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.