Posted in Books, Writing

Why LGBTQ Young Adult Fiction is Not a Genre

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Many often argue that young adult fiction is a genre, but even though a reader may find young adult books on a different shelf in a bookstore than the mystery section or the romance section, the work itself does not encompass a specific genre, the same way that middle grade and chapter books and picture books are not genres. The young adult label is generally thought of as an age range for readers, in this case, twelve or thirteen and up (although many readers read YA books at a much younger age, and of course adults read it, too). One wouldn’t consider an adult work of fiction to be a genre, the same way that a young adult novel shouldn’t be considered as one.

The other main reason I wouldn’t consider young adult fiction a genre is that young adult books can be a work of other actual genres — mystery, romance, horror, science fiction. If young adult was a genre, what would the science fiction element of a young adult novel be considered exactly? And just because something has LGBTQ characters and themes, does that make it a genre?

My answer is a definite no, even if I considered the wider net of all young adult fiction to be one. While bookstores are starting to (finally!) dedicate shelves specifically to LGBTQ YA fiction, considering these kinds of books a genre would necessitate the requirement for a straight-themed YA fiction genre. The same way that genres like mystery and romance can appear in young adult fiction, they can also appear in all kinds of LGBTQ fiction, adult and young adult, which makes me consider these kinds of novels more a designation of interest rather than an all-encompassing genre of one kind of book.

Despite my insistence that LGBTQ YA fiction is not be considered a genre, these works definitely have similar tropes and conventions. The first major element often found in these books is the emphasis on the family unit. While family is an important aspect to any young adult novel, it’s especially important to LGBTQ YA fiction because the main characters are often going through internal struggles that the parents play a major part in.

In Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, for example, one of the two protagonists Dante is unable to come out to his parents because for a long time he feels disconnected from them. Saenz writes,

“The thing is I love my dad. My mom too. And I keep wondering what they’re going to say when I tell them that someday I want to marry a boy” (227).

Sometimes the drama is so heightened that one of the teen characters has to fight back, as Cameron does to her Aunt Ruth in Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post after she ships Cameron off to a gay conversion camp and then pretends like nothing is wrong when she comes back to visit. Cameron screams at her Aunt Ruth,

“‘You can’t ship me away to get fixed and then show me off as your dressed-up niece starring in the role of Maid of Honor!’” (343).

To exclude the family element in a gay YA novel robs the story of drama and truisms, and these three novels offer great examples of how to use the family element well.

Another convention of LGBTQ YA fiction is the isolation theme. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Aristotle doesn’t discover he is gay until the final few pages, and instead most of the time fights away feelings he has for Dante. Saenz writes,

“Maybe moms and dads forgot about this one small fact: being on the verge of seventeen could be harsh and painful and confusing. Being on the verge of seventeen could really suck” (239).

Anyone being on the verge of seventeen knows life can be difficult in all sorts of ways, but it’s especially hard for many closeted gay teens to find a light in their world. This theme is also present in out-and-proud characters, as in Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys when Nelson says,

“‘I get bashed every day for being queer, and I haven’t even kissed a guy yet […] that’s pretty pathetic’” (89).

A third convention is the theme of a gay teen’s first kiss, which is often presented as a major plot point in each LGBTQ-themed YA novel. In David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, Levithan writes,

“I touch his lips, I breathe him in. I close my eyes, I open them. He is surprised, I can tell” (61).

Even John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, published in 1969 and universally considered the first gay young adult novel, features two characters kissing:

“I guess I kiss Altschuler and he kisses me. It isn’t like that dumb kiss I gave Mary Lou Gerrity in Massachusetts before I left. It just happens” (150).

The truth is that every young person’s first kiss is a monumental event, and it’s even more monumental for young LGBT individuals because the kiss means even more. When this particular book was published, homosexual practices were illegal in every state but Illinois, so the fact that he got any homosexual subtext through in this published work is quite astonishing. He features the two characters kiss, per the quote above, but he also kills the protagonist Davy’s dog in the final few pages and makes Davy think it was his kiss with his friend Altshuler that murdered the dog. Donovan writes,

“It’s my fault. Because of everything I did. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for me. It is too my fault! All that messing around. Nothing would have happened to Fred if I hadn’t been messing around with Altshuler” (180).

The never allowing a gay teen to actually be happy in young adult fiction finally became a thing of the past with Rainbow Boys and especially Boy Meets Boy. Rainbow Boys is a serious novel, with attention paid to homophobia on behalf of Jason’s athlete friends and his closed-minded parents, but this was one of the first LGBT YA titles to have all three main gay characters find love with others by the end, and, more importantly, peace with their sexuality; at the end, Sanchez writes,

“Maybe [Jason] was in love with Kyle. Would that be such a bad thing?” (228).

