YA Conversation (Final Part)
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 Part One of this conversation, we discussed the differences between “adult” and “young adult” novels while in Part Two, we talked about how schools are using YA and if a YA-based curriculum is really a good thing and Part Three explored the lack of complexity and the phenomenon of adults reading young adult novels.
Kate: Here’s the one niggling doubt in my mind about YA literature: while the complexity of the works being studied in schools has definitely fallen, in their day, works by Austen and Dickens were lumped in with other, more frivolous works as something to distract young people from more important reading of “the classics.”
Jane Austen talks about the “dangers” of novels in Northanger Abbey, a work that mostly centers on a young girl who takes novels, including works by Austen’s predecessor Ann Radcliffe, rather more seriously than she should. Few except scholars of that time period and students of popular literature read Radcliffe now. When they do, they read it as a reflection of the culture of the time, filled with anti-Catholic hysteria and a preoccupation with social class and virginity. The Romance of the Forest is a rip-roaring good story, but there’s not much there apart from sensationalism and a glimpse into the Gothic sensibility.
So my question is, how can you tell if a contemporary work is worth studying closer and may be the next Austen, or if it should be enjoyed as a good story and maybe a reflection of culture, such as Radcliffe?
Corey: Honestly, this is where I start to go down the lit crit rabbit hole and question everything. What makes anything worth studying? And what does “worth studying” even mean? What “value” are we getting out of studying any given work of literature? And who decides which ones are “worth” studying for said “value”?
Kate: That’s a danger for anyone who studies literature. There are some who would argue that what we consider “classics” are mostly just books arbitrarily picked for study by old white men. And others would argue that anything popular is inherently worth studying.
Corey: That all said, and to try and stick to the matter at hand, I often wonder the same thing, but in reverse—what makes Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, whoever so much better and so much more “worth studying” than contemporary fiction? Is it just language? We talked about complexity earlier, but aren’t many Dickens characters just the sort of simply good or simply bad characters we complained of in today’s YA literature?
Kate: Yes, but he took the Victorian didactic morality tale and twisted it as he went on. If you compare Oliver Twist to Great Expectations, you can see that evolution. The other reason we can study those “simply good” characters, such as the women in his works, is as a reflection of some of the stereotypes and expectations his culture held. By Hard Times and Great Expectations, his idea of women had become more complex than simply dividing them into “angels” and “whores.”
Corey: A wonderful argument for studying YA literature if ever I heard one—because these works are some kind of reflection of today’s society and culture.
More generally, I think the only possible yardstick to use is some alchemical combination of literary merit and cultural influence. In other words, if a book, no matter how well or poorly written, is a cultural milestone, significant in some way to broader society and culture, then it deserves to be studied if only to ask why this one, as we are.
Kate: I think it’s a matter of studying something that’s both representative of a genre and also superior to it, in some way. Dickens is an example, but so is Lewis Carroll. The Alice books are studied now because there were tons of stories about little girls and little boys who tumbled into fantastic, fable-like worlds where they were meant to learn lessons, but Carroll turned that convention on its head. His works are essentially amoral, while still following the convention of commenting on the trials and tribulations faced by young children trying to navigate how to become a grown-up. The fact that tons of people read them doesn’t negate that superiority — and, in fact, probably legitimizes it.
Corey: Precisely! And by the same token, a beautiful book that is read only in rarefied circles is also deserving of our attention, but probably for more traditional “but what does it mean?” lit crit reasons!
Kate: And can we eliminate the possibility that we’re just being snobs if we dismissed YA wholesale?
Corey: I think we are definitely being snobs! :) But, like any such bias, it’s almost more important to admit it rather than necessarily eliminate it. And, coming from a history background, I think there is certainly something to be said for the “wait and see” approach to studying YA literature. How long did it take before Dickens and Austen were recognized as part of the literary canon? How long before they were studied in schools?
And I think studying the effect, and not just the cause, is always fascinating. In other words, loads of people are suddenly reading purely for fun, for entertainment—surely someone should be studying that, not just fixating on the cause (YA literature) and bemoaning that it isn’t Chaucer.
Kate: Even Chaucer wasn’t Chaucer. He was criticized for even writing in English, as most of those who could read and write did so in French or Latin. Chaucer was telling old (and crude but popular) stories, but he was doing it in English, which was huge, establishing the English literary tradition. Chaucer is studied because he both embraced and rose above the literary traditions of his day, and he depicts a culture we can only understand, in some ways, through him.
