[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]
I first heard about The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012), a novel by emily m. danforth (without capitalized initials), and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015) by Becky Albertalli reading reviews of their film adaptations. The former, directed by Desiree Akhavan from a screenplay co-scripted with Cecilia Frugiele, has the same title as the novel. The latter, directed by Greg Berlanti and adapted by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, has a different title: Love, Simon. Both films were released last year, 2018. Miseducation won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which is why it has attracted more critical attention; its IMDB rating is, however, only 6.7, in comparison to Love, Simon’s 7.7. Since I haven’t seen the films (yet), here I focus on the novels.
Both books are debut novels (winners of the William C. Morris Debut Award) originally published by Balzer+Bray, a HarperCollins label which specializes in young adult fiction. And both deal with the coming out of an American teenager. They seem to me, however, very different texts in style, content and approach. Miseducation is a literary novel, which is not surprising given the author’s training: an MFA in fiction (University of Montana) and a PhD in creative writing (University of Nebraska–Lincoln); she teaches creative writing and Literature (at Rhode Island College, Providence). In contrast, Becky Albertalli used to be a clinical psychologist specialized in children and teens before becoming a full-time writer. Her Simon is far less ambitious as a literary novel though, surprisingly, it made it to the National Book Award Long List (for Young People’s Literature). A major difference, and the source of much controversy, is that whereas danforth is a lesbian narrating the coming out of a lesbian teen, Albertalli is a heterosexual woman telling the story of how gay Simon comes out. Cameron’s story is rather bitter, Simon’s bubbly and happy.
Danforth’s novel has some autobiographical aspects, as she has granted, though she denies that Cameron’s experience mirrors her own. Author and character are natives of Miles City, in Montana (population a modest 8410), where the novel is mainly located. I usually read this as a negative sign: intense descriptions of one’s own small town in a debut novel tend to mean that the author has no other story to tell. We’ll see.
Danforth uses 470 very long pages to tell a rather simple story: Cameron Post is 12, in the early 1990s, when her parents die in a car crash–while she kisses a girl for the first time. Her unacknowledged, untreated sense of guilt prevents her from properly mourning them, and also from defending herself when she becomes the ward of her conservative maternal aunt Ruth. A heterosexual girl Cameron gets entangled with, when both are about 16, reports their first and only sexual encounter to her mother and, appalled, Ruth sends Cameron to a religious institution which offers conversion therapy (the novel’s implicit addressee is a progressive person, of course, and we know this cannot work). The last third of the novel concerns Cameron’s stay in this place, subjected to the increasingly absurd sessions with her bigoted therapist, Lydia, as she plots her escape with fellow sufferers Jane and Adam. Cameron eventually visits the site of her parents’ accident, finding closure for her mourning, though it is unclear whether the escapade with her new friends will come to a happy end.
This is a rather flimsy plot that could have been told far more efficiently in 350 pages, as many other readers have noticed. The prose is beautifully crafted but it often hinders the advancement of the scant plot. It screams at every page ‘look at me, I’m a sensitive, nuanced writer’, who learned her lessons well. Two caveats, then: I wonder why no editor cut this extra-long text and, more importantly, I wonder how much damage creative writing courses are inflicting. Reading Cameron this seems obvious: the subject matter asked for an acerbic style, less prettiness, and more insightful storytelling. Plot, tone and message end up muddled. I expected rampant villainy to colour the characterization of the obnoxious Ruth and Lydia but I was left instead with a confusing impression that they meant well but were misguided by their Christian values.
I have not read yet Boy Erased: A Memoir, by Garrard Conley, and the object of a yet another recent film adaptation (directed by the truly interesting Joel Edgerton) and cannot say how the memoir and the novel compare. Conley tells the story of his own religious conversion therapy, forced upon him by his father (at that time about to be ordained as a Baptist Minister). One thing I can say is that I learned practically nothing about this totally discredited way of ‘curing’ individuals of their own natural sexual inclinations reading danforth’s novel. She reduced this bizarre but important issue to the personal quirks of Ruth and, above all, Lydia, without providing in any way her young readers with information, and much less guidance, to resist being ill-treated in this way. This fuzziness was even more horrific to me than what they actually do, also because Cameron Post is very far from being a rebel in a way a real teenager might recognize. If the novel had focused more narrowly on the ugly issue of conversion therapy, it might work, but as it is everything gets diluted by danforth’s artistic ambition. My personal impression, then, is that this is a failed novel containing two possibly great novels: one about conversion therapy and the other about Cameron’s process of mourning–which in the end seems to be the main issue.