Boy Meets Boy fights the conventions of LGBTQ YA fiction by featuring a world where everyone is accepting of gay teens. Unlike the other YA novels on my list, this book’s central drama is not whether the main character Paul will come out to his parents or if he’ll be ridiculed by bullies at school, but if he will be able to find true love. Levithan in a way treats this like any straight YA novel would read, without the isolation and family drama aspects. He writes,

“We hold hands as we walk through town. If anybody notices, nobody cares. I know we all like to think of the heart as the center of the body but at this moment, every conscious part of me is in the hand that he holds. It is through that hand, that feeling, that I experience everything else” (136).

This was the first novel to my knowledge to treat young gay love in this accepting way, and this thinking paved the way for more complex LGBTQ YA titles that went beyond only the coming-out and isolation themes.

Works Cited

Danforth, Emily. The Miseducation of Cameron Post. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2012. Print.

Donovan, John. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. New York: Dell Pub Co, 1969. Print.

Levithan, David. Boy Meets Boy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.

Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012. Print.

Sanchez, Alex. Rainbow Boys. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Younger Readers, 2001. Print.

Posted in Books, Writing

How to Define Literary Fiction

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Style of the Prose and a Focus on Character Development (Required)

First and foremost, literary fiction is more concerned with the style of the prose and a focus on character development above all else. A literary novel should still have an engaging story, but the emphasis will be on complex prose and rich characterization, both of which can be found in the following two lines from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

“Did she see how my mother’s nose had the tiniest bump at the top, where she’d broken it falling out of a tree as a child? Or how the black rings around the light blue irises of my mother’s eyes gave her a slightly wild quality, as of some steady-eyed hunting creature alone on the plain?” (30).

With these lines, Tartt demonstrates the qualities of her literary writing with specific, commanding prose that gives the reader insight into the main character Theo’s mother. Authors of non-literary novels are not concerned with any characters’ bumps on their noses or rings around their eyes — their intention is to get basic character descriptions and motivations out of the way so that they can set their sights on the inciting incident of the plot — while authors of literary novels pay close attention to these tiny details, going beyond description by delivering similes and metaphors and bringing the reader the kind of unique sensory images he would not find elsewhere.

Attention to Character Over Plot (Required)

However, complexity of prose and focus on character development are not the only defining characteristic of a literary novel. Attention to character over plot is a major element to be considered. Instead of writing a story that sets out to write a high-stakes plot that takes the main character strictly from A to B — think a Dan Brown thriller like The Da Vinci Code or a suspense yarn by Dean Koontz — an author of literary novels will spend less time focused on the plot itself and more time developing the main characters.

Ambitious Point of View (Optional)

Point of view is often, although not always, another characteristic, given that third person omniscient allows an author more freedom to describe what’s happening both inside and outside the characters’ minds, and go more into specific detail with description about anything he wants. While The Goldfinch is unique in that is a literary novel told in the first person, not third, it has characteristics of third because the story’s being written by Theo as an adult looking back over his life, giving the events of the narrative less intimacy and more room for retrospection with this clever use of temporal distance.

Historical Setting (Optional)

Another element to consider is historical setting, which often, but of course not always, makes necessary the use of complex prose to bring to life a place and time that many readers may never have been. Many recent award-winning literary novels are set in the past, like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this week) is set in 1930s Paris and 1940s Germany, and Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves is set in 1941 Queens.

Literary Example #1: Brokeback Mountain

A work of fiction I find particularly literary is the short story, “Brokeback Mountain.” This short work from Proulx (The Shipping News) features many of the elements I have discussed above. First, of all the prose I have examined in these books, hers is by far the most complex. Take for example her description of the Wyoming setting:

“Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green […] the sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire” (9).

This is a particularly fine sentence because it not only gives the reader a beautiful image of the setting he is being placed in but it also goes beyond mere imagery by relating the descriptions to something one of the two main characters is doing, not being completely separated from the story at hand. In addition, Proulx uses her complex prose that bring out the beauty of an act that most would have found reprehensible in 1963. After Ennis and Jack has sex, she writes,

“Ennis lay spread-eagled, spent and wet, breathing deep, still half tumescent, Jack blowing forceful cigarette clouds like whale sprouts” (24).

Instead of writing something simple about how ashamed they might have been or scared how others may find out about their sexual act, she presents these two characters in unique and striking detail the peace they’ve made with their current circumstance. Also, the aforementioned historical setting of 1963 Wyoming makes this more literary, as does the third person omniscient point of view, the only title on my list that has the omniscience. Proulx writes,

“They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word” (28).

This sentence goes beyond one character’s thoughts that would be used in first person by incorporating what both of the characters are doing with a brilliant use of setting that give her prose more complexity.

Literary Example #2: The Goldfinch

A literary work can reach a wide audience if it has an engaging story to spellbind the reader that goes beyond pretty prose and sharply drawn characters. The best example of a recent literary novel that has branched out as a massive hit in the book market, while also retaining highly literary qualities that won it the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is the aforementioned The Goldfinch. Many casual readers might have scoffed at a 771-page doorstopper of a literary novel, but the fascinating story, which features themes of isolation, parental loss, friendship, thievery, and love of art, takes center stage. Early on, Tartt writes a line like,

“Whenever we struck a bump, my teeth rattled, and so did the religious claptrap dangling from the rearview mirror: medallions, a curved sword in miniature dancing on a plastic chain, and a turbaned, bearded guru who gazed into the back seat with piercing eyes, palm raised in benediction” (13).

