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Monday, June 09, 2014

No one should read YA books

Allow me to intervene into and mediate the important internet dispute about who should be reading YA novels. The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot endorses YA books for everyone, while Slate's Ruth Graham suggests that books for children should be read by children. A meager third-way is advanced by The American Conservative's Catherine Addington, who says that while everyone should read YA books, adults should also remember that they are intended for children. That, in practice, means very little. So I have another, more conciliatory solution: no one should read YA books. They're bad for adults, yes, but they're also bad for young adults. This is because they're bad books.

First, let's be clear that when we refer to adults and young adults here, we almost exclusively mean women. Adolescent boys do not read YA books. I'm tempted to say that they do not read books, but will relent and say only that maybe they read other things - genre fiction and comics, perhaps. They do not squee over Edward the translucent vampire hottie in Twilight, or sigh over Katniss the inexhaustible post-apocalyptic warrior-princess in The Hunger Games, or melt over this new cancer romance that's apparently a Timeless Work of Literature, despite the fact that "Green is male and his first books featured boys as protagonists his new novel seemed capable of reaching both genders." Talbot's reportage tacitly admits that this capacity was never realized when she describes the movie preview:
Thousands of fans had lined up for free tickets, and, after the screening, they screamed when Elgort strode down the aisle for a Q. & A. But they screamed louder for Green. “We love you, John!” they called out...One questioner, who had to apologize for hyperventilating as she spoke, asked the five actors onstage to name their favorite lines from the book. Woodley was partial to “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”; Elgort cited “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” I had never watched a movie in a theatre where there was mass crying—not discreet nose-blowing, or stifled sniffles, but wracking sobs.
I've never watched a movie where there was mass crying either, but I have watched movies of mass crying and of shrieking, hysterical fandom like this - think of those videos of Beatles concerts in the '60s - and noticed that hyperventilating mass criers tend to be all of one sex. YA is for girls, and now also apparently for women who recall their girlhoods (too) fondly.

Second, it seems that everyone who is so enthused about this new cancer romance and wants to promote the virtues of YA for everyone has a very short memory for what they're promoting, because they have overlooked the great Lurlene McDaniel, author of eleventy million such books in the '80s and early '90s, all essentially identical except for some variation in the particular disease plaguing the characters. There would be a boy and a girl, both highly attractive and intelligent, but suffering from some horrible and usually terminal illnesses, who meet in the hospital, fall deeply and passionately in love, muse sentimentally on the meaning of their doomed romance, and then promptly die. You read one such book, have a good cathartic cry into your pillow at the end, then chuck it into the pile of never-to-be-reread YA drivel and immediately start in on the next one. Last time our lovers died of leukemia, before that of lupus, but this time, cystic fibrosis shall be their demise! This is not an original or daring foray into the edgy new territory of dying and grief; it's one of several well-worn tropes of YA lit (look at that long list of tearjerking titles on McDaniel's wikipedia page!).

But it's not just that YA is formulaic schlock, but that it's a genre whose origin is in a political effort to undermine parental authority, or at least the authority of insufficiently progressive parents, and reinvest that authority with YA authors, another point that none of these commenters notice. The banner for this effort is YA's supposed "realism," by contrast with the cloying, unrealistic moralism of its predecessors in the children's book industry. Reality is horrible things that happen to some people, while unreality is good things that happen to most people. None of this cotton candy be-good-and-you'll-be-loved stuff. Reality is do-good-and-you'll-be-raped. Books for children must depict rather than evade reality to be educative. Reality's constitutive elements may be summarized as: divorce, drugs, disease, depravity, dissolution, and death - often in combination or all at once. That's both what adults want to keep from children and what children most need to be exposed to, so they can be ready when their own turn to be ground down into powder comes. Have no fear children, YA authors are here to rescue you from the enforced ignorance in which your heartless parents would keep you! I've written about this all so many times that I won't belabor it again here, but you can read my previous posts here, here, here, and here.

Now, Talbot assures us not to worry about all that because The Fault in Our Stars is "tamer" than the average YA book, which I take to mean that it contains fewer items serially copied from the Catalogue of YA Issues and more character development rather than exposure to the rawest depravity of which people are capable. That's probably good. But I still don't see how it makes schlock into great literature; it just makes this into less schlocky schlock than the other schlock with which it shares shelf space. As with musical schlock, you can consume and enjoy it, but you ought not forget that it's schlock, which is to say not simply that it's aimed at a younger audience, as Addington suggests, but that it's objectively bad. There is great literature about love and death, and though I can't say for sure, having never read it, I'm willing to bet this book is probably not an example of it.

