If you write a book about Emos, I bet you won’t call them that. Does your novel follow a Psycho? Maybe you describe her as an alternative thinker. If nerds are the heroes of your story, or for that matter vandals or drug abusers, then your story—almost by definition—is trying to make them seem more heroic.
You’re writing to shift the literary ‘center’ of their subculture.
The problem faced by champions of a subculture (let’s call them ‘writers’) is that the center of it starts in the world’s metatext. In other words, the subculture already has a bad reputation… not just in our world but in other literature, in nasty jokes and riddles, and in casual putdowns from the mouths of cops and parents. The job of a YA champion, then, is to shift the center of the subculture into the story’s text. That’s the place where an author is free to call the vandals ‘freedom fighters’ or the drug abusers ‘addicts’. The text is a place where a subculture can rebel against much bigger bads.
Let’s take an establishing classic about subcultures, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Its own propaganda says it’s about “sex, drugs and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Does that scream ‘subculture’ to anyone else? Wrapped up in a well told story, though, even the most conservative reader starts to see how sins from our broader culture can make even a brilliant mind like Charlie’s turn in on itself. Against our will, we see that facing mental health issues—instead of just ‘being a psycho’—could mean Charlie needs a nudge from kids who take drugs or have sex. Bravely, Chbosky exposes these characters to be as heroic as anyone.
Don’t gasp too loudly, Archbishop. He’s not the only one.
In The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Barry Lyga plucks a teen from two subcultures who fear each other, and pins the hopes of one on the other. Ernest Cline takes gamers out of their smelly basements to save the world in Ready Player One. Even way back in the eighties—before Anthony Michael Hall was clairvoyant or Molly Ringwald sang jazz—The Breakfast Club practically kick-started the whole trend by pitting a member of five separate subcultures against a power-hungry teacher who was supervising their detention. Maybe the challenge ‘nerdy’ Brian Johnson writes for that teacher is a challenge for all authors:
“You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”
Any kid might say the same when the center of his subculture is in hostile territory.
And yes, I do mean ‘kid,’ because there’s no richer landscape in which to find subcultures than the forest of youth. While it’s true that subcultures bulge from the fat of our whole society, there’s something about the fertility of young minds that just makes them thrive. Try to find a sixty-five-year-old gang-banger, or a middle-aged mother with her lips tattooed black. Now, take a quick glance across any public school. Don’t get caught, though; the Gangs and the Grungers are there to make you look, but they might not like it when you do.
Maybe their subcultures sprout from being forced to gather in large groups every day, or because teachers keep insisting that they stop to think. Maybe they just don’t have mortgages to pay. Whatever the reason, subcultures in schools are more a rule than an exception. And that’s why they find their way into YA fiction.
Those YA texts are the fairest center for any subculture.