With a less compelling narrative, a line like this might be too showy and unimportant, but in this case, Tartt is effectively setting up the opening act of destruction and getting the reader attuned to her main character Theo’s voice.

Literary Example #3: A Home at the End of the World

Another example of a literary work that has reached a wide audience is Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. This extraordinary novel, released in 1990, was part of a new wave of gay fiction titles that included Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, books that showed realistic life of the gay man in the post-AIDS era. Cunningham writes astonishing prose throughout this book, but they never go too heavy with imagery, never too specific to the point of exhaustion. In the head of the main character Jonathan, Cunningham writes,

“My blackened eyes glittered like spiders above the lush white froth. I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether” (10).

With these few well-chosen details, he gives the reader a strong sense of the character by showing, not telling, how he feels about his appearance. The book is told in the first person but from four different perspectives, offering a complex and rewarding experience for the reader, allowing a minor character like Jonathan’s mother to offer her two cents about how she feels about her son:

“I feared my own son, out in that wild place so far from other beings. We had protected ourselves with silence because our only other choice was to howl at one another, to scratch and bite and shriek” (293).

While his prose is always complex, Cunningham makes this accessible to more than just gay readers by offering these different perspectives that bring insight into this complicated time and place.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Michael. A Home at the End of the World. New York: Picador, 1990. Print.

Proulx, Annie. Brokeback Mountain. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.

Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.

Posted in Books, Writing

Why Reading is the Cornerstone of a Writer’s Life

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In his 2000 book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dig in.

I’ve written about this a lot on here, and I still believe it’s true after all these years of actively writing fiction: reading is just as important every day as actually writing. You can write book after book after book without actually reading anything… but the writing won’t be any good. Unless you’re a genius writer, you’re going to need to read, too.

But you have no time to read, right?

Yes, of course, the question becomes, when do you have time for read? I know. I get it. Some days I struggle to find the 2-hour window to get my words down for the day, or to revise the latest chapter on my work-in-progress. And now I have to find time to read, too?

Finding time to read, let alone write, is especially difficult for me during a teaching semester. I’m already reading dozens of essays, articles and books for my next class session. The amount of reading I do for my teaching job is a lot, and yet I still feel like this doesn’t really count as my reading for the day. Reading for the creative person should be reading for the sake of joy. To be told a story not for your work but for the pure love of the narrative.

Can you read anything?

Sure, you can read anything you want, no matter what you write. I personally write middle grade and young adult suspense novels. And so often I feel like I should be reading more MG and YA suspense, or just more MG and YA. But you know what I love to read more than anything else? Non-fiction books, and adult literary novels. I’m a huge movie buff, so I particularly love tell-all books about Hollywood. I got my BA degree in Film in Los Angeles and lived there for eight years, so stories about film artists and big successes and faded dreams are some of my favorites. I also adore reading big, thick adult literary novels. This past year I discovered the work of Sarah Waters, and I’m in love.

Am I going to try to write a Sarah Waters book next? Probably not. What matters is that I read it and love it and want to go back to it. And you know what? It doesn’t hurt to read up. It doesn’t hurt to read a novel that you feel like if you live to be 1,000 years old you’ll never be good enough to write. Because it makes me always strive for better no matter what I’m writing. To try to get better with each work, with each year.

But if you want to read junky novels, go for it! If you want to read plays or screenplays or poetry, by all means. Try to avoid certain types of magazines, I’d say, like celebrity gossip stuff that will probably fry your brain before anything is ever fed to it. But no matter what, if you want to be a writer, read, read, read.

When Should You Read?

So how do you find time to read? It depends on your job, and your circumstance, of course, but what I try to do every day is this: twenty minutes of reading upon waking up in the morning. Whether that’s a chapter, or two chapters, or just three pages, begin your day with a little bit of reading. You don’t have to lie in bed for an hour reading, flipping through fifty pages or more. Just a little to get things going.

Next, I try to read for thirty minutes in the early evening right before I make dinner. Especially in the winter, when the sky gets dark at five o’clock, I often turn to my TV to watch an episode of a show or an entire movie, but since I like to eat dinner a little bit later, typically between 7:30 and 8:00, I usually find a window of time between 6 and 7 to read a little bit. Again, nothing major. Not a hundred pages. I aim for ten pages, maybe twenty, and then I begin to cook dinner.

Lastly, I try to read soon before going to bed, although I admit that gets harder the older I become. I used to be able to slip into bed at 11:30 and read until 1:00. Now I get in bed at 11:30, and I’m out by 11:40. There have been nights I fell asleep with a book in my hands, and when I woke up in the morning, the book was somewhere on the floor. Worse, since I didn’t put the bookmark inside, sometimes I can’t remember where I left off!

