I've been spending my holiday teaching break trying to finish a manuscript for a young adult coming-of-age novel I'm working on, which has me thinking a lot about coming-of-age novels, which has me wondering if all good novels aren't coming-of-age novels.
Maybe it just depends on what age you're talking about. Couldn't John Updike's "Rabbit" series be classified as coming-of-age, as long as the age we're talking about is "middle?" We're all transitioning from one thing to another, aren't we?
The Germans have given us the best word for the coming-of-age novel: Bildungsroman. The literal translation is "novel of formation," which doesn't sound as cool, so let's stick with Bildungsroman. A traditional Bildungsroman concerns the transition from youth to adulthood in terms of a character's moral and psychological growth. In the words of 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
The Bildungsroman is a story where the protagonist's eyes are opened to the world's realities. Coming-of-age novels ask their protagonists to put away the black-and-white view of a child and adopt the shades of gray we're forced to live through as adults.
A lot of the literature we still assign in school qualifies as Bildungsroman. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a classic example, as it traces Scout's awakening to the realities of racism and the fact that justice is often not served. "Huckleberry Finn" tells a similar story in a different way.
"The Catcher in the Rye" is, to my mind incorrectly, cited as a Bildungsroman. Holden Caulfield undergoes very little growth or maturation over the course of the novel, staunchly maintaining his disdain of the world's "phonies," which I think is one of the reasons younger readers so strongly take to the book. As the teenage years are a long march through a series of grievances of the everyone-is-against-me variety, Holden's words feel like a jolt of validation. Picking up the book as an adult may make you want to just tell the kid to get over it already.
My favorite Bildungsroman when I was a kid was Katherine Paterson's "Bridge to Terabithia," which is still about the best and most penetrating portrayal of grief I've ever read.
The recent ascent of young adult literature with crossover adult appeal is rooted in the Bildungsroman. "Harry Potter" is actually a subgenre of the Bildungsroman, known as an Erziehungsroman, or "education novel." The "Hunger Games" trilogy is another young adult crossover hit that may qualify as an Erziehungsroman, as long as you equate one's education with learning more and more elaborate ways to kill your enemies.
It's tempting to call "Twilight" a Bildungsroman, except that Bella has the same hyper-romanticized, oversimplified notions of love at the end of the tetralogy as the beginning. A true "novel of formation" requires at least the possibility of change, but Bella is stamped in permanent (purple) ink.
I guess I'm displaying a personal prejudice as a reader here, but for me, the best books require at least the possibility of change. My guess is that the intensity of appeal of something like "Twilight" is rooted in a desire to escape from the adult realities of romance that can wax and wane, of relationships that require maintenance, rather than burning with eternal, white-hot intensity.
I respect the desire for occasional escape, but I revere the books that try to "tell it like it is," especially when we're talking about becoming adult.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers readers recommendations
1. "The Adults" by Alison Espach
2. "Love and Shame and Love" by Peter Orner
3. "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes
4. "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga
5. "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides
— Dawn M., Salem, Ore.