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16 february 2012
Forever, the most notorious of Judy Blume's classic Young Adult novels, is a curious mix of genres. It's part dispassionate sex manual, part cautionary tale, part teen romance, part angst-ridden coming-of-age story, and part pornography.
I associate Forever with pornography not as prelude to some sort of intolerant rant (from the right or the left) along the lines of FOR GOD'S SAKE THINK OF THE CHILDREN AND STOP THEM READING THIS BOOK. No, my attribution is purely generic. Forever alternates fairly boring scenes of everyday boring stuff with hot sex. You tend to skim over the everyday life to get to the sex. And just as in pornography, the hot sex turns out to be more boring than the everyday life.
Forever is not pornography, though, because pornography is supposed to appeal to prurient interests, and Forever is distinctly on the side of reason and the angels. That is not to say that no teenager was ever aroused by reading it. I can't speak at firsthand: Forever was published the year I graduated from highschool, and though it's about highschool seniors, it's not really aimed at an 18/19-year-old readership. Like most Young Adult novels, its effective audience is a younger: 14/16-year-olds who are beginning to think about (or not think carefully enough about) their first sexual relationships. And I'll bet a certain number of those kids, over the decades, have gotten steamed up over the adventures of narrator Katherine Danziger, her boyfriend Michael Wagner, and their pal Ralph Johnson. At least I suppose his surname is Johnson. The novel doesn't say.
As Roberta Trites observes in her critical study Disturbing the Universe, Blume's novel is mechanical in its description of sex, dispiriting in its depictions of pleasure, and daunting in its prescriptive implications. (Don't rush into sex, because first relationships don't work out. Don't risk pregnancy, because the results of teen pregnancy are too sad to contemplate. Don't fall in love, because you are too young to fall in love, and he is too young to know.)
The novel is written in breathless dialogue . . . full of ellipses . . . there's even an ellipsis after the title . . . that's symbolic . . . because there's something after "forever," right? . . . Actually, I kid. Blume captures the self-important determination of young adulthood very well, including its its narcissisms, its drama-queen moments, the absurd finality of its judgments. It's not that Forever is unrealistic, exactly. It's that it's schematic. It's like a Doctor Ruth column met an afterschool movie.
And it's had the hell challenged out of it by apoplectic parents, to the point where, 37 years later when kids can see nice clean comedies like Friends with Benefits on streaming video any time they want, their parents will hit the ever-loving roof if any teacher or counselor slips them a copy of this wholly moralistic work of literature. Even if Forever were a couple of degrees worse than it is, you'd have to be on Judy Blume's side in the censorship debate out of an appreciation of irony alone.
Forever makes teen sex seem uncomfortable when it's not downright depressing, full of unforeseen emotional pitfalls even when it is pregnancy- and disease-free, and awkward all the time. So of course it has been challenged and banned, in an irony commensurate with the banning of The Catcher in the Rye because Holden Caulfield spells out the phrase "fuck you" while objecting to it. As with The Chocolate War, many Americans object to a book that calls attention to the existence of things they disapprove of, even if it does so with disapproval. America, you know, is one weird place.
Blume, Judy. Forever . . . 1975. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.