Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fiction Should Be Fiction

The debut novel of author Madeleine George, Looks, is fairly typical in the YA (young adult) genre of Problem Books. Teens like to read books about other teens struggling with the regular and extraordinary types of issues. There's a big market for this type of book, and George's contribution has the added bonus of pretty good story-telling and writing. The story deals with two main characters who sort of orbit each other in their high school, before finally connecting towards the end of the book. Both are outsiders: Meghan is obese, invisible to her peers and striving to blend in and absorb as much as possible; Aimee is an anorexic poet, trying to find her way among the fringes. I found Meghan's character to be the most compelling, yet George left me wanting to know more about her. Amy's character was more predictable, but the descriptions of her eating disorder were quite vivid.

Full disclosure: George and I went to the same high school. Also full disclosure: I was a girl on the fringes in high school also. In fact, she graduated in my husband's class, so I was pretty interested to read this title and we purchased it for the library. Yet, I find it really upsetting that lots and lots of George's details were directly "stolen" from our own high school, especially in a book that deals with plagiarism. (Can you plagiarize life?) I mean, I was OK with the high school being described as our exact high school in Amherst, Massachusetts, down to the various corridors and the tacky temporary classroom down by the English hall. I was bothered that George modeled the stellar English teacher SO IDENTIFIABLY on a real person, giving the character in the book the real teacher's first name, aping his unique way of speaking to his students, gestures, etc. But I was astonished and even offended that George's bullying villain had the REAL NICKNAME, J-Bar, of a boy who fit the character's physical description perfectly (white-hat wearing lacrosse player). His best henchman, in real life was called Liberty (yes, really) and in the book was called Freedom.

I get it that writers use their own experiences, and may even play with names a bit for their own fun and enjoyment. This is different. Who's to say that our own J-Bar didn't turn out to be a really awesome young adult librarian? How would these people feel to be portrayed in the pages of someone's book---in a positive light (the teacher) or a negative one (J-Bar)? What's up with an obviously talented writer using reality in this way? When I read fiction, part of my enjoyment comes from knowing I am entering an invented world, even if based on reality.

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