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Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Hello readers! As promised, here is the syllabus for a seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled (Im)Possible Lives: Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. The course description is as follows:

How do wizards, monsters, cyborgs, and dystopias shed light on precarious issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, poverty, and illness? This seminar examines representations of identity and difference in young adult speculative fiction—texts created for younger audiences that include elements from genres such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magical realism. Students not only analyze the approaches that writers implement to construct hypothetical settings and characters, but also examine how speculative young adult novels depict different possibilities for existing and mattering in the world.

There are many goals that I have for this course. For the most part, I want students to realize the ways in which the content and structure of contemporary YA speculative fiction is symptomatic of many of the political, environmental, and sociopolitical crises that we face today in American society. In literature, film, and media, many have been exploring the issue of who matters, or who doesn’t matter. Particularly in social media discourse, we have seen a rise in attitudes such as homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, elitism, and so on and so on. We are also developing greater awareness of the violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore violence (and violent discourse), and recent events have been pushing many of us to question the value and future of human life. Through these acts of hate and violence, however, many of us are recognizing the need for community, highlighting the importance of self-care, and developing a desire for safer, more collective ways of being and knowing.

I think that YA speculative fiction offers readers a unique opportunity to think through the aforementioned precarious issues, and I believe works in this genre will push my students and I to ask difficult questions and explore complex issues. Teaching this seminar is not going to be easy. It will involve difficult and tedious emotional and intellectual labor. But I think that my students and I will grow both as people and thinkers by the time the semester is through.

Part of what I find valuable about works categorized as YA speculative fiction is that they are often crafted with a Utopian bent, and they often envision alternatives to the suffocating and violent conditions of the present. Books in this genre are often exercises in positive affect, and they push readers to imagine, desire, and work for better ways of living in the world. Students and I will explore both the perks and the pitfalls of the ethical frameworks discussed in a selection of YA speculative novels that overtly include themes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It is my hope that through this seminar, my students will not only learn more about themselves and their place in society, but they will also recognize the value and importance of narratives that deviate from normative paradigms. Furthermore, I hope that students will be able to recognize and discuss current and emerging trends in the genre of YA speculative fiction, especially the genre’s increasing penchant for non-traditional narrative forms and genre-blending.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my course syllabus by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it!

bannerya

Course Syllabus for “The Young Adult Novel” – University of Notre Dame

Here is the syllabus for a course that I designed on the Young Adult Novel. I will teach this course during the fall 2014 semester at the University of Notre Dame. I’m very excited about this course for various reasons–mostly because I finally get to teach the texts that I work with and that I love. This course is offered as an English 20XXX requirement, which is an English course for non-majors. I also managed to get the course cross-listed with the gender studies department–especially since class discussions will focus heavily on notions of sexuality and the body that are looming in YA fiction. As of now, 18 of my 19 students are seniors, and they all come from different concentrations such as marketing, biology, English, gender studies, American studies, and education

The most difficult thing about designing this course was the choice of novels to be discussed in class. I wanted to strive for a balance between male and female authors, and I also wanted students to familiarize themselves with books that either they haven’t encountered before, or books that blur the line between young adult literature and literature marketed to adults. Because of this, I feel that there is a lack of novels focused on issues of race and class, but I will certainly make sure to cover these issues during the semester.

As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. You are welcome to draw inspiration from this syllabus, but please make sure to give me credit if you do so–and be sure to share your syllabus with me so I can see what you did similarly or differently! I hope you enjoy the course I’ve designed, and I will keep you posted with how everything is going as the semester unfolds.

Bring On the Books for Everbody

On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ “Bring on the Books for Everybody”

One of the greatest challenges throughout my years engaged in graduate study has been the struggle to validate my field. Validation certainly is a problem in the humanities, especially with the advent and reign of STEM fields and areas. However, even within the field of English, I am constantly met with ridicule, or sometimes scorn, when I tell some of my colleagues that I  primarily work with teen and young adult literature. This has to do with the fact that there are some who consider the study of YA literature to lack the challenge and the intellectual rigor that “authentic” forms of literature fully embody. I find it very curious, however, that some literary scholars dismiss these forms of literature, when most of the time, it is the YA genre that sparked our love for literature in the first place.

