In defense of YA

On Friday, as many of you may have learned by now, the YA internet world blew up, and this article by Ruth Graham is why. Here’s the crux of her argument:

…a whopping 28 percent of all YA sales—are between ages 30 and 44. That’s my demographic, which might be why I wasn’t surprised to hear this news. I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.

She argues, essentially, that adults who read YA should be ashamed of reading YA because it’s not very complicated literature. That it’s written for kids. That it’s not very mature of us adults to like John Green, and we should be ashamed of our lowbrow, lazy media consumption.

She writes off Divergent and Twilight as “transparently trashy stuff” but then goes on to talk about John Green and Rainbow Rowell, and it seems as if they are the only authors she read for her essay (did she read Divergent or Twilight? We never learn). Graham clearly hasn’t read much YA, and it becomes evident as the piece goes on that she’s merely read a few (two?) headlining YA novels and seems to resent the time she spent on what she feels is a marketing ploy instead of a legitimate genre.

I feel for her—it’s hard to acquaint oneself with YA if one feels pressured to keep up with the NYT bestseller lists and hasn’t invested much in the genre before it (it would seem) came into its own in the last 2-3 years. After graduating with my English degree in 2011, I decided to take a break from reading “serious” literature and read The Hunger Games. I inhaled them and was surprised at my own enthusiasm for the books. They have weaknesses, to be sure, but the books were innovative and written with care.

Is art only art when someone says “it’s art!” and pays for it and puts it in a frame on a wall or in a museum?

Is art only valuable in the eyes of the receiver, regardless of how much care is put into a piece?

Is art only good if it “challenges” you? But Pollock challenges reality just as much as Kincade does, so where do you draw the line?

After I was done reading The Hunger Games, I read The Marriage Plot and tried (and failed) to read The Corrections. Both held my attention, but reading both books felt like watching rich white English literature snobs jerk off to their own writing. Which is why I didn’t finish Franzen and why I haven’t tried to read David Foster Wallace.

Does that mean that I failed to read good writing, or that the writers failed to write well enough to “challenge” me? Is the problem with the white men who failed to observe that the rest of the world isn’t white or rich or educated, or with me, for failing to be rich or aspiring to be rich and New York and in their circles?

Instead, I found myself enchanted with bell hooks, with Chimamanda Nzogi Adichie, with Rainbow Rowell, with Mary Karr, with Francesca Lia Block. I read The Fault In Our Stars and didn’t love it it for all the reasons I couldn’t enjoy The Marriage Plot and Wild and Eat, Pray, Love.

I think it’s very telling that Graham chose to use the language of shame in her piece, saying that adults should be “ashamed” of reading books written for children. (As an aside, she’s wrong there: YA is a genre that is defined by a) a young adult protagonist and b) topical issues that will be relatable to a young adult audience. It is an arbitrary distinction, but these books are not explicitly written for children, by definition of the genre.) Her coding of YA as shameful is a moral coding, which is a symptom of a assumed and defining myopia found in social circles of academia and literati: intellectual rigor for its own sake is morally superior than something that is merely good.

Academic or intellectual rigor in literature is something that is by nature subjective. As much as literature wishes to be a crown jewel of the academy along with science and mathematics, it is at heart an art, and you cannot quantify art. You cannot have evidence-based art. You cannot peer review creative work into being “art.”

The nature of snobbery is to assume that popular opinion is to be suspect, and that one’s cynicism makes one morally superior to the all-accepting, manipulatable masses.

But when the gatekeepers of the literary ivory tower all subscribe to the same standards, all play the same party tricks and indulgently reference each other’s party tricks, and all come from the same five or six variations on the same backstory, you get art that is masturbatory and intellectually incestuous.

Which is why YA is A Thing now. Not because of John Green and his hordes of adoring fans (and he’s a good writer who’s earned his laurels even if TFiOS isn’t my favorite book), but because YA has been snubbed by the literati for the last twenty years (partly because it was nascent and partly because it was “for kids”), and without the critical attention of the ivory tower, YA authors have been experimenting and practicing making messy art. They can afford it: their audience is often more willing to suspend disbelief than a stodgy NYT reviewer, and they aren’t included in the straight-laced social games so often seen “adult” publishing.

And after percolating and sputtering on the back burner for twenty years, John Green came along and lifted off the lid from the pot, and the grown ups table took note. Because it smelled amazing. And just like the little red hen, everyone wants a bite now. But those who haven’t been paying attention (or who can’t be bothered to pick up Laurie Halse Anderson [Speak dealt with issues of rape and victim blaming in 1999], Francesca Lia Block [Weetzie Bat addressed complex family dynamics and coming of age through a psychedelic California fairy tale device], or other standbys of the old guard of YA), happen to read the books that get the best marketing and end up quite confused what all the fuss is about. YA is nothing like a DFW work, after all. You have strong, unreliable narrators focused on one or two traumatic or transformative experiences (who of us doesn’t have that moment in our adolescence that we need therapy for?), and you have complex worlds that serve as elegant metaphors for how difficult life is or what it feels like to be a teenager going through x in a certain space and time.

