Sometimes when I read, I want to lose myself in the prose, for the sentences to simply transmit themselves into the ideas or images they evoke, without the metadata of sentence construction and word choice simultaneously imposing itself on my consciousness. It might be more accurate to say that this is the least I ask as a reader, because bad prose shudders and stalls, making it impossible to enjoy. A greater pleasure comes from writing that makes me stop in wonder at the perfection of its construction and the clarity of its content.
Michael Chabon’s book of essays, Maps and Legends, has had that effect on me. His sentences are worth re-reading, both to analyze their content and their construction. What might seem contradictory (but should not) is that many of the essays in this collection defend genre, pulp, and graphic fiction. So-called popular fiction has been the subject of a vast reclamation project since at least the early ’90s. For feminists of my generation, a subscription to Bitch Magazine and weekly gatherings to pull literary and cinematic references from episodes of Buffy were legitimate exercises for our University educations.
Legitimacy in this arena has taken a more masculinist turn in recent years, with writers like Chabon and Jonathan Letham building wonderful coming-of-age novels from the bricks of their childhood reading and adventures. At the same time, the Twilight Saga has become emblematic of women’s forays into the field. It’s not surprising in an era in which grrl power has been supplanted by princess power, I suppose. What’s interesting to me in all of this is the way in which male adolescence and its relationship to genre fiction, comics, and pop culture have become the ground for retellings of the hero’s journey, while female adolescence in fiction has become grounded in bastardized versions of 19th Century courtship fiction. (Jane Austen is the subject of an almost slanderous misreading presently.)
So what happens when a new series of novels, featuring a young, female, and (complexly) heroic protagonist, becomes wildly popular? Critical acclaim, a blockbuster movie, and this.
I’m aware that Mr. Stein is a satirist, but I think it’s telling that his examples pit Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace against Justin Bieber and Disney castles. The Hunger Games novels don’t fit into our current conception of female adolescence, instead measuring up to the mythos around the male journey into adulthood. Under the guise of championing adult fiction, reactions like Stein’s seek to put female-centred literature back into its secondary, illegitimate status.
Though the prose doesn’t make me stop in wonder, Collins’ books allowed me to lose myself in the story and to appreciate her themes. I hope their popularity inspires more books exploring female adolescence in positive contexts, both within and without genre conventions. I’d also like to see stories from genderqueer and trans perspectives, too. All young people (and those of us who were once young) deserve to have their journeys traced.