A few years back, there was the usual internet furor over a New Yorker article, this one about teen reading.
As YA literature continues to spiral up in popularity, the article stayed in my mind, mostly because of a quote from another article:
MISHAN: Teen-age boys don’t read, apparently. As Caitlin Flanagan writes in this month’s Atlantic, an adolescent girl “is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.”
Not long ago I was reading some seventeenth century letters and essays that dealt with this very subject. Alarm! Girls of that tender age, just before marriage, are devouring novels! Oh noes, it’s the end of the world! Girls are also writing reams of letters to their friends about same novels. Charlotte Lennox wrote her Female Quixote to make a statement about this very danger, but it ends up too preachy for most modern readers to enjoy. Jane Austen did a far better job in the first half of Northanger Abbey when she depicts two young women reading and talking passionately about novels–and then comes that brilliant discussion of novels, why they are unjustly (and hypocritically) condemned.
I’ve caught echoes of this same subject a hundred years earlier than that, in translated and second-hand alarms about how middle class girls were devouring the novels of Madame Scudery. In that instance, the horreurs were mostly about how rich daughters of traders were devouring the novels in order to learn how one behaves at court. Of course they would use that novel for purposes of evil: to rise above their station! Because I read French so badly, my delving further has been prevented by access to good translations of period primary sources.
My exploration into these materials, limited as it is, has led me to conclude that with the rise of literacy young women especially were reading, dreaming, writing to one another as they found like-minded companions, writing their own poetry and novels (and fan fiction), in an effort not just to satisfy those emotional and spiritual cravings, but to better their lives. Everyone wanted a better life, for whatever definition of ‘better’ fit. The reading and writing of letters and stories was a way of trying out the ideas, inventing scenarios, in a pleasurable way. Certainly more pleasurable than sitting with one’s hands folded and back straight, listening to long hectoring sermons about Female Duty.
It was then, and it is now. In fact, I find it interesting that young women now, with perhaps more liberties than ever before, are still reading. Are they reading for the same reasons as their foremothers did?
The article goes on about teen boys reading, with one person saying, …Those men end up joining the bourgeoisie in two ways: law school and untouched home libraries full of leather-bound Shakespeare, which I think says more about the speaker than about teen boys who read angsty and angry poetry, or listen to same in musical form.
The angry and angsty poetry has a long-established place in Western Lit; most people with a brush of humanities studies now will at least recognize Werther, as in Sorrows of Young, and how the influence of that novel caused a lot of sensitive young fellows to languish about snuffing roses and quoting Klopstock’s effusive poetry. Unfortunately, a few suicides, too, but I suspect that the influence there–like rock music now—is that already severely depressed youngsters found corroboration for a decision that they had already made, rather than the art leading them to self-destruction. Byron’s poetry spoke to young men as well as causing young women to flutter and swoon. Who else has had that success rate with both sexes?
And back to the larger question, is fan fiction a way for that vast sea of young women to play out emotional and philosophical scenarios, using storyforms as template?