Anna Day’s The Fandom and Dystopia YA – Sean Donnelly

Ostensibly a review of Anna Day’s The Fandom, Sean’s piece is also a consideration of dystopia YA, a subgenre of the ever-popular “speculative fiction.” His review also makes me think that YA’s ripe for something new… I wonder what it will be?
Leah

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The Fandom
is an intriguingly meta-textual take on the now well-worn tropes of YA dystopian fiction. The protagonist, Violet, is obsessed with the YA novel The Gallow’s Dance, and when she visits Comic-Con to meet the cast of the film adaptation, she is miraculously transported into the world of the story. Accidentally causing the death of the novel’s protagonist, Rose, Violet is forced to play-act as her heroine to fulfil the narrative pattern and transport herself back home.

The Fandom is highly self-aware about its generic identity, as Violet frequently comments knowingly on the creaky predictability of the plot she is forced to re-enact. The novelty of this self-awareness soon rubs off, however, and I found myself longing for a text which not only winks at conventions but actively challenges them. The Gallow’s Dance storyworld is a straightforward replay of familiar YA dystopian conventions. There is the stark social divide (between the genetically modified Gems and exploited Imps), and of course, the rebel girl who leads a rebellion. This means The Fandom adheres religiously to the plot formula it pretends to subvert.

More interesting is the attempt to capture the strange phenomenon that is the dystopian fandom. The boom in the popularity of dystopian YA has transformed an often grim genre into something more akin to high fantasy, with elaborately rendered storyworlds and mythic narrative patterns supplanting social commentary and political parable. It is difficult to imagine Brave New World or 1984 stimulating enthusiastic fandom creativity in the same way as Divergent or The Maze Runner. The engagement of these texts with the contemporary is often ambiguous or marginal at best, calling into question what exactly ‘dystopian fiction’ means here outside moody cityscapes.

Violet’s entry into Gallow’s Dance registers this generic confusion, as she realises her favourite dystopia is not an exciting wonderland but a brutally unequal place with a toxic political culture. Similarly, her admiration for the romance between Rose and Willow vanishes once she meets Willow and registers his disinterest in changing the corrupt political system from which he benefits. Violet no longer hero-worships Rose, deciding that to prioritise love over a political cause is selfish rather than romantic. Her own romance with the good-hearted Ash is, by contrast, pleasingly equitable. I have read too many YA dystopian novels in which the heroine ‘learns’ rebellion from a male mentor, or else is chastised by a more radical male paramour for her timidity and passivity. None of that happens in The Fandom and it is a refreshing change.

However, other problematic elements of YA dystopia remain troublingly intact. Female friendship has a chequered history in this genre: think of the toxic frenemies Shay and Tally in Uglies, or the bullying and sabotage between the eves in Only Ever Yours. Although this text is ostensibly centred on the friendship between Violet and Alice, I was disappointed by how much Violet -and the text itself- seems to despise her. Violet’s resentment of Alice’s talent, glamour and confidence is palpable, and when it appears that Alice may have betrayed her, Violet immediately assumes the worst and gleefully participates in slut-shaming her. She never questions her misogynistic treatment of her supposed best friend, and Alice is kept at a narrative distance for most of the text, conveyed to the reader as narcissistic and self-absorbed, thereby potentially justifying her treatment. YALMC

Even more troubling is the novel’s muddled treatment of race and racism. The dynamic between the Imps and the Gems is a simplistic rendering of inequality lifted directly from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. This exaggerated binary bears little relevance to contemporary dynamics of inequality, but it is given a modern gloss through clumsy references to pseudo-racist rhetoric. The Imps are frequently disparaged as “apes” and “stupid monkeys”, but the text provides little nuance to the theme of prejudice outside this language. Worse, the characterisation of the only named black character, Thorn, perpetuates racist stereotypes. Thorn is a violent psychopath whose physical strength, mentally instability and threatening sexuality render him the sub-human brute of racist fantasy. Although Violet seeks to undo the regressive connotations of the romance plot, she never questions the canonical characterisation of Thorn as a frightening and intimidating figure. That she is outraged by being described as a “stupid monkey” also reconfigures the experience of racist abuse to centre a white girl as its victim. The narrative is in part a process of Violet learning the transformative potential of political rage, but Thorn’s rage is only ever conveyed as excessive and in need of containment.