So I don’t read right before I go to sleep anymore, sad to say. One thing I did try just recently was reading in the bathtub around ten o’clock. Last week I had a cold, and I decided to take a bath to relax. I brought a book in with me, took the bath for about forty-five minutes, and I read nearly fifty pages of the book by the time the bath was finished. I continued taking a bath late in the week even when my illness had evaporated. I just loved not having a phone to look at, no TV to stare at, just the warm bath and a good book in my hands to keep me company.

Yes, You Need to Read if You Want to be a Writer

What’s most important is that you find the time to read if you want to write. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day. That can be 30 minutes straight. That can be three 10-minute sessions at different times of the day. Or, of course, read a whole lot more! Once in a while I’ll curl up with a good book on a Sunday afternoon and just read and read for hours. Doing so reminds me of those lazy summer days when I was nine. Doing so reminds me of why I love reading in the first place.

Stephen King is right: reading is absolutely the cornerstone of a creative person’s life, and if you find time to read every day, your writing will only get better and better. Remember, you don’t only have to read in your genre, although you definitely should seek out lots of books in your genre (and age market, too).

But at the end of the day, read anything. Read what you want! And the creative juices will flow for you throughout your long writing life.

Posted in Books

Why I Love the Rainbow Books: Rainbow Road

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Rainbow Road concludes one of my favorite YA trilogies, in the installment that may be the best of them all. Alex Sanchez could have done the same old-same old with this third book, but instead he made the wise choice and did something a little different, in a scenario that puts Jason, Kyle, and Nelson in a car together for two weeks, keeping them connected for the book’s entirety as they come to terms with their futures.

These books have given me so much pleasure, and I’m thrilled Alex Sanchez wrote three of them. Rainbow Boys is all about first love and coming out, while its sequel Rainbow High, picks up right where Rainbow Boys ends. In a sense, Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High are pretty much the same book, with more development in the second book about Kyle and Jason’s blossoming relationship, and Nelson’s infatuation with a boy who is HIV-positive.

Rainbow Road is something different, though. When Rainbow High ended at the senior prom, I assumed the third and final book would pick up at the prom, then go through to graduation, and maybe a little after. Instead, Rainbow Road flashed forward three months, to August. The boys have graduated from high school, and college life is mere weeks away (at least for two of them). Kyle is about to leave, and isn’t sure if his relationship with Jason is going to last long-distance, and Nelson still isn’t sure what he wants to do. Will the three friends ever spend any more quality time together?

A fantastic opportunity presents itself when a high school in Los Angeles asks for Jason, an athlete who publicly came out senior year, to fly across the country and give a speech to its students. Instead of fly, however, Jason and Kyle decide to head to L.A. by car, and they ask Nelson to come along for the road trip. In the first two books, there were very few scenes that ever go all three of the main characters together.

But in Rainbow Road, they’re together almost the entire time, and it makes for some great dialogue, funny scenarios, and memorable moments. They meet a transgendered man, escape homophobic rednecks, watch in awe at the love shared between two men who have been together for twenty years. Rainbow Road offers a great journey for the reader, as we get one last opportunity to spend time with three characters we’ve come to know and love. And in the end, all three characters are left at a place where, as we hoped, all their dreams just may come true.

Now having finally come to the end of this story, I have two questions. One: how do I get readers, both gay and straight, to give these books a try? And two: would Alex Sanchez ever consider writing another sequel, where we get to see where Kyle, Jason, and Nelson are 10 years or more after the events of Rainbow Road? I would love to catch up with these characters a decade later, to see how they’re doing. But even if Sanchez never writes another word on these characters, I am grateful for this beautiful story, which started with a closeted jock walking into a gay and lesbian youth meeting, and ended with the same young man telling a large audience of gay students the story of how he came out, stood up to his father, fell in love, and stayed in love.

Posted in Books, Film, Filmmaking, Screenwriting, Writing

Why Authorship Matters When it Comes to Adaptations

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In the early 1970s, Stephen King was like any other aspiring novelist: writing manuscript after manuscript, working hard to improve his craft, hoping for someone in the publishing industry to take a chance on him. While teaching high school to make ends meet, he began writing a novel called Carrie, a spooky horror tale of a plain-faced high school loner who has the ability to move objects with her mind. Soon after completing the manuscript, he sold his novel to Doubleday and then quickly to the movies. The acclaimed 1976 film Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, not only catapulted King to the A-list of novelists, but it also started a trend of adapting King’s work to other mediums, including a notorious Broadway flop, two additional feature films, and an audiobook recorded by none other than the Oscar-winning star of the original movie.

A novel being adapted to both film and theater isn’t unheard of — two famous examples are The Color Purple and Mary Poppins — but it is unusual, and what can’t be denied, particularly in the case of Carrie, is how different artists bring their own visions and sensibilities to their versions of the work, in each occurrence taking someone else’s property and making it his or her own. This then raises the question: who in each of these cases is the true author of Carrie? Many might argue that King is the one and only author of Carrie, that the many adaptations are simply different spins on the exact same story, that no matter the scene alterations or song additions or endless diversions from the original text that King and King alone is the only true author of these works. However, despite King’s origination of the story itself and his influence on all the adaptations that came later, it’s clear in looking at the works themselves, from their variety of styles to their successes and failures, that the author of Carrie definitively changes from one project to the next.

