of responsibility for the children ‘in their care.’ As Cadden points out, “by recognising the limits of young adult consciousness in the text, the author ethically trades the visibility of irony at one narrative level for the irony at another.” The irony of authenticity in Young Adult Fiction is tied to issues of representing ideology.
When an adult writer speaks through a young adult’s consciousness to a young adult audience, he or she is involved in a top-down (or vertical) power relationship. It becomes important, then, that there be equal (or horizontal) power relations between the major characters within the text so that the young adult reader has the power to see the opposing ideologies at play.
(Cadden 2000, 146)
While Young Adult Fiction is defined as a genre which endorses a positive transition into adulthood through personal growth, a definition which it easily fulfils, the elements of narrative can function in other ways and perpetuate other myths as a consequence. For these three novels in particular, there is a danger of Ed’s growth in The Messenger being sidelined for a path of violence, of Arjie’s stereotypical effeminacy being seen as weakness within a masculine society and of Titus’ apathy being seen as an acceptable response to cultural transition which seems inevitable. The way these things are dealt with impacts their reception amongst readers. Similarly, ideology, in its inevitable projection through the dominant adult/subordinate reader power play, must be considered so that life is considered beyond Tamils, Luddites and Taxi Drivers, because although a piece of Young Adult Fiction walks a dangerous line favouring one worldview, readers must be made aware of the limited scope of literature so as to appreciate the freedom of contention and further education.
Anderson, M.T. 2002, Feed, Candlewick Press, Massachusetts
Cadden, M. 2000, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2000
Hunt, C. 1996, Young Adult Literature Evades the Theorists, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Vol. 21, No. 1,1996
Lefebvre, B. 2005, From Bad Boy to Dead Boy: Homophobia, Adolescent Problem Fiction, and Male Bodies that Matter, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 30, no. 3: 288-313
Nikolajeva, M. 2002, Imprints of the Mind: The Depiction of Consciousness in
Children’s Fiction, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2002
Sambell, K. 2004, Carnivalizing the Future: A New Approach to Theorizing Childhood and Adulthood in Science Fiction for Young Readers, The Lion and the Unicorn 28 (2004) 247-267, Johns Hopkins University Press
Selvadurai, S. 1994, Funny Boy, Vintage (Random House), London
Trites, R.S. 1998, Queer Discourse and the Young Adult Novel: Repression and Power in Gay Male Adolescent Literature, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3,1998
Zusak, M. 2002, The Messenger, Pan Macmillan, AustraliaTagged: academia, coursework, essay, feed, funny boy, literary theory, literature, m.t. anderson, marcus zusak, messenger, shyam selvadurai, Writing