I was drawn to yesterday's discussion panel on coming-of-age literature at Loganberry Books for several reasons.
One, I read many coming-of-age novels as a teenager. Two books of this genre in particular, Spinelli's Stargirl and Anderson's Speak, played a large role in my mental and emotional formation. Because of this, I feel that I have some stake in and attachment to the genre.
Two, I wanted to understand better the utility of coming-of-age novels in the high school classroom, in the political arena and in society at large.
Three, as a recent graduate of a college Language Arts education program, I wanted to offer some fresh perspective on the types of literature students are receptive to. Also, as an amateur critic of young adult literature, I wanted to collect and offer some thoughts on the direction I believe the genre is taking.
Because I found our discussion both fascinating and valuable, I will share several of the points made here, if for no reason other than to help myself remember what we talked about.
I will break up our discussion into a series of digestible posts. I don't think I possess the mental stamina or the organizational capacity to write it all down logically and at once. Plus, we all know that the amount you write is inversely proportional to the amount of feedback you receive.
So, for the topic of this first post:
What is a concise, accurate definition of a coming-of-age novel?
Those who take the broad approach define this type of novel as "a book in which a character grows dramatically from one 'age' to another." And the word “age” is open to interpretation. This definition is problematic because it allows practically every piece of fiction to pass into this category. Thoughtful authors desire that their protagonists "grow,” glean new life insights and pass from one age to another. A novel void of growth makes for an under-stimulating read.
Megan Whalen Turner, one author on the panel, suggested that some constraint be added to this ambiguous definition. According to Whalen Turner, the primary focus of a coming-of-age novel should be the protagonists' psychological life. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (to use a classic example) takes place primarily in narrator Holden Caulfield's mind. Throughout the book, it’s Holden Caulfield vs. Holden Caulfield. His reflections are the tool Salinger uses to advance the plot and capture the growth of his character.
Another coming-of-age novel, The Outsiders, does not bear the amount of psychological weight that Catcher does. Yet, much of Hinton's novel is contingent upon Ponyboy's reflections, especially in light of Johnny and Dally's deaths. His internal dialogue allows readers to access the deepest parts of him (and, if I can take this liberty, access to Hinton herself). By this definition, The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye can be classified as staples in the coming-of-age genre.
If you would like an example of a book that does not make the coming-of-age cut, let's examine Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. These books are primarily focused on the physical (as opposed to internal) journey of protagonist Lyra. Pullman creates a fictitious world toward the end of advancing his theological convictions. While Lyra's growth as a character is an important part of the plot, the plot's advancement is not contingent upon Lyra's inner musings. As an author, Pullman is more concerned with what happens during Lyra's journey and less concerned with how she cognitively processes these events. By Whalen Turner's definition, this novel should not be a part of the coming-of-age genre.
I agree with this definition, but realize that it too is limited. There are many other ways this genre could be defined. One audience member and retired teacher who spent 30 years teaching middle school said readers and critics ought to make a distinction between the YA Problem Novel (where a young teenager encounters a problem -- small breasts, incorrigible parents, excommunication by those at the top of the high school hierarchy -- and solves it) and a coming-of-age novel. In a coming-of-age novel, a protagonist should do more than experiment with sex and substance and solve their problem. Instead, the protagonist should unearth something deep within themselves. They should confront a shade of grey. They shed their false consciousness and show evidence of maturity.
Another man in attendance said that, in a coming-of-age novel, the protagonist should do more than project judgment onto the adult world. The protagonist should realize that he or she too will one day make the transition into the adult world and find a way to successfully rectify the cognitive dissonance that comes with that realization.
The professor who moderated the panel (I did not catch his name) likened the coming-of-age novel to the bildungsroman and kunstlerroman. Fewer novels belong to this group than the coming-of-age genre because these novels require a rigid adherence to their traditionally formulaic plot structure -- and the modern 20th century writer does not like to be so hindered. The professor shared that bildungsroman was conceived in the 12th century and grew wildly popular during the 1800s. He then posed this question, "Why are we, as humans, drawn to this type of literature? Why do we desire to hear these stories told?” I guess I will begin my next post by addressing this question.
Your thoughts as to what makes a coming-of-age novel a coming-of-age novel are welcome and -- even -- desired.
And Jesus said to them, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his [accomplishments]." And he told them a parable, saying, "The [mind] of a rich [wo]man produced plentifully, and [s]he thought to [her]self, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my [thoughts]?' And [s]he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my [blog] and build [a more accomplished one], and there I will store all my [thoughts] and my [writings]. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample [publications and a great reputation]; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to [her], 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God."