‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

John Green: the Antecession of Adolescence

It seems to me hard to deny that YA fantastika has, over the first years of this new century, achieved a mode of cultural dominance: that Potter, Katniss and the MCU bestride our contemporary cultural production like colossi; that Malorie Blackman and Patrick Ness are more important contemporary UK novelists than Martin Amis and Zadie Smith. But I have to admit that my saying so may merely reflect my own bias towards SF/Fantasy. Perhaps I overestimate the centrality of Fantasy to the contemporary YA phenomenon. I'm not sure I do, but it's possible. It's one thing to talk about Rowling, Collins, Meyers, Blackman, Ness and Pullman (and Lemony Snicket, and Philip Reeve, and Eoin Colfer, and Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, and Jonathan Stroud, and Tom Pollock, and Rick Riordan, and Cassandra Clare ... and on and on the list goes) as representing some important culture movement.

But I have to concede that not all today's YA is fantastika. Or put it another way: if my argument is that the key YA texts are all Fantasy, then how do I account for those commercially huge, culturally major YA writers who don't write Fantasy? Two names in particular leap out: the marvelous Jacqueline Wilson, and the mega-selling John Green. Both work in what we could loosely call 'realist' idioms, writing about children and teenagers. Both are very good. What about them?

Take Green. Now, I like Green a great deal: he has a funny, personable and informative online presence as *clears throat* a vlogger, and he writes intelligent, witty and prodigiously successful novels. If those novels don't move me the way they evidently move millions of younger readers, that merely reflects my age. They're not aimed at people like me. Or it would be truer to say: they're not primarily aimed at people like me. And, to speak for myself, I admire and enjoy the charm with which he writes, the cleverly packaged wisdom, the lightness of touch he brings to serious matters.

A lot of this has to do with Green's skill with one-liners. The crafting of excellent one-liners is a much more demanding skill than many people realise. It is a business I rate and respect. Sometimes Green writes one-liners to get a laugh, which (of course) is the conventional function of the one-liner: 'Getting you a date to prom is so hard that the hypothetical idea itself is actually used to cut diamonds' [from Paper Towns], or '"It's a penis," Margo said, "in the same sense that Rhode Island is a state: it may have an illustrious history, but it sure isn't big."' [from the same novel]. But just as often he writes one-liners designed to make you feel, or think, rather than laugh. That's harder to do, I think. The most famous line from The Fault in Our Stars is 'I fell in love the way you fall asleep; Slowly, and then all at once', which has the form of a one-liner but is built to produce a particular affect rather than a laugh. Rather beautiful, too.

Green has two big-ish themes to which he keeps returning, and which we might peg as 'death' and 'authenticity', both inflected through the prism of teenage intensity. That he's good on this latter quantity (that is, on the way adolescents feel more intensely, have goofier highs and moodier lows, than grown-ups; the way they experience love as first love in all its Romeo-and-Juliet full-on-ness) is evidenced by his enormous appeal amongst his target audience, to whom his books clearly speak; and this also doubtless explains that element of his writing that I don't quite grok, being middle-aged and English and dwelling accordingly upon a buttoned-down emotional plateau of politeness and tea and low-level anguish. But I don't think 'teenage intensity' is his primary theme; I think it's the idiom via which he chooses to express a fascination with death and authenticity. In Looking for Alaska (2005), the main character Miles 'Pudge' Halter spends a year at a boarding school where he has various adventures with schoolfriends and schoolenemies, and where he falls in love with the beautiful but unhinged Alaska Young. The story bundles along pleasantly funny and bittersweet until the end, when Alaska drives drunk, crashes her car and dies, a death that is perhaps suicide. One of the first things we learn about Pudge is that he is fascinated with people's famous last words, and one of the things that first bonds Pudge and Alaska is their shared interest in Simón Bolívar's enigmatic final line: 'Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!' ('Is the labyrinth living or dying?' Alaska wonders. 'Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?'). The novel's own ending, and Pudge's attempts to come to terms with both his bereavement, and his guilt at possible, though unwitting, complicity in her death (since he and another friend distracted the school authorities in order to let Alaska get away in her car), inserts this morbid fascination rather cruelly into reality. What Pudge realises is that he wasn't in love with Alaska, but with an idea of Alaska he had in his head. 'Sometimes I don't get you,' he tells her; and she replies ('she didn't even glance at me, she just smiled') 'You never get me. That's the whole point.'

