The Compulsive Reader: Edgy vs. Just Plain Bad

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Edgy vs. Just Plain Bad

Recently, I've noticed that some publishers are branching out, trying to offer readers more "edgy" books. I find it a bit hard to describe them, actually. The dictionary tells us that edgy describes something that is on the cutting edge, or daringly innovative. Some books in YA that are considered edgy because of their content are 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and Willow by Julia Hoban. Those are books that I can see where the adjective is appropriate. Those edgy books are excellent; they deal with emotions and tough events and occurences in life (suicide, death, grief, cutting). They have sold well (13 Reasons Why is a NYT Bestseller, and Willow is in its third printing just under two months after its release), and are popular among teens for the messages they carry and their unflinching look at such terrible events.

Yesterday, I read a book that someone described as "edgy", but frankly I think that the word "horrifying" is more fitting. I feel absolutely terrible saying this because the last thing I want to do is disparage a book that a writer spent a considerable amount of time on and cares for. But that book was Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year. As I read it and even after I finished it, I failed to understand why on earth the publisher would think it was a "deliciously dark comedy". There was absolutely nothing funny about it.

For those of you wondering what made me so angry about the book, here's why (and if you are anti-spoiler, read no further): Jenny Green is a spoiled, rich brat from Long Island. She has a horrid sophomore year (a clasmate embarrassed her on Facebook and Myspace, and another girl stole her prom date), so she convinces her father to send her to a boarding school in Canada. There, she reconnects with an old crush, dates a drug dealer (but it's okay, because he has an Audi, takes her to expensive restaurants, and buys her designer clothes), encounters a guy who slips the aforementioned prom-date-stealing girl roofies, is stalked by a school shooter, and is hit on by an old professor, and kills them all. The book isn't graphic, but it does describe her feelings of guilt, although Jenny is always insistent that she isn't a bad person. In the end, the cops are on to her, but she gets away with it all by framing another girl (who, coincidently, also stole Jenny's Prince Charming).

And that is it.

Now, the books does have a few merits (which I'll detail later in my review), but when I finished Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year, the first thing running through my mind was, "Oh my word, why?" I know I'm getting on my soapbox here, but seriously. What kind of message are you sending teens, Amy Belasen and Jacob Osborn? I honestly didn't see any humor in this. I just saw a spoiled brat who was way too smart for her own good, and didn't ever really pay for her actions beyond feelings of guilt and moments when she almost turned herself in (emphasis on almost). This novel could have been chilling if it were written in a much more serious tone, but instead I find it horrifying that the authors make light of Jenny's habit of killing men who cross her. I don't think murder is funny in the least.

Maybe what it boils down to is taste, and I am overracting, but novels like Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year really worry me. I don't doubt teens' intelligence, but these types of books slowly taking over shelves can have a negative impact on younger readers. I can't find a book edgy if those troubling and serious aspects of life aren't accompanied by some sort of message or lesson, or emotions that make readers learn something, or realize (or are reminded of) something significant about life, human nature, or tragic situations. In short, there needs to be something in there that makes the book worth reading. In JGKJY, there was none of that--just a shallow protaganist and the distinct feeling that the authors were saying, "Look, kids! See how easy it is to kill someone if they wrong you! Isn't this funny?"

Next time you are looking for an edgy novel, check out Willow, 13 Reasons Why, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Keuhnert or even Wake by Lisa McMann and Amy Efaw's upcoming novel After. Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year is just not worth it.

Thoughts? Reactions? Am I being too judgmental? What are your opinions?


Becca said...

I think that the book can be considered "edgy" for the issues it goes into, but what makes it "horrifying" is that the girl takes no responsibility for her actions. I think this is irresponsible for a book that is targeted at a YA audience.

Tami Klockau said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. Brilliant. I'm speaking as someone who just finished writing/editing an 'edgy' YA novel about a teen with Schizophrenia. I find that the word 'edgy' is being placed on too many YA novels just to be seen among the mass of books on the shelf.

