This week: A bit more about the venerable bildungsroman with a few other words thrown in. Then an editorial about language change and some footnotes. Here we go.
During last week’s research into bildungsroman, a few things came up that I thought deserved a little bit of consideration, so I thought I’d use this week as a follow-up to that. You don’t need to have read last week’s letter to keep up with this week’s, but I am going to use the term bildungsroman a lot. Oh, and mild spoilers for both the Harry Potter and The Magicians series of books.
Bildungsroman, as a term, is both a little dated1 and overly academic. As I noted last week, although not entirely interchangeable (from an academic perspective, at least), the far more common term is coming-of-age story. But two other terms I came across brought up changes in the idea of genre2 and how it should be applied to help readers find new stories. First the terms, then the changing nature of genre.
In 1995, there were three things every dorm room had to have - a copy of Bob Marley and the Wailers Greatest Hits, a sofa of dubious safety and cleanliness, and a torn poster of John Belushi, circa 1981 wearing a sweatshirt that said "college." Twenty-five years later, these same items might be set pieces used to shortcut and ground a sitcom or drama set at a university. By extension, these same shortcuts could set the scene for a college novel3.
The campus novel is, as you might guess, a novel set in and around an academic institution. Only, unlike a bildungsroman, the protagonists can be any age, rather than a student. Wikipedia traces the genre back to the 1950s and cites The Groves of Academia by Mary McCarthy as the earliest example.
The other term that might be applied to a story about a young person at college, or at least college age is New Adult Fiction. The idea is that these stories focus on characters in their late teens to early twenties. In other words, these are the stories of people on the verge of legal adulthood and the trials they face in life. It is meant to be a direct counterpoint to YA, or young-adult fiction, where the characters are often in their early teen years.
As an example, consider Harry Potter and The Magicians. Leaving aside the magical, fantasy elements, let's look at just the similarities. Both series open with their protagonists going away to school. Harry to Hogwarts and Quentin to Brakebills. Both stories have their main characters experience severe culture shock and begin undergoing the longer series of events that will eventually change them into more mature, more fully realized versions of themselves. Only, Harry is eleven at the start of his journey and Quentin is seventeen.
Is this the only difference that makes one a YA novel and the other a NA novel? After all, the stakes are similar in both series - the end of the world with plenty of death and life-altering trauma along the way. Is it the more blatant sex in the world of the Magicians? Sex is hinted at but never explicitly stated in the Harry Potter books4.
The writing styles are certainly different. The Harry Potter books are fun. They're light (in the early series) and the world-building is clever and playful. The Magicians books, by contrast, are not fun. They are dark and brooding and magic almost has more consequences than it does benefits.
But the real difference is how they deal with the aftermath of the events in the books. In Harry Potter, while there are some hints of lasting repercussions, for the most part, by the time the story is done, everything has gone on to be a newer, happier, well-adjusted ever after. In the Magicians, every event causes trauma and these traumas build on each other creating permanent changes in the characters to whom they happen. There is no happily ever after. There is only after5.
So, what do we call these stories with similar plots but wildly different tones? Both series could be called bildungsroman, coming-of-age, or campus novels. But, the Magicians is decidedly a New Adult story while Harry Potter is a Young Adult story6.
And here’s the point about genres I want to make and I’m just going to awkwardly shoehorn it in here because, man, this is getting long: for the past few decades, we’ve had genres defined by the type of tropes inherent in the story - action, romance, mystery, western - but these new terms that are near-synonymous with the outmoded bildungsroman seem to suggest an ongoing return to developmental age as genre. But this is just a brief outlier on genres new path: I don’t think that’s where the publishing industry is headed. Instead, I think genre will continue to evolve down paths currently being defined by fan-fiction and by non-English-originated sources like anime and manga7.
And so there you have it the older genre coming around again in new clothes to redefine how we think about and categorize the stories we read. Next week, another old genre in new clothes, because why stop now?
The big news this week for sports fans is that Cleveland’s baseball team has formally become the Cleveland Guardians. As team names go, I think it’s fine. It’s a pretty basic name, right up there with Defenders or Fighters, but it ties in nicely to local history and, most importantly, isn’t offensive to a marginalized group of people.
But what I think is most important is that, by changing the name, Cleveland has reminded us just how adaptable and malleable our language is. In other words, changing names should be a non-issue, just as using someone’s preferred pronouns should be a non-issue. And this is what Cleveland has done well, in my view. As I understand it, they explained their understanding of the issue and why the name needed to change, solicited ideas from the fans, and then workshopped the final candidates until they arrived at something more suitable.
It’s worth noting and remembering that whenever something is presented as “unchangeable because of tradition and history” it’s usually bullshit. History isn’t that long and it’s rarely as black and white as it’s presented as being. Tradition is even worse. How many of us truly have traditions that we can say for absolute certain go back any further than our grandparents?
To study language is to study change. Traditions and history are rooted in and defined by the language we use. We live in a time with an ever-expanding of linguistics and how languages work and we speak a language whose most salient feature in making it an international business tongue is its willful malleability. Whenever we’re presented with a need to change our language, our only consideration should be how best to do so, never why we have to.
Seriously, have you ever used it in conversation? Had you even heard the term before last week? I hadn’t and I study this crap.
90% of genre is marketing bullshit, but it is effective and occasionally useful marketing bullshit. And, given that the internet and online shopping has created infinite bookshelf space that can be categorized and sub-categorized down to the nth degree, expect to see the boundaries of genre get exploded in the coming years.
I’m making more of an effort to be more mindful of copyrights and whatnot these days, so, even though the internet is still designed to make everything infinitely copyable, I’m not going to put the poster in this newsletter. Here’s a link to a google search if you’re really curious.
I should note that Lev Grossman originally wrote the Magicians as a reaction to Harry Potter and the Narnia books. He wanted to make a more grown-up version of the story.
It has been argued that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are adults by the end of the last book and some fans split the series into two parts, with the first four being YA and the latter three being NA.
Fan-fiction can be defined by the emotion it’s meant to elicit in the reader or by the relationship of the main characters; anime and manga are defined by a combination of relationships and tropes.