Does that mean that it can't still be a good warm-up for children, a gateway to the good stuff? Here we should be careful. Garbage fiction is not on its own going to turn anyone away from better things. Most young readers are pretty indiscriminate. I consumed reams of trash fiction between the ages of about eight and 18, and it didn't prevent me from reading better books both simultaneously and later on. However - and this is the real reason why no one should read YA books, not even the "young adults" at whom they're aimed - adolescents do not need training wheels for literature. They've already gone beyond children's literature, and they're ready for adult books - fiction, but also that collection of everything else that what we call "non-fiction." The real disservice adults do to children is not to hide "reality" as defined by Judy Blume from them, but to hide real books from them by propping up this genre of mawkish, salacious crap in front of them at the moment when they would otherwise move on to something better on their own (well, out of necessity really, unless they want to keep re-reading Little Women forever).

Graham says, "If people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something." I'd only take this one step further to include, among "people," young adults. And she in a sense admits this herself, despite holding out for the value of YA lit for adolescents:
I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.
But "the YA mark" is not some natural developmental hurdle you have to leap before you're ready for the real stuff. If you can understand The Hunger Games, you can understand Animal Farm and 1984, which are more politically sophisticated (and logical) dystopias. If you can understand teen girl romances, you can understand at least one level of Jane Austen. If you want to read about love and death, you can read Anna Karenina or even War and Peace, though you should be prepared for a long haul with some boring expounding of Tolstoy's theory of war if you go that route, but the point remains that the books are not beyond the intellectual grasp of a well-read adolescent (girl). If you can follow a bildungsroman, you can follow probably half of all American fiction. Maybe Faulkner and Melville and Joyce will still elude you for a while (or in my case, possibly forever), but that hardly requires crawling back to Judy Blume and the anticipation and exhilaration of...wait for it (and you will be waiting for it, for 250 pages)...a first period! And none of these books may yet render to the adolescent reader the satisfaction of full mastery on first reading that a YA book will, but that's only further evidence of how subpar YA books are.

So basically, I agree with whoever it was that suggested a single standard for evaluating all literature, only I'd make an exception for literature for actual children, like Winnie the Pooh, because I don't know in what terms one could compare it to, say, Henry James, unless we just laud its delightful whimsy and admit this is simply one of the possible good qualities of literature that James lacked. I suppose I could be open to this approach, although it might become difficult to compare children's books against one another, since they'd all be degrees of whimsical.

31 comments:

Withywindle said...

But tell us how you really feel.

Anonymous said...

I admit I did not read your text too close, but I nevertheless want to respond to it. I have been member of a book club for over ten years, and we were two years part of the jury that selects the "Jugendbuchliteraturpreis" (Youth Book Literature Prize) which is pretty much the highest prize for youth books in Germany. Green's bestselling novel, the Tributes of Panem, the Book Thief- all of these won the prize and were celebrated. But what is wrong with that? Yes these are all books that are extremely popular, movies were made out of them and there was mass hysteria. And yes, most of them were girls, but not all of them, as I know enough boys that admitted to have read them as well. I guess what I dislike about your post is that your thesis is so extreme: it goes against a huge number of young readers and books. It goes against fantasy, conversations, creativity and inspirations, all encouraged by these books. I would be extremely sad if all this would disappear and with it the joy of reading, against which you seem to argue. Today I appreciate it when I see a YA with a book in his hand, whether that may be Pride & Prejudice or Fifty Shades of Grey. It is their taste and at least they went into the bookstore and picked something of their choice instead of sitting in front of a computer. I hope I misunderstood your text because it does not make much sense to me. I furthermore think that there should be more adults who read YA books.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withy: Heh.

Anonymous: This way of defending YA lit because it gets kids to read, even if what they're reading is bad, is pretty common, but I think also wrongheaded. What's intrinsically good about the act of reading such that the substance of what you read doesn't even matter? Why is it necessarily better to read something, anything rather than nothing? Would you be happy if you saw a kid with a telephone book in his hand b/c this demonstrated that he'd picked something out instead of sitting in front of a computer (where, incidentally, he might also be reading)? Others have also made this point.

