Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature

June 4, 2009

If you thought J.K. Rowling was pushing any boundaries with Cedric Diggory's much-discussed demise in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, clearing the way for Harry's budding sexual interest in Cho Chang, think again: you have been living in a much kinder, gentler world of adolescent fiction than the one explored by Kathryn James in Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature.

The novels forming the focus of her study feature colonial atrocity (in both historical fiction and post-apocalyptic narratives replicating the Australian colonial enterprise), sexualised murder and parental sexual abuse, as well as sibling incest. The material is raw, edgy and utterly persuasive in its assertion of the cultural centrality of death and sex in young adult fiction. As James notes: "The frequency of death's appearance in books published for children has increased markedly in the period post-1970, yet academic analyses of the subject remain limited." Her treatment begins to address this gap in scholarship. Although her focus is admittedly on Australian literature, she argues that "what (she) has to say goes beyond the specificity of 'local' criticism and thus has broad applicability to other Anglophone adolescent fictions".

James examines four popular forms of fiction written for the adolescent audience. Commonwealth readers will be especially interested in her discussion of historical novels, both those that construct a masculinist national identity through the experience of combat in the First World War and those that address (or attempt to redress) the colonial encounter with indigenous peoples. However, contemporary realist fiction provides the grittiest material for James' analysis. As she observes: "The development of the YA (young adult fiction) label during the 1960s coincided with the emergence of the adolescent 'problem' novel, which introduced readers to a variety of personal, social and political problems ... today it is said to be a defining feature of the genre."

Here she analyses novels that "explore a plethora of topics including sexual abuse, incest, teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, violence, suicide, and terminal illness". Finally, fantasy and speculative post-disaster novels round out the discussion, with James finding that in attempting to imagine alternatives to current and historical gendered subject positions, most authors are doomed to repeat the ideological shortcomings of the past.

Heavily influenced by the work of John Stephens, especially his Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction (1992), and by Elisabeth Bronfen's Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (1992), James grounds her exploration in a dense interweaving of theoretical discourses of death and gender, with frequent nods to Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva and Georges Bataille. Her central premise insists on the link between death and woman: "With their destabilising, enigmatic nature, representations of death are inexorably associated ... with those of the (similarly) multiply coded feminine body." She enthusiastically embraces Efrat Tseelon's argument that woman "is a signifier for death (lack, castration), and her beauty is a veil for death (the illusion of wholeness)".

Perhaps I have reached the appropriate moment to confess that although James' work is intellectually compelling, its most immediate effect on this reader was the evocation of a profound but uneasy nostalgia for many things: for a time when the shooting of the rabid Old Yeller was the epitome of tragedy in adolescent fiction, when critics were not driven to read the female body as culturally coded as death by virtue of its gender, when romance might be regarded as one of life's consolations rather than a lie concocted by the patriarchal order, and when the pronoun "this" modified a specific noun rather than referring to the general concept discussed in the previous sentences - rather old-fashioned notions, I know, and the remnants of a more rule-bound, less ideologically self-aware cultural moment.

Uncompromising in its refusal to sentimentalise either adolescent experience or its representation, Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature forces its readers to confront what is at stake in the ideologies underlying fiction for young adults.

Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature

By Kathryn James, Routledge, 220pp, £65.00, ISBN 9780415964937, Published 9 December 2008

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