The Simpsons airs on Sunday nights and on Monday I could tell from the flurry of Facebook comments amongst YA lit loving friends that I had missed out on a good one. Of course, thanks to TiVo, I hadn’t really missed out–just gotten to the party a day late. And what a party it was! The Simpsons + Neil Gaiman + The Current State of YA Literature was like a perfect trio of things loved by librarians and teen lit readers, fans of pop culture, and Neil’s adoring hordes.
The episode was modeled after heist films like “The Italian Job” and “Ocean’s 11,” complete with being called “The Book Job.” In typical fantastic Simpsons fashion, an elaborate opening that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the episode (an arena dinosaur show) kicks things off. It concludes with the cold, hard truth being told to Lisa: tween and teen books are written by armies of English lit majors in cubicles and that the authors pictured on the books are mere models.
Lisa is heartbroken, but Bart sees a business opportunity. He gathers together his team–Homer, Principal Skinner, Selma, Moe, and Professor Frink–and they plan to create the ideal tween novel, incorporating all the elements of current popular serialized fiction (orphans, magical schools, and supernatural creatures). While at the bookstore doing research who should show up, ready to join their team, but Neil himself–Neil Gaiman that is. And thus, a dream team was formed and the scam could begin.
Gretchen Kolderup and I decided to have a chat about the episode.
Sarah: Gretchen, I have to admit that at this point I squealed and paused the TV so I could admire all the copies of Neil’s books behind him. And I love love loved it that Moe the barkeep knew who Neil Gaiman was, describing him as “the guy who wrote Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes.” What was your reaction?
Gretchen: I knew Gaiman was going to be in the episode before it aired, but I love that they got such a huge name in the literary world to be in this! And I like that he was willing to poke fun at himself.
Sarah: Yes, the fact that Neil was willing to poke a little fun was great.
Gretchen: Did you also see all of the book titles on Selma’s shelves when they were recruiting her?
Sarah: The titles on Selma’s shelves were great! Lately the Simpsons seems made for DVR/TiVo–there are tons of awesome details that you can only really see if you pause it.
Gretchen: And did you catch the READ poster about four minutes in to the episode?
Sarah: No! How did I miss that? It’s not YA lit related, but one of my favorite things in the whole episode was the Gary Larson nod. Did you catch it?
Gretchen: Oh, no, I didn’t!
Sarah: When Homer is running backstage past all the dinosaurs, you see a group of dinos behind a door all smoking. One turns and it briefly pauses and in that pause it is exactly that Far Side cartoon that was captioned “the real reason dinosaurs became extinct.”
Sarah: Anyway, I would venture a guess that the Simpsons writers, a bunch I think of as smart, tuned in, funny people, all have experience reading YA books, having their kids read YA books, spending time in libraries and bookstores, and just being really in tune with pop culture (very meta–they are pop culture, they reflect pop culture), so I think the episode comes from a genuine place.
Sarah: One of the things I loved about this episode was the part where Bart and his team lay out all the elements in a manufactured YA novel (the heroes are all orphans, it’s set in a place kids relate to: school–but it’s actually magic, and the protagonist always discovers that he is supernatural). I immediately thought of Joel’s post the other day with a fill-in-the-blank YA story synopsis, which I thought was very funny because it seems so true. And poking fun at the truth is something The Simpsons excels at. Gretchen, were there any books that came to your mind when they were describing formulaic popular books? I thought of Blue Bloods and Twilight.
Gretchen: Joel’s post came to mind for me, too. I didn’t necessarily think of specific titles, but I was thinking about book packagers like Alloy Entertainment and authors who have a whole team of writers cranking out books with their name on it.
Sarah: I liked it, also, when someone pointed out that having a group of people writing under an author’s name is not something new (like Franklin Dixon and the Hardy Boys or Francine Pascal and the Sweet Valley High books).
Gretchen: And while it poked fun at the “machine” of publishing for tweens, it also made the point that no matter where books come from, readers really do connect with them. There isn’t always a divide between books that are meaningful to the reader and books that are created to turn a profit. Even within the episode, the T. R. Francis books are very meaningful to Lisa before she discovers their origins. When Lisa comes home that night, Marge says, “I’m sorry your book lady turned out to be a dinosaur, but you liked the stories when you read them.”