The joy of reading that you speak of does not come from the mere act of scanning words on a page, but from the truth and beauty that a work articulates. It doesn't "go against" fantasy, conversation, creativity or inspiration to point out that some books articulate no truth and convey no beauty but simply manipulate the passions to no particular end. All these activities you're concerned about - fantasizing, conversing, etc - went on among children before The Hunger Games was published, before YA was made into a marketing category in the 1970s, and even among children too young to know how to read. YA lit is not necessary for them, and if anything, its unrelenting emphasis on "realism" probably diminishes their scope. I don't think it's particularly extreme to suggest that some genre of books is bad, anymore than it's extreme to say that some foods are unhealthy even though they taste good and bring pleasure to some people.

Also, I'm not suggesting boys need to read this stuff to legitimate or something like that. Girls have different tastes and interests. I'm just pointing out that we're not really talking about all children.

Withywindle said...

I think you may be conflating "somewhat simpler books for younger readers" with "a particular contemporary genre of those books with many annoying tics". I think one could argue for A, and not B.

By the by, the Addington essay had an interesting point. Paraphrased, "literature for adults is such depraved filth nowadays, that YA is effectively a substitute for The Seven Sex Tours of Sinbad, not for Pilgrim's Progress." I think that has some validity, and is worth keeping in mind.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sure, I think children's literature is fine, though can be done badly like anything else, but that YA as a genre is pretty worthless. I'm not sure, as I said, that this current set of writers for and against it realizes that YA is a more specific thing than just "books for people younger than me but older than 10" and that it has a particular ideological genesis that it's never quite outgrown. But I also think it would be hard to outgrow, b/c the vision of adolescence to which these books were meant to cater remains powerful even if the first gen of these books is beginning to seem dated.

As to the crappiness of a lot of popular adult fiction, sure, but hasn't that pretty much always been the case? I'm not recommending that we read adult pulp rather than YA pulp. The argument for YA seems to be that adolescents need something like training wheels before they get into "the classics," which are way too hard. I just don't think good adult literature is too hard for adolescents. Pulp is of course accessible to all as well.

Withywindle said...

re "hasn't that pretty much always been the case?": I say thee nay! Or I say thee maybe nay; the past is always so full of surprises.

I'd also like to know what proportion of children actually were reading Good Classics TM in 1850, 1890, 1930, etc. Maybe most of them weren't reading at all, as they slaved away in the Asbestos Doll Factory of Lowell, MA, and so the people reading Judy Blume now properly should be compared to the illiterates of yore. Or maybe not; maybe the young readers then and now have always been a small, atypical minority. Or maybe something completely different; but one wants details on popular reading habits, and lack thereof.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, potboilers have a long history. And people were complaining about maudlin romances in the 18th century.

I don't think there was any point in US history when most children worked in factories, but it's also likely that they read much less than contemporary do on the whole. Bound books were expensive and most families didn't own many. But there were also penny chapbooks and things like this for children with unusual desire to read, like Benjamin Franklin and his friends. I still fail to see why a situation in which many children read little more than McGuffey, the Bible, some Shakespeare, and the Sears catalogue is an objectively worse situation than one in which children read Goosebumps and these Lurlene McDaniel hospital romances. Is anyone worse off for not having read a bad book?

The better reading habit comparison to make is, I think, between approximately 1870-1960 and 1960-present. Before that, there is only a vague idea of a children's literature market or a child reader. After that, you get a lot of things written for and marketed to children (via their parents). Then we ask of our sample groups, what are you reading and at what age? Is avid childhood reading of Anne of Green Gables etc leading directly to Jane Austen in 1920? Or where? And the same of readers of modern children's lit.

abrahamandsarah said...

When I was an early teen, I read Asimov and Heinlein novels, but I never really read YA novels.

Miss Self-Important said...

Typical boy-ness. I've occasionally broached the suggestion that that stuff's probably schlock too, but this blog has too many scifi stalwarts to let that suggestion pass. Plus I find it too boring to read and ascertain conclusively. Not so with YA.

Andrew Stevens said...