I also found in The Miseducation of Cameron Post much coyness in the treatment of lesbian sex. Once you read Sarah Waters, anything else seems coy but Cameron’s sexual awakening is so limited that you wonder whether the word ‘miseducation’ also extends to this. 1993 is pre-internet prehistory but, even so, Cameron seems vey little informed about lesbian sex. Her Seattle girlfriend, who boasts of being a progressive, well-connected lesbian, is not really much better informed. Whether you are a lesbian or another kind of reader, you are left pretty much in the dark about the many pleasures of this kind of sexuality. When interesting things finally happen, the encounter is terrible for Cameron, both in its development and its consequences. I wonder how many teen lesbian girls must have felt saddened and even scared, rather than encouraged, in view of this tepid approach and also because conversion therapy is not sufficiently described, or opposed.
Albertalli is much more fun but even worse at describing sex. She reminded me of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter, and her awkwardly limited way of narrating the sexual awakening of the Hogwarts teens. I’m very much aware that Rowling is far, far worse since she completely excluded gay sex from Harry’s universe, a pathetic oversight which countless readers have corrected with their abundant slash fiction. Albertalli’s novel is quite different in that sense but her openly focusing on a gay teen does not mean that she is comfortable describing gay sex. The worst moment happens when Simon finds himself alone for the first time with his love interest (I won’t disclose the name, for this secret is the core of the novel). Believe it or not, they kiss and caress their naked chests as they lie on Simon’s bed. Yet, rather than masturbate each other, as one would expect of two 17-year-old gay boys (I think), Albertalli has each go to the bathroom separately. The words she uses are not very different from my own plain phrasing.
These are novels for young adults and the case is that adolescents–or teenagers, whatever you prefer–usually have their first full experience of sex (i.e. attempting to give each other an orgasm) around the age of 16 or 17. What Cameron and Simon do at that age corresponds to an earlier age, which is puzzling. Or one of the unstated rules of young adult fiction: discuss sex but describe it only coyly. Do I sound like an adult, heterosexual voyeur asking for some teen porn? I hope not! The point I’m making is that, in my view, the experience of coming out as narrated in fiction must be focused not only on acceptance by the corresponding social circle (or rejection, as happens to Cameron) but on the presentation of homosexuality as fun, pleasing and sexy. Sarah Waters does this–why can’t danforth and Albertalli do it? Are they bound by narrow YA codes? Or by the same irksome American puritanism that has Katniss and Peeta spend chastely so many nights together during the Hunger Games? Is Rowling a sign that this YA puritanism is not just American?
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a very nice novel–not necessarily a term of praise. I do prefer stories that end well for their gay protagonists and I frankly enjoyed sharing time with adorable Simon (a word frequently used by Albertalli) than with bland Cameron. The plot, however, completely lacks the tension one is supposed to find in romance. The story, again, is very simple: Simon replies to a post on Tumblr by a gay high-school fellow, calling himself Blue, and what follows is a sincere, friendly correspondence, only mildly complicated by this boy’s reluctance to give his real name. The game the author plays with her reader is straightforward: you need to guess Blue’s real identity, which is not so difficult. In romantic comedy, typically protagonist A meets protagonist B, they start a promising relationship, and then a mistake leads A to lose B. Subsequently, A and B are gradually brought together, the mistake is cleared and eternal happiness follows. Shakespeare fixed this productive model in Much Ado about Nothing and Jane Austen polished it in Pride and Prejudice. Simon’s and Blue’s romance, however, goes through no crisis: it’s nice to see it unfold but not thrilling. As for Simon’s coming out, it also lacks a significant turning point. His blackmailer cannot really hurt him and his loving circle of friends and family is welcoming and accommodating. This might be the reason why Albertalli’s novel is popular: it’s an uncomplicated tale, what teen readers need to come out and the rest to learn tolerance. It seems, however, disingenuous, to take this simple road in view of the horrors that danforth narrates (or tries to).
At one point, Simon says that everyone should come out, including heterosexuals. I have done that a few times: whenever I start teaching a Gender Studies course, I declare explicitly what I am. This is not easy because coming out as a heterosexual should never be about clearing out any suspicion that I might be gay. If I do it, this is because I want my students to feel comfortable and speak frankly about who they are. I find that declaring yourself asexual is hardest since everyone assumes that all individuals are interested in sex. But I digress. Cameron and Simon teach us that there is a happy and an unhappy way of coming out as gay and that both need to be discussed, in fiction and in life. Hopefully, one day teens won’t have to come out at all, for there will be no closet and all persons will be free to be whatever they are.
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