Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Can-Lit and the Teenagers

"Upon reflection, I wondered again why Canadian literature isn't able to connect with the teenage audience," wrote Michael Bryson on his blog a while ago, which I thought was an interesting thing to wonder. And certainly not anything I'd much wondered about myself, because I rarely think of teenagers very much anymore, except to be a bit intimidated when I squeeze by them on the sidewalk.

Oh, teenagers, ye of the famously undeveloped brains. Though why did nobody tell me then? When I was a teenager, full of angst, and pain, and feeling, I do wish that someone had pointed out the fact that my brain wasn't actually built and so nothing I felt really mattered yet. Which turned out to be quite true, in retrospect, but I might have been unwilling to face such a fact at that time. A time in which I was ready to die for the right to talk on the phone for six consecutive hours, and my favourite TV show was Party of Five.

The number of things that annoy me are legion, but up at the top would be people who carry with them any negative literary opinion formed by high school English class. No, worse-- people who claim they don't read because their high school English teachers broke down literature into such tiny pieces that they ruined the whole sport. (You can find evidence of this "breaking down" in any text annotated by a high school student, wherein each instance of "light" and "dark" is highlighted, for example. Or wherever there's a mention of "river" and someone has written "=life".) These people not understanding that high school is to teach you to learn how to learn first and foremost, and that perhaps all our closest-held opinions could serve to be re-evaluated once a decade or so.

Still, the greatest literary tragedy of them all, I think, is The Stone Angel as taught in Canadian high schools. Does this still happen? Is there a more inappropriate book out there? I reread it recently, and found it powerful (though far from Margaret Lawrence's best), but could not understand how it could be expected to resonate with a sixteen year old. An extraordinary sixteen year old, perhaps, but most of us were far from that.

So what would be better? What's a fully-grown Canadian book that could rock a teenage world? And don't just think any old book with a youthful protagonist will do-- a teenager can spot a phony a mile away. You know, the youthful protagonist who is always the cleverest person in the room (and in the book) so as to a) avoid complexities of character b) make sure we know the author is smart and not just writing YA pap c) reinvent the universe to realize ex-nerd author's youthful fantasies concerning triumph and domination of a just world.

Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Gil Adamson might work though. Fruit by Brian Francis. When I was in high school, I thought Atwood's Cat's Eye is as wonderful as I still do. Maybe Stunt? Alayna Munce's When I Was Young and In My Prime? Rebecca Rosenblum's Once. I think Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are would be better than Lives of Girls and Women. The Diviners instead of The Stone Angel (if they could stomach Morag's stallion). And Lisa Moore's Alligator, perhaps? Lullabies for Little Criminals?

Or am I mistaken, to suppose that a teenage reader requires a protagonist with shared concerns? Could teenagers be smarter or dumber than they look? What are they (and we) missing? And I know I've got some high school English teachers among my readership of six, and I'd be interested to know your opinion, as well as that of anyone else who has one.