Is YA in its Modernist or Post-Modernist Phase?

Let me start by saying that there is a lot I want to say a lot about this book, because I really loved it. Not only because it is was well conceived, written, and laugh out loud hilarious, but because Bray has done something really brilliant and brave with this book.  I think it would take more than one blog post to really talk about it, plus, I wish to really review it when it comes out in May. 
For today, I’m just going to talk about its place in the YA canon. That is right, I used the word “canon,” like if I was writing some kind of literary theory paper on the history of YA. Part of me wants to do this because I’m interested in how things evolve, how our stories evolve. 
A few weeks ago, I finished reading and ARC of  Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens and wrote a brief remark on Goodreads review that went something like: “James Joyce was going to write a Teen book, it might look something like this.”
From what I’ve studied in children’s lit and YA, I would suggest that we are in a very definite phase in the history of the genre. This list is NOT comprehensive to say the least. I’m just providing examples off the the top of my head… 
We could reach further back and look at children’s morality tales of the Middle Ages. We could go back to the classics such as Heidi, Little Women, The Wizard of Oz, or The Secret Garden Then, move on to Anne of Green Gables and Little House Series, and Nancy Drew
Or, we could jump to the 1960s, 1970s, and the 1980s and talk about “modern classics” such as  Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Go Ask Alice, The Outsiders or, maybe something as silly as the Sweet Valley High Series (which of late is having a resurgence.) The 1990s and the early part of this century gave us, The Truth About Forever, Airborn, The Book Thief and Speak…I could go on. 
In the last five years, perhaps because of a certain boy wizard, we have seen this genre explode in so many directions that one could probably look at the specific genres in YA lit and trace that back. I haven’t even really cracked the history code of the history of YA lit. 
The point that I’m trying to make, here, is that there is complex history of children’s lit that I think has been vastly ignored, mostly because the genre itself hasn’t been taken seriously. wrote an excellent blog post asking the question: Can YA Lit Lovers Be Called Postmodern Readers? which I invite you to read for she’s oh so smart.  I’m taking the question in a different question by asking: Is YA lit in a Modernist or Post-modernist phase? 
Now, back to my comment about Bray’s Beauty Queens reminding of James Joyce. I have no idea how Bray would feel about me comparing her new brilliant post-modern/modern/meta-fiction (?) novel about what happens when a group of beauty queen contestants are marooned on a remote island, to Mr. Joyce, but, hopefully she’ll think that its sort of cool. I know that it might be just wrong, but I cannot help myself.  This blog post has been swimming around in my head for weeks and I need to let it float out there in the internet so that I can move on with my life.
So, I am asking you to please humour me. 
Much of what I’m writing here is based on what I remember from studying the Modernists in second year undergrad and the James Joyce course that I took in fourth year.  In her acknowledgments, Bray mentions Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (which according to my professor was the first book of the Modernist period and I had to read it like four times that year which made me really loathe this book, but that is another story.) It would seem that we could conceivably connect it back…

Okay, so Modernists thought that it was important to know your literature, so, when they wrote their novels, short stories or poems, there were all of these literary references to great works that if you knew your lit you would get. If you didn’t well, then you didn’t and weren’t smart enough…which is where post-modernists get involved and say that the modernists were a bunch of snobs. (Please see Melissa’s excellent post for further details.)
But, it is this part, the literary references, that I think is interesting because most YA authors do it. Bray’s other novel, Going Bovine, is structured from Don Quixote, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize specifically references Dracula and I couldn’t count how many times Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is used or referenced. Stephenie Meyer has said that her books are homages to Austen, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel references Little Women, Jane Eyre. And, so on.
I think it is working to encourage YA readers to read what could be considered the “boring classics,” but, I think that it is also reintroducing these works into the literary consciousness and making it own.  In the future, will Going Bovine do for Don Quixote do what James Joyce’s Ulysses did for Homer’s Odyssey? I don’t know, but I find the idea of it really interesting. 
Bray’s Beauty Queens is a novel that is structured like a reality TV show complete with commercials and public service announcements from local sponsors which are written like a script. In Ulysses, “Chapter 15, The Circe”  is structured like a play and “Chapter 7, Aeolus” is peppered with various ads satirizing popular culture. Bray has written a satire that works in similar ways. Particularly when she creates fake boy bands, reality shows featuring pirates and a Corporation that is responsible for everything from feminine hygiene products to international conspiracies.
Like, lets say these feminist authors of the modernist period, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, Bray also deconstructs our ideas of gender identity and female sexuality.  These women are finalists in a beauty queen contest because of their drive for success. They volunteer, they’re A students, they also understand how to play the political game. Of course, what is driving this ambition varies from character, but the theme is that left to their own devices, women have the strength, will, and fortitude for success.  In a future post, I hope to talk specifically about how Bray really hones in on women’s sexuality, but that would mean spoiling the trip for you readers and I don’t want to do that. So, once the book comes out, I will come back to this. 
So, what do you think? Am I crazy?  How do you think YA lit is breaking new ground? 
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About Melanie J. Fishbane

My novel, MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 through Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
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2 Responses to Is YA in its Modernist or Post-Modernist Phase?

  1. Melissa says:

    I really like what you're saying here about so many YA novels being a means to reintroduce classics into the literary consciousness. I think, and I've said this before, that the same happens with authors deciding to write mashup novels. I've only read a couple of them, but I know that some authors stick close to the original novels in terms of the concept, characters, and plot, almost like they're using a loving hand. I'm also intrigued by the fact that Bray acknowledges Heart of Darkness because, unlike you, it's one of the modernist novels that I like. I've read it 3 or 4 times, but then again, it wasn't all in one year. 🙂 Anyway, I think that if she acknowledges Conrad, then she definitely admits a link with the modernists, but I'd still think that with her meta fiction references to pop culture that it's more likely a novel in the postmodern side of equation. Still, wonder what others think.

  2. I will admit that I was in a different time and place when I read Heart of Darkness four times for two papers that year. Perhaps it was like when I first watched the movie Gandhi at sixteen when I had an assignment about his life due the next day and I was like, "Will this movie ever end!?" I watched a few years ago and have a very different opinion. What did you like about i?I think that the mash ups are definitely another aspect to this.

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