21 May 2009

Sex and the Teen Reader

I've been thinking a lot about sex in teen literature lately. I know it's going to be an important issue in my WIP, because of who some of the characters are. And so, like I do with most of my writing problems/concerns/difficulties, I turn back to my own reading.

Sex, not crushes, not romance, began showing up in my own reading when I was twelve or thirteen. I was a huge science fiction fan, and my middle school library happily supplied me with the work of the Golden Age masters. The library had the complete set (and in some cases, first printing) of the Heinlein juveniles. Not to mention a healthy selection of works by Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert. The year was 1994 and most of the books hadn't been checked out (there were those little paper cards in the back) since the mid '80's. The books weren't popular and had only been read by boys, and had clearly not gone through any sort of adult selection or verification process.

You sometimes hear stories of girls quietly passing copies of Forever or Flowers in the Attic among them, reading the "good parts." The boys of my middle school were not so altruistic. The books were read and then returned. You would never have guessed that there was sex between the pages of Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive or Heinlein's Friday (which is NOT one of his juvies, but was shelved with them anyway). There were no clues.

Besides the above mentioned books, the big source of literary sex in my life was my best friend who lived within walking distance of the county library. She checked out a string of romance novels (primarily historic - there's no accounting for taste) and would loan them to me. After a few months, she realized there was no need to read the entire book: the first sex scene would show up about 100 pages in, and something steamy would happen every 30 pages or so after that. This was my first lesson in structure as genre requirement. But these books were contained not only florid prose, but also vanilla sex and gender stereotypes. They were not the truly weird sex of the sci-fi shelves.

In Hellstrom's Hive (which I haven't read since middle school, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in the plot summary) for example, a wacky religious cult in the midwest is secretly the front for breeding experiments that treat human beings (and parts of them) like insects. Sex in this book is not all dreamy and romantic. It's horrifically procreative. Aside from an insane orgy scene (I had no idea what an orgy was at 13), the best (or strangest, depending on your pov) sex in the book is when a hive vixen show up at the FBI agent's hotel room, shoots him full of drugs and has sex with him until he dies. Something about eliminating a threat while obtaining new genetic material. It's a sex horror story, trading on the fear of procreation run amok and lust twisted to evil purposes. Also, it's an AWESOME book for teen girls: this time around sex kills men, and the supposed "goal" of healthy adult sex (procreation) is evilly manipulated by a crazy religious group. Can we pass copies of this out?

The other sci-fi book that shocked me with the strangeness of its portrayal of sex was Friday. Robert Heinlein is known for his all sorts of craziness sex book Stranger in a Strange Land (and also going off the deep end into bizarre racial relation in Farnham's Freehold). In Heinlein's books he argues for sexual liberation, for bi-sexual and homo-sexuality, group living including partner swapping, and in one truly weird section of one weird book for genetic incest (breeding together the world's two greatest math geniuses, a father / daughter pair: they don't actually have sex, it's handled in a petri-dish with a super computer there to fix any dangerously recessive traits, but still!) But these are in his adult novels. His juvenile books are mostly rocket clubs and slower than light travel problems.

But in Heinlein's adult book Friday (as in 'his girl'), super spy / super warrior Friday starts off the book getting caught and gang raped. Shocking yes, but even more so was Friday's understanding of her captors: they were trying to torture her and she pretended to like it. This unnerved one of the bad guys enough that he couldn't finish the job, and Friday ended the next chapter by literally taking the bad guys apart. Barehanded. She has a lesbian tryst, and a run in with some Australians living in a really workaday free love commune (the people with jobs go off to work everyday, while the others stay home and raise the kids and get dinner on the table). Friday saves her moment of emotional breakdown not for her gang rape, but for her betrayal by her commander. She treats sex as a weapon, as enjoyment, and as a way to pass the time. It's a complex series of looks at a complex issue.

Should I have been reading these "adult" books as a kid? Maybe not. But as a way to explore sex and it's related issues, it's got a pretty low incidence of STDs. Considering my own history with sex in books makes me feel more comfortable tackling a more complex and nuanced view of sex in a teen book. Clearly teens are capable of understanding an exploration of difficult topic. I know my characters will be engaging in difficult issues, and sex will have to be one of them. But I'm pretty sure teens can handle it.

