Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Novel readers live longer (or, how Bakhtin predicted Jellicoe Road)

Here is a dude who should, at first glance have no place on this blog:
I mean, right?  The whole point of me separating Lit from Woe from Woe from Lit was so that I could talk YA and creative writing separately from Russian lit and literary theory.

But hear me out.  Because I am about to rock a comparison between a dense-as-hell Russian literary theorist, and this:

So, yesterday I went to the Russian lit equivalent of a Major Rock Show, going to Willamette U up in Salem to hear the great and fascinating Caryl Emerson speak (see Woe from Lit for a nerd-love write-up on that).  Her second presentation, on the lifelong, searing hatred that Tolstoy had for Shakespeare was wonderful (Tolstoy, it turns out, was a solipsistic ass), and can certainly be made pertinent to a discussion on form and humor in YA literature, but Bakhtin is who I need to get out there to the YA world.

Bakhtin was all about the novel.  He thought that, compared to other "genres" (lyric, epic – this is theory-speak, not pubworld-speak), novels were the only things able to capture REAL life without limiting or reducing it in some way.  I don't want to make this like a dang academic paper, so here are the main takeaways about Bakhtin's position:

1)  We need to live in a "novel" space to fulfill our potential as human beings.

2)  People inside novels are neither dead nor fictional.

3)  Wobble is a sign of life.

4)  Something can only be true if it is incomplete, if you can't capture it;  novels are never wholly finished.

5)  Novel readers live longer than lyric/epic/non-fiction readers.

[How Jellicoe Road adds up, and immortality in Hogwarts, after the jump]

Now, Bakhtin's concern was with literary forms that existed well before YA lit became a thing, but.  That doesn't mean he wasn't SO ON POINT with how much of the most successful YA literature is formed.  Case in point:  Jellicoe Road, which works on both the meta-level (how we readers are reacting to it), and the in-world level (how the characters are reacting to their own story within the narrative).

First, a great part of both Taylor's and Hannah's journeys revolve around the manuscript Hannah has about the five kids from the 1980s – they are literally using a "novel" space to find their meaning as people.  

This ties directly into the second point, the idea that characters in books are not dead or fictional:  for Taylor and Hannah, the five kids in the MS are very alive and real, they have potential that people in history don't.  For the readers, both that set of characters, as well as Taylor's contemporaries, are real, and the craft with which they were created by Marchetta brings them alive in our imaginations – the book may end, the cover may close, but Taylor and the Cadet are real;  Narnie and Webb are real.

Points three and four tie together, too:  when Bakhtin says "wobble," he means a lack of form, a lack of clamps on the imagination.  Jellicoe Road wobbles all over the place, and this framework for progression is what makes it so STRONG as a story – it's the same thing that makes "show, don't tell" such a ubiquitous piece of advise.  A stepwise story is limited and unimaginative;  it does not invite the reader to participate, nor does it make the characters sing.

The idea of unfinished-ness is a part of this.  Novels, good novels, are complex enough and broad enough and inviting enough that even when they are over, they go on.  The characters go on, the story goes on, the readers take it with them, on and on and on.  This is one of the things, I think, that makes YA lit such a booming market:  young readers want these worlds that go on, these stories that aren't actually finished.  Their lives aren't finished, either, after all, and there is so much about the future that begs speculation – they want characters and stories that are in the same place.

Now, the last point, about novel readers living longer, is Bakhtin's way of saying that by learning how to read good novels (and, even better, learning how to write good novels), you will live on with the stories. Not literally, of course, nor would future readers have any clue who read a story years or decades or centuries before them, but by reading, you become part of the endless story.  You read Shakespeare, you are part of that world;  you read Pushkin (in the case of Russian lit), you are part of that world;  you read Harry Potter, you belong to Hogwarts as much as the characters do.  YOU LIVE ON.

Novel-haters don't get that.  They get boring lives.  We get immortality.

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