I have made the argument before that all fiction is schlock. It's all things that never happened to people who never existed. And most of the stuff which aspires to be great is laden with third-rate philosophy. There is no reason to think that fiction writers or other artists are better philosophers than factory foremen. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that factory foremen are slightly superior on average and far less likely to be useless people and alcoholic wrecks since they actually work for a living.

For some reason I never seem to get much traction with this argument.

abrahamandsarah said...

Definitely typical boy stuff. Oh and Dune too. Dune was awesome. I don't read scifi anymore, and if I were to pick up old scifi novels I think it would mostly be about nostalgia.

Two more thoughts:

1) Has anyone ever written something about the Straussian affinity for Jane Austen?

2) There is a very real tendency amongst men who read to stop reading fiction as they age. Not sure if someone has ever given this phenomenon a name.

Miss Self-Important said...

AS: Well, Plato does explore the question, are fiction writers better philosophers than factory foremen? And he concludes, in a certain sense yes, but in another sense no. They have no knowledge about the world, but they do have this strangely compelling understanding of human passions and the gods, even if they don't know how they know what they know. And then there is the problem that Plato's philosophy is written as fiction...

A-&-S:
1) That sounds like something you could offer to our very suggestible Canadian journalist friend. As far as I know, Strauss somewhere expresses admiration for Austen. Plus, Austen is awesome; who wouldn't have an affinity for her?
2) Yes, I think I tweeted that to you at some point. The tendency is generally that men do not read fiction, at least nowhere as much as women. Ever since the inception of the novel, women have been its primary patrons.

Jesse A. said...

I think you are being extremely unfair to "The Fault in our Stars" as a novel and to YA literature in general. I'm going to engage with your arguments against the novel right now, but I think that this Adam Roberts post is a pretty good defense of YA literature as a genre: http://sibilantfricative.blogspot.com/2013/09/on-ya.html.

I read you as having two main issues with "The Fault in our Stars."
1) You don't like the way its fans react to the author John Green or the actors who star in the movie adaptation.
2) There are other books that deal with the same issues, and were marketed to the same audience of primarily teenaged and pre-teen girls. They are poorly written, unoriginal and exploitative.
It seems to me (though correct me if I'm wrong), that these two issues combine in a particular way to make you wary of the gender politics involved. That is, you think that "The Fault in our Stars" is probably exploitative in the same way that the McDaniel novels are, designed to elicit that kind of reaction from its female audience.

I haven't read the McDaniel books, so I can't compare it, but it seems to me that, if anything, Green set out to overtly undermine that style of writing. He does that a few ways. 1) Humor. Exceedingly dark humor, yes, but still humor. The book is tremendously funny in ways that undermine reading it as a book about a celebration of dying and grief. It's mostly the opposite, about living happily in the shadow of death.
2)It's just straightforwardly well written. At no point are any of these characters "cancer girl/boy," to be exploited as a means to the audience's emotional catharsis. They are always treated as fully formed human beings who happen to have cancer.
3) Most importantly, as regards the trend towards "Dark reality" and away from "unrealistic moralism" in YA novels that you seem to dislike so much: The Fault in our Stars, though it does deal with deal with death and disease, is anything but grim and non-moralistic. It has both a clear moral message, "Life is important, no matter how short," and is filled with joy. Joy, I'd argue, is the primary emotional register of the book. Joy despite anger, pain and grief.
John Green can't control how his how his book is marketed (at least, not to a large extent.) He has even less control over how the movie is sold (though, to be honest, he has certainly used it to his advantage), but he has written a tremendous book, and your objections don't really suit it.

Anonymous said...

I do like your Comment Jesse A. eventhough I wonder whether Miss Self-important even read the book..
Yes its me again, Anonymus. I only have one question: did you ever read YA books when you were a young adult? And if you did, did you read good ones? And I do not mean the bestsellers, there is far more to discover. For example sweden YA literature has some quite outstanding YA books. I ask this question since you sound to me like a grumpy old lady that loves to read books but does not quite get the phenomenom about YA books and instead of talking to young adults she writes an extreme text about it.
You speak of "manipulation" within YA books simply because you cannot understand how a book can evoke such feelings. There is so much more "manipulation" in adult books. I can only imagine titles like: "How to be the perfect housewife" or "eating animals" (so many turned vegan because of that one which is not a bad thing) I am actually sorry for you. Young Adult books often emphasize on the topic of "manipulation": eating disorder, bullying, domestic violence, suicide- all sorts of political and social themes, presented very directly, showing other viewpoints of people at their age. It is okay if you are not one of the many adults who were touched by the book, but I think it is not okay to condemn a whole genre of books. That is just too extreme, that reminds me of the Nazi's burning certain books because they could "manipulate" people.
And by the way, the first YA books I read were Robinson Crusoe and Winnetou because my brother and my father loved these, so why not the opposite way? So pls do not make the point that certain books cannot be for both genders because there are "certain interests" for each gender.. I am becoming more and more afraid of the world you are drawing.