Representation of race is at the centre of contemporary debates about YA, both in the growing recognition that #WeNeedDiverseBooks and in the call for #OwnVoices better able to convey subjective experiences of marginalisation. in this context, The Fandom‘s half-hearted and muddled rendering of race makes it both surprisingly outdated and all too familiar. YA dystopian franchises have been consistently criticised for their failure to think more deeply about race, both in the disturbing normative whiteness of texts like The Giver and Uglies, and in the centring of white perspectives in narratives of oppression. This is one convention of the genre ripe for critique, but The Fandom limits its satirical gaze to lower hanging fruit.

Nonetheless, the novelty of The Fandom‘s premise does manage to inject some new life into a now saturated sub-genre. Sitting uncomfortably between love-letter and lampoon, it is perhaps most valuable in its registering of the curiously modern phenomenon of the dystopian fandom, and its casting of the fangirl as a masterful creative in her own right.

Sean Donnelly is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, and he currently has a CFP out for Reading YA, a half-day symposium at UoB.

 

 

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Feature of the Week – Djinn by Sang Kromah

Hauntingly Captivating

Final -Djinn - Run 4 March-2
Bijou Fitzroy is delightfully real – despite her unusual abilities. Homeschooled by an overprotective grandmother who’s constantly moving them around the world, Bijou is desperate for a normal life and thinks high school will give it to her.

She’s utterly wrong. 

Moving to Sykesville and enrolling in the local high school mark the end of anything normal. Bijou’s world explodes. Her quirks become abilities straight from African myth and legend. Creatures of nightmares don’t stay put, and Bijou discovers worlds within and apart from hers.  Oh, and there’s the usual high school drama too. At the center of a war far older than any human living, Bijou must reach deep within herself and the collective abilities of her new friends to save them all.

Djinn is part of the changing face of YA fantasy, one you definitely don’t want to miss!

Reading YA, Interview with Sean Donnelly

I recently had a chance to ask Sean Donnelly — host of Reading YA, taking place at the University of Birmingham on the 24th of May 2018 — a few questions about YA, his PhD on YA dystopian fiction, and, of course, the symposium.

I’m absolutely in love with his figuring of “the dystopian girl.” She feels rather McRobbie circa “The Aftermath of Feminism” but with a uniquely YA twist.  — Leah    

 

CFP Sean

1) Sean, why a symposium on Reading YA? I know your research focuses on the topic, but I’m guessing there’s more behind the drive for this event.

My initial goal for the event was modest: I just wanted researchers interested in YA, in the same room, talking to each other. There’s a growing number of UK postgrads and ERCs interested in YA, but we’re all so spread out, and it can be difficult to find each other. There have only been a few symposiums or conferences on YA in the UK: one at the University of Nottingham in 2004, organised by David Belbin, and one at Cambridge in 2010, organised by our keynote, Dr Maria Nikolajeva. So much has happened in YA since 2010 that it seemed like the right time for an event to document and discuss all those changes. YA is so often subsumed into the much more established field of children’s literature, but this is starting to change, and I want “Reading YA” to provide a space for the discussion of YA as a field of fiction in its own right.

By complete coincidence, a few days after pitching the idea for “Reading YA”, I saw the CfP for “Identities in YA”, a brilliant day conference at the University of Northampton which provided exactly what I’d been waiting for: YA researchers, in the same room, talking to each other! That happened late last December, and it was the first event of its kind in the UK since I started my PhD in 2015. “Identities in YA” was so stuffed with YA researchers and enthusiasts that it really solidified my conviction that we need more YA-specific events at UK universities to keep the conversation going.


2) Please do tell us a bit about your research? Anything special grabbed your attention lately?

