A Conversation on YA (Part I)
As has been widely reported, young adult literature is enjoying huge popularity at the moment with adults and teens alike reading YA books in droves. Consequently, the genre has become the target of some spirited debate (most famously from Slate’s Ruth Graham in her piece “Against YA”).
In that spirit, Literary Transgressions’ Kate and Corey staged their own conversation on the topic, asking themselves: what is young adult literature? What makes it different from “adult” novels? And is there really something inherently better or worse about either?
Kate: I think there are differences between adult and YA literature, but they are rather nebulous. I think YA novels tend to be more conservative than adult ones when it comes to sex, violence, sometimes happy endings. Bella and Edward’s relationship is prudish to the extreme in Twilight, as Bella gets pregnant the first time she has sex, then quite literally dies and gives birth to a monster, a great lesson for teenaged girls just learning to be ashamed of their sexuality.
But it’s more freeing in other ways. It can be more imaginative, because teenagers are better at suspending disbelief than most adults, still caught between fairy tales of childhood and questions they’ll have later, like “How does no one notice that half of the Cullens are banging the other half, even though they all claim to be siblings?” And I think the “hero” story can be more blatant, because teenagers are still trying to figure out who they are, and the idea that an ordinary person could become, well, anything (vampire, witch, revolutionary, etc.) is very appealing to a teenager determined to do something meaningful.
Corey: Absolutely! The more imaginative nature of young adult fiction is fascinating to me. Some of the most creative writing being done in the realm of “imaginative fiction” these days seems to be happening in YA. From my recent reading experiences in the genre, both Illusive and The Paper Magician have wonderfully creative premises—the former has been billed as X-Men meets Ocean’s 11 and the latter is an Edwardian mix of Susanna Clarke and C.S. Lewis.
Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman seems to be the tent-pole supporting all of adult imaginative fiction on his own with Salman Rushie leading the charge in magical realism. Why is there such a small pool to choose from for “adult” books in this vein? Is this because of the sudden interest in the publishing world for YA, so all genres are benefiting? Or is it just that authors of a certain imaginative bent are writing YA these days? Chicken or egg?
Kate: There’s not a dearth of adult fantasy fiction; there’s a dearth of good fantasy fiction for adults. Forgive me for being a little harsh, but I think the type of writers who formerly would have written story-driven adult fantasy are now writing derivative YA fantasy. You’ve noted this yourself — “X-Men meets Ocean’s 11” and “an Edwardian mix of Susanna Clarke and C.S. Lewis.” Many YA authors appear to be coming up with concepts that don’t quite pan out, then peddling their wares to readers who are less attuned to nuance. Those who read YA fantasy are looking for a good story; those who read Neil Gaiman or Susanna Clarke are looking for a good book. There’s quite a difference.
Corey: That is a terrific distinction. Most of my qualms with YA books have been in execution, not in the concept itself. They are often very entertaining, great stories. But great books? Not so much.
Kate: And let’s add Lev Grossman to the realm of authors writing genius adult fantasy. His works take on C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter — YA fantasy, interestingly enough, though C.S. Lewis would have said his books are for children, not necessarily teenagers — and question the foundations on which those fables are built. What YA is missing, overall, is the ability to question the story’s premise and have it hold up.
Corey: Yes! I’m not asking for more violence or more cussing or more of anything that is typically included in “adult” books (often quite gratuitously and solely to proclaim “I AM AN ADULT NOVEL,” as in J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy).
Mostly, I just want some complexity. Complexity of emotion, complexity of character, and complexity of universe. We live in a very grey world and, even in fantasy, I want that. I don’t want black-and-white characters and situations. I want to be surprised. I want to be challenged.
Kate: That’s a big sticking point for me. Adult literature invites you to question, to second-guess. Even Confessions of a Shopaholic asks the reader to pass judgment on Becky and the materialism inherent in modern life; Something Borrowed asks if a relationship can survive if it’s built on a foundation of cheating and lies, and if so, if it’s worth it; the Sookie Stackhouse novels ask the reader to determine if a man obsessed with power can ever be worthy of love. These are big questions, though the level of the work itself might not be challenging.
In YA fiction, however, you are mostly asked not to question the fact that all teenaged boys are incredibly handsome (have you ever seen a teenaged boy? Acne is still a thing,) and that they become obsessed, sometimes to the point where an adult would consider it creepy, with normal teenaged girls. Or you’re asked to choose between the blond guy and the dark-haired one.
Stay tuned for Part II!
Next time, Kate asks, “So is this love of YA just an increased dumbing down of literature? Are adults so sick of asking questions and being challenged to think that they’ve fled to the children’s section, where they can find pure escapism?”