Edited by Amy Goldwasser, Red: Teenage Girls in America Write On What Fires Up Their Lives Today

Publisher: Plume
2008, 267 pages, paperback, $14

in her introduction to Red, editor Amy Goldwasser asserts that today’s teenagers are among the first generation that is composed of writers-by-default:

If you’re one of the 33 million Americans between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, you are a writer. It’s how you conduct your friendships, get to know people, break a heart, manage your family, flirt, lie, make plans, cancel them, announce big news, and, most important, present yourself to the rest of the world. You’re fluent in texting, e-mailing, and IM’ing. You’re blogging and constantly amending your profile on sites like Facebook and MySpace […] Regularly, often late at night, you’re generating a body of intimate written work. You’re used to writing about yourself… You’re a reporter embedded in your parents’ home, your school, your own head.

The argument seems worth exploring, but the essays in Red make for less impressive evidence that the writings are, as Vanity Fair praised, “[u]nsparingly frank and perceptive.” Certainly, a few essays are surprisingly and broadly insightful, but a person will read through seventeen mildly remarkable essays before landing on one–“Ghost Stories” by Maxine Keyes–which finally reveals a degree of acumen. Then there remain forty more “bloggy” essays to read.

The thematically organized collection commences with the kind of over-exhausted clich&eacutes it hopes “the freshest, most fearless young voices” will shatter–thoughts on body image. Other themes include family members, school, friendships, crushes, “anything extracurricular,” media and pop culture, and, finally, “the world and what’s wrong.”

The authors whose work appears in Red write both honestly and non-academically about their personal experiences. Yet, this collection, with its unimaginative themes, and for which Goldwasser received nearly 800 submissions, does not present an opportunity for young women to illuminate to one another and adults the complicated internal wrangling of emotions that results from their interaction with the diverse exterior worlds they inhabit. Instead, the book reads as an updated spin-off of The Rules as it might apply to popularity (“Don’t try to be cool. Just be you, and you won’t even have to try.”), mother-daughter conflicts (The thing about it is, at least for me, we’re already so entrenched in the war that it stops being about mascara and jewelry at all. Now it’s about us.”), and the book’s other neatly compartmentalized themes.

If technology has created a generation of people who are “used to writing about [themselves],” it becomes an editor’s responsibility to thoughtfully define and demand quality and complexity of the material that will move from the screen to the printed page.

Because predictable themes construct the framework for what writings are included in Red, and because the book’s organization implies that adults in the publishing industry have drawn these restrictive lines, most of the essays fail to illustrate the intricate connections teenagers are capable of making between their immediate experiences and surroundings, their parents’ pasts, the world at large, and their very own emotions.

Maxine Keyes, 18, reflects on her mother’s stories and photographs from her girlhood in Korea:

Nanyee’s photographs have become as mute as most of the people on a bus, as me, unwilling to speak, and I slip the book back among other albums. Although Nanyee never gave me a clear warning, I instinctively know I should guard her stories, and add to them. I should wait until I have a little child of my own, always a girl, who I can whisper into and fill with ghosts.

Keyes’s writing provides a level of depth that all of these young authors should be given space on the page to convey. This is the kind of surprise that adults who are long past teen-hood should encounter as they read Red or any contemporary collection of writings by savvy young adults. More importantly, Keyes easily demonstrates the level of complexity that other teenage girls should be offered the opportunity to read and empathize with. However talented these writers may be, the majority of their essays fail to articulate the complexity and relevance of contemporary teenagers. This shortcoming appears to be the fault of a lack of vision on the part of adults in the publishing world.

-Herpreet Singh