On Transcendence--Sarah Porter

After my post last month (On Darkness) there was some discussion in the comments as to whether, and in what way, young readers might take fiction as a source of real information, or as a directive on how to live, or as a guide to larger truths. One commenter suggested that since kids "aren't stupid" we shouldn't worry about how fictions might affect them. (Btw, Vonny, if you read this I apologize for not responding to your final comment; I didn't see it until now.) This set me thinking about my own relationship to literature as a young adolescent. I'm pretty sure I wasn't stupid, either, but I know I took fiction very seriously, and that it was often realer to me than the world around me. It didn't matter if I knew that the events of, say, The Lord of the Rings, hadn't literally taken place. They had such a devastating emotional valence that they might as well have been real, and been taking place that moment.

And I also know that, as an adult, I don't read the same way. No matter how much I adore a book, it will never make my lived experience seem ashy and dessicated by comparison, a bare vehicle for the real life that I find in the pages.

What's changed? Well, for one thing, I have more sources of knowledge, so I'm not as dependent on books. I have a more defined self, so I don't have the same desperate need to inhabit fictional characters and then look back at my everyday self through their eyes, trying to determine who I might in fact be. And, most importantly, the life I actually live now feels real to me. When I was twelve or fourteen or sixteen, there was one thing I was absolutely sure of: life was elsewhere. Like a lot of teenagers, I was frenzied by the longing for transcendence. Truly vital existence might be possible in New York or in Paris or in Middle Earth, but all those existences were equally imaginary for an odd, withdrawn girl in the St. Louis suburbs. And, while books certainly offered me the scent and the hope of possibility, their impact on me was not always benign.

When I was twelve, Tolkien's Silmarillion threw me into a deep depression that lasted for at least a year, for one simple reason: the elves leave Middle Earth. They abandon the humans, because humans are fundamentally not good enough to bother with; they pack up their transcendence and go. Again, I wasn't stupid. If questioned, I could have confirmed that elves don't exist. It didn't matter. The message I took from the book was that, as a human, I could never be worthy enough to achieve the transcendence I craved more than anything in life, and that anyone who was worthy of it would abandon me.

Of course, if I hadn't already had abandonment issues after my parents' divorce, I wouldn't have been so terribly affected. And of course it wasn't Tolkien's fault that I took his book that way. Maybe I was exceptionally vulnerable, though I suspect that a great many teenagers are equally or more vulnerable. I'm sure that kids with secure families and strong friendships and a healthy sense of self are generally less susceptible to being wounded by fantasies--but we can hardly presume that our readers have those things.

So, do I feel the need to very, very careful about the larger psychological message of any fiction I write for young adults? Absolutely. Specifically, I feel that a fantasy directed at young teenagers should (implicitly) offer both the hope of transcendence and something resembling suggestions for getting there.

Like, if you're clever and imaginative and you work at it really hard, then when the elves sail for the East they might just take you on as a cabin-girl. And if they don't, well, maybe you can be a stowaway.

I think that's a lot closer to the truth than Tolkien's ending.


  1. I really appreciate this post. As a YA author, I think A LOT about what messages readers will take from what I write. Sometimes I feel like this is seen as not taking enough risks in the writing. But I try to see it as just taking different kinds of risks. Thanks for the post!

  2. Interesting. As a writer I always assume that readers are reading to be entertained, not to take away advice or lessons. I can't say that, as a young reader, I ever looked at a book as instructional or containing a certain message I was supposed to react to. But I can see how reading a certain book at a certain time in your life could have an unpredicted impact. When my editor suggested I not have my underage characters drink and then drive because it sent the wrong message, I was strongly against changing the scene. Do I advocate underage drinking? No. Do I advocate driving after having a few beers, no. But I'm not MADD, I'm a writer. Stories aren't real life, they're fiction. I would hate for my readers not to recognize the difference. That's scary.

  3. @ Cheryl, thanks.

    @ J, I think there's a difference between worrying that readers will blindly imitate what your characters do, and looking at the larger message. I didn't react to Tolkien by, say, getting in a canoe and paddling after the elves. And my characters murder a lot of people, definitely not something I advocate doing! So my personal feeling is that having your characters drink and drive is fine; it happens; even good people do all kinds of crazy things, and I'm not remotely suggesting writers shouldn't explore them. It's not the characters' actions I'm concerned about, but the psychological import of the whole story.

  4. I actually love the idea of you getting into a canoe and paddling in search of elves!

  5. Thanks for posting this. This is something I've thought about a lot, and I fully agree. I've actually never told this story before, but you've made me want to share. :)

    I was overweight in high school, and was inspired to lost weight by a Sweet Valley High book. That's right, Sweet Valley High. And I wasn't dumb, or shallow, or easily influenced. I graduated with a 94% average, got a full academic scholarship to college, took AP classes, was in National Honor Society, a National Achievement scholar, etc. And I didn't drink or smoke, even though I knew plenty of people who did. But I read this SVH book, Power Play, about an overweight girl who was treated badly by the other girls at school, started running, and then got everything she wanted, and it was like a light bulb went off. I started running around my high school's track and when I felt stupid or people looked at me funny, I thought to myself "Robin did it. So can I." and just kept on running. By the end of the summer, I lost 30 lbs. And when I went back to school senior year, things were different.

    I absolutely don't think that most teens who read a book are going to think "I should do that too!" and start imitating the characters, but I do think that words have a lot of power to influence how a person sees herself and the world around her. Thanks again for sharing your story.

  6. Thanks, Stephanie. Taking the inspiration you needed from wherever you could find it sounds resourceful and brave to me, not shallow at all. And it's great to see a counter-example where a book had a serious positive impact. If I hadn't experienced books as extremely powerful all my life, I don't think I'd want to write them.

  7. What a nice post. I think the thing it hits on is the difference between the factual story and the emotional/moral story that a work of fiction tells quite well. It seems that saying “the kids aren’t stupid” just means that the kids can distinguish between the two, and know that the factual story told by a work of fiction is false—(they know what fiction is). So it seems likely that they are likely are primarily engaging in the emotional/moral story (this first in with my own recollection of my youthful interaction with fiction, but who knows how accurate that is). This is why they’re reading the stuff in the first place—it gives them in a condensed form what they’re having a hard time pulling out of life (which moves agonizingly slowly at that age). A day could be an eternity. How are you to figure out what the punch line of your own life is when you can’t see the consequences of your actions for months or even years?

  8. Love this post. Of course kids and teens aren't stupid, but they ARE inexperienced. I know I learnt a lot of things (and a lot of things that were probably weird or wrong) when I was young from novels. Some books' insights were revelations to me. So I absolutely agree we need to be careful what we write, but most of all we should aim for a basic kind of *truth* - that way kids can learn about life from novels, just like I did, while hopefully being entertained at the same time.


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