Monday, March 9, 2015

A pair of YA book reviews: critiques of misogyny and of publishing

Bennett Madison's September Girls promised mermaids and commentary on misogyny and contemporary sexual ethics: a run-down beachfront island resort populated in part by Girls, unnaturally alluring teenage girls who are really mermaids exiled from the sea by their father. They can only break the curse by sleeping with a teenage virgin. The protagonist Sam, one of those coveted curse-breakers, is kind of a jerk, objectifying women left and right, and his older brother and best friend are even worse - while the Girls are given voice only in the plural, with short interludes between chapters explaining their collective situation. When Sam and his brother each fall in love with one of the Girls, they are both forced to confront their own past actions and desires towards women.

I see what Madison was trying to do, writing a book with characters, thoughts, and actions so offensive that they themselves critique a society that says that women exist for men's pleasure, and that their only power comes from crafting the most desired form so that they can manipulate men. However, I had a really hard time stomaching most of the book. I'm not one who thinks an exaggerated anti-feminist message is all that helpful for feminist concerns, and I do worry that many teenage readers, less sophisticated in their analysis, might simply take the messages of this book at face value. Unsurprisingly, the book itself has garnered highly polarized reviews, some appalled and others loving its subversiveness.

Scott Westerfeld's Afterworlds also got on my to-read list through recommendations by other book bloggers. While almost as unlike September Girls as can be, it too engaged in critique: a meta-commentary on the YA publishing world. After high school senior Darcy Patel (a queer woman of color as protagonist!) wrote a YA paranormal romance for NaNoWriMo, she was astonished when it got picked up by a major publishing house, which contracted her for a sequel and paid enough money for the pair of books for her to defer college by a year, move to NYC, and try her hand at being a professional writer. We readers are treated to chapters of the novel itself, Afterworlds, in alternation with Darcy's story. This book-within-a-book features a "YA hottie" based on the death god from Hindu mythology who guides protagonist Lizzie as she struggles with her new calling as a psychopomp or soul guide. It's fascinating to realize that what we're reading is the revised and edited version - we see Darcy incorporating edits and ideas from her new world in the NYC YA publishing scene.

Darcy's Afterworlds itself is derivative and meandering, but I think that's precisely the point that Westerfeld was trying to make about debut novels and the current craze for paranormal romances. Far more interesting for me were Darcy's chapters, as this immature, unorganized, and sheltered high school graduate struggles with budget woes, revisions of Afterworlds (her publisher demands a happy ending!) and a first draft of the sequel, currently named Untitled Patel, and a budding first romance with another debut YA author.

I was ultimately disappointed by Darcy's novel (fully half the book!) and by my own mistaken expectations. I went into this novel thinking - hoping - that a large part of its plot might be focused on the actual writing of a NaNoWriMo novel, a process I find fascinating. Instead, the book begins after that first draft is already written. However, I enjoyed the insider's look at YA publishing and the frank and unfinished discussion about writerly appropriation of other cultures and religions,

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