Every now and again a new literary genre comes forth. It is typically an amalgamation of other genres. Or at least, you can find traces of other genres in the recipe. This new genre fits the time period. It fits with what of historical importance is going on in mainstream society. Stories have been written about teenaged characters for a long time. The old Gothic stories were frequently about young women. That trend continues today. You see younger characters featured in television shows and writers, I suspect, often write mindful that if their story were ever made into a movie, the hero or heroine would be skewed to a more youthful age to grasp the attention of the younger people who drive so much of our current economy. And, if the writer does not choose to make his character young or beautiful, the director will possibly make these changes to increase the appeal. As a society, we are a bit prejudiced against those individuals whose looks are seen as less desirable.
With these, and a number of other specific qualities, you get the genre aptly titled genre of “Teen Lit.” While stories have been written for decades and centuries about younger characters, teen-targeted literature is very popular these days. It has become so popular in fact that it has not only spawned a new “genre”, but also a new section at most bookstores. I remember being a little disoriented the day I walked in a saw a wall of angst-ridden literature with its own shiny sign and corner of the store. Existing somewhere between Young Adult (YA) and regular adult literature, Teen Lit is—theoretically—meant for older teens who aren’t quite ready for regular literature. But in reality, adults and kids alike indulge in this lucrative facet of book publishing.
These stories are appealing to multiple generations, despite their typical lack of a robust vocabulary, because they are in a lot of ways escapist fiction. While these types of stories are a fun way to get away from reality, the more recent stories that make up this genre are in fact rather formulaic. And, while it pains me to a certain extent to draw this connection, the formula of many teen lit stories happen to follow some of the key characteristics of a traditional Gothic novel. While you can trace individual teen lit texts back to the days of S.E. Hinton and Madeline L’Engle and beyond, we will mainly focus on stories published within the last 10-15 years because they influence the genre the most.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read some of the books I reference in this post, I do discuss major plot points or situations that influence the character. You’ve been warned.)
Mending the Broken Family
The traditional Gothic novel is centered around the triangular family dynamic. There is a mother, a father and a daughter. The story begins when this dynamic is interrupted. Either the parents have died and the daughter lives with a lecherous (or money hungry) uncle, the father has married an evil step-mother, or something of that nature. The goal of the Gothic heroine is to reestablish this family dynamic and the story cannot end until she has done so. This can happen in a number of ways. Typically she gets married and embraces the role of daughter to her parents-in-law and never takes on the role of “wife.”
Many teen lit stories today begin with a similar broken family dynamic which resembles the traditional Gothic novel. Harry Potter (which skews a bit younger than teen lit in the beginning) is living with his unkind Aunt and Uncle who make him live in a broom closet. Bella Swan’s move to Forks is the product of her parents divorce and her mother’s subsequent remarrying. Clary of The Mortal Instruments series is the daughter of a single mother who believes her father died in a fire. Subsequently, throughout the books, she is orphaned and lives with her mother’s boyfriend. John, the teenager in the I am Number 4 books is more or less orphaned three times over. His entire planet has been destroyed, he lost his parents, and eventually, through the course of the books, he loses his Cepan or guardian too. Percy Jackson has never met his father who is the god, Poseidon. He also loses his mother for a time to Hades. Jumping back in time a bit, if you’ve ever read Madeline’ L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you will recall that the Murray children have lost their father and the initial purpose of the journey that Meg and Charles Wallace take is to find him and bring him back.
I cannot talk at length about the ending of most of the series’ listed above because the stories are still being written. But, Harry Potter establishes a new order for himself. The story is based around friendship to be sure. But along the way, we watch Harry create other surrogate parent-child relationships. There’s Hagrid (arguable), Dumbledore, Sirius Black, and the Weasley parents. Eventually, friendship is what steadies him and it is through friendship that he has the courage to overcome his enemy, avenge his parents and save all of Wizardom. Meg and Charles Wallace do successfully save their father and return to earth with him, effectively reestablishing their family dynamic. Percy Jackson rescues his mother and gets to meet his father which alleviates some of the tension and his anxiety (I never read beyond book 1 so I don’t know what the other stories involve).
While you can see how the broken family serves as both a bookend and a catalyst to many of the stories in this genre, the concept serves another purpose for the modern reader and writer. It affords the main character the freedom to make his or her own decisions, to go off on an adventure. This is where the appeal of escapism comes in. If a parent were present, they likely would not allow their teenager to go cavorting around the country battling FBI agents and dangerous aliens or monsters from Greek mythology. But, with the parents cast to the side, the hero or heroine has the authority of an adult without actually being an adult. This independence is appealing to younger readers because of their desire for independence. It is appealing to older readers because it reminds them of carefree days when they were independent of responsibility.
