You know what gets old really fast? Sass. I don’t mean, of course, the occasional well-timed quip, or a certain strong friendship dynamic that provides fun banter throughout a story. I mean sass present in every word of prose and dialogue that should read as clever, but instead comes across as whiny.
Here’s the thing about sass. Many YA books live for sass, but a lot of teens are way better at being whiny and angsty, so much so that whenever they enter sass territory, they’re more likely to come across as obnoxious rather than intelligent and observant. Which is no fault of the teen; that’s just the phase they’re going through. The stereotype had to come from somewhere, right?
What some YA books do, however, is take this obnoxiousness masquerading as wit and give it to every. Single. Character. And I mean every character. The pages are lined with phrases like “Oh yeah, that’ll help,” muttered sarcastically with rolling eyes, and every few paragraphs have at least one instance of raising eyebrows or smirking lips. It’s definitely great at conveying the air of superiority some teens (and truly, some people) have, and it makes an interesting case study, but dear lord is it obnoxious to read.
Guys, this may be revelatory: not every teenager is good at being sassy. Sarcasm is honed through careful word choice and lots of practice. I know because I remember being eleven years old and standing in the playground of my elementary school trying to figure out exactly how to phrase the downfall of the douche who was calling me names through the help of heavy sarcasm and the pure dismissal of his juvenile (because I was so much more mature, you see) methods of acting towards other people. For me, being sassy and sarcastic was a conscious choice that didn’t happen overnight. It was developed.
And it was developed as a defense mechanism. It was a way to help myself feel superior and not quite so shit when the loud-mouthed jerk tried to start fires. As I grew older, and as I found people whose friendships towards me were becoming practically unconditional, that sass and sarcasm started to ebb away. I stopped needing it as a crutch to feel better about myself because I was finally becoming comfortable in my own skin. I started to be able to laugh at the genuine humour present in good sarcasm and not take it personally, and in turn began to use it as a tool for entertainment, rather than as a weapon.
Knowing this, you’ll hopefully forgive me for reading every overly sassy, sarcastic character as one with incredible underlying confidence issues; one who isn’t sure of the constancy of the people around them. This is the character who, when ditched by a good friend, will turn around and say they never liked them anyways, covering up their pain by the image they’ve cultivated of themselves as a barefaced spitfire who just doesn’t give a damn. And the other teens believe it, because they think that’s what it means to be strong.
I’ve lived it, people. It sucked. And reading an entire novel dominated by the insecure deluding themselves into thinking they’ve figured everything out is not something I want to spend my time on. Especially when it’s done in such a way that it’s obvious the characters in the book think constant sarcasm equals intelligence and confidence. Because they, like anybody who isn’t sure of what they’re doing, don’t know when it’s okay to pause, lower the screen of self-preserving irony, and be real for once. And if what I’m reading isn’t showing me these people’s realities, their true realities from which their complexes were spawned, like mine had been through mean teasing on the playground, then I lose respect for the writing and judge it like crazy to be unlikely and naïve.
If every character in a book is sarcastic, not only do I become totally desensitized within fifty pages (which is a whole new can of worms), but what I’m reading stops being an amusing and powerful escape into the lives of clever teens and turns into a toxic world of falsity, delusion, and misconceptions of inner strength that don’t get resolved because the behaviour is never treated as a symptom of something bigger.
Which, I would venture to say, pretty much kills the entire point of the YA bildungsroman.
Biljana Likic is currently revising her first novel. She’s in her fourth year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her personal blog and follow her on Twitter.