King’s 1974 novel is a slim and experimental work of debut fiction, certainly not something on the surface that begs for adaptation to film or musical theater. The book has an odd structure in that only half of it plays out like a straightforward narrative, the story of a sixteen-year-old named Carrie White who’s bullied by the other girls at school when she has her period for the first time in the locker room and thinks the blood running down her thighs means she’s dying, King writing, “Carrie backed into the side of one of the four large shower compartments and slowly collapsed into a sitting position. Slow, helpless groans jerked out of her” (8). Carrie has always struggled to fit in, soft-spoken and shy, unattractive and pimply-faced, but the humiliation in the locker room sends her to the darkest of places, her religious zealot of a mother at home named Margaret not helping in the way she torments Carrie on a nightly basis. Even worse is Carrie’s fear of her increasingly disruptive telepathic abilities, not just the ability to shut books and heavy doors with only her mind but her ability to float various items through the air like she’s an all-powerful witch.

Things look up for Carrie though when a cute boy at school named Tommy asks her to be his date for the prom, and even though she believes deep down Tommy’s playing some kind of trick on her, she agrees to go and is amazed when she not only has an unexpectedly romantic time with one of the most popular guys in school but also wins prom queen next to Tommy’s prom king. The night gets better and better for Carrie, but then as soon as she reaches the podium, a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie’s head, leaving her hair and her dress in red ruins, King writing in his exacting manner, “[Carrie] looked like she had been dipped in a bucket of red paint” (136). And then in classic King fashion, Carrie unleashes an all-out assault of her telepathic abilities on the crowded auditorium of unsuspecting victims. After she wipes out hundreds of people young and old, she returns home, kills her mother, and dies when her own house crumbles in on her.

This half of the book one could argue calls out for film treatment, but the other half, in which King includes fake newspaper clippings and extended courtroom depositions and interviews with the massacre survivors, disrupts the narrative pacing and doesn’t make for easy translation to other mediums. For example, toward the end King includes specific definitions to slang terms, like this one: “to rip off a Carrie: to cause either violence or destruction; mayhem, confusion; (2) to commit arson” (198). Also, King gives away many of the narrative’s surprises at the beginning of the book, like when he reveals on the second page that “what none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic” (2). A lot of these specific details and early revelations add to the world King has created, but how does something like that make it to screen?

To do the novel justice as a film would have had to blend segments of fake documentary snippets with the more cinematic narrative, but screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was smart to nix all the experimental material in the book and focus completely on the harrowing story at the heart of the project — Carrie’s tumultuous journey that ends in tragedy. And an even bigger stroke of genius at the time was the hiring of the up-and-coming director Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself on horror films like Sisters and Obsession and was known for his dazzling cinematic style. De Palma could have tried to translate King’s novel beat by beat without offering his own take on the material, but instead he brings his unique gift for storytelling to his version of Carrie, which at the time was his biggest hit to date. Many argue that De Palma’s film is better than the novel, even King himself: “He handled the material deftly and artistically and got a fine performance out of Sissy Spacek. In many ways, the movie is more stylish than my book” (Rogak 82).

But whether the film or the novel is necessarily better isn’t the argument here, although it deserves to be noted; the argument is whether or not King is the true author of the 1976 film, and I believe De Palma’s fascinating stylistic approach to the material proves he and he alone is the author of the film. Take the opening for example, the way he reveals Carrie in the locker room. Instead of the novel, which cuts straight to Carrie in the shower, the film features an extended tracking shot that follows various naked and almost-naked women in the locker room for at a minute or more until we finally find Carrie huddled in the mist of the shower, the haunting musical score playing underneath that effectively builds a sense of mystery. Or take the prom bloodbath scene, in which De Palma amps up the tension by not only drenching the film stock of the sequence in dark, eerie red, but also using the unusual and unsettling and rarely utilized split-screen format.

And then of course there is that shocking final scene, “perhaps the film’s greatest departure from the novel,” in which Sue Snell, played by Amy Irving, walks up to Carrie’s grave, only to have Carrie’s hand shoot out from the ground and grab Sue by her wrist (Magistrale 3). This is a scene I would argue made the film the hit that it was, De Palma giving the audience one of the all-time great boo scares before the end credits. Additionally, in her book Haunted Heart, Lisa Rogak writes, “Some things had to be changed in the movie. In the book, as she wandered back home in shock after the prom, Carrie blew up a few gas stations, which sent the entire town into flames. De Palma struck it from the movie because the special effects would cost too much” (82). The author of a novel doesn’t have to worry about a budget, doesn’t have to worry about how to capture an entire city burning to the ground on rolling cameras, but a filmmaker has to take into account so many elements to get from pre-production to post-production, and in this capacity De Palma made important artistic and budgetary decisions to create his legendary horror film.

