Generation Dead: Introductory Workshop

Yesterday was my first lecture and seminars for ‘Generation Dead: Young Adult Fiction and the Gothic’. The chosen readings for the lecture were:

  • Catherine Spooner, ‘Teen Demons’, Contemporary Gothic, 87-123;
  • Roz Kaveney, ‘Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance’, Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, pp. 214-24;
  • Hannah Priest, ‘Young Adults and Contemporary Gothic’, The Gothic World, pp. 274-83;
  • Alison Waller, Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism, 1-27.

The aim of the first lecture was introduce the readings for the module as a whole, warn the students about assignments, and, most importantly, open the question of how we define YA Gothic fiction.

Before I launched into my PowerPoint presentation about key themes and tropes within YA Gothic, I asked the students to split into groups and draw up a list of what they would look for in a YA Gothic text. What became clear in their responses was that the students themselves were already equipped with the ideas required to analyse these texts. Despite YA Gothic being a relatively new genre (and often as difficult to formally delineate as ‘dark fantasy’ and ‘paranormal romance’), within contemporary culture it has made a significant impact.

In my presentation, I argued that one of the ways in which we know YA Gothic is a genre is because there are parodies, and linked this with the publication of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817). I used examples such as the film Vampires Suck (2010) and parodic Twitter accounts like ‘Typical YA Heroine’ (@TypicalYAHero), ‘Brooding YA Hero’ (@broodingYAhero), and ‘Token YA Sidekick’ (@TokenYASidekick) to show that there were now a clear set of tropes that were associated with YA Gothic. Regarding the Twitter accounts, it is interesting to note how they conflate the voice of the fan with the voice of the critic. The intimate knowledge of YA Gothic suggested that those running these Twitter accounts were fans, however, they were still able to draw attention to problematic aspects of these texts such as the lack of diverse representation. Linked to parody and pastiche was the idea of intertextuality, and the importance of acknowledging references to other (YA) Gothic texts within the novels we would be reading.

One of the students made the point that what defined YA Gothic was the audience – the people who were the intended consumers of these texts. Whilst another suggested that the aesthetic quality of the language denoted its Gothicness. These linked well to the readings. Catherine Spooner states that ‘Gothic has always had a strong link with adolescence’ (Contemporary Gothic, p. 88). This can be seen in Ann Radcliffe’s novels in which the heroine is usually a young (unmarried) woman. As Austen makes clear in her parody of Radcliffe and her ilk, these novels were often consumed by young women as well. Reading these novels created a link or connection between themselves and other readers, something which we see in Northanger Abbey in the friendship between Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe. The ideas of aesthetics, consumption and identity overlap in YA Gothic texts. The sublime vistas of the early Gothic become sparkling torsos and prismatic eyes, and the aesthetic finds fruition in the representation of clothing and costumes. (Though more of this in week four when we look at Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town).

Another key idea that was introduced in this first lecture was that of the Other, or the Outsider. Alison Waller argues that ‘[a]dolescence is always ‘other’ to the more mature phase of adulthood, always perceived as liminal’ (Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism, p. 1). The Other and adolescence seem to amalgamate through YA literature; this is exacerbated by issues of identity. Given the previous discussion of the overlap between the Gothic and young adult readers/ heroines, and Waller’s Gothic use of the term ‘liminal’, the relationship between YA, Gothic and the Other seems inevitable. Furthermore, it seems natural that the role of the Other will be re-assessed and re-appropriated so that it is no longer fearful, if the target audience deem themselves to be alienated within society. Roz Kaveney suggests that dark fantasy is ‘to some degree revisionist fantasy’ (‘Dark Fantasy’, p. 220). By this she means that dark fantasy, which overlaps with YA Gothic, humanizes supernatural elements. Thus, the vampire becomes romantic lead rather than monster. Throughout this course we will be questioning how successful our chosen texts have been in expressing ‘otherness’ and helping overcome boundaries of difference.

Given the breadth of information covered in the lecture, the seminars were quieter affairs. Students were asked to do a close reading of Simon Armitage’s ‘Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster’ (2012). This poem is based on the life and death of Sophie Lancaster who died following a brutal attack. The motive of the attack on her and her boyfriend was their Gothic identity. Understandably the mood within the seminars was more sombre. However, students questioned some of the elements of the text: Was it acceptable that a middle-aged man was appropriating the voice of a 20 year old woman (even with good intentions)? To what extent was Sophie deified in a way that maintained her position of otherness? Is there something inherently problematic about translating such violence into beautiful language? (For example, the ‘black roses’ of the poem refer to the bruises left on Sophie’s body. Someone said that they had read these a tattoos first before realising they were bruises – the language seemed to be beautifying horrific marks of violence). Do we believe the references and colloquialisms that have been used? (As one students said: ‘Why does he only mention Marilyn Manson? There are more Goth musicians than Marilyn’).

Not all the students had heard of the case prior to reading the poem but felt inspired by the text to find out more information. I explained to the seminar groups why I felt that it was important to consider what happened to Sophie as we studied YA Gothic. As previously noted, the themes of ‘otherness’ and the Outsider are central to YA Gothic novels. Contextualising these debates within a real-life situation, in which discrimination reached its most extreme form, helps us understand the effect of hatred towards and fear of those who society deems to be ‘different’. In this sense the texts that we are looking at within this course are central to asking difficult questions about the construction of identity and our behaviour to other people, which can have a very real impact on individuals.

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One Response to Generation Dead: Introductory Workshop

  1. Interesting stuff Kaja. Sounds like you made it very pertinent. Simon does draw on Sophie’s own writings and his interviews with her mother so he has worked very hard to ‘know’ Sophie I think and to sensitively narrate where possible. The main point is that it raises issues around difference and name calling and hate crime (which has only recently been expanded to include subcultures) and I think this would have come across in your seminar. With the exception of Twilight which has its own imitators, the novels chosen are not cliched which goes against the grain of many people’s perceptions. They are very well written and innovative (shown through the sophisticated intertextual references) and I think your students will be open to this. The genre has many antagonists on Twitter and elsewhere but it is worthy of analysis and needs to be celebrated. If you can convey this then you will prepare the students well for their own critical appraisal of the texts in the assignment. I look forward to hearing how you get on next week. Sounds like you have a lively and attentive class. Well done for getting them enthused about the issues and texts! You are a perfect match for the module!

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