Miss Self-Important said...

Jesse: No, actually my beef is w/ the genre of YA, not this particular book, which I haven't read. That book is just the impetus for all the media coverage I linked. I don't find the post you link particularly persuasive either though. Consider this claim, about Twilight:
"There are lots of ways in which these are very bad books, of course: clumsily written, derivative etc etc. BUT! They speak to and move millions, and I’m uncomfortable simply mocking that."
I guess I'm not uncomfortable mocking that. If millions of people decide that a toilet bowl moves and speaks to them, you can still point out that it's a toilet bowl, and they're a little deranged. Criticism isn't sociology; it doesn't just observe what other people seem to like and report on it.

Since, as I said, I haven't read this particular cancer-romance, I can't say whether it's better than McDaniel's stuff, though I can say that her books have the same trite messages about how you should treasure each day of life, etc. This may well be better written, but what you describe then sounds like very much Graham's point: "this is a nice book for 13 year-olds." It's teenage uplift that life is full of joy. Well, is that really true?

The good adult book might be more skeptical of such an inspirational cliche. Anna Karenina, for example, has a short life spent loving someone which is nonetheless not full of joy because she has made a serious moral error for which she is to blame. In YA books, that kind of moral blame is usually absent - for the most part, bad things are done to the characters by adults. Here, it's cancer that's to blame for the bad things in life. That's convenient, but perhaps not really true to life, even though on the surface, cancer seems "real" while the idea of a flawed moral life seems quaint.

These are the sorts of qualitative differences I'd look for. I'm perfectly willing to believe that the Green book is not the worst of the genre, but I've had enough experience of the genre to doubt that even its best products are going to amount to much more than "that's nice for 13 year olds."

Miss Self-Important said...

Anonymous: Are you trolling me?

Jesse A. said...

OK, I think I've got a better sense of your issues now. So far as the Roberts piece goes, I think the core of his point is that the experience of teens and children is a part of the human experience and should be treated seriously (not Seriously with a capital "S" and a frown, of course, nothing should be treated Seriously, but seriously in the sense that it shouldn't be dismissed). If we ignore that part of the world in our literature, then literature is impoverished somewhat by its absence. Attention doesn't exclude critique, of course, and the best YA literature engages the experience of young adults in all sorts of ways.

There's a neat sort of trick that "The Fault in our Stars" plays, where the protagonist idolizes the author of a book about a cancer patient because of what he wrote, which is beautiful and speaks to her life, and which he published without an ending. When she meets him, in order to discover how the story ends, she discovers that he is an ill-mannered drunk who never recovered from the death of his own daughter from cancer. They continue a fraught correspondence. So we have a book about cancer that contains a cancer patient looking for answers in a book about cancer and its author, and discovering that they aren't there. I don't want to oversell the depth of this metaphor (obviously, it's not the most profound), but I do think that in a small way it captures what he's doing elsewhere in the book, the extent to which he wants to engage with important questions about death, disease, grief and love, and how people of a certain age experience them, while simultaneously recognizing that he can only have at best partial success.

I don't disagree that there should be a single standard for evaluating all literature, to return to your original post. If you want to read about love and death, you should certainly read Anna Karenina, or War and Peace, or A Farewell to Arms. None of those books will get you close to the experience of a huge swath of humanity, however. (I don't mean in a sociological sense, but in a literary sense.) YA literature covers some (by no means all, not even close) of the territory that Tolstoy missed, or that didn't exist in his lifetime. Alot of it bad, but Sturgeon's Law tells us (I believe accurately) that 90% of everything is crap. A small amount of it is good, and an even smaller amount is great. I'm not suggesting that The Fault in our Stars is a great novel on par with Anna Karenina, it's not. It is however, pretty good. I admit, I've yet to read a great YA novel, but it's a relatively new genre. Let's see what happens.