These reasons for why De Palma is the author of the film and not King takes us to a deeper, more complex scenario: is the director of a film always the author, even if that director follows the novel his film is based on extremely closely and doesn’t offer anything remotely innovative in terms of style? Ultimately the decision to stay close to an author’s text and not take the material too far sideways is, in a way, a major authorial decision, and it’s the decision directors David Carson (Star Trek: Generations) and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) both made in their respective versions of Carrie. Carson’s 2002 TV movie is the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, staying closely tied to the book from beginning to end, including its depictions of some of the aftermath of the massacre in ways that the 1976 movie never touched on, with a “screenplay [representing] an accurate picture of the source material’s complete storyline” (David Nusair). However, De Palma’s film is so beloved and familiar that it’s been difficult for filmmakers to pave new ground with this source material, the 2002 version suffering from “an almost excessively low-rent feel that’s perpetuated by Carson’s less-than-cinematic directorial choices” (David Nusair).

Furthermore, Pierce’s 2013 theatrical film, despite updating the story to modern times, with the bullies taunting Carrie with their cell phones in the locker room, and offering new tricks of special effects, like giving Carrie at the prom the ability to fly, ultimately skews closer to the book than De Palma’s film, particularly in the way it gives the character of Sue Snell, who begs her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, a bigger role throughout. Also, like in the novel, Carrie is less a tragic figure in Pierce’s film adaptation and more of a purely vengeful source of rage at the end, with Pierce “making us complicit in Carrie’s violence. The demise of the villain that was presented in such a matter-of-fact fashion in the 1976 film is instead depicted [in this version] in long, grotesque detail” (James Berardinelli). In the end, both Carson and Pierce made specific decisions, some for the good and some for the bad, to their own adaptations that make them the specific authors of these films.

The adaptation one would argue is most separate from the novel and clearly is the work of a different author than King is the 1988 Broadway flop, Carrie: The Musical. Universally considered one of the most wrongheaded theater adaptations ever made, this musical tells the novel’s horrific story through, bizarrely, singing and dancing. It’s possible for horror to work in the musical medium — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running musical on Broadway, and The Evil Dead: The Musical has been performed all over the United States to great success. But Carrie: The Musical had a lot of problems going for it, starting with a disastrous preview in London before, as John Kenrick says in his book, Musical Theatre: A History, “the producers ignored all warning signs and brought the show to Broadway with only minimal revisions” (354). For the New York production, the stage was painted completely black, and the show featured a song-and-dance number at inappropriate times, like in the brutal slaying of pigs that only gets a couple of pages in the novel and less than a minute of screen-time in the De Palma film. Additionally, there’s a moment where “a blood-soaked Carrie dripped her way down a long, impossibly white staircase [that] left many audience members laughing out loud,” suggesting that the make-up effects could have used a few more weeks of prep time to reach a point of believability (355).

Another problem with the show, an unfortunate authorial decision on behalf of its director Terry Hands, was its tone, as Ethan Mordden explains in his book, The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: “[There was] a complete lack of humor. By 1988 we were used to dark shows, but most of them could at least affect a little sarcasm here and there” (67). The show closed after five performances, and nearly thirty years since it’s hilariously quick Broadway run, Carrie: The Musical has “proved to be the most infamous flop musical of its time, one whose title remains a byword for theatrical disaster” (Kenrick 354). Mordden additionally says, “There’s no other flop like it; there’s no other show like it” (69). But how can this be? How can a highly successful novel that was translated into one of the most beloved horror films of the 1970s, one that broke records at the box office and secured Academy Award nominations for both its female leads, have been turned into a disaster of a theater production? The reason is that King is not the author of this project, and neither is De Palma. The reason for Carrie: The Musical’s failure is purely one of authorship, director Hands not having a firm grasp on what makes the original story so compelling, and additionally not understanding how to translate that story into an emotionally resonant stage musical. Carrie: The Musical is the most fascinating example of authorship because it shows how different artists can create not just successful adaptations but also ones that are downright embarrassing.

The one medium of adaptation that doesn’t necessarily make a case for featuring a different author than the novelist himself is the audiobook. Unlike a film which has a specifically structured way to present the story of a novel, and unlike a Broadway musical which by its nature will need to create much of the book of the show from scratch to pave way for lyrics and music, the audiobook is simply a person reading the novel out loud. In the case of the 2005 audiobook of Carrie, Sissy Spacek, who played the title role in the 1976 film, lends her vocal talent as the sole reader of King’s original work. Bringing her soulful, calming voice to the project, and allowing the listener to hear King’s classic story through her words, Spacek “easily [recreates] the moods of that odd young girl” and “successfully takes on the personae of the small town’s other disparate residents” while also “[moving] smoothly from the magazine, newspaper, and official reports to dramatic scenes” (Publishers Weekly).

