On Lyricism and How It Bugs Me

We were the happy recipients of several envelopes full of books the other day. What made it even better was that I picked them up on the weekend, just before we (in this heat-wave-bound city) were leaving, via subway and commuter train, for a swimming pool. That meant lots of time to read before they disappeared into the sea of other things to read that surrounds us.

Diana had already packed a book (some thick fantasy book), as had I (Elizabeth Costello, which I found profoundly uncomfortable), but I tossed in one of the books, Songs for a Teenage Nomad, too, just for good measure. Those icy air-conditioned train journeys are prime reading time, and I wanted to protect us both from the dreaded you-finish-your-book-halfway-there blues.

I thought, too, that this particular book, which promised to be 'realistic fiction' (for whatever that label's worth) might be a nice change for Diana from  all those characters who either intone prophecies or wisecrack for comic relief. Why that would be a good thing, I'm not quite willing to examine fully yet, but it has something to do with the idea of finding a companionable human voice in a lonely universe.

And lo, the haphazard packing worked. Diana finished her own book on the way there (or maybe after soaking in the pool for a few hours), and there I was, suddenly the prepared mother, handing her another.

And here's the shocker: she liked it. She said, "Hey, it was actually pretty good." And that's when I thought, I have to read this one. Because with realistic fiction? It takes a lot to impress her.

So I did. And here's the thing: at first I was really excited. There is a real voice here, which is a rare and wonderful thing.  There was a line in the beginning—"my stomach is full of bees"—that was just terrific.

And her writing will, I am all but certain, appeal to teens and tweens (my God and everyone else forgive me for using the term 'tween', which I find loathsome but useful here). But, and here I come into direct confrontation with the whole problem of being a grownup who talks about children's literature, it's also got along with its heartfelt voice, all the problems of adolescence—an addiction to melodrama, a lack of irony, a lack of self-awareness, a mawkish reliance on…lyricism.

I mean, don't get me wrong: I'm fond of language and all the amazing things it can do. But. I, personally, have a hard time with writers' letting their language get ahead of what is being said. I find it cloying and distracting. The mother crumpled like a napkin, the dock is screaming with summer people–the stretched-way-too-far metaphors that tend to describe all the senses in way more detail than is OK by me. The main text of this novel doesn't fall into it too badly, but the journal entries that start it out? Hoo boy. I mean, I know that they're purportedly by the narrator, a teenage girl. And no doubt, they are exactly what a teenage girl would write. Or at least, would think was the most awesome thing ever.

But I don't want to read what a teenage girl would write in her song journal.

It makes me think about Judy Blume. Part of where her brilliance is located is, I think, in her ironic distance on her characters. She feels for them, sure; she believes in them and channels them and gives them life, but at the same time, she has a certain wryness in her view of them that forestalls sentimentality.

Now I don't think we can, or should, all be Judy Blume. But I do think that when your novel starts giving the misfit character's spoken word performance, a little distance on all that teenage angst can be the novelist's friend.

But who am I to complain? I mean, some people love lyricism. They want to read transcriptions of angst-y spoken-word performances day in and day out. This a novel that, if you give it to the girl all dressed in black who doesn't speak to anyone at school, will be her friend, she will feel connected, it will touch her. And who can ask for more than that? So what if it's deeply flawed? Aren't we all? (Note: I'm drifting off into rhetorical questions here, which is surely a warning sign of…something. But if any of you have the actual answers to these, fire away.)

7 thoughts on “On Lyricism and How It Bugs Me

  1. I hear you about purple prose (which I how I understand your reference to lyricism). To me Alice Hoffman, in some of her adult stuff, is lyrical but does not go over into the objectionable sphere. Tomato, tomahto.


  2. I think Hoffman has about a 50% line-crossing rate, myself.
    I think there’s some stuff that is just deliciously, ripely teenagely overlyrical and now I’m wondering if this might be one of them. A book I really enjoy in this vein is Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl in the far future jet set who elopes to the slums with a silver-skinned humanoid robot. But I wonder if I’d feel differently had I not read it first as a teenager.


  3. I am a teacher of teenagers (and I genuinely like them)….I hear the teenage voice a lot & read a good deal of the YA fiction that is produced for a teen audience. For my money, the author who best gets the teen voice is Eireann Corrigan. Read Ordinary Ghost or Splintering and you’ll see.


  4. Interesting question. I’ve been thinking lately about the sorts of things that I said and thought and generally expressed as a teenager (something about the approaching 35th birthday that makes me wonder if I will look back on more recent years and cringe). And that’s interesting: do I want to read something that understands where I am emotionally, but is clearly written by someone more mature, less prone to unnecessary exaggerations and far-too-stretched metaphors? Or do I want someone who sounds just like me, so that maybe I don’t feel so alone in having these profound-yet-silly-feeling thoughts? I can’t say. I know which I would rather read now, but maybe that’s not the same as what I would have loved dearly at the age of 14.


  5. Teenagers go through difficult times while growing up, this seems like an interesting book for my nephew, thanks for telling us about it.
    I’ll tell my sister about your site, thanks.


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