Miss Self-Important said...

Jesse: So I guess the question is whether YA as a specific genre, invented in the late '60s, is the best way to engage the experience of the young?

I gave some more space to the politics of YA as a genre in the previous posts I linked here, but in short, I think YA is inevitably reductive of experience b/c it's written for ideological reasons: to "expose" children to the "realities: of the world (fyi, there is death! disease! child abuse!), to instruct them in how to respond to controversial political issues, and to allow those who have experienced bad things like divorce to have a fictional character to "relate" to (this is a justification Judy Blume gave all the time in the 1970s). The best comparison to YA as a literary genre is after-school specials as a TV genre.

Would childhood be overlooked as a human experience if not for YA? I very much doubt it. Consider two examples of fine adult literature about children that isn't YA: Huckleberry Finn as a classic example, and Donna Tartt's The Secret History as a contemporary one. Neither of these books exposes its readers to unpleasant realities they have overlooked, or instructs them in a correct response to difficult situations, or even gives them an image of themselves in fiction. But they do illuminate the moral lives of their characters, the subtle ways their moral decisions shape them, and this reveals something about the desires of motivations of the people around us.

However, they don't do this b/c the authors surveyed the literary landscape, concluded that childhood was an under-represented experience in fiction, and so felt obliged to write something to correct that. That's what I mean by an ideological reason for writing. In both these cases, children are protagonists b/c there is something about childhood that is essential to understanding human experience as a whole. In Huck Finn, the common sense and natural sympathy of the child demonstrates the absurdity and malice of the adults around him, especially as he goes farther into the South. In The Secret History, adolescent single-mindedness and desire demonstrates the darker extremes of erotic longing. In both cases, the experience of childhood is not treated as simply something literature has to depict b/c someone out in the world has experienced it, but as an essential part of the whole of human experience. Which it is. And both of these books are pretty intellectually available to adolescent readers, though it helps to know some US history for Huck Finn and to have read some ancient Greek literature for The Secret History. But books should be able to make such demands on us.

Isn't this on the whole a better approach to writing and reading than to look for characters who mirror you, or a thinly-disguised how-to guide for dealing with your parents' divorce, or edifying inspirational feelings? I think it's fine to observe that many people like YA, but it's a little irresponsible to encourage it over recognizably better literature, especially if by encouraging it, you're effectively replacing good literature with YA lit. (And as I have unfortunately learned in grad school, even if great works are only one percent of all that's ever been written, there are still more of them than most people can read in a lifetime.)

The best YA novels I read were Robert Cormier's books, esp. The Chocolate War. That one had a little bit of what I later realized was Machiavelli in it, a vivid depiction of how people attain and use social power in groups. But in the end, it was never really clear what their motivations were (were they just bad apples of some sort? if so, that changes our understanding of this situation completely), whereas Machiavelli makes the universality and basis of this inclination much clearer. The Prince would be a great substitute for a YA book for eighth graders - at once an introduction to political philosophy and an instructional manual for dominating their classmates.

Withywindle said...

We read Lord of the Flies in 7th or 8th grade. I always thought was well done for letting us known what the teachers really thought of us.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, it wasn't just their opinion, but the truth about the nature of children. Sweet and innocent when well-regulated. Left to themselves, they become predators. (What will my troll make of that comment?)

Jesse A. said...

OK, I think I'm starting to get the point. I apologize for being slow on the uptake, and for not reading the earlier posts you linked to. I agree with your critique of overtly didactic YA literature; Judy Blume is the worst (Go Ask Alice is actually the worst). Huck Finn (and Tom Sawyer too, to a lesser extent) could easily be (and sometimes have been) marketed as YA books, for exactly the reason you describe.

I think you hit exactly what I've been struggling to express when you wrote "the experience of childhood is not treated as simply something literature has to depict b/c someone out in the world has experienced it, but as an essential part of the whole of human experience. Which it is." This is what the best literature can do, and what the best YA literature should strive to do.

In the end, I think what we're arguing about is whether books published as "YA lit" hit this mark. I think many do, though most don't. The Fault in our Stars. Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock. Most of Madeline L'Engle's books, especially The Arm of the Starfish and The Moon by Night. There are others.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, Go Ask Alice. Required reading at my middle school, so we could be duly "exposed" to "difficult issues."