Bring On the Books for Everbody

Trying to argue for the usefulness of inclusion of certain genres within the literary field is indeed challenging. However, the primary reason that this challenge is seemingly insurmountable can be attributed to people who think that the label of the “literary” is static and impervious to change. I recently read Jim Collin’s wonderful book titled Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, and in due course, this text was a delightful and in-depth exploration of how notions of the literary have rapidly transformed over the past few decades due to developments in multimedia, social networking, and book marketing. Furthermore, the book insightfully illustrates how the literary has melded into the realm of the popular despite the futile attempts to keep these two domains apart.

In his book, Jim Collins explores how popular literary culture developed during the 1990s due primarily to changes in terms how books are marketed, distributed, and sold, and also due to the emergence of different systems of literary expertise: one system based on the validation of literary texts based on their ability to be different and experimental (a.k.a. “literary”) and another system based on the authentication of good literature based on its ability to inspire, promote change, or authenticate feelings/desires for self-improvement. Collins’ explores how the appreciation and practice of literary texts has transcended from an appreciation of literature based on an author’s or text’s “transcendent literary genius” (183) to an appreciation of literature based on its ability to connect people, spark conversation, and speak to a particular community’s set of values, experiences, and expectations.

Part of what I found so convincing about Collins’ book was his reconfiguration of the notions of literary taste and literary communities. Traditionally, when speaking of literature, we tend to resort to the use of hierarchies in order to establish what texts deserve the literary crown, and which texts should remain within the lowest ranks of this pecking order. This notion was made very clear to me when I was once having a discussion with one of my colleagues, in which I was trying to defend Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games series as literary. I thought the series was noteworthy not only because it is an entertaining read, but also because it thoroughly explores issues that some readers otherwise would be oblivious to (i.e. capitalism, social injustice, etc.). My colleague, on the other hand, thought that the series was “poorly written” and that it was too focused on the ventures of a “whiny protagonist.” What we had here was a clash not only of taste, but also in terms of our identifications with particular reading communities. But were any of us wrong? According to Jim Collins, not necessarily so.

Do you consider the Hunger Games to be literary? Why or why not?

Do you think The Hunger Games  has “literary” merit? Why or why not?

Collins focuses on how emerging literary markets, especially those found online in sites such as Amazon.com and large book chains such as Barnes & Noble, are based not on hierarchical tastes, but rather, on the acknowledgment of “different reading communities as coequal options” (78-9). This can especially be seen by the Listmania lists that certain readers develop in Amazon, in which people resort to book recommendations not based on a hierarchy of what is good or bad, but rather, on how well a reader’s own literary taste matches with that of the list creator (thus converting the list creator into someone whose literary judgment can be trusted). The Web has enhanced the existence and prominence of particular reading groups and communities, especially with the advent of websites such as Goodreads, which allows users to generate lists based on the votes and opinions of thousands of readers. My discussion with my colleague in terms of the Hunger Games series not only exemplifies our belonging to different reading communities, but it also represents a clash between traditional and current understandings of literary culture.

Collins further explores this tension by focusing on how forms of popular culture have not only become more “literary” as time has progressed, but also how these forms further fuel the perpetuation of a literary culture that is wrongfully deemed lost. Whether it be through film adaptations, through television shows, through social powerhouses such as Oprah’s Book Club, or even through other forms unexplored by Collins, such as video games and internet blogs—the way we experience the literary is no longer bound to text. Did you delve into Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby though writing, or did you recently watch the 2013 adaptation? Are you familiar with the life of Leonardo Da Vinci through encyclopedias and history books, or do you watch the 2013 television series Da Vinci’s Demons? Have you experienced Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the playtext, through a performance, through the Sparknotes available online, through a comic book, or through one of the many movie adaptations (such as the 1996 version by Kenneth Branagh)? Perhaps the divide between literary and popular culture is not as engulfing as many assume it to be. As brilliantly put by Collins:

Popular literary culture represents a powerful counterargument to the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, since it is built, from the ground up, on the interdependency of the print and visual culture, not a world of books versus wall screens, which persists only within an ideology of reading that can accept just one form of literacy and, therefore, must demonize all electronic culture. (265)

I think that an awareness of how literary culture has changed will be extremely usefully, especially for those who explore non-canonical or non-traditional literary forms. At least within my own studies, I am sure that Collins’ discussion will serve as a sturdy platform for my explorations within the young adult genre, a genre that in due course thrived with the advent of today’s popular literary culture. If you’re seeking a way to situate your understanding of literature within the landscape of popular culture, or if you simply need to encounter an optimistic spin on the literary future of contemporary society, then I definitely suggest that you give this book a look.

Primary Source:

Collins, Jim. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

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“On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ Bring on the Books for Everybody” was first published at http://angelmatos.net on June 11th, 2013.