The Innocent Relationship
As I mentioned above, the traditional relationship between the Gothic heroine and her future husband is very innocent. It is so innocent in fact, that she is never written into the role of wife. Though she marries, she remains a daughter figure. And while this is really creepy on many levels, it is simply a product of the time period in which it was written. And it actually relates to the way that relationships are portrayed in Teen Lit.
Most Teen Lit stories do not end in marriage. Given the age of most of the characters and the trend in modern America to marry later than our parents, it would not make sense for these stories to end in matrimony. While there are people who do meet their future spouse in high school, this is certainly not the norm. Reflective of societal tendencies, it is more common that the relationships or at least the affections that the hero or heroine have for their partners in crime may be solidified by the struggles they have faced (Percy Jackson Book 1). If they were to marry, this would potentially create a disconnect which could hinder the ability of the reader to connect with the characters and the story. And that would mean fewer dollar signs for everyone involved.
Of course, there are exceptions. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tells us at the end who marries who and even she has recently expressed regret for some of her choices. But I think she married off her main characters more to keep people from writing fan fiction than to challenge the norm. Katniss Everdeen ends up marrying her fellow Hunger Games survivor from District 12, Peeta. The other exception (at this point in time) is the Twilight novels. The relationships in those books are juvenile to the extreme, and yet they end in marriage.
Rather than ending in marriage, it is more likely that the characters may have shared a kiss or two. Even teenagers need some romance sprinkled into their stories. Some of the bolder stories depict the characters sharing a bed and maybe making out (I am Number 4) and Twilight drafts the details of at least one sexual encounter between human and vampire. Despite these exceptions, the relationships overall in Teen Lit remain on a rather surface level.
The Reluctant and Uneducated Hero(ine)
The heroine of a Gothic novel is pretty green. She knows little of life, much of loss and little of danger. She is often threatened by danger, but is never actually placed in any peril. This is a mark of the genre and the time period from which the genre comes.
A very common trait of Teen Lit is the uneducated or unaware (and thereby typically reluctant) hero or heroine. Harry Potter knew nothing of the wizarding world before he received his acceptance letter to Hogwarts. Clary knows nothing of demons and Shadowhunters before her initial encounter with Jace at the club. With these examples, it would seem that the characters begin as weaklings. They are fearful. But who wouldn’t be fearful of the unknown? Who wouldn’t be afraid of learning that the world worked completely differently than you had believed for the previous years of your life.
Modern readers are not very accepting of weak female lead characters, so it’s up to the writer to bring these characters to action before too many pages expire. I know that I personally enjoy stories where the women are women of strength and do not spend their time weeping at their misfortune like the traditional Gothic heroine would. Clary becomes more confident as time goes on as required. The exception to this rule would be Katniss Everdeen. She sees everything plainly and plays the game to the best of her ability the whole way through. Her prize for this is her survival.
The Love Triangle
Every girl fantasizes about being in a love triangle, right? Well, maybe not. But with the way love triangles pop up in Teen Lit, you’d certainly think so. This is another trait that Teen Lit shares with Gothic literature. Typically in a Gothic novel, there will be two men who are interested in the heroine. Usually one of them is evil and the other a hero. The heroine ends up with the better of the two men because she is pure and innocent and the hero saves her every time she finds herself in a corner.
Teen Lit has taken this tradition and elevated the tension by creating situations where both men are desirable in their own way and the heroine is left to choose between the two. The modern mindset inspires her ability to choose her partner and also (usually but not always) expresses her independence and her ability to be self-sufficient. She doesn’t wait around for someone to come save her.
The love triangle plays a second significant role in this genre. It serves as another way for writers to create tension. This sort of tension can be taken out of the pages of the novel and into conversation, social media, and other realms of the Internet. Think of Katniss Everdeen. Some people wanted her to end up with Gale while others agreed with the author’s decision to have her wind up with Peeta. The Twilight novels do the same thing. But honestly, my favorite love triangle is the one from The Mortal Instruments. Cassandra Clare has really hearkened back to the Gothic era with her love triangle. Clary is involved with her best friend but in love with the boy who appears to be her brother—though she fell in love with him before she knew they were blood relatives. I’m very curious to see how she writes herself out of this little corner and she has successfully made a trite concept intriguing again.
I love exploring the origins of a genre and that is one of the main reasons why I studied Gothic literature in graduate school and why you are reading this post today. As you can see, the Gothic genre comes through in the modern genre of Teen Lit in a number of ways. The influence of Gothic literature on Teen Lit may be attributed to the tendency of Teen Lit to depict dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories. The Gothic genre has a great deal of influence on both of those types of stories too and many of the trademarks of the genre allow modern writers to tell stories that take place in a world that the reader can recognize and relate to, but only to a certain extent. This allows for the escapism factor that is one reason for the popularity of so many stories in the realm of Teen Lit.
What stories have you read of this genre? Why do you read them? What do you like about them? Please share your thoughts!