I think there is a general view, partly in what you say as well, that YA is any and all literature marketed to the post-Winnie the Pooh but pre-Ulysses demographic. So if we repackage Huck Finn with brighter colors, it can be YA. If that were true, then defending it is actually defending the practice of writing anything for children b/c w/o YA, there wouldn't be anything between Winnie the Pooh and Ulysses. I think that's historically inaccurate. YA at least began as something more specific than just any book marketed to teens. It was an effort to present the socio-political problems of the late '60s to a teen audience that publishers, librarians, and authors believed was being artificially shielded from these topics by its conservative, suburban parents. Judy Blume is the archetypal example, although the "issues" she covered were mainly those which were part of that same suburban life - eating disorders, racism, divorce, sex, abuse. Other writers dealt more with things outside the suburban experience like poverty, violent crime (though there is one Blume book about murder), drugs. Melvin Burgess's Smack would be an example of "advanced" YA lit - the characters go from nice middle class English homes to heroin addiction, teen pregnancy, violent crime, and slum squatting within the several months during which the plot unfolds.

But there are nonetheless books written more or less for the same young adult audience that are not in style or substance YA books, among which I'd think A Wrinkle In Time would fall, along with most fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure novels still being churned out for kids. Not all children's authors write for the sake of exposing their readers to the litany of the world's disorders or instructing them in how to cope. Harry Potter would seem to be a good recent counterexample as well. That's just become a dominant force within the market and one which is basically terrible. You hear its echoes anytime you read reviews of book applauding its courage in "tackling" a "hard-hitting" or "dark" or "adult" topic for kids, as though writing is some kind of social service like Head Start.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of Harry Potter as a counterexample as well while writing my troll post. Maybe we should not mix up high school literature with YA literature, I disliked most of my high school literature because all seemed to contain subtle "social service" messages, that Alice book for example: "Do not do drugs" From this perspective I understand your point of view. Do you like Paulo Coehlo books? They are like the perfect social service books for adults. "instruct them in how to respond to controversial political issues, and to allow those who have experienced bad things" to relate. I, personally, do not like them too much. There are much better YA books, just ask me I am happy to make recommendations :)

Jennifer said...

Did you know that Madeleine L'Engle originally wrote A Wrinkle in Time as an adult novel, but no one would publish it? It took making it a "children's book" to get it out there. (Loved her books.)

abrahamandsarah said...

I mean that men who read fiction when they're younger read less of it as they age.

Andrew Stevens said...

Abraham and Sarah: Apparently you're right. Even Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Will Self, and Will Gibson have stopped reading fiction according to a Salon article from three years ago. So even many men who write it for a living sometimes stop reading it.

Until this comment thread, it never actually occurred to me that my argument against fiction had this unexpected gender angle. This means I will now give up the argument entirely and I will assume novels are reaching something in other people which I simply lack.

Jesse A. said...

"YA at least began as something more specific than just any book marketed to teens. It was an effort to present the socio-political problems of the late '60s to a teen audience that publishers, librarians, and authors believed was being artificially shielded from these topics by its conservative, suburban parents."

Is this true? I'm not denying that there is a subset of YA novels that have that theme, and it is certainly true that the late '60s are when some literature started being catagorized as "Young Adult." In 1966 the ALA award for "Best Book for Young People" became "Best Book for Young Adults." (There were some other transitional names in between too, now it is "Best fiction for young adults.") What I'm not sure about is whether only that subset can, or should, be called "YA." If it's marketed to teens/tweens, sold in the YA section of the bookstore, I think it's fair to call it YA. The New Yorker article about John Green refers to what he does as "realistic YA," and Roberts' specific examples include Harry Potter, Twilight, Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, none of which meet your criteria, but all of which are firmly in the 21st century craze over YA. Hell, the biggest two YA phenomena before The Fault in our Stars were Twilight and The Hunger Games, neither is and effort to present contemporary socio-political problems to teens.

That said, even if we limit YA lit to "realistic YA" ("realistic" can be as pejorative as you want it to be in this case), I'd still argue that it can be good and valuable literature. The reason I mentioned The Arm of the Starfish and The Moon by Night instead of A Wrinkle in Time is that they are far closer to John Green's books than they are to Isaac Asimov's. They both deal with the coming of age of a teenaged girl in the late '60s. If you throw in "A Ring of Endless Light" (another L'Engle book), between them they address the classic YA issues of sex, drugs and death. But they're not didactic and they're well written. I think it's nearly impossible not to classify them as young adult literature, even by your standard. Why shouldn't an adult read them?

