Dissertation Extract: ‘Reading Identity in Young Adult Fiction’

Whilst studying at Anglia Ruskin, Laurida Harrington-Poireau wrote her dissertation, entitled ‘Reading Identity: feminine representation and societal power in young adult fiction publishing (2006-2013)‘ which focused on Young Adult fiction and the importance of character representation in literature.

‘Literacy is never disconnected from identity’ – (Williams, 2003)

When I was a member of the Anglia Ruskin University’s MA Publishing crew (the 2012-13 era), the time for researching and writing up the final Major Project came around surprisingly quickly. After some umming and aahing about what research topic I could remain loyal to for 15,000 words, I decided to follow a strong personal interest for 21st century feminism that I’d developed during my BA dissertation studies.

How I linked this theme to a hot topic within today’s publishing sphere was by applying gendered social philosophy to a series of popular Young Adult titles; those whose audiences are at the point of discovering ‘who’ they are and what they want. Because of this fickleness, the predictions that publishers attempt to make on the movements of teen markets was an area I was keen to investigate. The aim of my study was to look into female gender stereotypes in adolescents (aged 14-18 years) and the formation of gendered fiction characters. I did this with direct reference to three of the most popular Young Adult books from recent years: Twilight (Meyer, Atom 2006); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling, Bloomsbury 2007); and The Hunger Games (Collins, Scholastic 2010).

The Research Process

The main focus of my research was to determine how the publication of gendered fiction characters correlates with the social expectation and appropriation of feminine representation in teenage girls; whether such titles and characters instigate gendered conformity, or whether the characters are created as a reflection of female adolescent society to lean on the technique of reader self-recognition in order to increase book reception and popularity. I split my lines of enquiry into three main chapters:

  1. Teen Readership: looking at teen readership in terms of preferred titles, characterisation and genres, alongside adolescent reflections on identity creation and maintenance with regards to gender.
  2. The Business of YA Publishing: focusing on the business of YA fiction publishing from the points of view of experts involved in different branches of the book industry, with a spotlight on the acquisition of new titles and the marketing of potential bestsellers to the target teen audience.
  3. Cultural Theories of Subjectivity: moving away from analysis and publishing practices to identify with key female protagonists of the three YA titles (Bella Swan, Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen), through a selection of philosophical approaches to feminine ‘performance’ and the ‘power’ of identity creation.

The Conclusion

These chapters were then followed by a conclusion, in order to answer my original question. Here is an extract from that conclusion:

The behaviours and opinions of my sample of teenage girls are very closely aligned with the comportments of personality identified with the characterisations of Hermione and Katniss as listed above. Young women appear to be moving away from deliberate stereotypical roles, which were previously so prevalent as noted within the works of Luce Irigaray; adopting instead of a mixed domain of multiple gender traits where ‘both boys and girls are capable of “doing” masculinities and femininities as well as other forms of gender embodiment’ (Messerschmidt 2004: 146), to cross boundaries where their ‘feminine’ identity is concerned…

… I believe that teenage girls are always independently ahead of the social trends and opinions that publishers react to, and that the behaviours of young women cannot thus be said to be a result of characterisations published in the YA titles they read…

… Meanwhile, teenage individuals make up a very fickle group and are prone to moving on quickly to the next new thing, as facilitated by favoured internet communication methods that increase the speed of discovery and sharing at an incredible rate. Even now, as dystopian titles are considered ‘it’ and will likely dominate YA book releases for another year or two, readers are already criticising the genre: with teen participants mentioning to me that dystopian themes only work if they are ‘realistic enough’, and that the ‘characters can’t always survive against the odds’. This ‘fuelling’ of ‘their own hype’, coupled with increasing social autonomy, is that which establishes adolescent readers as a market that is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a prescriptive control over with regards to future trends in YA fiction popularity…

I sometimes wish I could be a teenager again, just to indulge in some exaggerated sullenness and impressive door-slamming action. But now I’m in my mid-twenties, I am so much more appreciative of the work that goes into writing excellent Young Adult books, not least because their authors rarely write from adolescence. That skill is as impressive as what is involved in the creation of outstanding ‘classic’ literature, in my opinion. The same skills are needed to spot the strong business potential behind the ‘next big thing’ in a market place crammed full of strong-willed and fashion-conscious individuals. If you have that skill, don’t let it go to waste. Go out there and find us the next forehead-scarred, bow-and-arrow-wielding, lovestruck vampire!

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Laurida was a full-time student on the MA Publishing course (2012/13) and her background is a BA in Linguistics and speaks French fluently thanks to her French heritage. She now works as a Content Production Manager at Pearson Education and is responsible for the production of BTEC Specialist exam content for professional work-based learner and apprentices.