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Notes on an Anxious Genre: Toward an Alternative Pedagogy of Queer Young Adult Fiction Open Access


Other title
children's literature
gay and lesbian studies
young adult literature
cultural studies
queer theory
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Mason, Derritt B
Supervisor and department
Zwicker, Heather (English and Film Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Hurley, Nat (English and Film Studies)
Grace, Andre (Education)
Kidd, Kenneth (English, University of Florida)
Mackey, Margaret (Library and Information Studies)
Department of English and Film Studies
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
My dissertation brings theorists of queer childhood (Bruhm and Hurley 2004; Edelman 2004; Stockton 2009) into conversation with contemporary North American queer young adult fiction (queer YA), a genre that I suggest has come to bear a heavy pedagogical burden in the wake of recent intense media interest in queer youth suicide. Many queer YA critics evince a persistent investment in visibly LGBT characters as antidotes to the social alienation of queer youth; I argue that this emphasis on the didactics of visibility ignores how texts signify and circulate queerly in complex and productive ways. With the aim of enriching the array of critical approaches to queer YA, this dissertation proposes an alternative pedagogy of the genre—a pedagogy of anxiety—that charts the critical anxieties of queer YA critics and deploys them as a springboard for further analysis of gender, sexuality, identity, temporality, and the creative strategies YA characters use for making sense of themselves and the world around them. Situating queer YA vis-à-vis its relationship to the genre of children’s literature, the post-war rise of youth culture, and the “invention” of gay youth in the 1970s (Savin-Williams 2005), my first chapter provides an overview of queer YA from 1969 to the present day. I outline those critical anxieties surrounding visibility, transparent sexual identity, and affect that have been central to queer YA criticism for decades (Hanckel and Cunningham 1976; Cart and Jenkins 2006). Instead of attempting to “cure” the genre of these anxieties, I consider recent children’s literature criticism (Gubar 2011), theories of queer temporality (Muñoz 2009), and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ work on worry (1993) to argue for an embrace of queer YA as anxious genre: one perpetually uncertain about its own constitution; a genre whose paradoxical temporalities and provocative ambiguities are effectively approached through the “affective economy” (Ahmed 2004) of anxiety through which it circulates. In the following chapter, I combine theories of queer pedagogy (Britzman, Luhmann 1998); Stockton’s notions of delay and sideways growth; and the halting yet future-oriented temporality of anxiety to describe my pedagogical approach to queer YA. Crucial here are concepts of risk and reading: I explore the former through Isabelle Holland’s The Man Without a Face, and conclude the chapter by illustrating the latter through two novels by Francesca Lia Block, which position anxious reading as a mechanism for composing rickety stories that make temporary sense of ourselves and our relations with others. Interestingly, while critics of queer YA seem to have forgotten about the potential of queer anti-identities, the genre itself has not. My third chapter revisits John Donovan’s groundbreaking I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969)—disparaged by many contemporary critics for its ambiguous ending—to argue that the novel sets up queer YA “problem novel” (Cart 2010) conventions for decades to come and simultaneously demonstrates an anxious and subversive relationship to these same generic conventions. Through a cluster of three contemporary novels (Selvadurai 2005; Hand 2010; St. James 2007), I explore the queernesses and anxious temporalities of YA that are in excess of the teleology of “growing up,” LGBT visibility and “problem novel” tropes: relationships with animals, cousin-love, and a risk-taking fetish, for example. These queer relations and forms of “sideways growth” (Stockton), which are trumped in the minds of critics by the presence of openly LGBT characters, provide rich possibilities for imagining and theorizing queer subjectivity and relationality. My final chapter considers the It Gets Better anti-bullying project through the lens of children’s literature, tracking the adult desires and anxieties that are contained within the project’s repetitive narrative of progression. I argue that material evidence of young people writing back to It Gets Better—i.e. online fanfiction that mashes up the project with the popular television show Glee—complicates Jacqueline Rose’s (1984) argument about children literature’s impossibility and the genre’s untouched middle space between adult author and young reader. If children’s literature has been neglected in the academy (Clark 2003), I argue that it’s impossible to do so any longer given that the theoretical lenses of children’s literature allow us to explore the textual and cultural manifestations of that perpetually provocative and anxious relationship between adult and child.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
Citation for previous publication
Mason, Derritt. "On Children's Literature and the (Im)Possibility of It Gets Better." English Studies in Canada 38.3-4 (2012): 83-104.

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