Reviews 2015

Fictions of Adolescent Carnality: Sexy Sinners and Devious Delinquents

Fictions of Adolescent Carnality: Sexy Sinners and Devious Delinquents. Lydia Kokkola. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013. 236 pages. €95.00 (hardback).

The topic of Lydia Kokkola’s latest monograph is sex – or, more specifically, how sexual desire is represented in books for young adults. Curiously, given the pervasive cultural association of adolescent subjectivity with sexual awakening, there have been no comprehensive studies of the various ways in which sexuality is depicted in fictions produced for teenaged readers. Fictions of Adolescent Carnality is the first volume in a new series from John Benjamins Publishing Company, called Children’s Literature, Culture and Cognition. Kokkola’s critically astute treatment of her subject matter certainly gets this series off to a good start and sets the bar high for future inclusions. Roberta Seelinger Trites’ chapter-length treatment of sex in "Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature" (2000) has, until now, been the definitive reference on this subject, so it is fitting that an endorsement from Trites adorns the back cover. Trites calls the volume “a unique and rigorous contribution to an under-studied issue”, to which I would add that Fictions of Adolescent Carnality is also thought-provoking, comprehensive in its scope and an elegantly argued treatise on the cultural construction of adolescence. Kokkola’s central contention is that the enduring Romantic construction of children as “innocent” has had serious – and very negative – repercussions for adolescents. Although adolescence is marked by the awakening of sexual desire, Kokkola writes, teenagers who choose to express this desire are frequently labeled “deviant” (50). Fictions of Adolescent Carnality expertly exposes the role of YA fiction in maintaining a “discourse of panic and crisis” (210) around issues pertaining to adolescent subjects and their sexual desires.

Kokkola’s examination of sexuality is broad, encompassing 200 novels published in Anglophone cultures from the 1970s to the present. Her book takes a thematic approach to sexuality, focusing on subjects such as pregnancy, sexual abuse, queer desire and the (often disquieting) textual relationship created between adolescent and animal sexuality. Many of the novels discussed represent teenagers being punished for expressing sexual desire. These punishments include pregnancy, parenthood, loneliness, disease and death, and lead Kokkola to the disturbing conclusion that what such novels implicitly reveal is an underlying fear of teenagers. There is nothing revelatory about the claim that YA fiction has an underlying conservative social function, but Kokkola’s analysis does tread fresh ground – especially in relation to its queer readings of novels which feature sexually active (or desiring) teens. This is no mean feat, as queer theory has, in the past, been applied to children’s literature in ways that I feel have drifted from its theoretical origins. “Queer” functions as a critique of identity, according to writers such as Annamarie Jagose, because it dramatises the “incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire” (1996: 3). The indeterminacy of queer theory is a fundamental attribute of its power, yet too often the term “queer” is used reductively as a synonym for gay/lesbian desire in children’s literary criticism. Kokkola, in contrast, takes a refreshingly honest (and also brave) approach to queer theory. She suggests that many YA novels’ refusal “to acknowledge and endorse adolescent sexuality has much in common with the ways in which same-sex carnal desires are frequently ignored or, when acknowledged, punished” (99). As a result, “valuable parallels can be drawn between the marginalization of adolescent sexuality and that of queer desires” (99). One of the more interesting ways in which Kokkola illustrates this claim is through her analysis of cross-generational sexual relationships. Although the examples she cites involve heterosexual couples (such as Aidan Chambers’s This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn), she cleverly (and provocatively) demonstrates that the sexual desires expressed within such cross-generational relationships “disturb and challenge normative views of carnal desire” (100). There is much to admire in this pioneering chapter, which uses a queer theoretical framework to develop a highly original and persuasive reading of its focus texts. Importantly, this chapter allows Kokkola to show that while the dominant representational paradigm for sexual desire in YA fiction is overwhelmingly conservative, a number of popular novels produced for adolescent readers offer “training strategies for the queer reader in how to read the queered body” (128). Kokkola demonstrates this claim with reference to Francesca Lia Block’s Violet & Claire, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. She suggests that such books represent relationships between characters which implicitly queer the ways in which desire is typically perceived and “in discovering the marginalized narrative, the reader makes an active decision to read against the surface grain” (128). This chapter thus makes a powerful case for empowering adolescent readers through the acquisition of critical interpretive skills.

The chapter that tackles the depiction of sexual abuse is also a stand-out. Kokkola shrewdly observes that YA books about the trauma tend to be mapped onto narratives of growth and self-discovery, but the employment of this humanist metanarrative (which is pervasive in fiction written for children) is yet another indication of how YA fiction – and Western cultures, by extension – seek to demonise the adolescent subject. The problem, according to Kokkola, lies in the ideological conflation of “recovery” and “adulthood”. She also adds a further dimension to this argument through her fine analysis of Sapphire’s novel Push, which makes evident how middle class expectations of growth may disempower subjects from the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

Part of the attraction of this book – aside from its provocative subject matter – is Kokkola’s lively and personable writing style, which makes this volume a pleasure to read. However, the editorial services provided by John Benjamins Publishing Company leave a lot to be desired. This is a shame as the rather flawed presentation of the manuscript detracts from an otherwise rigorous critical study of which Kokkola should be deservedly proud. It is not just the plethora of typographical errors that are the issue. The awkward title (why does the word “sexuality” not feature, when this is a book about representations of sex?) and lack of chapter numbers are also frustrating. I sincerely hope that when a paperback edition is made available, these mistakes are corrected. In spite of these criticisms, Fictions of Adolescent Carnality should be commended as an excellent and probing study into Western cultural constructions of adolescence.

Victoria Flanagan
Macquarie University, Autralia

Works Cited

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: NYU Press, 1996.