18 May 2009

Ending It All: How Neil Gaiman Wraps Up His Books

Last fall I re-read all of Neil Gaiman's YA books (and a few of his comics) in a period of about a week and a half so I could write an essay about his use of poetry. This was a pretty enjoyable experience, and it lead me to notice some similarities to Neil's* books that I hadn't before. My boyfriend has pointed out on several occasions that Neil's plots tend to the Alice structure, and while I'll cover that, I noticed something quite different: it was the ends of his books that felt similar. (Note: since I'm talking about the END of books, there are SPOILERS AHEAD. Especially American Gods.)

Alice (both in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) is the basic structure of modern fantasy: There is the normal world over here and over there (through this door/wardrobe/wall/sewer system/ancient Egyptian temple/train platform/Stargate/bathysphere/time machine/or red pill) is what is decidedly not normal. Now I call this the Alice structure, even though Journey to the Center of the Earth was published the year before (1864), and could certainly qualify as being the ur-structure. Partly, this is because Alice rocks while Liedenbrock annoys me, but mostly because I don't like mushrooms. (Also, Alice ends up where she starts, while Liedenbrock and Co. end up in Italy - this point will actually matter in a minute.)

Neil's books deal in this quite often. Even Sandman, the graphic novel for which I'd say all comparison bets are off, has a number of characters who go from normalville to the land of dreaming where they have adventures. Occasionally the stories move the other way, with dreams in reality, while our primary protagonist Morpheus doesn't do a lot of traveling, but there you are: part of the 2,000+ pages are Alice-y. Neverwhere is absolutely Alice (with a character named Door and everything), as is Stardust, Coraline, Mirrormask, Odd and the Frost Giants, Interworld and the end of Anansi Boys. American Gods is a bit more complex, but I think it's fair to say that Shadow does enter the world of the not normal, even though he might have been in it all along.

So what? Heroes have been going out and having adventures and coming back since the beginning of time (literally: see The Odyssey). But here's the thing: Od and the rest of his trireme crew knew there were gods and monsters all throughout the world and that going out might mean meeting them, but no more than staying home might (Here's where I point out the Helen of Troy, Zeus's daughter, was the first cousin to Penelope, Odysseus' wife. The gods were everywhere.) Alice (and Coraline and Tristran and Odd and Richard Mayhew and Helena and Joey and well you get the idea) doesn't know that there is another world or that it is strange or that she could get there. In the end Alice returns home all safe and sound, with the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts (please do not get them confused) if not outright defeated, then certainly thwarted. Thus it is in Neil's novels. Except ... the ending never quite works that way.

Neil's characters often do go home. But maybe not for long, or not to stay, or maybe not home safe. This particular structure of ending a book is one reason Neil's novels never quite translate to film: movies like smash bang endings, and maybe a coda that involves a beach, a kiss and a wisecrack, but doesn't take more than 120 seconds. Or possibly the hero stalking away from a pile of rubble while wearing sunglasses. No, Neil takes his ending cues from the books that created the world's most drawn out film endings (and they still left out everything with Boromir those kiwi bastards!): Lord of The Rings. Yep, Neil starts of all Alice, but ends all There and Back Again.

The structure of LotR is as follows: Some friends are drawn out of their small safe world, into a large scary world, where they have many adventures and learn a lot. They are ultimately successful and rewarded justly for their troubles (this, is by the way, where Star Wars ends.)(The original.). But now, newly successful, more competent and better armed they triumphantly return home (this is where The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe throws it all out the window and goes back to Alice). But they aren't the only ones who have changed. Home is no longer safe and they must use their new skills to return their home to it's former glory (here is where Neil ends some, not all, of his books). Except, one of the friends is now so changed from his adventures (what they called nostalgia after the Civil War, shell-shock after WWI and PTSD today) he CANNOT stay home. So he leaves.

How does Neil use this structure for his endings? Well, he doesn't always. Mirrormask is straight up Alice ending, with return and the possibility it was all a dream. And Odd ends not long after the triumphant return.