Corey: Exactly! Who’s to say our YA literature isn’t to today’s society as Chaucer was to the medieval world?
Kate: My hunch is that people 100 years from now might compare Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and perhaps Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian the way we compare The Romance of the Forest to Northanger Abbey or Ivanhoe. The thing with Twilight is that it’s interesting only in its fetishization of beauty and adolescence, virginity and self-righteousness. In that, it shares some themes with Dracula, though perhaps unintentionally, and the shifting role of the vampire between those two works definitely provokes discussion. Twilight, in theory, has more to it than something like Fifty Shades of Grey, but it will suffer in comparison to the classics based on sheer technique. I’d almost rather study Anne Rice if we’re talking technique.
Corey: And I think the “more it has to it” is pretty inadvertent in terms of authorial intent. From what I’ve read of Stephanie Meyer, she had very straightforward storytelling aims when writing the Twilight series. Any deeper reading would seem to be of purely scholarly invention.
Kate: Just because an author didn’t mean to do something doesn’t mean it’s not there, though. We’re all reflections of our culture, and Stephanie Meyer’s work comments on the fundamentalist Christian fetishes of purity and virginity and good and evil whether she meant to or not — just as J.D. Salinger’s work echos the mythical hero’s journey even though he likely didn’t do that intentionally. Nothing’s created in a cultural vacuum.
But then that’s another question — what has to “be there” to make a work worth studying? What makes “The Dangerous Game” (which everyone studies in high school) different from The Hunger Games and therefore more worthy of study — or is it? And is there a place for YA literature in any secondary school English curriculum?
Corey: Ah, I think we’ve reached an important distinction in our conversation: the place of YA in a secondary school English curriculum vs. the place of YA in scholarly discourse. We’ve been pretty freely jumping between the two spheres, but for your question I think it’s important to separate them.
Is there a place for YA literature in secondary school curricula? Yes, but hopefully only as one part of a broader syllabus that builds and challenges students to try different things. I fondly remember a high school English glass that had us bouncing between Antigone, Gogol, Hamlet, and an author of each student’s choosing. It was a great grounding in Western classics while also giving students the freedom to read contemporary works. And, perhaps most importantly, it set students up to make the obvious comparison between the so-called classics and whatever they were choosing to read, thus hopefully instilling critical readership skills.
Kate: I think I was in that class. Ugh, Gogol. But at least now I know I’m not cut out for the Russians. I remember a similar class that did The Tempest, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Flannery O’Connor. It was brilliant having all of those things compared and contrasted. If English classes in high school used YA literature to open discussions about larger, broader topics, I’d be fine with that — but not if they only used young adult literature.
Corey: Totally agree! It’s when a curriculum becomes too dependent or too focused on one genre that I start to get uncomfortable. What are students supposed to learn if they’re only being exposed to one thing?
Meanwhile, to return to the other side of your original question: is there a place for YA literature in scholarly discourse? I think we’re on the fence with this one—right away, maybe not, but in the long run, yes. As you say, I think people will be studying this trend towards YA literature a hundred years for now since it is such an obvious cultural movement. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next and where it takes us as a society. Ah, the joys of living history!
Kate: Somehow I managed to write an entire masters’ thesis on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials as a reflection of Arthurian Romance and Paradise Lost. Anecdotally, that would seem to suggest that YA literature should not be easily dismissed as not worthy of study. However, Pullman deliberately and openly set out to write a morally and technically complex trilogy for children that evoked fairy tales and medieval themes.
Also, It’s important to note that declaring something worthy of study is different from liking it. I will readily admit that I dislike the modernists intensely, but I can objectively see that they might be worthy of study (but, like Esther in The Bell Jar, I cannot get past the first sentence of Finnegans Wake).
Corey: Absolutely! Personal preferences really don’t have a place in the discussion, except to admit one’s own biases up front. I feel exactly the same way about modernists, but, knowing that about myself, have often challenged myself to try them from time to time (see: my failed attempt to read Mrs. Dalloway this past summer!).
There’s nothing more personal than reading preferences and everyone is entitled to their own favorites! Just because something is or isn’t worthy of scholarly study has absolutely no effect on a reader’s potential enjoyment of it.