Sarah: Great point, Gretchen. I think that might be the main reason why it doesn’t bother me when anyone makes fun of cranked out, group-written, or popular plot novels. I figure even if the origin isn’t what you might consider the ideal, is the end something you or another reader liked? If so, then go enjoy your book!
Gretchen: I feel like the writers really get at what’s going on in MG and YA lit right now. “The vampire genre is sucked out,” Bart remarks after seeing sections in the local Bookaccino’s labeled “vampire cheerleaders,” “vampirates,” “southern vampires,” “vampire Frankensteins,” “vampire babysitters,” and “vampire princesses.” (We agree! Check out Maria’s post about what paranormal creature will supplant vampires.) Once they’ve finished, Homer also forlornly says, “I just hope we put in enough steampunk–whatever that is.”
Sarah: Yes! I loved the commentary on vampires being played out and then Homer’s steampunk comment. Brilliant.
Gretchen: The protagonists of the book Bart’s team creates are twins, too, and lots of the books that I saw at a publisher preview earlier this month involved twins in some way. Is that a new publishing trend? In any case, it feels like the writers actually knew what they were talking about when it comes to YA and MG lit.
Sarah: Yes. Perhaps they are Hub readers :) You know, it seems like part of the periodic “more attention to teens and books” that I think is somewhat cyclical in the media. I thought this was a refreshing, non-condescending take. It wasn’t woe is me, more like this is what it’s like and we all know it and hey, kids like to read. So the episode was tops for me.
Gretchen: My one quibble is that they seemed to treat middle grade and YA lit as the same thing sometimes. The plan to create a book and make millions starts out as basically ripping off Harry Potter: the protagonist is going to be an orphan at a magical school who discovers that he’s supernatural while they play a game that makes no sense with a silly name.
Sarah: That bit of quidditch mockery made me laugh.
Gretchen: Me too, especially with the accompanying picture of someone wielding a pole with a tennis racquet on one end and a boxing glove on the other while riding a dragon who’s wearing ice skates.
Sarah: So yes, they did toss around different age ranges and terms, but I’ll cut them some slack given that Lisa herself is, what, 8?
Gretchen: That’s true! She’s a precocious reader, isn’t she?
Sarah: You know what I thought was a funny and interesting part of the show? The whole angle about how Lisa has the dream of being a famous author but when she tries to write she does all the classic procrastination type things and cannot get past writing “Chapter 1.” But the people who are “hacks,” Bart’s team, actually are successful writers. Real writers! Because they have written many chapters, no matter that they used a proven formula of topics.
Gretchen: I hadn’t really thought about that. Interesting! And Moe had apparently written five children’s books before this whole storyline even happened!
Sarah: Oh, that bit about Moe having written before was fantastic.
Gretchen: What did you make of the trolls getting turned into vampires during “market testing” at TweenLit Inc.? It sets off a whole second con where Bart’s team have to steal back their book after the publisher deviates from what they wrote.
Sarah: Oh! That was great. So then I felt like it was pointing out how authors may be at the mercy somewhat of publishers and marketers (like having to draw something out into a series). I think librarians are probably more aware of things like that than general readers and so I think it’s great that the show included that.
Gretchen: I definitely feel like this episode resonated with me as a librarian and as a reader and fan of YA lit. I wonder what authors and publishers thought about it.
Sarah: It’s kind of neat that in the beginning the viewers are probably thinking “yeah, these books are all the same,” and then there’s a bit of a punch at the end that says they’re that way because test audiences and marketers are making it.
Gretchen: This was definitely a great episode. Thanks for talking about it with me!
Sarah: You too!
What do you think about the way The Simpsons approached YA lit?
You may also like:
Latest posts by Sarah Debraski (see all)
- I Do? They Don’t: Young Marriage in YA Literature - November 1, 2013
- That Was Then This is Now: That’s My Baby - October 3, 2013
- That Was Then, This Is Now: Pennington’s Last Term - June 4, 2013