But could one really argue that Spacek is the author of the Carrie audiobook? I still say yes, although in the case of the audiobook I would argue that she’s the co-author with King. When a reader is alone and spending his or her time with text on the page, the author in this example is the one and only author of the text. If a teenager picks up a hardcover or paperback or ebook of Carrie, he or she will take a journey with the storyteller of the novel, who in this case is Stephen King. However, when someone speaks the words of the book to the listener, the experience between author and reader becomes a filtered one in which there is a third important body in the middle. That third body, whether he or she expects to or not, becomes co-author of the text by infusing the words with pauses and meaning, and bringing personality to all its characters. Spacek is not just robotically reading words on the page; when it comes to the “teenagers, teachers, moms, patrons, the town drunk — Spacek finds a voice for each of them” (Publishers Weekly). In the case of an audiobook, a person listening in the car or at home falls under the spell of a speaker infusing the novel’s words with a special and notable personality, not merely the words themselves, so I would argue that King and Spacek are effectively co-authors of the 2005 audiobook.

In looking at the various adaptations of Carrie, it should be clear that each new version of King’s story invites a different author to interpret the words on the manuscript page and make it his or her own, whether it’s a film, a piece of theater, or an audiobook. These various authors have the ability to build upon the original text, completely alter the text, sadly destroy the very nature of that text, but in each case, a different person is bringing his or her own talent and energy and thoughtfulness to one singular story that is inarguably part of the public consciousness and a highly significant entry in the horror canon, both in literature and in film. King will always be the original author of Carrie, but other authors like De Palma, Carson, Pierce, Hands, and Spacek have given the rich material further life in their respective adaptations. King is one of the most influential authors of the last fifty years, but it needs to be said that he’s not the author of every version made from his work; hundreds of talented artists have brought his stories to life with their own styles and visions through a vast collection of mediums that prove how incredibly unique different authors can be. Even when they’re all telling the same story, there’s always something new to discover.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. “Carrie (2013).” ReelViews. James Berardinelli, 18 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

“Carrie.” PW.com. Publishers Weekly, 28 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Kenrick, John. Musical Theatre: A History. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2008.

King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday: New York, 1974. Print.

Magistrale, Tony. The Films of Stephen King: From Carrie to Secret Window. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008. Print.

Mordden, Ethan. The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004. Print.

Nusair, David. “Four Thrillers from MGM.” Reel Film Reviews. David Nusair, 26 July 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Rogak, Lisa. Haunted Heart. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 2008. Print.

Posted in Books

Why I Love the Rainbow Books: Rainbow High

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Review — Rainbow High (Book 2)

One of my favorite books in recent years is Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez, the story of three gay teenagers who come to terms with their sexuality during their senior year of high school and come to learn more about each other than they imagined possible. If Rainbow Boys had been the complete story of Jason, Kyle, and Nelson, I would have been satisfied, but having two more books in this trilogy made me so happy, I can’t tell you.

Rainbow High is just as compulsive a read as Rainbow Boys, with the story picking up right where it left off, with questions like, is Nelson HIV-positive? Where’s Kyle going to go to college? Will Jason finally admit to his friends and the school that he’s gay, and that he’s dating Kyle?

All these questions are answered, and even more questions are posed, as we move toward the final book of the trilogy, Rainbow Road. It baffles my mind that Rainbow High only has a handful of ratings on Amazon as all three of these books are simply essential YA reads for people both gay and straight. I’m in love with these books because I see a part of myself in all three of these characters, but there’s something in these stories for everyone.

Rainbow High doesn’t feel so much like a sequel as it does a continuation of the first book. The writing is so simple and engaging, and the characters so three-dimensional and smart, that I wish the story of Nelson, Kyle, and Jason went on for ten books. In Rainbow High, Nelson tries to deal with a relationship with a boy who’s HIV-positive, when he may or may not be; Kyle tries to figure out if he wants to go to Princeton, without Jason, or Tech, with Jason; and Jason, the jock on the basketball team, has to decide whether to come out of the closet or stay inside. The novel ends at the prom, where secrets are revealed, and the impossible suddenly becomes possible. I can’t wait to see how Alex Sanchez wraps up this story.

If you haven’t checked out these books, I highly recommend you give them a try. You won’t be disappointed!

Posted in Books

Why I Love the Rainbow Books: Rainbow Boys

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Review — Rainbow Boys (Book 1)

Rainbow Boys is about three seniors in high school who all come to love and accept themselves for being gay. Jason is a jock who has a girlfriend but who starts to develop feelings for other boys. Kyle is a swimmer who has come out to his best friend Nelson but not his parents, and his one true love is Jason. Nelson is the out-and-proud one of the trio, with multi-colored hair and wild outfits, and he loves Kyle. When Jason shows up at a Rainbow Youth meeting on the outskirts of town, Kyle and Nelson say hi to him and recognize that one of the most popular “straight” guys at school is actually gay, and this scene sets off a series of incidents that bring Jason closer to his true identity and his romantic feelings for Kyle.

