Private Suffering: When Glam Teen Lit Needs a Gothic Booster Shot

Posted by Beverley Palasik on August 18, 2011 in Blog tagged with , ,

When the Gossip Girl novels premiered in 2002, young adult readers were granted V.I.P. access to the fabulous world of American teenage conspicuous consumption, a hedonistic fictional foray into the lives of the rich, the famous, and their unlimited disposable income.  By 2005, the successful appeal of Gossip Girl scenarios (omnipresent parties, drinking, drugs, sex, and the power struggles privileged girls confront in their chicly attired and well-coiffed social circles) made the market ripe for the abundant publication of similar series and spinoffs.  Apart from variation in writing quality and plot detail, series like Gossip Girl, A-List, and It Girl were largely interchangeable and allowed girls to try on enviable lifestyles the way you might try on an outrageous Versace gown: it’s fun to twirl about in, but when it comes down to it, you don’t really have any place to wear it.

Somewhat predictably with the global economic downturn at the end of the last decade, the majority of these series fizzled out by 2010.  The genre itself was becoming as outdated as last season’s bargain-rack sweater, and the books were in bargain bins.  As Lisi Harrison, author of the Clique series, wrote in a forward to her final volume, “In 2002, when I began the Clique, pop culture was different.  Materialism was trendy.”

If you glance through the young adult book sections today, it’s obvious that nine years later, things are very different indeed.  The covers of the various series are still interchangeable, but, in the way contemporary girls are more drawn to the paranormal than Paris Hilton, you’re more likely to find vampires or raven-haired dark beauties over the stylishly posed socialites pouting from Gossip Girl-esque covers.  It’s not a coincidence that Lisi Harrison retired the Clique to write her newest series, Monster High; supernatural romance, darker psychological twists, and pop Goth are today’s teens’ guilty pleasures and are snapped up at the rate with which characters in the materialistic series snagged new Prada bags.  It would have been nearly impossible, therefore, for most consumerist series to survive the shift towards Gothic motifs without absurdly improbable plot contrivances, and (although vampires do neatly transition between consumerism and horrific consumption) Gossip Ghoul just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

A notable exception is Kate Brian’s Private series, which releases its final novel Vengeance in late August.  Debuting during the height of the prep-school fiction period in 2006, the series contained all the features familiar to readers of those books: boarding school, gorgeous youth, flaunted wealth, and the economically challenged scholarship student who wants nothing more than to join the powerful circles of perfect girls.  All the standard posh-teen elements were present, but there was also something else that would later allow the series to adapt more easily to the teen Goth market: murder and psychological torment.  Granted, the vacuous characters in the other series seem perfect zombie-like embodiments of how Reviving Ophelia author Mary Pipher describes girls who succumb to cultural expectations of femininity, the “’Barbie dolls’ with hair and smiles in place and a terrible deadness underneath” (44).   Many of this type in the Private series simply end up with matching dead bodies to complement the deadness of their selfhoods and the soulless interiors so encouraged by a society that values only external appearance.

Apart from this twist, the ubiquitous power struggles of the materialistic series drive the Private plotline.  The outsider who is lower in socio-economic standing seeks not to topple the current regime but to infiltrate it; small-town Reed Brennan ingratiates herself with an elite circle, gaining power when she is able to don her new personality like the designer duds she borrows from her friends.  When beautiful girls turn up dead all around her and several plays are made for her own life, Reed turns the situation to her advantage, eventually becoming head of her prestigious boarding house when she demonstrates composure in the face of extreme psychological trauma.

Everything seems to fall into place for Reed…until she makes social mistakes that ensure her fall from grace.  Her wealthy friends (and by association, her access to material goods) abandon her, and she is left trying to regain her former position in a new way, one more in line with current trends:  through the discovery of witchcraft, the formation of a secret society, and the explanation that all her misfortunes (detailed in the first dozen volumes of the sixteen-book series) arose from an ancestral curse not mentioned until (unlucky?) book thirteen.  It seems materialism turned its back on favorite characters just as the tanking economy snubbed us in the real world.  The key here is that just as there is still a supernatural way for Reed to retain her glory, there are also still ways to capitalize on the series using the supernatural: Gothic motifs, which are popped like pills into the mouths of ailing genres to keep them alive long enough to eke out any last remaining profit.

Of course, even with its diminished literary presence, real-world materialism will never really vanish.  In the current climate, money-hungry publishers who crank out low-brow, mediocre Gothic novels for teens only perpetuate capitalism-driven fiction, although it could be argued the same has been ever thus in the Gothic field (lest we forget the reception of most Radcliffe-era Gothic novels).  The difference with Private is that its series-saving Gothecizing actually works relatively well with the dark, murderous plots of the first twelve novels (which killed off materialistic fashionistas all along anyway), and does indeed breathe temporary new life into what was rapidly becoming a tiresome string of murder-mystery events.

If the shift were to be truly believable and accepted, though, it would need something beyond the clever, yet sudden, infusion of witchcraft, curses, and dimly lit chapel ruins into the existing framework; it would need to appear as if the plot had been building to a supernatural crescendo all along.  Cue the release of prequel novel Book of Spells, which validates present-day action by retroactively creating a century-old history of Reed’s spell book.  The characters in the prequel are in very much the same position as Reed, elite boarding school girls who stumble across a book on witchcraft and use its contents to gain powers.  In keeping with the murderous plots of the series proper, this too includes a death, but one the characters attempt to undo through supernatural means.  Rather than reviving their deceased friend, however, black magic merely reanimates, creating an undead monstrous “thing that wasn’t Catherine” which they must resign themselves to destroy (279).  The foundation was therein laid for this new “thing” that isn’t the original Private yet bears the same name, a series that, like the literal zombie who surfaces in Book of Spells, was forced to become an undead member of a former trend integrating into current tastes.

Not unlike her desperate characters, Kate Brian employed (or perhaps more accurately, deployed) Gothic conventions to revive her contribution to the dying posh-teen genre.  Gothicized but not thoroughly rebranded (No more brand-name dropping, please!) the series did survive to sell many more volumes than the others, kept “alive” long enough to reach a decaying hand into teen pockets when mere fashion was no longer fashionable.  In the end, though, Dr. Frankenstein and Kate Brian alike must accept that reanimation does not everlasting life endow, and the final chapters of the series bring that generation of materialistic teen fiction to a close, even if the coffin lid on consumerism will never similarly slam shut.

Works Cited

Brian, Kate.  The Book of Spells: A Private Prequel.  New York: Simon, 2010.  Print.

Harrison, Lisi.  Forward: A Letter from Lisi.  A Tale of Two Pretties: A Clique Novel.  By Harrison.  New York: Poppy, 2011.  Print.

Pipher, Mary.  Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.  New York: Grosset, 1994.  Print.

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