Gone Girl: To Be YA or Not To Be YA

 

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Spoiler Alert: The ending and significant details of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is discussed in this post.

There are a bevy of meta-discussions around Young Adult literature: defining “YA,” reader age, minority characters, third- or fourth- or fifth- or whatever-wave feminism, actor choices for movies, etcetera. Usually, I swerve around these discussions like the giant pot hole outside my apartment building. I see it. I acknowledge it’s a problem. But it’s not in my purview to fix1. HYAFW’s main concern is the dissection of writing. However, there are times when the elementary particles of writing and the meta-discussions of publishing share a drink.

While at my Mother’s house, I finished reading an acquaintance’s ARC.

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Mother picked it up and after a few pages asked, “This is YA?” I assured her it is, adding “a very well written one.” Gazing up at her mystery and romance stuffed bookshelves, I plucked Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as my next read.

After I finished Flynn’s mystery/thriller, I asked: “This isn’t YA?” Which raised deeper pondering, not just “What defines YA?” but also “Has YA become more than a marketing tool or flag for readers age range? Is YA becoming a style, a genre? Have writerly elements of YA leaked into the adult fiction world?” And, perhaps grandly, how is YA effecting culture?

One of America’s greatest literary critics, James Wood, comments on one of America’s greatest literary authors, in one of America’s most respected magazines:

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Her [Donna Tartt] newest novel “The Goldfinch” (Little, Brown), is a virtual baby: it clutches and releases the most fantastical toys. Its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature.

(James Wood, The New Yorker, October 21, 2013 Issue)

Is it possible that Ms. Tartt’s2 been influenced by the YA craze? On the other hand, maybe Tartt’s “tone, language and story” is an example of a shift in literary culture and approach, which in turn influenced the popularity of YA. Perhaps YA readers are picking up on the cultural zeitgeist quicker than others. If so, then it’s unsurprising that Gone Girl was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, because it’s writing techniques lean toward YA’s.

In the classic three act structure, Gone Girl bounces between Nick Dunne’s and Amy Elliot Dunne’s narration. The acts are titled, “Boy Loses Girl,” “Boy Meets Girl,” and “Boy Gets Girl Back (Or Vice Versa).” Boy versus girl: a playground war between genders. Each chapter is titled with the narrator’s name and the date or number of days since Amy’s disappearance. There is no possibility of narrative confusion in this simple, clean choice. Clarity of narration and description of action are key to Flynn’s pacing.

The minimalist structure highlights story and plotting: this is who is speaking, this is what is happening. The story is “action-packed,” characters move quickly from one plot point to the next, building tension with each turn. There are rarely, if any, long descriptions or thought-provoking monologues. Much less are there unique metaphors, interesting sentence structures, or rarefied vocabulary. Gone Girl does not contain anything to literarily mull over, to slow down the reader. Instead, it relies on a fast-paced plot, a unique story, and dynamic, explosive characters. Structure, story, plotting and character choices that are extremely common in YA.

The characters are intensely immature, built on childish desires and actions. In the first third of the novel, Amy’s narrative are sections from her diary; a choice associated more often with teenagers than women of 35-40. Nick, without his wife, sister, mistress, parents-in-law, detective or lawyer, bumbles and undermines himself. He is an incomplete person. The plot is forwarded by the characters’ childish emotions and melodrama: revenge, jealousy, fame, sex, control, possession, etcetera. It’s a list for soap operas — or high schools.

Thematically, Gone Girl is a journey of self- and mate-discovery3 as well as a social commentary on gender relations. Two characters put in an intense situation, pushed to extremes, illuminating unknown aspects of themselves. Add the term “life or death” to that sentence, and it describes a large number of young adult books. Some literary themes transcend bookshelf categorizations.

Finally, a high level of “suspension of disbelief” is needed to partake in Nick & Amy’s psychotic ride. One must believe in Amy’s intellect and fastidiousness by which she completes her plan, and conversely, her naiveté of Nick’s feelings for her. Further, one accepts that flamboyant characters, including Desi Collings and Tanner, could exist. The level of “suspension of disbelief” necessary to continue reading and enjoy Gone Girl is tantamount to any number of YA books where a child saves all humanity. Potentially, the YA field has expanded readers’ trust of the absurd and otherworldly, but only in exchange for a great story.

Successful storytelling contains all of these writing elements, regardless of where they are shelved. The expression of these elements may be laid out on the page, as in Gone Girl. Others are wrapped in the thickened ivy of words, like Tartt’s The Secret History, or my acquaintance’s young adult novel. The minimalistic way in which writing elements are illustrated in YA, may have “adult” authors and readers considering, or reconsidering, what is actually important to story and their personal creative growth. Perhaps, the YA trend’s influence on literary culture is the reassessing the building blocks of the artistic process.


  1. To me, these issues in YA literature, and maybe literature as a whole, falls on the writers. Writers are artists and thus responsible for not only their medium, but also for the documentation and/or interpretation of our world, so the reader/viewer may better understand the human condition within that world. (For more on artists’ responsibility to their media see: On the Aims of the Artistic Process | On the Artistic Process of “On the Aims of the Artistic Process” 
  2. It should be noted that although the main character of Tartt’s book is a young teenager, she has previously written a child narrator in The Little Friend, which was not, to my knowledge, critically deemed as “children’s literature.” Thus, James Wood, almost a year ago, deemed that the age of the protagonist/narrator is not the only criteria to garner the YA label. There are myriad of novels with child or teen protagonists which are not shelved in the YA section of your local Barnes & Noble. Post- 9/11 there was even a trend of pre-twenty narrators in literature, (see: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) because in the wake of the attack, we all felt like children: out of control, in a new world we did not understand, nor want to. Thus, a teenage or child protagonist does not define it as “young adult.” 
  3. The fact that adults are on the same journey as their teenage counterparts may be Flynn’s comment on contemporary Americans’ unwillingness to grow up — the extension of youth into (at least) our thirties. 
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