I was looking at a New York Times bestseller list from a couple weeks ago today, and I noticed:
- #2: Twilight: Directors' Notebook. A book about the making of a movie based on a novel about a girl in love with a member of the undead. (Twilight itself was on the series list, of course, along with House of Night, which is also about vampires.)
- #4: Thirteen Reasons Why. A novel about a teenage girl who kills herself and thirteen people who influenced her to do it.
- #6: If I Stay. A novel about a teenage girl in a coma, making the choice between living and dying.
- #7: Wintergirls. A novel about a teenage girl whose best friend has died of an eating disorder, pushing herself to that same point.
* I should add that I absolutely don't mean this to criticize any of the authors or editors involved for publishing these books just as they are, as they're all interesting and important books just as they are, and authors have to tell the stories that come to them as they come. I'm just interested in the what-if of switching the genders, and the why of books about this particular gender and death being so popular.
I thought all this just sort of as a thought experiment, and then I thought, Well, did I read any books like that when I was a teenage girl? And one title leapt to mind immediately: Love Story. I don't remember how I found that 1970s classic weepie during my freshman year of high school, but I know I adored the weepiness; I saw the movie once but read the book multiple times. I'm not sure that falls under the same rubric as the books above, though, except maybe Twilight. . . . What I loved about it was the romance, and the way the romance was sharpened by death, how much more sweet and sad the story became when Jenny died. (I read a couple of Lurlene McDaniels, too, until I figured out the formula and got bored with them.) But Wintergirls, Thirteen Reasons Why, and If I Stay aren't so much about a romance with a living, breathing boy as they are about a romance with death itself (as I understand them; I haven't read If I Stay), and in Twilight, of course, death and the boy are one and the same.
So this made me think of a brilliant passage late in Jaci Moriarty's The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. Jaci puts these words in the mouth of a decidedly ambiguous character, so I'm not sure their wisdom gets recognized and appreciated, but the passage reads:
It is my belief that the teenager is a person with three main characteristics. . . . First, teenagers get caught up in their own heads. . . . teenagers think about themselves a lot. They obsess about what they look like, what people think of them, what the point of life is. So number one, too much introspection.Death's finality and hugeness feeds introspection. It is extreme and exciting -- the approach to it, anyway, and the dodging of it, or the struggle or choice to embrace it. And it provides an end, a certainty that has its own comfort (though also terror) in the up and down.
. . . Now, number two, the teenager needs excitement--it's a reaction, I guess, to the realization that life is ordinary. In childhood, it's fresh and exciting, but then you start to see that the grown-up world is boring. So you look for hysteria and drama. You scream at concerts, you shriek when you see each other, you ride on rollercoasters, you get into alcohol and drugs. All year I've been hearing you guys use words like conspiracy, compulsion, pathology -- you get post-traumatic stress from exams; you're always running from the cops. I mean, you guys are just desperate for excitement. You're looking for extremes. You're looking for a climax.
. . . And finally, teenagers lose their sense of perspective. They're stuck between childhood and adulthood so they don't know whether they're up or down. One day, they're dressing up to look old and get into a bar; next day, they're putting on their cute voice to get the child's fare on the bus. It's like they're in an elevator all the time, so they can't judge where they are." (p. 404-405)
But that wouldn't explain why there are so few books about boys and death. So one other theory here (which I'm pretty sure isn't original to me): More than anything else, teenage girls want to be seen. Twilight is a story about how special Bella is, how she is an exception to Edward's rules about humans, how he sees her once and falls helplessly in love with her then. (Love Story = same thing.) Thirteen Reasons Why is about a girl claiming the attention she was denied in life; If I Stay about the people who gather around a girl's bedside, paying attention to her, asking her to stay in life; Wintergirls about a girl who wants to be the skinniest -- to have the least seen of her, actually, and having that be her victory -- until that desire consumes her. Death, in its extremity, promises and focuses attention in just the same way a love story does. And when the two are combined: teenage-girl bliss.
Your comments? Theories? Thoughts?
One last thing that has nothing to do with death but a lot to do with teenage girls and love: The video for Taylor Swift's "Love Story." I freely confess I'm fascinated by this video, partly because it seems to have been concepted after someone watched "Pride and Prejudice," the What the Hell??? version (but with eighteenth-century dress for the ladies), partly because it (and the song) pushes all my romantic buttons, partly because it pushes all my feminist ones at the exact same time, and then finally because the song is such a well-constructed piece of narrative craft, moving from first glimpse (being seen!) to forbidden love to marriage proposal with Daddy's permission in less than four minutes. As a friend of mine said, "It's total high-school English class crack," and the part of me that is still in Mrs. Markley's Honors English II class third period adores it. Well worth watching, for any of those partial reactions.