Do we sufficiently recognise the power of teenage fiction and can - or should - academics, educators, writers and publishers become more conscious of their responsibilities in using the power of books and stories for the good of individuals and society?
The central focus of my academic research for over seventeen years has been popular narrative. Indeed, if I have an ‘ology’ then it is narratology, since my PhD dissertation focused on a particular type of fiction, its content, its marketing, its specific narratology, the craft of authoring it and cultural implications arising from it.
The fact is that people have specific uses for fiction, and these uses are complex and difficult to analyse. Educators and therapists can benefit from bringing this understanding to bear in their curriculum choices.
Having been a long-term member of the Association for Research into Popular Fictions, I am well aware that fiction both reflects the culture of its time and discusses the cultural concerns of the moment. While this is one reason why mass-market fiction seems ephemeral, texts re-emerge surprisingly often after decades out of print.
Popular fiction helps people to make sense of the world, to come to terms with change and the impact of new ideas in the world we live in. In recent decades the pace of change has been exceptionally rapid, perhaps a reason why the consumption of popular fictions (and I include television, new media and film in this) has multiplied to a vast scale.
Stories as Therapy
Many individuals’ ability to learn is severely obstructed by suppressed emotion, feelings of anger and negativity arising from circumstances that they feel are beyond their control. Many therapists believe, based on observation and professional practice, that by introducing such individuals to narratives that examine similar circumstances they may find expression for their emotions, learn to deal with them, and develop the sense of empowerment that has hitherto been lacking. Blake Morrison discusses the widening application of reading as therapy in The Guardian article The Reading Cure.
My post-doctoral research focus was fiction for ‘Young Adults’ (roughly, 10 to 16 year-olds), in whatever mass medium. I took a particular interest in spectacular successes marketed (and often published) by Scholastic, probably the largest distributor of children’s books in English, from where stem the Babysitter series, Point Horror, and Animorphs, among many others.
I have also followed the careers of several British authors writing for this age group, including Teresa Breslin and Catherine Fisher whose work especially deals with troubled teenagers.
Reading in Special Education
While reading itself, and the especial relationship that develops between reader and text as they negotiate meaning, offers a unique and valuable experience, narratives often gain extra strength when rendered in another format or medium.
Video/DVD technology is now so ubiquitous that film versions of texts are regularly recycled, and a video of Ken Loach’s excellent film of Kes is readily available. It was through watching the effect of this film on one particular pupil that one therapist strengthened her belief in the power of narrative to offer expression of suppressed and destructive emotions. That a physically handicapped adolescent might compare himself and his life opportunities with his brother’s or his friend’s seems reasonable. The comparison may fuel negativity both in those relationships, and in the handicapped person’s ability to cope with the demands of the learning environment.
The revelation of Kes is that even a physically able boy has to deal with the anxiety of adolescence, with bullying and unresponsive adults, and with failure and disappointment. The handicapped boy who wept quietly while watching the video was enabled to develop a vocabulary and expression for his life experience by an observant and intelligent teacher.
The story of Keith Gray’s Creepers similarly points out that life is difficult for all adolescents, that the strictures of friendship, failure and even death have to be borne and come to terms with.
Find my short review of Catherine Fisher's book Belin's Hill here.
Find my discussion of Bryan Talbot's therapeutic graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat here.