My research has evolved so much since 2015 when I first started my PhD. My initial vision for the project was an investigation of YA dystopian fiction in the context of convergence culture, meaning the dissolving boundaries between producers and consumers in the digital age. My approach was heavily influenced by Henry Jenkins, and I thought I’d be looking at fandom interpretation and transmedia adaptation, thinking about the openness of these narratives and how this shifts how we think about ‘dystopia’.

For most of its history, dystopian fiction has operated somewhere between allegory, parable, and polemic. Authors have typically used the future setting to articulate social and political commentary through relatively fixed meanings: think of The Handmaid’s Tale and its critique of America’s religious right, or the satirising of consumerism in Brave New World. The YA dystopian texts which became ubiquitous in popular culture in the late 2010s are quite different, however, in that it’s often quite difficult to pin down what they are trying to say about the contemporary. I wondered if this ambiguity was at the root of all this fandom activity, encouraging speculation and multiple interpretations, and started my research from this suspicion.

As I began to read more and more YA dystopian novels written in the last decade, I became more and more interested in what I call ‘the dystopian girl’. This character is everywhere: there are so many reluctant girl revolutionaries in YA dystopia that it’s more noticeable now when she doesn’t appear! Part of this is what we might call the “Katniss Effect,” but I think there’s more at stake with this character type than formula, and I see her as a site of fundamental ambivalence about the social and the political. So often the Dystopian Girl sits uncomfortably between resistance and capitulation to oppressive power structures, and each of my chapters is based around a different aspect of this ambivalence, whether that’s regarding feminism, racial inequality or the use of political violence. I think a lot about how the dystopian girl typifies a mode of subjectivity which has become prevalent in Western media in the past decade: a defeated resignation to an understanding of the world as being in interminable crisis, leaving only the possibility of survivalism. The dystopian girl often indicates just how difficult it is to envision utopian transformation, but she also represents a stubborn insistence on hopefulness in the face of a world increasingly perceived as dystopian.

A book I’ve been working with a lot recently is Antero Garcia’s Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature. There’s a small (but growing) canon of texts in YA studies, mostly books by Robyn McCallum, Maria Nikolajeva, Michael Cart, and Allison Waller, but Garcia’s is one I’ve heard very little about. This might be because it is geared towards high school teachers rather than academics, but I’ve found it really useful and insightful (and am currently entirely remodelling my Brilliant Club module based on his insistence on using literary theory more in classrooms). It provides some provoking critique of the commercialisation of the genre, which was very common in earlier discussions of YA but become increasingly marginalised, ironically at the same time the genre has become more commercially successful than ever before. Garcia bridges this critique really well with analysis of race and gender in mainstream YA, motivated by his experiences of teaching predominantly black and Latino high school students who struggle to find stories reflecting their own experiences. The chapter I’m currently writing is all about the notion of the dystopian girl as a figure of normative whiteness. The marginality of non-white perspectives has been a problem in YA for a very long time, but what I find troubling about the dystopian girl is that she often works to centre whiteness in narratives of structural oppression and prejudice in a way which erases the specificity of these experiences to POC.


3) I started my PhD on YA in 2012, in what we might call academic YA’s dark ages. I believe things are changing–for the better–how do you feel? What’s it like working on a YA PhD now? How have you seen the climate shift since starting?

When I started my PhD in 2015 there wasn’t much happening concerning YA fiction in UK academia; I’m certainly the first person to undertake a PhD on YA at the University of Birmingham. I see a lot of interest in researching YA from undergraduates writing their dissertations, but YA is very much yet to established institutionally within universities here. Until “Identities in YA”, I’d only see papers on YA at conferences tangentially related to the topic: the brilliant “Girlhood” conference in 2016 at Warwick, or the “Teenage Kicks” conference at the University of Kingston in 2017. Both of these were explicitly interdisciplinary in their approach, and it absolutely makes sense to discuss YA fiction alongside films, television and other forms of media. Part of what makes the field so exciting is that YA moves so fluidly between contemporary forms of media in ways that other contemporary genres often do not, but this also contributes to the problem of YA struggling to find its own space for discussion within universities. This is exacerbated by the more fundamental reluctance to think about YA in the context of literary theory. YA is still tarnished with the idea of it being a ‘soft’ or ‘easy’ genre, without the intellectual standing of children’s literature, whose geniuses are well-known and recognised in the mainstream literary canon. The other side of this lack of esteem for YA, however, is that this is also what makes researching it so exciting. YA has yet to be institutionalised and is still very much up for grabs for researchers interested in bringing new ideas to the study of literature.

