Another repost of my answer to one of Colleen Mondor’s excellent What A Girl Wants questions.
Here’s Colleen’s question:
Do you think historic MG & YA fiction addresses socioeconomic status more effectively than contemporary titles? Why or why not? Is it just easier for us to think of the Marches in Little Women struggling in the face of war than the middle class family down the street? How important do you think it is for readers to identify with protagonists of their own socioeconomic background? We’ve talked a lot about race in this forum, but not class. Do you need to read about people with the same financial struggles you have or in times of trouble is it better just to live vicariously? Are realistic titles of this type just too much of a downer? (And yet the industry seems to thrive on suicide/mental illness/teen pregnancy titles – go figure.) How important to the story is it anyway to know what the parents do for a living or that “Sally” can’t afford a new dress or cell phone? If the book is about fitting in or teen love or friendship, does it help or hinder to drop those details into the plot? And finally, what families should we think more about presenting in literature – that of the Conners on Roseanne or the folks at 90210, the Hills, the Gossip Girls, etc.. Is socioeconomic fantasy just a new kind of fantasy – as out of this world as vamps and wizards and just as much fun? Are we in literary denial or just willfully trying to conjure a more carefree world?
Here’s what I said:
When I think about how class is and is not featured in YA, I think a lot about the Unmarked State.
Nisi Shawl, co-author of Writing the Other, defines the unmarked state this way: “Possessing characteristics which are seen as ‘normal,’ and thus not worth being mentioned. In this society, at this time, this includes being white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, affluent, and with certain physical abilities. Just about everyone deviates from the unmarked state in one way or another, though some ways are deemed important and others are not.”
When we don’t, as writers, think hard about the socioeconomic status of our characters and how it affects their lives, we may as well be setting our books in the Unmarked State.
I was out earlier this evening with some women I was meeting socially for the first time. Some questions that came up over the course of the conversation: “Where do you live?” “Do you own or rent?” “How many square feet?” “Where do you work?” “Are you union?” These are all questions about class.
A character’s ability or inability to buy a new phone or dress can be a crucial detail. I once read about a couple who fell in love across deep class divisions. She was extremely wealthy. He was working-class. She had a birthday coming up. Her family was going to throw her an extravagant party. He didn’t think he’d be able to come, because of his work schedule. You see where this is going, right? As it turned out, he was at her party — working, as a member of the catering staff.
You could tell a fantastic story from the point of view of either one of them. It comes down, as it always does, to representing the particular and specific in such a way that it resonates universally.
Read all the responses and comments over at Chasing Ray, and read the latest post on mean girls.
AngelaNovember 5, 2009 at 3:36 pm
I think this has been the most interesting What a Girl Wants post yet! I noticed back in August that I was seeing lots of books in a genre I called ‘Rich White Girls with Problems’ (Gossip Girl and her ilk). After reading this post, I did some reflecting on my own, including how I’m approaching class in my current (NaNoWriMo) work here
SaraNovember 7, 2009 at 3:46 pm
Hey Angela, nice to hear from you! Good luck infusing class consciousness into the steampunk zombie extravaganza. :)