Thursday, October 27, 2011

Before YA was YA: Claudine

When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with Colette’s Claudine series.  I didn’t read much YA back then. At least, I didn’t think I read YA. Placing things in categories is tricky, but there seems to be a general agreement that YA as a category started in the 1940s-1950s, and the first Claudine novel was published in 1900.

I was into Claudine’s love of nature, the different settings (girl’s school, followed by Paris) and her totally wild relationships.  I’m talking S&M tinged sexual “friendships” with a series of classmates, followed by marrying the father of her nephew.  Nobody bats an eye at this marriage, by the way.  The rationale given is that her father is an out-of-touch scholar obsessed with snails, so Claudine kind of sneaks it by him.
There’s an awesome biography about Colette by Judith Thurman, in which she describes Claudine: “She was the century's first teenage girl: rebellious, tough talking, secretive, erotically reckless and disturbed, by turns beguiled and disgusted at her discovery of what it means to become a woman.”  In short—the Claudine series is totally YA!

So, if the Claudine series was published today, we’d call it YA. But because it was written before the category was invented, it’s Literature, with the appropriately capital L.  As a snobbish and insecure teenager, if Claudine had been labeled YA, I probably wouldn’t have read it. YA felt like books that adults had sanctioned as appropriate. I didn’t want appropriate—I wanted forbidden.  I stood behind the counter of the sporting goods store where I had my first job reading Lolita, simultaneously hoping and dreading that someone would notice my book.

Now, as an adult, I can’t get enough YA.   But where do (bookish) teenagers go to get that thrill of the forbidden read? I’m betting it’s not the YA section.  That leaves me, as an aspiring YA author, wondering who exactly I’m writing for. Other adults? Or is YA “cool” enough today for the literary minded teenager?  Does it even matter that I’ve written a book that I probably would have turned my nose up at when I was 16?

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