I think too, that adults reading NYT bestsellers have become inoculated to the world and have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Sometimes the YA authors forget this too, and overshoot their mark. But a truly written YA novel will have emotional complexity and unanswerable questions and truly agonizing life challenges—but apparently we should be ashamed of our primary feelings and distance ourselves into irony and sarcasm and cleverness and cynicism.

I think that the adult who has forgotten what it’s like to be truly troubled by the prospect of adulthood is an adult who should take stock of their choices and ask themselves if it’s been worth it. And then I think they should go read Code Name Verity or Thirteen Reasons Why or The Truth About Alice or Fangirl

If we’re having this conversation using the language of shame and moral choices (though I am not particularly inclined to think is a good or productive way to have this discussion), then perhaps I will posit this: the adult who is too good to read YA is an adult who needs some serious therapy.

Go ahead and write off the YA writers of today because they’re not following your NYC/MFA rules of “good” literature, but don’t forget that history loves to repeat itself and you might be on the wrong side of the Seine.

10 thoughts on “In defense of YA

  1. I read the article in question and I have to agree with you.

    It seems that most of the arguments that she makes against YA could also be made against genre fiction – especially fantasy. The satisfying endings, the likable characters, and the situations that adults should know “could never happen” all show up in YA – and genre fiction.

    “Grown ups” who can no longer become enraptured at the fantastical, idealistic, and larger-than-life are missing the whole point of fiction. The ideas, connections, and symbolism present in genre fiction are what make it so rewarding to read… but you have to go beyond the surface to get to those elements. You have to engage and invest. That will never happen if you’re hung up on the story elements – what should or shouldn’t be included in a “good” story.

    I’m a voracious reader and I’m tired of my more literary minded friends looking down on me for reading YA and fantasy – especially when they haven’t read anything in the genres themselves.

  2. I have been recommending Code Name Verity right and left — to adults and younger folks. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook – the two voices, Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell, are fabulous. I am in my 50’s and have never stopped reading “children’s books” or any other books I think I might enjoy. What would be the use of that?

    Now I work with academically gifted older elementary kids, so I feel it’s my duty to read some of the things they’re reading, or ought to be reading. Of course it’s often also my pleasure.

    1. This, so much this. Code Name Verity made me cry–actually cry, as opposed to just getting teary-eyed. Such a good book.

      A good story, well told, is a good story, well-told no matter the age of the protagonist(s).

      Flygirl was another book that I enjoyed tremendously.

  3. Like fiction in general, YA has the potential to be truer than fact. No one is really fully a grown up. There are always bits that still evolve no matter the chronological age. So in addition to the sticky bits about first love, there is the pure passion of spirit reaching out for completion. That is part of some of the best YA literature. I’m thinking of Holly Black now.

    1. Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis are all on record that children’s stories that appeal to all ages are the core of a culture’s storytelling and demonstrate the most staying power.

      We’re seeing an analogous phenomenon in the all-ages appeal of the latest version of My Little Pony, which has spawned a dedicated fandom similar to Star Trek and Star Wars, but with a much larger fan-creative output of derived creative works.

  4. Back when I attended 2005 WorldCon Anaheim, an author’s panel on publishing said that YA was becoming a catchall genre for everything that didn’t fit in or crossed other genres — if you can’t classify it by genre, stick it in YA.

    A lot like Old School SF was in its heyday, before SF tried to become Respectable High Literature and ended up acquiring all Respectable High Literature’s bad habits.

  5. But a truly written YA novel will have emotional complexity and unanswerable questions and truly agonizing life challenges—but apparently we should be ashamed of our primary feelings and distance ourselves into irony and sarcasm and cleverness and cynicism.

    i.e. the Curled Upper Lip and Appropriate Ironic Quip of the Seinfeld Sneer.

    There’s an SF litfan urban legend of a editor’s rejection letter to a writer who was trying to do High Art instead of SF:

    And YA is usually short enough to be read in one sitting — around 100-150 pages like most of the classic SF potboilers of the Fifties and Sixties. After wading through thousand-page Trilogy Components that end with “To Be Continued…”, I am reduced to Andre Norton YAs almost as old as I am just to have something I can read at a sitting.

  6. As someone holding an M.A. in English, I just want to say that thankfully, YA literature (and really, *enjoyable* reads in general) have an increasingly established hold in academic studies. Most scholars think that if a text is published, and read, and enjoyed, then it’s worthwhile finding out why it’s enjoyed, and what it’s telling the people who enjoy it, and what it tells us about those people and the world in which we all live together. At the uni where I got my degree, our department head was a world-recognized scholar on the Harry Potter books; another faculty member, on Dr. Seuss.

  7. I wanted to mention that I think you are smart to say YA books are about the issues of young adults. I also like what you said about not to try to fit the books in what others circles consider art. There is a lot of art out there and sometimes there are too many people making soulless work into what they call art.

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