There's something important in this, I don't deny. It has to do with the teenage tendency towards self-obsession and egoism, of course; but it's also to do with a broader, neo-Arnoldian existential disconnect, the unplumbed salt estranging sea that lies between all our islands. 'It is easy to forget,' is how Paper Towns puts it, 'how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined.' I take it that Green's point is: we owe other people a duty to at least try and relate to them as they are, and not to ignore them, or rewrite them in our minds as we would like them to be. This, in my reading, is the 'labyrinth' from which the characters in Looking for Alaska are trying to escape: it is inauthenticity, and Green's suggested solution in terms of escaping it are such quantities as forgiveness and acceptance. If I call this stance 'authenticity', I'm not trying to tag-in Existentialism. This position has more in common with Holden Caulfield's animadversion to all things 'phony' than it does to Sartre.

Still it's fair to say that 'Existentialism' was interested in the connections between angst, authenticity and death, and there's something in that combo in Green's writing that doesn't weave right. I feel like an uglier and grumpier Oscar Wilde mocking Little Nell, but part of me found itself unable to buy into The Fault In Our Stars (2012), Green's biggest success, first as bestselling book, then as box-office-topping movie: the undeniably heartfelt story of two teenage cancer sufferers falling in love. When Malorie Blackman rewrites Romeo and Juliet in her Noughts and Crosses, her focus is on the arbitrary grounds of the Montague-Capulet hostility, and the toxic social environment that results. When Green rewrites the same story it is not inter-familial hatred but death itself that interposes itself between the two young lovers. That's both the book's strength, and, perhaps, its weakness. The love-story reads as believable and sweet; but the book as a whole treads that debatable line between sensibility and sentimentality, and the brute fact of death, at the story-end, distorts what the book is trying to say about love. It swathes the experience in a cloak of existential all-or-nothingness, which, tends to present the experience as, as it were, all icing and no actual cake. I'm not trying for a cheap shot, here, or at least I hope I'm not. I'm not accusing The Fault in Our Stars of wallowing in any misery-lit melodramatic tragic schlock simply because it juxtaposes young love and cancer. Hazel and Augustus, in the novel, don't fall in love because they have cancer; the cancer is just something they have to try and deal with as they fall in love. But because such cancer truncates life the novel can't help but offer up a truncated representation of love, and this tangles awkwardly with the fact that this is a story of intense teenage passion. Romeo and Juliet experienced emotional intensity with one another, no doubt; but what sort of marriage would they have had, in the event they had survived the end of the play? What would they have looked like, as a couple, in their thirties? Or their sixties? Hazel, in The Fault In Our Stars, dismisses the old insistence that 'without pain, how could we know joy?'
This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.
Which is neat, and uses the one-liner form nicely. It's just doesn't use that form in a way that actually suffices to say. After all: a person wouldn't live very healthily or very long, on a diet of pure chocolate and no broccoli. One of the ways love is more than mere lust is that love lasts; and if there's no timescale into which such lasting can be projected it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to be sure about the love. The true test of love is not in-the-moment intensity, but endurance. I appreciate that's a very middle-aged-adult, and a very un-teen, thing to say. That's the whole point.

But I don't mean to get distracted. Rather, I want to say something about Paper Towns (2008), a more interesting novel (I'd say) than The Fault In Our Stars. This novel frontloads its death (its characters start the story by discovering the body of a divorcé), which is a better, which is to say less conventionally melodramatic, way of doing things. It goes on to tell the story of Florida teen Quentin "Q" Jacobsen, and his young neighbor, the eccentric but (of course) beautiful Margo Roth Spiegelman. Margo, a character who doesn't quite escape the taint of Manic Pixie Dreamgirlishness, recruits Q to help her take elaborate and comical revenge upon various kids at their school who have slighted her. Halfway through the story Margo disappears. The community begins to think she has committed suicide, but a series of clues persuades Q that she is still alive, and living in the 'paper town' of Agloe, New York: a simulacrum of a town invented by mapmakers that has, oddly enough, turned into a real town. He and his friends drive up to rescue her after their high school graduation, but she doesn't want to be rescued. The book ends with Q accepting that he has lived inauthentically, devoted to a version of Margo he has concocted out of his own desire and insecurity, and that it's not fair to Margo to relate to her in that way. Sailing dangerously close to the unSeinfeld learning-hugging-growing arc, Paper Towns' Q realises 'the fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.' By the novel's end this point is bedded-in: 'What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.'