Anonymous said...

Teen girls want to be entertained. Therefore we must not entertain them. They must be punished. OK then.

Miss Self-Important said...

Anonymous 1: I'm not sure I know what the difference b/w "high school literature" and YA lit is? What's assigned in high schools ranges from Go Ask Alice and Judy Blume to Thomas Hardy and Melville. I agree that there exist mountains of crap written for adults too, and no one should read those books either. But I have yet to encounter the same kind of moral fervor defending adult pulp as that behind YA. One never sees claims that reading anything is better than reading nothing for adults, that criticism of a bad adult novel is somehow on a level with Nazi censorship, that an adult novel that is poorly written and otherwise wholly lacking in literary merit is still in some sense *good* because many people with poor taste become hysterical over it. So why would YA lit be so special?

Jesse: Yes, I think some memory of the origin of YA has been lost over time as it's become shorthand for any book marketed to teens (including Huck Finn), but if you have access to the online historical newspaper and magazine databases, you should look up how Blume, Peck, etc are written about in the early 1970s. Critics were conscious at that point that this was a departure from the previous style of books for older children, and they called it different things for a while: realistic lit, dark lit, "misery lit" (I love that!). But it was closely tied up with two particularly 1970s conflicts - first, the disputes over school and public library "censorship" (YA consolidated around topics that parents would request to remove from children's sections), and second, the panic that there was some kind of illiteracy crisis afoot, and that children weren't reading b/c all the books written for them were too boring or hard to relate to, so new books needed to be written down to a level that the slowest reader could engage with. As you might imagine, this goal didn't bode well for YA quality. You can also find a lot of this rhetoric in the back issues of the Phi Delta Kappan, the academic journal of ed schools.

An adult should read them if they're excellent books on a level with the best of what's been written.

Anonymous 2 (or 1?): Everyone wants to be entertained, but I fail to see the urgency of satisfying that desire in the lowest possible way. Is good literature too boring and a punishment?

Jesse A. said...

"An adult should read them if they're excellent books on a level with the best of what's been written. "

I think that's a pretty high standard to set. I'd be satisfied with excellent books on the level with very good books that have been written. If you're only going to read the best, then I suspect that you'll run out of reading relatively quickly. (And if you mean the best 500, or some other large number, then I think there is YA literature that fits the bill.) But if that's the bar, I can't really argue.

So far as the history goes, that's fascinating. I'm unlikely to dig into the primary sources any time soon, but when I have time I'll try to check it out. Is there a good couple articles or a book on the topic?

What I wonder is how some of these other sub-genres of YA lit that were developed at the same time fit in, as well as some of the genre literature of the 40s and 50s which has since been repackaged as YA lit. When was "Have Spacesuit Will Travel" first sold not as Sci-Fi, but YA?

I don't want to dispute the trend, or the existence of "misery literature" (which is a fantastic moniker). If critics and educators were promoting it, what did they think of the other stuff (YA literature, or something like it, that doesn't fit that description)? Publishers were printing it; readers were still gobbling alot of it up. I'd love to get my hands on the recommended YA reading lists from the ALA from the 60s and 70s, but they're not online. Are they recommending mostly, or exclusively "misery lit" with a smattering of classics? Maybe I'll try to snag a copy from the library tomorrow.

I'm fumbling towards what I think is a more complicated genealogy of contemporary YA. I don't have all the pieces yet (I might not get them, this isn't what I do for the living, but presumably somebody has thought this through), but both my intuition and the evidence I've seen leads me to believe it exists.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure what became of the pre-1960s stuff. A lot of it remained in print long beyond initial publication, like the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, so I imagine it just sat side by side w/ Judy Blume. One useful example of the response to early YA is this article from the NYT in 1978, which gives you a sense of the parent-child dynamics that the genre was trying to breach and of Blume's own intentions in writing. The PDK stuff requires a university login to access. I'm not sure what's been written on the history of YA as a genre since most of my research on this has focused on the legal side (the book censorship disputes) or the immediate sources, and I haven't looked at it for a couple years.