4) Could you tell us a little bit about your funding partners? Who did
you approach and why?

“Reading YA” is being funded by the Contemporary Centre for Literature and Culture. My supervisors, Dr Zara Dinnen (now departed for Queen Mary, University of London) and Dr Danielle Fuller were/are both central to the event planning of CCLC, and the Centre runs talks and workshops throughout the academic year. I’d previously given a talk on YA dystopias for the CCLC in my second year and have been talking about holding an event on YA at UoB since I started my PhD. We all felt the final year was a good point for it to happen, and although I’ve had to scale down my initial, grandiose plans for a full weekend and an international conference (!), I’m really happy with what we’ve come up with (not least because it means no morning rush!). It’s also going to be held at Westmere House, which is the shiny new postgraduate research hub and provides a nice link to the current postgrads at the university.

Our partner event, “Writing YA”, is being funded by the literature department and will be held the following day. It’s being organised by undergraduates and will feature a range of YA authors discussing their work and leading creative workshops. The hope is that the confluence between the two events will lead to connections being made between literature students and creative writers, authors and academics, and undergrads, postgrads and ERCs. YA tends to spark impassioned discussion, and I really hope the pairing of Reading and Writing YA will demonstrate the vitality and viability of YA inside and outside the academy.

Review – A Death of Cold by Jim Sellers

 

Death
Three Stars

Jim Sellers sent me (Leah) a copy of A Death of Cold in exchange for an honest review. I’m happy to do that!

I came to Jacky’s story without having reading Jacky the Brave, Jim’s first story concerning Jacky Fraser. While I did skim a summary of that book before reading this, I don’t think you *have* to read Jacky the Brave first – Jim does a pretty excellent job of sharing enough of Jacky’s history – but it is always worth knowing about prior books!

In A Death of Cold, Jacky’s ready for a change. Having learned to play the bagpipes to reconnect with his dad after his mother passed away, Jacky has become quite the virtuoso, but he’s ready for new challenges — science and tech and a school overseas that specialises in the subjects. Jacky’s dad does also have a new girlfriend; overseas tech school might be appealing on several levels. However, before Jacky can even get his application submitted (his dad’s in the dark), his flight to one final performance with The New Caledonians crash lands on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Jacky survives, but all his plans are in pieces.

I wasn’t sure what to think about the premise of this book. The plane crash intrigued me (I’m pretty sure Caroline B Cooney wrote a book about a plane crash that my child-self devoured, circa maybe the mid or early 90s). Bagpipes. I was, admittedly, sceptical about the bagpipes. Who plays them apart from balding-men-in-kilts? (Yes, I know nothing about bagpipes). The teenager wants to give up playing that which he was once desperate to play. I get that. (I left my high school marching band mid-way through my senior year because I just couldn’t any longer).

While the bagpipes may have won me over, Jacky’s story didn’t quite resonate. I’m sure there are readers out there who will adore Jacky, but, for me, Jacky’s voice sometimes slipped into “adult writing a teen,” and I was disappointed in how little the plane crash featured. It felt more like a giant inconvenience with potentially life-altering ramifications than a life or death situation. In part, because the plot jumps from the plane crash to a trip Jacky takes with his dad, presumably as Jacky muses about his life while awaiting rescue. The threads between pieces just weren’t there for me.

All in all 3 out of 5 stars.

 

Review Preview (Books)

Because I’ve done a little too much reading (not really a problem) and not enough writing about that reading (a little bit of a problem), the next 4-weeks are about catching up!*

*It’s highly likely I’ll be in the exact same position in 4-weeks time, but such is life.