The novel as a whole is concerned with this question of inauthentic living, with the simulacrum. The 'paper town' of Agloe is real: a non-existent place included in a map of NY State to catch out any mapmakers foolish enough to plagiarise. At the end of his novel, Green notes this fact: 'Agloe began as a paper town created to protect against copyright infringement. But then people with these old Esso maps kept looking for it, and so someone built a store, making Agloe real'. The map precedes the territory, the description comes before the reality described. 'Margo always loved mysteries,' Q tells us. 'And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.' It's neatly done. Margo never quite comes alive, but her quirky puppet-ness doesn't impede the story. Arguably the reason she doesn't feel fully alive is that she, in terms of the in-logic of the story, doesn't want to. Which has some interesting implications for characterisation, actually.

Then again, there are moments when the simulacrum is less postmodern, and more old-school phony. Margo, on her hometown Orlando FL, ventriloquises the echt Holden Caulfield:
You can tell what the place really is. You see how fake it all is. It's not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It's a paper town. I mean look at it, Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I've lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.
This is attractively meta (since any town described in a book made of paper bound together is going to be a paper town), even a touch modish. It either captures with nice irony, or else is deplorably complicit with, that teenage certainty that they know 'what matters', and that what matters is more than just living an ordinary, unexceptional life, like boring grown-ups do.

Then again, maybe the conceit of Paper Towns does tip a more Baudrillardian than Sartrean nod. It invites us to go back to 1981's Simulacres et Simulation. Maybe, in this novel, Green goes beyond 1950s phony-baiting, and into the precession of simulacra as such, and maybe that's why the novel works better for me. Baudrillard, you'll recall, distinguishes three phases:
First order simulacra, associated with the premodern period, where representation is clearly an artificial placemarker for the real item. The uniqueness of objects and situations marks them as irreproducibly real and signification obviously gropes towards this reality.

Second order simulacra, associated with the modernity of the Industrial Revolution, where distinctions between representation and reality break down due to the proliferation of mass-reproducible copies of items, turning them into commodities. The commodity's ability to imitate reality threatens to replace the authority of the original version, because the copy is just as "real" as its prototype.

Third order simulacra, associated with the postmodernity of Late Capitalism, where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulation, and originality becomes a totally meaningless concept
This is where we are, says Jean. Disneyland (one of Orlando FL's most famous sites) started as a copy of the perfect American small town; now, Baudrillard suggests, America itself is a kind of copy of Disneyworld. The simulation precedes the reality. So it is that we care about, and invest emotionally, in the fictional neighbours represented in Eastenders and Coronation Street, and barely know our actual real-world neighbours. So it is that the things that happen in the world only feel real to us when we see them reported on the TV news. When Baudrillard talks about the 'precession of simulacra' in Simulacra and Simulation, he means simulacra have come to precede the real, and that the real is, in his pungent phrase, 'rotting', its vestiges littering what he calls 'the desert of the real'.

I suppose we could say that the difference is that Baudrillard celebrates this new simulacral logic, where Green finds it both exhilarating and terrifying. Having encountered a dead body, and heard gunshots, and been afraid in various ways, Q comes to understand that there is a deeper fear underlying his 'real' or 'actual' experiences of fear. Or not 'underlying', but 'preceding': 'This fear bears no analogy to any fear I knew before,' he tells us. 'This is the basest of all possible emotions, the feeling that was with us before we existed, before this building existed, before the earth existed. This is the fear that made fish crawl out onto dry land and evolve lungs, the fear that teaches us to run, the fear that makes us bury our dead.' Not a fear of death, and not a fear of inauthenticity as such, but rather the fear that inauthenticity is the only reality.

This is bringing me, slowly and after many too many words (I know, I know) back to my original point. Why do so many globally popular YA take the form of Fantasy? If there is a metaphorical relationship between the magical school (or the daemon-accompanied alt-world, or the sexy vampire, or whatever) and reality, we might expect there to be a mimetic relationship between the Orlando teenagers, or the cancer-suffering teenagers in Indianopolis, and reality. But that's not how it works.

Maybe that's what books like Green's offer us: 'realism' rather than realism, a different logic of fantasy that repudiates the idea that there is a clear reality to be metaphorised. A nostalgia for the future rather than for the present or for the past. That's what Alaska thinks, at any rate, in Looking for Alaska:
"Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia."

"Huh?" I asked.

"You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you'll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present."
If I say that there's a particular emphasis upon this pseudo-nostalgia of Green's novels, I don't mean it as negative criticism. Baudrillard, in that 'Precession of Simulacra' essay, insists that 'When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.'