Jason starts to yell at his friends when they call Nelson “faggot” and spends time at Kyle’s house when he needs tutoring help with his math. Kyle’s big struggle is coming out to his parents, and once he believes Jason might have feelings for him, he does everything in his power to get with the man he loves. Nelson knows who he is right from the beginning, but his flashiness gets him in trouble multiple times, especially with a group of bullies who could have done serious damage if Jason didn’t show up to save him. Nelson has sex with a guy he met online and afterward thinks he might have contracted HIV, and he, like Jason and Kyle, has to deal with parents who don’t always agree with the life he’s leading. In the end, all three characters are out to their parents and to everyone at school, but there’s still a long road ahead.

The overwhelming theme of Rainbow Boys is standing up to others and being true to yourself, no matter what the costs. This novel features main characters who are deeply struggling with not just trying to come out of the closet but also dealing with close-minded friends and family members who want nothing to do with anything “gay.” Rainbow Boys shows the realities of trying to be yourself in an environment where other people are scared of anything that is different. While the horrors that Jason, Kyle, and Nelson go through in this book they likely wouldn’t have to deal with as much in 2018 — Sanchez’s novel was published back in 2001 — closeted gay teens still have fears of what will happen to them when they tell their friends and family they’re gay, and so this novel will resonate with any young gay person who reads it.

The other major theme of this novel is family, as it has been in most of the gay young adult novels, but to a more specific extent in Rainbow Boys, the dynamic between father and sons. One detriment to this book is the lack of development to the female characters, as when it comes to the parents, Sanchez is more interested in the father characters than the mother ones. All three teen characters have complex and contentious relationships with their fathers. Nelson’s father left long ago, and Nelson’s yearning to reunite with him plays a big role in the narrative. Jason has a homophobic, alcoholic father who is the most rotten character in the book and who shows no mercy to Jason when he comes out to him. Kyle’s father doesn’t understand homosexuality, but he, unlike the other two fathers, has a major arc over the course of the novel by going from sometimes homophobic and rude to his boy — after Kyle comes out to him, his first words are “‘Nelson got you mixed up in this, didn’t he?’” — to being open to his son’s sexuality and even willing to join a parent organization that discusses LGBT issues. Instead of having all three fathers go from bad to good in the end, Sanchez truthfully shows one deal with his son’s homosexuality in a thoughtful way and the other two deal with it in more damaging ways.

Rainbow Boys is an absorbing young adult novel that works as the perfect antithesis to Boy Meets Boy. While Boy Meets Boy is a beautiful love story in the kind of accepting world we all still hope to find, Rainbow Boys is a more grim and realistic novel that shows the aches and pains gay teens have to go through to find acceptance with their friends and family. Despite being more realistic, though, it has the same level of romanticism. None of the three characters hates that he is gay; from the first page on, they all want to find love, and by the end, they do. Jason and Kyle share plenty of tender moments together, and Nelson, who is treated the worst of the main trio, finds a boy in support group who wants to be with him. Jason, Kyle, and Nelson are all on the precipice of adulthood, and being true to themselves despite the animosity surrounding them makes their triumphs at the end of the novel all the more powerful.

Sanchez has a simplistic prose style similar to David Levithan and Benjamin Alire Saenz in that he only uses as many words as he needs to tell his story. For example, Sanchez tells us in two brief, lovely sentences what Jason is thinking when he has sex with his girlfriend: “He ran his fingers through her hair, feeling like he was about to burst […] he watched her through the blur of half-closed eyes, then suddenly it was no longer Debra but Kyle, her red hair transformed into Kyle’s cap.” Except for the occasional instances where Sanchez tells too much when he should be showing, he allows his characters to interact in ways that always feel true-to-life and natural. The dialogue rings true — at one point Nelson tells Kyle, “‘I get bashed every day for being queer, and I haven’t even kissed a guy yet […] that’s pretty pathetic’” — and the events that happen over the course of the narrative feel earned, never forced.

The point-of-view that Sanchez uses is fascinating because instead of telling the whole story just for one of the three boys’ perspectives, he alternates every chapter to a different perspective, albeit in the third person. Therefore, he will include a scene of Jason’s perspective on kissing Kyle for the first time, and then the beginning of the next chapter will show Kyle’s response to that kiss. Even though Nelson’s storyline sometimes exists outside of Jason’s and Kyle’s, Sanchez always masterfully weaves the three storylines into one cohesive whole.

Lastly, I love how honest Sanchez is with important LGBT issues that are hardly mentioned or discussed elsewhere in my annotated bibliography. This is the only gay young adult title that delves into HIV issues, with Nelson terrified that he might have contracted it after having unprotected sex with a guy he hooks up with. At one point he says, “‘What if I got it, my first time with a guy […] I don’t want to die.” This quote shows that Sanchez doesn’t shy away from tough issues in this book, especially when it comes to sex. On that same note, Sanchez actually shows all three of his teenage characters have sex, while, for example, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe only shows the two main characters kissing. High school seniors, gay and straight, are having sex, so it’s commendable that Sanchez, in a young adult novel that has the possibility of being contested by librarians and booksellers for “questionable” material, takes his characters to places rarely shown in gay books written for younger readers.