I haven't read the book that you're speaking of, but it sounds like it takes the wrong side to a very serious topic. 'Edgy' doesn't always mean 'good'.

Oh, and I fully agree with your 'edgy' recommendations.

Anonymous said...

This is not the first time I've heard this same opinion about this book. I don't want to read it. Just the description on Amazon makes me not wanna read the book. I'm sorry you disliked it.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book you were talking about but other than that, I pretty much agree with everything.

Books shouldn't be labeled "edgy" just so they're pushed off of the shelf. But we also can't expect that every book labeled so will be good. Just like every book labeled "chicklit" or "the best new book of___" won't necessarily be loved by all of us.

Luckily, most of the "edgy" books I've read have been recommendation-worthy.

Great post!

Unknown said...

I think that that's the very reason a book of this nature should be described as edgy. It's pushing the envelope, it's not going to appeal to all readers. there are lots of people who don't care that kind of dark humor, or who don't find humor in it, either.

Have you seen the movie HEATHERS? It's a similar "dark comedy" about two teen psychopaths who go on a killing spree. Some people think it's awesome and hilarious, others think it's horrifying. (I was in the second camp, personally.)

Edgy doesn't just have to refer to serious books. there are other "edgy" books that I found just plain bad.

~The Book Pixie said...

I haven't read the book but I think what you said was totally true. Authors need to consider what message they are sending out when they write their books. For example, even though I like the Twilight series, I think they send out the wrong message about realtionships. Authors should really be more careful. About half of us teens know better than to let these bad messages influence how we think or behave, but the other half of the teen population is very impressionable. Anyway, great post! By the way, I got Strange Angels, that I won from the contest you had, in the mail today. :)

Lenore Appelhans said...

Like Diana said, this reminds me of HEATHERS. I think it is partially a question of tone, and it sounds like this book just didn't pull it off. Also probably should marketed adult.

Wendy Toliver said...

A wonderful, thoughtful post.

BookChic said...

I actually really liked Jenny Green, but I'm all about different kinds of humor. I mean, I love Ellen Degeneres just as much as I love Kathy Griffin, but both have extremely different brands of humor.

No, it's not like "Killing sprees are awesome and so easy!". For me, it's a piece of escapist literature. I mean, after a particularly bad breakup, don't you want to kill your ex? Obviously you can't kill your ex in real life, so it can be fun to see someone else in a fictional world acting out what we sometimes want to do. That's how I see it.

But you're right, it does come down to taste really. Good discussion post!

PS I feel a bit of pride since I lent you my copy of Jenny Green. Without me giving you my copy, you might not have made this post (or, well, maybe eventually, but whatever, lol).

Shooting Stars Mag said...

I haven't read the book but I have heard a lot of negative comments about it. I can see how they could have made it more serious or even just more slapstick-funny, but the way it sounds now...not really working for me. I think it's cool you are stating your thoughts, no worries! And I agree with your ideas of real "edgy" books.


Janssen said...

Ack! That book sounds horrible.

Thanks for a great and thoughtful post. I don't think you're too judgmental at all; there is a difference between books ABOUT dangerous behavior and books that glorify that behavior.

Paradox said...

Oh GOD, I HATED Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year! It was the worst book I read last year. The only thing I liked was the English teacher, but even he was ruined in the end. I don't know what to do with my copy... maybe I'll sell it.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

I haven't read the book, so can't comment on it, but it's always worthwhile reading what you have to say.

Some of my books over the years have been labeled edgy and I can say about that, that it's not something the author picks but rather a label that's thrust upon us. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you said in this post. I read the book way back when it first came out and it utterly...repulsed me. I really don't like smashing books but that's how it was with this one for me. I found myself flipping through the pages not because I was enjoying it but literally flipping through them because I didn't want to waste a significant amount of time on it. Sigh. Maybe I'm being too harsh.

