Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on the wheels. And they would say anything.
The things they said stripped away freedom to be what you wanted, reduced you to what it was they saw, and that, plainly, was enough to make them gag. My friend Naomi and I told each other, “Don’t let on you heard,” since we were too proud to cross streets to avoid them. Sometimes we would yell back, “Go and wash out your mouth in the cow trough, clean water’s too good for you!”
– “Changes and Ceremonies”, in Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women
Alice Munro is the most important writer in my life and that makes her hard to talk about. I’ve been trying to find the words since just before she won the Nobel Prize last year. They’ve been piling up in my hard drive, my inbox, in blog drafts and the Notes app on my phone.
Things came to a head when the recent debate about adults reading Young Adult (YA) fiction flared on the Internet. I had no sympathy for people who think YA unworthy of adult readers. But it was almost too easy to take up cudgels against literary snobs without acknowledging the strangeness of a world in which it’s all the rage for adults to read books explicitly not aimed at them.
In the ensuing squabble, I felt that other questions were barely touched.
What does it say about us, for good and ill, when a large number of adult readers turn to a genre defined by its position as adulthood’s other? Is it significant that in consumer societies, adolescence is idealized as youth, potential, and freedom from obligation?
Even when institutions seek to engage directly with the voices of young adults, there are elements of mediation and control. What would happen, I wonder, if at a teen-vote YA book awards, teens chose a book that publishers did not market to their age range? (When I asked this online, comics writer Neill Cameron tweeted an anecdote about a high school where kids voted for Fifty Shades of Grey as their favourite book. The teachers decided to “fix the results, like always.”)
I’m not a YA publishing expert but I do a fair amount of work with kids and teens. Two things troubled me as I read up on the current debate. One was personal: as soon as I reached high school, I couldn’t wait to get out of media aimed at me. I wanted the unregulated, unrecommended adult world of books and movies – whether that meant Armistead Maupin, Anthony Trollope, David Cronenberg, or Bret Easton Ellis. I can still see this happening today: a friend’s daughter has just turned thirteen and her favourite recent read was The Devil Wears Prada. Tweens attending our zombie battles out in rural Australia would confess to secretly watching Zombieland and other horror movies with their friends.
My other question was professional, but related. Increasingly, when working with teens, I wanted to recommend books that didn’t fit the pigeonholes. That might mean something respectable from the canon, like Northanger Abbey – another personal favourite, and a proto-YA novel if ever there was one – or something more sweary and explicit. (When I donated a copy of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Lost At Sea to the library of the high school I’d been working with in rural Australia, I had to have a discussion with the school librarian about the swearing).
This brought me round to Alice Munro and her 1971 collection, Lives of Girls and Women. A “fix-up” of short stories, the book follows the adolescence of clever misfit Del Jordan in 1940s rural Canada. It is typical of Munro in the way it captures the dark undercurrents of even the most mundane setting. As she puts it,
People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable – deep caves painted with kitchen linoleum.
I first read Lives at university, when I was eighteen or nineteen – right at the teetering brink of adulthood.
It was the Canadian instalment on our Postcolonial Literatures course, and it was a book that changed my life.
Lives is an unsentimental and meticulous portrayal of a teenager’s inner life. Reading it opened my eyes to girls’ experience of growing up. It also reminded me that rural, historical, domestic settings could be just as thick with feeling and threat as any other imagined landscape. Del’s choices, in particular the way she courts the dangerous attentions of a war veteran, and then an ex-con who has found Jesus, made me think about the troubling self-destructive nature of desire and curiosity, and the fact that not all girls are damsels in need of rescue. Del loses her virginity to the Baptist with the bad past, but then physically trounces him when he fights to mock-baptise her during a lovers’ tussle in the river.
Munro, as Del, writes:
[…] I felt amazement, not that I was fighting with Garnet but that anybody could have made such a mistake, to think he had real power over me. I was too amazed to be angry, I forgot to be frightened, it seemed to me impossible that he should not understand that all the powers I granted him were in play, that he himself was – in play, that I meant to keep him sewed up in his golden lover’s skin forever, even if five minutes before I had talked about marrying him […] I had never really wanted his secrets or his violence or himself taken out of the context of that peculiar and magical and, it seemed now, possibly fatal game.
As I read this, I still wasn’t out of my own teens. I was studying Erasmus and Renaissance literature at uni, going to modern dance class five nights a week, and trying to learn how to date. As I half-constructed my own identity out of some misread Shepherd Knight in dance tights and a leather jacket, Munro’s lessons were course corrections, blunt and honest.
Lives of Girls and Women, written forty years ago and set another thirty before that, is still resonant today. For all the distance we’ve put between ourselves and the 1940s, the opening passage of “Changes and Ceremonies”, quoted at the top of this blog, is not a world away from the ugly threats launched at women online. (You can imagine the country boys of Munro’s wartime Ontario reinvented as #GamerGate creeps). And when Del’s mother advises her, in the wake of World War II, to prepare for a change in the lives of girls and women, one which frees them from patriarchy, it reminds us that the fight for women’s freedom is far from over in 2014.
This was why Munro came back to me as I got up to speed on current debates about literature and adolescence. I realized that Lives of Girls and Women had been my teen novel. It had been the literature which both challenged and comforted me as I moved to London and left my teens behind. It forced me to reflect on what I’d felt growing up, but also the experiences of people I would never be, from times and places I would never know. The book deals with adolescence from the adolescent’s point of view. It is honest, bluntly and powerfully so, about the dark and ambiguous side of life. Yet this has not been thought of as “YA” or “NA”. It is “grown-up” writing, conferred with the prestige of the Nobel.
And I find myself asking, Why shouldn’t it be YA? Munro herself, despite reaching the highest literary pedestal, has never been prone to genre shaming. Librarian and romance fiction specialist Vassiliki Veros pointed this out to me on a visit to Sydney, and kindly provided me with a reference from Canada’s Globe and Mail:
I met Alice Munro when I was a student at Western and she was the Writer in Residence. She was always happy to chat with students. At a reception, I asked why she was carrying a Harlequin romance. She said she did it to get reactions from stuck up literary types, plus she really did like reading them and then she started laughing. I have liked her ever since.
The more I thought about it, the more the question burned: what would happen if you took Lives of Girls and Women and marketed Alice Munro as a YA or NA author?
At first I was nervous even to suggest this. The book presents Del’s sexuality unabashedly. The war veteran who gropes her is an abuser, and the way she allows his attention out of an unsentimental curiosity is pretty challenging. I wasn’t sure that this was the kind of stuff I wanted to be cheerleading here on my little corner of the Internet, alongside the zombie games and interactive stories I run. But it’s precisely that honesty, that unflinching treatment of complicated feelings, plus Del’s own strength and agency in her story, which makes the book so compelling. These are the characteristics of great YA fiction, as well as capital-L literature.
I was really excited when, researching this post, I found TV footage of Munro from 1979. In it, she responds to high school boards which had banned Lives of Girls and Women. Here she was, taking a stand over precisely this book, for precisely this age range!
The current YA debate troubles me when we forget that adolescence and adulthood are both social constructs, that they have a history. We must live real lives within these constructs, and suffer the consequences, but they are not set in stone. Munro’s book, up there on the Nobel podium, is not a world away from the YA of 2014. By virtue of both its own age and its unromantic period setting, it shocks us and reminds us that coming-of-age has its own history, rich and unsettling.
Maybe one day, some brave publisher will repackage Lives of Girls and Women as an edgy teen paperback. Perhaps adult readers will pick it off the shelf, despite its new home in a “youth” publishing category.
And then where will the literary snobs be?