Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 12 - Whatever tickles your fancy

So, in the past two months I read two different highly-acclaimed contemporary novels that both fall into a very specific category of book - the "Laconic, contemplative, and wise-beyond-his-years young boy" subgenre.

The first was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Its protagonist was nine-year old Oskar Schell, who lost his father in the World Trade Center during 9/11. The book is basically about the mission Oskar embarks on throughout New York to feel closer to his deceased father.

The second was Edisto by Padgett Powell. This one was about a twelve year old privileged white boy named Simons growing up in what is described as a pretty modest poor town with a population mostly of blacks. The book is about the boy's relationships with the people around him, and about examining his charmed existence within the town he inhabits.

Can I just say: I am ever so very tired of these types of books. Don't get me wrong - they were both "good reads," and "thought-provoking," and all that, but there's a few things that tend to be common amongst books of this type that rather irk me.

1. Where in the world do children like these actually exist? I just don't buy that behind every introverted young boy is an intellectual prodigy. These books don't read like they were imagined by children, even by mentally advanced children. They read like they were imagined by adults, which is why they are books for adults. I always just feel like they're trying to put one over on me when I read the perspectives of these ten-going-on-fifty year old kids. Have you read your diaries from when you were young? Did your innermost thoughts resemble these kids' sophisticated inner monologues at all? Mine sure as hell didn't, and I almost certainly thought I was super mature and smart at the time I wrote it.

I suppose it makes it more challenging as an adult author to try and pen your novel from the perspective of a child, but at this stage in the game, to me it just feels pretentious and dishonest. Kids aren't like this. End of story. If I really wanted to get inside the mind of a child, I'd go hang out at an elementary school. I know, maybe I'm missing the point with this one. After all, both of these two books that inspired this rant have received pretty stellar reviews across the board. So maybe this point by itself wouldn't bother me, but there are some more issues with this subgenre that also get to me.

2. Namely, the issue that, in the same way that women authors are routinely absent from best-of lists, young female protagonists are, apparently, not capable of conceiving poignant thoughts the way young boys are. In fact, generally speaking, the number of books with any female protagonist at all (much less a young one) that manages to graduate beyond pop-lit status to An Intellectual Novel Worth Reading is small, bordering on negligible. I guess these two books aren't particularly at fault for that. But they still eagerly fall in line into a canon of intellectual heavyweight novels that seem to be consistently by men and about men, while novels by women and/or about women tend to be considered For Women Only, like we're some kind of niche special interest group that the big boys can't be bothered to read about. I mean, they probably talk about periods and other gross stuff in those girl books - amirite?

It also tends to squick me that in these types of books, the young male protagonist usually at some point will have some kind of epiphany about Women. In the context of the story, told by a kid, these revelations are probably meant to be cute, or unusually observant. When you consider, though, that some of the opinions expressed are actually believed to be fact by lots, and lots, and lots of grown men worldwide, it becomes less funny. For instance, Simons of Edisto basically comes to the conclusion that all plump or chubby girls, lower class girls, and less-educated girls all have lower self esteem, and are more likely to be promiscuous - good news for him! Then you have the uber-enlightened Oskar, who in several instances during his travels around the boroughs of NY, is able to recognize sexism perpetuated by himself and by others. It's at this point that I refer you back to point #1: where on earth can you find a nine-year old boy that chides himself for his own sexism, unless that kid expressly grew up in a house with feminist parents that would point that kind of stuff out? I mean, good for the author for getting that kind of stuff out there in writing, but still. Suspense of disbelief.

And I know, all this is making it sound like I didn't enjoy these books. (That may actually be the case for Edisto, despite the promises made by the quote on the book jacket that it would evoke Salinger and Capote, and that it is actually better than Catcher in the Rye!) I guess I just feel that at this point, this kind of Wise Young Boy subgenre has become a cliche. Call me when people get themselves out of bed to buy this type of book about a girl, or when the kid in the book actually talks and writes like a kid. Neither situation, let me point out, requires dumbing-down of the story, particularly since a lot of kids do seem to have a knack for an enlightened understanding of adults; however, the way they express that understanding is, I feel, still leagues away from how adults pretending to be kids express it.


  1. Oh how you make me laugh. I totally agree with your entire post, especially:
    "1. Where in the world do children like these actually exist? I just don't buy that behind every introverted young boy is an intellectual prodigy."

  2. I think it is interesting that the few books with young female protagonists who become wise beyond their years tend to revolve around the girl being victimized (especially sexually) in order to develop this wisdom. For example: Lolita, White Oleander, The Color Purple. Remove the victimization and keep the female sexuality=wisdom idea and you get one of the themes in The Golden Compass series.

  3. That's a great point Marie! I'd argue that Lola Haze isn't the protagonist in Lolita, but still your idea stands. I do think that again, it points to the majority of books being written by men, and those men being either unwilling or unable to look at things from the perspective of a feeble lady brain. And of the books that are written by women, the theme of victimization comes up a lot because, surprise! many women do feel victimized by various elements of society.

    Thanks for getting my brain moving! :D