Neil's more likely to just pull the final return to fantasy without bringing evil into the domestic sphere. In Neverwhere no evil follows Richard home (to his Alice-y reassembled life) but he has been changed, and must go back. Tristran doesn't bring any evil back from Faerie (though he nearly kills his girlfriend on accident), but he can't remain in Wall either. Joey returns home in the middle of Interworld, but leaves again (his adventures saving people after his return to fantasy get much more detail than Tristran or Richard's).

Coraline brings evil back with her in the form of the Other Mother's hand which escapes into the real world and must be vanquished (in the book Coraline plans and plots for several days, in the movie it has to be done that night, which means no planning, just brute force. Filmmakers: this is why all the ladies were mad at you for having her saved by a boy. Because you don't understand structure.). More strangely, in the picture book, The Wolves in the Walls Neil skips the whole Alice beginning, in favor of the end LotR: the wolves come out of the walls, bringing fantasy evil into the domestic sphere, that the family must then overcome without the benefit of prior adventures (but with the Queen of Melanesia, so I guess that evens out).

But it is Shadow, who has the most complicated (least Alice) of the entries into the over-there-weird-fantasy-ness, who has the most LoTR-like exit. After the battle between ye Olde Gods and the Newer Shinier American versions, Shadow returns to his "hideout"; the city of Lakeside. Lakeside is already known to the readers as a perfect Midwestern small town. Great pie, wacky old men telling folktales, and free of the economic collapse that has attached itself to the rest of the state. Upon his return Shadow encounters the most domestic of folklore creatures: a kobold, or house spirit (Germanic). Kobolds are often associated with a single residence, though they sometimes attach themselves to the people of the household. They do chores, if left little offerings of food, but also play tricks: everything from hiding things to killing and dismembering people and throwing them in the cooking pot (they're German, okay?). Though they often appear as little old men (say 2 feet tall) they also reveal themselves as murdered children. In American Gods it turns out Lakeside's kobold is a truly domestic terror: a murdered child, who takes as his offerings other children.

Unlike LotR, where the bad guys in the Shire are lead by an enemy already faced and defeated (Saruman and his thugs), this is not an evil that Shadow brings back with him from his adventures. Rather, much like the entire world of the gods, it is something that existed before and whether or not he knew about it. Only with his new knowledge obtained from the gods is Shadow able to take care of this domestic evil. But in the end, like Frodo, Shadow is driven to distant shores to sort out what has happened to him (we see him in Iceland, then in another story, in Scotland). So here is Shadow: There and Back Again, only to find Back Again no good and ending up in search of another There.

The good writers borrow. The best writers steal. And what could be better than poor little Alice, not waking up to her sister's lessons, but returning as the knight errant ready to sweep away whatever evil lurks behind the lace pinafores and Victorian mores? And who could blame her if she went back again?

*Yes, I know it's presumptively familiar. Did you see my last post? I stalk the man! I read his blog! I know the name of his pets and children! I've had three different guys buy me Neil Gaiman books as tokens of affection! If I can't call him Neil, I really don't know who can.

03 May 2009

What Neil Said

So as a long time stalker* of Neil Gaiman, I arranged my life so I could see him at BOTH of his New York City events this week. He was in town for two PEN events, one on children's writing, and one on comics (which strayed rather to his writing as a whole). Neil is always gracious and funny and usually manages to say something new each time I hear him speak (aside from what I'm about to post, these times I learned how he feels children read in an unmediated way, that he cannot 'take holiday' because he just writes and he confirmed something I'd always believed about his writing career, but blamed it on his Duran Duran book, when I had figured the BBC as the culprit).

Someone at the comics panel asked if there was any particular process Neil used to create his characters, particularly his villains. Well, I pricked my ears because Neil's bad guys are legendary, and my WIP is in desperate need of my "boss" villain (in video game parlance).

Neil's response (and I am paraphrasing here) was that he always made sure that all of his characters were "people you'd want to spend time with at a cocktail party, even if it was just watching and saying 'oh my god, I can't believe he just did that!'" And then he told the anecdote of the first book he'd never finished, written by a popular and very good writer (who he refused to name). He'd gotten about halfway through the novel and realized he'd never want to know any of the characters socially, and put down the book.

So would I spend any time with the characters in my current WIP? As a matter of fact I would. And I'm deathly afraid of cocktail parties.

*How do you know if someone's a Neil Gaiman stalker? Well Neil's fans are dreadfully nice, so they'll probably just tell you.

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