There’s something obviously shameful about being an actual adult who reads fantasy fiction pitched at a young adult audience: they’re books about teenagers, for chrissakes, people who still live with their parents, and are fighting vampires or werewolves, or turning into vampires or werewolves. The idea that I’ll ever be a teenager again, beset by the woes of puberty and AP Calc and my own crushing virginity, is as ridiculous as the assertion that there really might be supernatural creatures among us, guys, there really might be. And yet these are some of my favorite books, and I think they are not only super fun but actually really important—something to be proud of, even.
I’ll admit, though, that I make that assertion less based on their specific content than on how they tell their stories, as a genre. YA fantasy spins yarn fast and furious, the narrative all muscle, building world and plot in every sentence. The same two hundred-odd pages that a literary novel needs to do its work are here pulling double duty: we need to meet characters and follow a plot arc while we slide into an unfamiliar world, learn its rules and myths. Because of the tightness of craft this requires, the rules themselves often double up as well: if those vampires, it turns out, fake flying by riding around on enchanted motorcycles in Act I, you can bet that our human heroine will be cruising over the Hudson on a stolen bike by Act III (hi, City of Bones!) Close attention to detail is rewarded; payoff, when it comes, is not just satisfying but smart.
I was thinking of this, particularly, on a recent Saturday morning, walking to brunch with a friend. We were arguing, as we usually are, about a plot point from a movie we’d just seen; I found it romantic in a silly way, self-indulgent and soft and entirely unrealistic, from an emotional as well as practical point of view. My friend disagreed: “when you see your life as a narrative,” she said, “you look for symbolic moments, things you can do that will free you, or change you, in a big and complete way. That’s what that was: it’s the movie-makers using symbol to shorten the story.”
I disagreed violently, with her then and with the point as a whole: that’s not storytelling, that’s fairy stuff, fantasy as daydream, not genre. Sure, we tell ourselves this kind of thing: that there are discrete turning points, that we are archetypes, that we can make gestures, particularly romantic, that affect only ourselves. But it doesn’t work in life, and we shouldn’t let it work in movies. That’s what I like about YA: it gives the lie to all of that nonsense. In those stories, when then they’re done well, everything is so tightly woven that every action has its widening effect, that familiar outward ripple: you can’t trace a broad arc so much as follow its intricate weave, the thousands of little bits it takes before the story takes recognizable shape. (It is also the principle behind How I Met Your Mother, but for the purposes of this discussion that’s neither here nor there.)
So far all of YA’s swooning heroines, its love-at-first-sight and can’t-live-without-you actual romantic silliness, it teaches other important lessons, insisting on close reading, on consequences, on the import of detail. It teaches us that symbol is nice but that is moves nothing forward; that to get something done you have to study the circumstances and then manipulate them deftly, advancing your own plot. The content may be disputable but the mechanics are there, asking us to pay attention to how the world works as well as where it’s going.
Which brings me to my real beef, which is with Young Adult, the movie. I went to see it Saturday and walked out of the theater furious: I mean truly livid, in a silent, frothing rage. M and I went to Grand Sichuan for soup dumplings and stared at one another for a good fifteen or twenty dumbfounded minutes, interrupted only by one of us saying “that was so bad” and the other saying “SO BAD” and then more white-lipped silence. Anyway: I’ve calmed down pretty significantly since then.
A lot of that has been reading interviews with Diablo Cody, who at least seems to know that Mavis Garrity, her heroine, is the least likeable character I’ve seen on-screen since… well, since Greenberg—and she’s inviting that comparison. I’ll buy that my hatred of Mavis per se is written into the script; I’ll even buy that it’s an interesting exercise to force audiences to confront a wholly unlikable female protagonist, the schizo rom-com equivalent to Apatow’s man-boys.
What Cody doesn’t do is give Mavis a story. Without a story, Young Adult is a horrorshow, no better than the reality television that plays quietly in the background of its scenes: look at this trainwreck, look at this fuck up, look at our fucked up culture. It pitilessness is particularly hard to take if you buy (as I also do!) that Mavis is not just a victim of culture but genuinely mentally ill; that Cody would stand her up as a figure to be despised and ridiculous, made a figure of fun for ninety minutes on the big big screen, is nothing short of brutal. It teaches us nothing except that you can be clever and cruel at the same time.
I’m not asking for a happy ending; I don’t want Mavis cured and cheerful at the film’s finale, shacked up with Hate Crimes Matt or working on the great American novel as a sign of her success. But I think a narrative with no closure, no moral, no sense of progress of any kind, is ultimately a failure. Cody, and Charlize Theron in her performance, describe squalor and misery in vivid and distinct detail: all of that energy lavished on outlining the problem, and they never even gesture at a solution.
(I might have forgiven them this if the movie had been even a little bit funny.)
Mavis is a writer of young adult novels, thought not the kind I’ve been talking about here: they are shlocky ghostwritten Gossip Girl ripoffs, an excuse for her to exorcise her demons, eavesdrop on teenage girls and lift their lines for dialogue. She translates her world into her fiction: Cody does the same. The point of good fiction, as far as I can tell, is that it transforms the world, and the reader along with it—tests boundaries, all that good stuff: at least makes you think hard along with it, tracing out the way cause and effect work on one another in a universe less complex than ours but still far from simple. You don’t have to do it as literally as genre fantasy does, but you do have to try: simply transcribing, no matter how keenly, isn’t art. Cody’s picked an interesting subject, I’ll give her that, but she’s failed it completely, the idea of exposing romantic comedies’ insane exaggerations failed by a lack of basic storytelling skills, an inability to weave plot, to imagine consequence, to let her characters relate and change. Even the simplest young adult novel knows how to do that. .