rethinking bildungsroman

As my love of literature progressed from loving novels of fantastical worlds to works based more in realism; one genre in particular has always resonated with me – the bildungsroman. Perhaps I’m at the crucial age in which literature focusing on coming-of-age and tackling issues thematically will resonate more so with me than any other audience; but I will favour and cherish a well written bildungsroman above a lot of other genres.

For the dominant part of of my adolescence, there was an emphasis on bildungsroman to centre around vapid, shallow teens who would definitely fail the Bechdel test – themes centre on materialism, a pursuit of a shallow “love” based on outward appearance mainly, and general, unexplainable angst against the system. The best I can compare poorly written bildungsroman to are poorly made chick flicks – translating one media to a more accessible one for a general audience.

However, in more recent years a wave of media and literature has been produced centring around coming-of-age which is both profound and insightful. Rich, complex and damaged characters are presented at the forefront – characters who explore their own morality, falling neither side of simply “bad” or “good”. Characters who are allowed to be flawed and make mistakes as they are in many ways children – their own enlightenment and discovery of the adult world serving as a perfect narrative driving force.

Adapted brilliantly – and if I may dare to say so, flawlessly – to screen is one of my personal favourites, The Diary of a Teenage Girl. From what initially sounds like a rather dull and cliched book, hardly one that would stand out from a crowd, the graphic novel presents a very candid and frank account as to the mindset of a fifteen year old who begins a sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend.

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Set against the glorious background of a 1970s’ San Francisco, both the book and film are decedent with subtle period detailing. Minnie’s narrative serves as brutally honest whilst exploring some dark themes; sexuality and sexual manipulation, drugs, love, etc. It veers aware from cliches set by precursors to media focusing on a teenage girl – whilst incorporating a unique, graphic style inspired by the novel.

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Similarly, focusing on the trials and tribulations of being a teen comes Submarine. This time, focusing on lead protagonist Oliver Tate, whose eccentricities make for one of the funniest accounts of teenage life. The film itself is stunning – dazzling cinematography, brilliant direction by Richard Ayoade, and a beautiful soundtrack by Alex Turner. Although in terms of subject matter – losing virginity and parental conflict – both the book and film are anything but cliched.

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Both the film and novel versions as aforementioned films are, in my humble opinion, some of the best accounts of teenagers in modern literature. As someone in their last few months of being a teenager, it is refreshing to see such poignant accounts of a very emotional intense and chaotic period of our lives – accounts that do not trivialise or deride our conflicts simply because we are young.

This piece isn’t about deconstructing and criticising works that are not of the same level as these – but more rather addressing the idea that literature and media centring on a young protagonist doesn’t simply have to be devoid of any real level of depth. It has become a trend that cliched, tiresome films and books centring on young people – particular young women – are slowly dying out, making way for more meaningful accounts of youth; and I, for one, am very pleased.

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