Katie said...

Great post! I completely agree!
I've considered buying this novel in the past but I didn't know much about it. Now I think I'll save my money for something worth my while.

a flight of minds said...

Aw man. I have this book in my reading pile. Guess I just won't read it then. Because yeah, it does sound pretty awful. I don't think murder should ever be taken lightly; although, is the book written more jokingly, like obviously, this would never happen in real life, but let's imagine it anyway?

The ending sounds stupid though. And I agree, the fact that she would get off with no punishement for murder is sending out wrong messages to teens. There's an edgy, where it works as a complement, and an edgy where it's just going too far.

Great post though, it's amazing and interesting. :)

- Alex

Emily Ruth said...

Thanks for warning me about this one!
I loved 13 reasons why... :)

Unknown said...

You are not being judgmental at all. I completely understand. If I read that book I'd be PO'ed afterward. I can't believe she actually kills people and the book's treated like a light funny read. That is freakin' crazy! I would understand it more if the book was described not as edgy but about a psycho or something.

Shalonda said...

I have this book on my bookshelf, and I still plan to read it. However, I really enjoyed reading your opinion on it. Like Lauren said, you always have something worthwhile to share, and I enjoy reading your blog.

Don't worry, you've never come across as judgmental. Your review was honest, without being nasty. And again, you wrote with a purpose!

Rachael Stein said...

I totally agree. I think publishers often mislabel their books in an attempt to make it sound better than it is, and generally the adjectives are far from fitting.

For me, edgy deals with difficult issues such as death, drugs, etc (Ellen Hopkins for example), but not in a way that exalts them. It's more of a discussion or dissection.

Chelsie said...

I agree 100% with your analysis. Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year is just awful; I couldn't even finish it, and I'm glad I didn't because I have heard very little good about it.

The other books you mentioned were definitely a million times better.

<3 Chelsie

Wrighty said...

Excellent post and I agree with so many things said here by everyone. I am always a fan of snarky humor and trying something different but I appreciate having a reason for it. Like others mentioned, it sounds like maybe it needed to either involve more outright humor or be more sensitive and have a message to be a better story. I haven't read it yet so I am only speaking in general terms and I do applaud any author's effort. Publishers need to be aware of how they are marketing a book as well, especially for children and young adults. There is a responsibility to be more responsible (for lack of a better word). To tackle so many serious issues needs a delicate touch.

Unknown said...

I actually liked this book. I thought it was hilarious. I thought it was pretty clear that Jenny Green was a crazy crazy bitch and the authors never treated her like the things she was doing were normal. It was clear that Jenny thought she was fine, but she really wasn't fine. And it was a really funny take on the JAP (Jewish American Princess) stereotype.

I wouldn't describe this book as edgy though. That's a really overused word. This book was a dark comedy plain and simple. Maybe its just me, but I think most teenagers are smart enough to realize that the authors are making fun of girls like Jenny (the spoiled brat part) and took it to the extreme to do so.

I definitely don't think it is the responsibility of authors to censor their works just because some people don't like it. YA is a category not an age group and "appropriateness" for teens is a discussion I see all the time. It's not up to the authors/publishers to decide what's appropriate for other people's children. They publish books, and parents can make those calls. I'm going to get reamed for that, but its something I feel strongly about. Hate Jenny Green all you want, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and I can definitely see why some people would hate this book. But teens aren't stupid, and reading this book isn't going to send anyone into a killing spree.

I agree with the Heathers comparison. If you "get" the Heathers then you'll "get" this book. :)

Amelia said...

I loved this post! I didn't get past page 30 of Jenny Green before I had to stop and say "enough!". She was so arrogant and, I dunno, vapid, maybe, that she just blew my mind. I work with someone like that, and I most certainly don't want to be inside her head. Thanks for this review. I felt guilty for such a silly reason to put it down, but now I'm glad to know I didn't miss a thing.