Finnick Katniss

Male Prostitution and [The Hunger Games] – The Case of Finnick Odair

Mockingjay Book Cover

Perhaps one of the most shocking moments of Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay is when the reader finds out that Finnick Odair–a past victor of the Hunger Games tournament who is attractive and always surrounded by suitors–reveals that he was sold and used as a sex slave for wealthy patrons residing in the Capitol. This confession is broadcasted across the dystopic nation of Panem in order to further fan the flames of hatred towards President Snow, the trilogy’s ruthless dictator. Although the novel makes no explicit mention of the terms “prostitution” or “sexual slavery,” the fact that Finnick was “pimped” is made quite obvious. As Finnick himself declares while broadcasting his confession:

“President Snow used to… sell me… my body, that is,” Finnick begins in a flat removed tone. “I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it.” (Collins, emphasis mine)

What we observe in this instance is that Finnick becomes a commodity used to satisfy the sexual appetite of the Capitol’s residents. His position can  be seen as a form of prostitution within this context  because there is an implied exchange of goods triggered through the sexual act.

Through this act of prostitution, there is no doubt that in due course, Finnick’s placement as a being coerced to sell his body to others dehumanizes him, turning him into an object designed for sexual satisfaction rather than a subject capable of making his own sexual choices.  This notion complies with Catherine A. Mackinnon’s views of sexual objectification in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, in which she posits that “To be sexually objectified means having a social meaning imposed on your being that defines you as to be sexually used, according to your desired uses, and then using you that way” (422). Seeing as Finnick has no agency in terms of his sexual choices, objectification becomes a very apt term to describe his situation.

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Suzanne Collins’s novel presents a situation that is not commonly discussed in society, much less in young adult fiction: men as sexual commodities, and the existence of male prostitution. This, in part, has to do much with the sexual division of labor that is many times imposed in society. Most of the theoretical and critical treatments of sexual objectification, including pornography and prostitution, are usually focused on the degradation of females as a way of reinforcing a patriarchal and chauvinistic status quo. But what happens in the case of a man who is sexually objectified and approached as a hedonistic commodity? I’m not sure I have the answer to this question, but Collins’s Mockingjay presents a unique treatment of this case.

Finnick Odair points out that sometimes he was sold to patrons for an extravagant price, but other times, he was literally offered as a gift. Gayle Rubin, in The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, focuses on how women many times are approached as a material good exchanged in a transaction. Although women are most certainly part of this transaction, they are not an active agent within this exchange, but rather, a conduit to this exchange: they become a gift, while the man in charge of facilitating the transaction becomes the giver. This exchange, as Rubin argues, solely the benefit of social organization to “men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges” (Rubin 243-244).

Mockingjay offers a paradigm in which the gender roles are reversed, primarily since the gift, in this case, is a man rather than a woman. Nonetheless, this notion of gifting still promotes the prominence of patriarchy and chauvinism seeing as it helps to cement President Snow’s authority over Panem and the Capitol, and it still allows him to have absolute control over social organization: through this process of gifting Finnick to patrons, Snow upholds his absolute authority (and hierarchy) over the “weaker” Finnick.

Interestingly, though, in Mockingjay, we observe how Finnick takes advantage of his lower position in order to regain some of the power that Snow tried to take away from him. In other words, he uses the very power that the Capitol and Snow possess in order to counterattack the system. As Finnick points out during his confession:

“I wasn’t the only one, but I was the most popular,” he says. “And perhaps the most defenseless, because the people I loved were so defenseless. To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewelry, but I found a much more valuable form of payment.” (Collins)

Finnick soon reveals that “secrets” became his preferred form of currency. Seeing as his patrons viewed him in as weak, delicate, and vulnerable, they shared no hesitation whatsoever to open up to Finnick and share their deepest and darkest secrets with him, touching upon every subject from the sexual to the economic. Secrets  were the currency that Finnick “saved” as a reservoir of personal power. Unfortunately, this power did not benefit him personally, but rather, it was usurped by District 13  as a way of intensifying hostility towards the Capitol. However, it is interesting to see how this power, despite coming from a morally corrupt source, was still able to be channeled for emancipatory means: secrets exposed the hypocrisy and decay of President Snow and the residents of the Capitol, which in due course helped to foster a thirst for rebellion against the very powers that converted Finnick into a sexual object.

References

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. (E-book version)

Mackinnon, Catherine A. “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Rubin,  Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.