I don't mean to over-reach, argument-wise, but I wonder if this speaks to the reasons why YA has become so culturally dominant. Once upon a time kids wore jeans and listened to rock music until they passed out the other side of their adolescent phase: then they put on suits and dresses and went to work and listened to Classical Music. Got blue rinses. Smoked pipes and grew beards. Now it's the kids who dress as hipsters, in suits and sculpted facial hair, dye in their hair, and middle-aged dinosaurs like me who wear jeans and listen to rock music. What started as a chronological descriptor covering the years 13-19 expanded: a tansitional period when one is no longer a child, but not yet an adult that bulged at both ends. Now the phase starts earlier and ends much later: people in their 20s, 30s even in their 40s still living with their parents, or pursuing their teenage pursuits (look at me, and my continuing passion for science fiction, for one example), or examining their own souls and saying: you know? I really don't feel 'grown-up'. Not properly. Properly grown-up is the desert of the real of individual subjectivity. Baudrillard, again from the 'Precession of Simulacra' essay:
This world wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the "real" world, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere - that it is that of the adults themselves who come here to act the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness.
If we think of it like that, then the whole cultural edifice of children's and YA literature becomes an attempt, on the largest scale, to fix and establish a simulacrum of 'youth', for the benefit of the adults. 'The child is father to the man' becomes evacuated of its original natural piety and spiritual truth, and becomes instead the slogan of causal disconnection in a youth-obsessed society in which adolescence no longer precedes adulthood, but replaces it altogether. Things that once distinguished childhood from adulthood, in the sense that kids would not do these things and adults would—trivial things like drinking and smoking, or profound things like having sex and dying—become, in Green's novels, how teens spend their time. They are all nostalgic for a future that, in Green's textual universe, will never come. It's the precession of sim-maturity that marks the erosion of the distinction between the immature and the mature. Why do teens in John Green novels keep dying? There's a line in Catch-22 that I've always liked, where Yossarian rails that a certain airforceman friend of his, killed in action, was old, very old, very very old, twenty-two. That doesn't sound very old, his interlocutor returns. He died, says Yossarian; you don't get any older than that. Which also has the shape of a one-liner, whilst packing a significantly larger existential punch than the my-dog's-got-no-nose standard sample. (It was also Heller, in the rather underrated Something Happened, who said: 'When I grow up I want to be a little boy')

What Green's novels embody is a larger logic of YA: a kind of impossible nostalgia for a future adulthood that the protagonists not only have never experienced, but fear will never come. As in Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, the story is: teens are compelled to act as adults, to assume adult responsibilities, commit adult murders, risk the fate of all adults (which is death). But this isn't the precession of adulthood; its the Baudrilliardian erasure of adulthood. That's the fantasy. Maybe.


  1. "If I was young, I'd flee this town,
    I'd bury my dreams underground."
    "As did I...
    We drink to die. We drink tonight!"

    Random connection sparked by the lines about 'future nostalgia' and the awful, inescapable, eternal present of YA-hood.

    because such cancer truncates life the novel can't help but offer up a truncated representation of love

    When I read TFIOS I thought it was built on quite a neat conceit, but a very literary one. At the core of the novel is the (literal) authorial voice of the horrible Dutch guy giving Hazel the bad news about fiction: No, you don't get to find out what happened next! Nothing happens next! The story stopped where it stopped! Then it turns out this is the bad news about the fiction we're reading as well, and maybe about life stories in general; it's a good, if uncomfortable, message, and neatly delivered. I don't think that was why it was such a big hit - I think that was mainly the Romeo & Juliet stuff - but maybe the metafictional stuff was part of its initial appeal.

    Incidentally, TFIOS was translated into German under the title Das Schicksal ist ein Mieser Verräter - Fate is a Lousy Traitor. A bit less Shakespearean.

  2. The Van Heusen character is interesting: I agree there's something a little artificial about the book-within-the-book thing, and not necessarily in a bad way: although of course we discover at the end that Augustus was writing a sequel to the Dutch guy's book ...

  3. Van Houton. More The Simpsons, less shirts.

  4. A cynical comment upon the popularity of YA in North America, at least … it is being pushed to, and being read by more and more not-so-young adults.

  5. "...YA writing has latterly achieved a mode of cultural dominance..."

    Interesting. & plausible on the face of it. Is there an author more read in the world today than Rowling?

  6. Thinking about Romeo and Juliet as teens who have sex and die makes me wonder how class, income and work relate to ideas of growing up (or not). If happiness and purpose are understood as the purchase (or other acquisition) of maximum leisure in which to play and experience intense sensations (in between 'loving/being passionate about/having fun at one's work'), it makes sense to aspire to non-adulthood. Banks' Culture springs to mind, along with a few Roman emperors.

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