Friday, June 6, 2014

The Fault in Peter Pan's Star

The philosophical debate between "high" art and "low" art—and whether such distinctions are valid to begin with—is hardly a new one. The merry-go-round spun again with the publication of "Against YA," a piece by Slate columnist Ruth Graham.

With the movie adaptation of major Young Adult novel The Fault in Our Stars hitting theatres this week, fans of contemporary YA have been deep in the Internet streets; Graham's piece seems almost calculated to push their buttons.

The devastating pull quote:

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.

The backlash was immediate and strident. Graham fought the good fight on Twitter for over a day before succumbing to a looming deadline. The Internet threw everything it had at Graham: Well-thought-out rebuttals, personal-blog tirades, spittle-flecked social media rants, everything. We even got some "don't feed the trolls" advice from BookRiot YA editor Kelly Jensen:

Ultimately, most of the responses fall into one of a few categories:

  • "You must not have read [YA novels which are *clearly* Great Art]!"

  • "I bet [CS Lewis, Madeline L'Engle, etc.] would be surprised to find out their books were dumb."

  • "Who are you, the Reading Police? Let me have my fun, you snooty elitist snob!"

Look, YA is a genre. Flavorwire's Elizabeth Donnelly hit the nail on the head:

There’s good and bad in every genre, from the most insufferable piece of self-indulgent, experimental, literary adult stuff to the most transparent picked-up-by-a-publisher New Adult fan fiction disguised as a book. Just make sure you find the good stuff, whether it’s Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. The books worth reading are out there, and they’re numerous, trust me — genre be dammed.

That's absolutely right: Beautiful, impactful, storytelling can be found in all genres of every medium—and plenty of dreck, too, regardless of aspirations.

For every Calvin and Hobbes, there are dozens of newspaper comic strips that rightfully fell by the wayside; for every 12 Years a Slave there are dozens of execrable movies. I'll ride hard for Cowboy Bebop as a meaningful work future generations should remember and watch, but can't pretend The Irresponsible Captain Tylor was anything greater than goofiness I happened to love as a teenager.

Even so, it's okay—more than okay—to love a creative work just because you love it. And if you love it, own it like Adam Ellis:

It's totally okay to love YA fiction. It's totally okay to read it rapaciously, and to write it or edit it for a living. Those who do would say they don't need my (or anyone else's) permission, and they'd be right. Go them. Rock on.

Graham's larger point, though, is spot on: Humans only have time for so much reading in their lives, and when American readers are spending significant fractions of their book dollars and hours on books written about and for teenagers, something's wrong. If books for grownups don't appeal for 25-to-45-year-olds, either we have a generation that would rather explore the simpler problems, huger emotions and endless possibilities of youth than deal with messy, boring grownup stuff... or we have crappy grownup books.

YA author Rachel Carter at The New Republic:

"I also write YA because I find the subject matter fascinating. It’s not that the most dramatic events happened to me in high school, but it’s the age where I felt the most dramatic. There were high stakes for everything—if my crush looked at me, if I passed my science test, if I was invited to a party. There is something extremely satisfying about writing characters who have the capacity to feel so passionately.

Lastly, I write YA because it’s a genre that is constantly evolving, is rich with ideas and distinctive characters, and offers limitless possibility. While adult fiction has been sectioned off into rigid genres, YA is an umbrella term that encompasses subjects as varied as dystopian wastelands, changeling children falling in love, and, yes, teenage cancer. It’s a genre where you can still write a lyrical, literary novel that is also sci-fi or apocalyptic. There are stories with happy endings, and stories that leave you gutted. There are novels set in high school cafeterias or in 1920s New York. YA is not a monolith, not just love stories or epic dystopian novels."

This might be the problem.

Contemporary YA, to hear its fans and professionals today, is a genre which contains every other genre; any subject, theme, motif or style is in bounds. YA can be as challenging as Joyce or uncompromising as Capote. Every color of humanity's rainbow on the YA author's palette, and every tool is on their easel.

If that's all true, though, what the heck separates YA from the rest of literature?

Ultimately, like any literary category, it's not about categorizing the work, it's about categorizing the audienceYA books are for kids. That's who they're marketed to, who they're supposed to be bought and read by. When significant fractions of YA books are being purchased and read by grownups, it's only a matter of time before authors, agents, and publishers gear YA books towards those adults. When adults are writing books "for kids" for adults, we've gone off the rails. Without having read much of the category myself, I sense this is already happening.

When, upon several writers' advice, I joined the AbsoluteWrite forums, the first question I was asked was which age group I wrote for. I wonder how many beloved genre or literary fiction novels would be classified as YA if published today—and found a much smaller, or completely different, audience (Ender's Game leaps to mind)?

Worse, plenty of contemporary adult genre novels (science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, etc.) are getting lumped into YA because they superficially resemble The Hunger Games or Divergent. This is bad for those books, and bad for teens—like when 1980s parents cluelessly rented R- and X-rated anime "cartoons" for their kids. Poor Samantha Shannon got promoted as "the next J.K. Rowling," and look how many negative Goodreads reviews of her debut novel The Bone Season are about how it's much harder to read than Harry Potter. Uh, right— it wasn't written for children!

Is Graham right? Is the national love affair with tales of puppy love stunting our literary growth? Are we navel-gazing, unable to face our grownup issues? Or, are we just trying to view them through a familiar, youthful lens that makes everything look clearer? I don't know the answers, but it's fair to ask the questions.

Ultimately, everyone should read what they love and enjoy, write what's in their heart, and not compromise or apologize for any of it.

Just be honest with yourself about what you're doing, and why you enjoy it.

...said the sportswriter.

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