When the CW’s “Gossip Girl” first came out, I refused to watch it – not because I thought a TV program about Upper East Side teenagers’ sex lives was trashy, but because I loved the books too much.
I love Cecily von Ziegesar’s book series, I do. A friend bought books two and three (titled “You Know You Love Me” and “All I Want Is Everything,” respectively) for a birthday when I was in high school. After those two – and a couple more, all devoured on a train en route to a high school band conference – I was hooked. From the Blair-Serena-Nate love triangle and lemon yogurts for lunch, to prep school uniforms and sleeping with Ivy League lacrosse recruiters – it was like literary crack, age-(in)appropriate antics packaged by a classier publisher than Harlequin, no offense to dime-store romances. Would the pages of “Gossip Girl” be my life if my social and economic standing were bumped up by a hotel/oilfield fortune and a dash of Anglo-Saxon blood?
I certainly didn’t believe it, but I still loved the books. It turns out a lot of other readers have felt similarly entranced – and not all of them teenagers. This month, Radar magazine’s Paige Ferrari writes about the surging popularity of this new, sluttier strain of what the publishing industry calls “young adult” fiction. After perusing tawdry teen read (“Lust”) on the subway, specifically a scene where the new girl in town seduces the high school stud, Ferrari reports, “The woman next to me, Economist magazine in hand, was undeniably reading over my shoulder.”
According to the Book Industry Study Group, book sales in the 12-and-over age group have gone up drastically since 1999 compared to adult sales.
Maybe this popularity is due to the fact that the period of young adulthood is one we’ve either been through and suffered through (if you say you loved high school, you’re either lying or you were part of student government), or it’s one you’re still waiting for (I know reading “Sweet Valley High” and watching “Saved By the Bell” at eight years old totally skewed my expectations). High school age – the true teenage years – is the peak time for novelists to document. Tom Wolfe tried and just missed the mark with his attempt at channeling kids one life stage up in “I am Charlotte Simmons.” But maybe that had more to do with Tom Wolfe being 70 and not so much about college girls being difficult to get down on paper, though I hear we are. Ferrari gets author Nick Hornby’s (“About A Boy”) thoughts on the young adult genre: He thinks “in a way,” all books should be teen books. “I can read them quickly without getting bogged down, and feel I’ve read something that was meant in the way literature’s supposed to be,” Ferrari said.
Against book series like “Gossip Girl,” its spin-off “The It Girl,” “The Clique” and “The A-list” (more or less Blair and Serena gone Hollywood), the “Sweet Valley High” novels of yore seem tame in comparison. There’s sex in Bergdorf’s changing rooms, sex in high-rise lofts and sex with the aforementioned Ivy League lacrosse recruiter. But in these girl-clique tomes, there’s also a whole lot more money being thrown around, to the point that it’s ridiculous really, if you remember these characters are 14 to 17-years-old.
For the non-prep-school-bred college co-ed, or winsome preteen, or yes, working woman on the subway, it’s just as good escapist literature as anything. Borges’s theory on magical realism in so-called Third World literature explains that the magic enables the standard Western reader to access the fiction-form of a place otherwise too “different” for the readers to comfortably embrace. The magic makes it at once more accessible while still maintaining a distance.
Manhattan socialite life is far from Third World, but for most people, it’s just as foreign.
“We need these fictional lenses, otherwise we cannot see,” said Junot Díaz, explaining the phantasmagorical influence in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” his first novel. “Oscar Wao” tells the story of a nerdy Dominican teen, as well as that of his family under dictatorial rule in the Dominican Republic, fleshed out with talking mongooses and “Akira” references.
“Gossip Girl” may not have all of that, but the trust funds and school gossip do have some sort of mystifying power. Authors like Cecily Von Ziegesar or Lisi Harrison (“The Clique”) probably won’t move you the way Gabriel Garcia Marquez will, but they’ll provide a convenient, well-dressed escape.
– Chou is in for a 20-hour flight. Suggest your favorite teen books: firstname.lastname@example.org.