YALMC is still happily taking guest reviews
(The review of Anna Day’s The Fandom – out this week – is by YALMC member Sean Donnelly)!

Review Preview

Attending Identities in YA and The Art of Being Me – By Alex Cojocaru

I’ve been SO looking forward to sharing this one with you!  Alex beautifully articulates the need for YA depicting adolescent identities across the spectrum of possibilities and not just the overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, cisgender, and heterosexual norm. Alex also vividly describes why HE needs to include YA. Why it’s beyond time for the field to be studied as a field.

Thank you, Alex, for taking the time to so wonderfully reflect on identities in YA, the fabulous Lisa Williamson, and Anthony’s hard work in making Identities in YA not just happen but happen so successfully.
–Leah

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I remember being approached to assist with the Identities in YA conference just a couple of weeks before starting my second year at the University of Northampton. It had been a good few months since I’d heard of it for the first time (Anthony Stepniak expressed his want to run something like it for a while) and I wasn’t expecting everything to happen so quickly. Obviously, I agreed to help because, as a Creative Writing undergraduate and a writer of YA myself, I couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass.

It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway!) that an event like the symposium was long overdue. YA fiction has so many followers now, so many people interested in the ins and outs of it from both a personal and an academic perspective, yet it’s only just started making its proper debut in schools and Universities. I personally never got to experience talking about YA books at all when I was in school, so I’d been waiting for an event like this for years. It was amazing to see so many academics gathering together to talk about books and characters they appreciate and a great opportunity for networking. At the end of the day, I was even pulled aside to discuss LGBTQIA+ identities in more detail – after making comments throughout the duration of the symposium.

I see Young Adult Literature as inclusive of most identities and I feel I can speak for a lot of people, no matter the age bracket, when I say we all like to see ourselves being represented in the media, when it’s in a positive or at least informative light. The fact that the author Lisa Williamson was in the conversation as part of Identities in YA had me on the edge of my seat from the very beginning.

untitled-design-82.pngWhen I came out as trans, it was gradual. The news spread out over the course of one year. It was hard telling family, but even harder making the social transition when every single person in my life knew me as somebody completely different. It was like introducing myself to everyone a second time, telling them to forget everything they thought they knew. I hadn’t read The Art of Being Normal (2015) by Lisa Williamson before the end of last year. My interest in LGBTQIA+ fiction (I hardly even knew it existed before I came to University… (which says something in itself) started with David Levithan and John Green’s novel, Will Grayson Will Grayson (2010). I had yet to discover a character I identified with more than the lowercase Will Grayson until I was encouraged to read Lisa’s novel, even before coming out to everyone. I’d definitely heard of The Art of Being Normal before, but maybe the reason I put off reading it for so long was because I was scared of reading something I knew I was going to relate to on a whole other level, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about that!

After reading The Art of Being Normal  – I felt great. Weirdly emotional, though I’m known for crying at any and all types of media ever. I suddenly wanted to meet Lisa so badly I hardly got any sleep the night before the event. There is usually so much controversy surrounding talking about your identity with people, because I often come across people who point out that sometimes, being so open about it is exactly the problem, as you’re only drawing attention to the fact that you’re different. I don’t agree nor disagree, but after roughly 19 years of keeping my mouth shut – (not for that reason though) – I felt I deserved to be involved with the symposium, I deserved to enjoy hearing theories about literature I read and wrote religiously these days, and I deserved to meet Lisa Williamson!

So I got to the lecture hall early to set up for Anthony’s interview with Lisa, stressing far too much over the placement of the camera. I hung out, took some photos, and when everybody finally arrived after the last panel was over, I sat in the middle of one of the top rows with my friends and fellow undergraduates. Not only was it my first author event, but it was probably the first time I teared up at a passage being read out in front of the person who wrote it. My apologies still for being unable to control the inner ‘fanboy’.

