Consumerism and the YA Novel

I remember loving A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN partly because times were tight in my own immigrant family. I also might have connected our loss of property and wealth in Bengal with the Alcotts' downturn in LITTLE WOMEN, as Laurel Snyder points out in an invigorating discussion about YA books and socioeconomic class moderated by Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray.

But North American culture has gone crazy since I was young. We adults whine about the culture's obsession with sex and violence and ignore how societal greed, consumerism, and materialism is trashing the millennial generation (and us.) "Stuff" defines teens now more than it ever did when most of us were that age. It's a rare young person who can resist the pressure of the brand.

As I watched a couple of episodes of "My Super Sweet Sixteen" on MTV with my teens, for example, I wondered how "poor" kids celebrating that milestone birthday processed the excesses on that show.

Which brings us to the authorial dilemma of either reflecting and repeating something that's unhealthy or destructive in the culture OR trying in some way to unmask and even redeem it. On the one hand we run the risk of condoning or even contributing to the suffering and on the other we might become didactic. But given the desperate state of our society and money, how we portray class, wealth, and poverty in our books is well worth considering.

Because a story is powerful, right? A single book can change or conserve a good or bad cultural practice. Like UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, it can actually revolutionize an entire society. That's why writers are in prison and books are banned. I love how Nadine Gordimer put it in her 1991 Nobel acceptance speech:
"... For this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist's rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him ..."
Maybe you're thinking, hey, it's just chick lit. Teen chick lit. It's like cotton candy for the soul. Do I have to be subversive or revolutionary? No, but consumerism, materialism, and even greed are sly masters. If you're not purposefully resisting them, you might be inadvertently campaigning on their behalf.

Photo courtesy of ATIS547 via Creative Commons.


lgburns said…
Very well said, Mitali.
j.d.h. said…
Oh, Mitali. I love reading your stuff. What a great brain you have (and heart). Please excuse the gushing.
PiLibrarian said…
That's a tricky question for an individual author, isn't it, because "going against the tide" is a good thing or perhaps not such a good thing depending on the tide. One materialistic novel (or one novel with only poor white characters, or only boys, or only anything) is just one, and might be what the author is good at writing about. Is it the author's responsibility to respond/react to what other authors are publishing?

Not that I disagree with you in the least. This is a huge issue with my preteen son, who has just started at a private school and is confronted with an even higher level of "stuff" (iPod, iPhone, laptop) he doesn't have (and isn't getting).

I hope more readers and authors will consider the question of stuff -- do their characters have to have it in order to be both contemporary AND authentic?
holly cupala said…
Excellent post, and definitely a subject that has been on my mind.
Stand for something or fall for anything.
tanita davis said…
I sometimes feel for my sibs, whose friends have iPhones and iPods and Xboxes and Wii -- and they don't. And yet, it's not the end of the world if you don't have these things, and I'd love for YA fiction to be able to readily acknowledge that, instead of dropping jeans brands and cars and makeup into casual storytelling.
writerjenn said…
At the same time, TV gives a very distorted view; it only shows one segment of society. Sometimes I see a fad or celebrity or product mentioned a zillion times on TV and online, but when I mention it to a real live 3-D person, they've never heard of it. Not everyone is plugged in, and even if they are, they might only visit a couple of websites or watch one or two channels.

We have so many subcultures: Kids who are training to be dancers or athletes and spend most of their time in the gym. Kids who live on farms. Kids who live in very religious communities and spend much of their time at church or with church friends. Kids who go camping and hiking and fishing. Kids who live near the ocean and whose reality is heavily scented with the sea. Etc.

My husband and I met a teenage girl waiting tables in a small town in Utah whose cherished dream was to go to a folk-music festival. (It came up b/c my husband was wearing a souvenir T-shirt from one.) Her love was not a fancy car or designer clothes, but folk music.
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks, all.

PiLibrarian, we have to believe that one story can make a difference, duped or not.

Jenn, you're right, but the publishing and marketing industries seems to cater to a caricature of a teenager that squeezes them into some adult-generated norm. Those teens you're talking about who are strong enough to avoid the squeeze are probably older. Younger teens, in my experience, tend to keep their uniqueness more quiet, but it might help them if the diversity of their generation could be celebrated in our books and in the marketplace. They're the ones who read YA books about older teens.
Cate's Folly said…
Mitali, this post is golden, thank you. More conversation on this issue badly needed! And your comment here as well about younger teens hiding their originality (and their shame as well). It takes years for us to grow into our skin. For my children and my YA nieces, this is my wish too -- that they are surrounded by examples of strong young women who feel at home being who they are. Who can ask "what do I want for me?" before asking "what am I supposed to be so I'm not a 'loser'?" We grow up unlearning how to listen to our insides because there is so much noise outside. Books are a refuge where we can re-learn to listen to our insides.
I agree on so many levels. And though I write YA novels and try to address that in YA, I also think about 'stuff' and branding at younger ages (because I have a 5 yr old daughter) - really, consumerism starts very young!

Wonderful topic, Mitali.
Steve said…
Hi Mitali,

I'm so glad to have found your blog, and what a wonderful topic. I have been an aspiring YA novelist for a few months now, and my project is intended to deal extensively with issues of class and conformity in teen culture.

14 year old Kaitlyn lives in the fictional mid-sized community of Wood City ("Forest Products Capital of the Midwest"). Her family is not poor, but are of modest means. (Her dad is the quality control guy at the local papermill). Her mom drives a 10 year old Ford Taurus. She gets a scholarship to the exclusive prep school Forest Academy, where all the kids from snooty Forest Park attend. She finds a comfortable social niche with the "artsy" crowd, but eventually gets in trouble when her band (she is a bass player) participates in the defense of a student-run arts website that the school is trying to shut down for edgy content. She is not invited to return after her Freshman year, and ends up at Wood City Central. (Metal detectors at every door, but the cool kids know which one is broken if they need to sneak anything in).

Her band goes through a couple of changes of name and artistic direction, but eventually settles on "Dandelion Lawn" (also the title of the novel) and performs work celebrating individualty and non-conformity). And, did I mention, early on as part of another subplot, she gets kicked out of the contemporary worship band at her church for writing and performing the Christian Punk song "Blessed Are the Hypocrites".

So far a prologue and 3 chapters exist as first drafts. If it is ever completed, I plan to have a lot of fun with it.


P.S. The most interesting published YA novel dealing with issues of consumerism that I have seen so far is Scott Westerfeld's "So Yesterday". You might want to check it out.