Once the interview was over people were racing down the steps clutching their copies of The Art of Being Normal and wanting a minute of Lisa’s time. I hung back and made sure I was last – I don’t like being rushed – and this is where I have to commend Lisa on her patience because it took me two minutes of rambling before I managed to get my name out. I didn’t think someone asking you for something as simple as your name was such a difficult question to answer. Legally for now my name is – the extended feminine version of Alex. I said Alexander. Though it wasn’t personal, my anxiety at such a significant part of my identity had me feeling like I had to justify the use of the full name, but Lisa understood and gave me a moment or two to get it off my chest before we got into the questions I’d wanted to ask all throughout the interview.

Lisa and AlexTalking to Lisa was surprisingly comfortable, and I say surprisingly because it’s not often I come across people who understand what it’s like being who I am. Lisa is not trans herself, but you don’t have to be in order to know and understand feeling different. I remember one of the questions I asked her was, “do you get any backlash from people who feel you can’t write about a subject such as being trans, when you aren’t trans yourself?” She said no, and honestly? I understand completely why she doesn’t.

There are plenty of criticisms of how cishet people shouldn’t write about things they don’t have first-hand knowledge of, but Lisa has worked with trans people before, and while I can’t speak for them all, I thought even the most minute detail in the novel (Kate criticising her body, the excitement at discovering somebody else in her life is trans also, etc.) was something to relate to. I feel like these minutiae are often overlooked in general discussions and for those who are unfamiliar with what it’s like to be trans, especially pre-op, it’s something people should aim to educate themselves on.

By Alex Cojocaru
Twitter: @alxcojocaru
Blog:    http://comingsoonx.co.vu/YALMC

 

CFP – Reading YA Fiction Symposium

Personally, I can’t wait for this one!
I’ve known Sean for several years now, so he’ll host a stellar afternoon.
Maria Nikolajeva is also sure to deliver an excellent keynote.
YALMC tribe, you should definitely submit.
I will be – Leah 

CFP Sean

Reading YA Fiction Symposium, Thursday 24th May, Westmere House, University of Birmingham

YA Fiction has boomed in popularity in the twenty-first century, from blockbuster franchises Twilight and The Hunger Games to critically acclaimed works by authors including Phillip Pullman, Patrick Ness, and Malorie Blackman. Once valued primarily as a pedagogic tool, YA is beginning to emerge from the shadow of Children’s Literature to become an exciting field of study in its own right.  Critics including Roberta Trites, Robyn McCallum, Allison Waller and Crag Hill have produced complex theoretical readings of YA, establishing the groundwork for specialist scholarship in this area.

Reading YA seeks to provide a space for discussion of YA as a significant field of cultural production. There is a growing number of YA specialists in the UK, and we hope this event will provide a space for discussion and dissemination of this research.

The confirmed keynote is Maria Nikolajeva, a Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, renowned internationally for her work on children’s and YA literature.

Suggested topics may include but are not limited to:

  • Literary theory and YA
  • Historical accounts of YA from the 1940s to the contemporary
  • YA and convergence culture: fandom and readership studies
  • Genre theory and YA
  • Analysis of YA sub-genres (romance, dystopia, horror, comedy, fantasy)
  • YA and narratives/theories of adolescence
  • #WeNeedDiverseBooks: representation of race and ethnicity in YA
  • #OwnVoices in YA: how YA functions as a space for the conveyance of marginalised perspectives
  • YA and LBGTQ+

The event will form part of a two-day event on YA at the University of Birmingham. The second, ‘Writing YA’ will take place on Friday May 25th and will involve YA authors discussing their experiences of writing, publishing, and reading in a series of workshops and author events. Delegates are encouraged to attend both in order to participate in an exciting discussion of YA between readers and writers.

We welcome abstracts of no more than 200-words for 20-minute papers from across subject areas including film, television, literature, education and psychology. We are also open to ideas for panels on the above or related topics. The symposium invites papers from academics, early career researchers, postgraduate research students and undergraduates alike.

Please send all abstracts to sdd338@bham.ac.uk.

The deadline for submission of abstracts is Friday 9th of March 2018