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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Young Adult Fiction Can't Win

Is it just me or does it seem like YA fiction is incapable of winning in the lit world? On the one hand there are literature enthusiasts and academics who decry that YA is an unimportant, insignificant, and juvenile form of literature, while on the other there are parents, teachers, religious fanatics, and irresponsible anti-realistic-lit Nazis who throw fits every two seconds if a YA novel so much as talks about a subject that teens are already talking about anyway.

There doesn't seem to be much in the way of a support group for YA fiction. I mean, the readers are there, obviously, and they are voracious readers with an unquenchable thirst for YA, but these folks also seem to not have much of a say when it comes to defending YA from the critics. Sure, they can cry and throw a fit all they want, but when it comes down to it, they aren't really doing much in the way of defending YA from what I see as unfair criticism.

Much like science fiction, YA is a serious genre. I don't understand how we can laugh it off as frivolity one moment, and then have a rectal fit in another when a work decides to talk about sex or drugs. Perhaps this is all a way for us to ignore what YA fiction is really offering. YA is, after all, mean for teenagers, and teenagers really do go through a lot of sh*t. They experience sexual awakening, growth, rejection, confusion, drugs, etc. It all sort of hits them at once. Let's face it, teenagers know a lot more about sex and drugs today than most of us did when we were that age. Even I can admit that and I'm not so far removed from the new generation of teenagers as others (being only 25 and all). It seems silly to get upset over the content of a book that probably wouldn't even surprise a teenager anyway.

Obviously there's a lot of YA that is nothing short of fluff--literature that has little to offer in the way of serious discussion about growing up, about life and reality. We can't keep teenagers in bubble anymore, no matter how hard we try. I've always considered high school to be a transitional period into the real world for most kids. There they begin to face some of the harsh realities that make up the world as it really is.

But critics and academics are largely avoiding this discussion, it seems. They all want to pass off YA as fluff, even the stuff that happens to be more than fluff--more, shall we say, literary (whatever that means these days).

So, perhaps we need a support group for YA, a community of folks willing to give YA the attention it deserves--not necessarily in the sense of trying to sell books or make people see that it is good stuff, but in the sense that we try to point out its importance to teenage readers and literature as a whole. Or is there one already out there? Where's our YAL(ns)A (Young Adult Literature not-so-Anonymous)?

What do you all think about YA? Do you dislike it? Why? Do you hold the same views as those that pass off YA as fluff? Do you love YA? Leave a comment and tell me what you think about all this.

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  1. I'm an avid reader, reviewer, and publisher of YA fiction. I think that (Twilight aside) most YA fiction is very high quality, and in many cases, better and more tightly written than its adult counterparts. It has to be, because teens are discriminating readers.

    I also agree that no subject should be off limits to YA readers. When I was in high school, in the late 70s, there really was no YA category. Once we moved past children's books, we started reading adult books, often with a period of overlap where we were reading both.

    YA readers are capable of handling adult topics and reading adult-level works. Not only are they capable of it, but they need to explore such topics as part of their self-discovery and emergence as independent adults. What sets YA apart - and the reason that I'm glad it exists now as a category - is voice and perspective. YA reflects the interests and voice and point of view of teens, which isn't necessarily the same as that of adults. A story about high school written from the point of view of a 40-year-old looking back is going to read differently than a story about high school from the perspective of someone currently experiencing it. Guess which one will interest teens the most? IMHO, that's one big error that many new YA writers make. A book with a teen protagonist isn't necessarily YA; it has to be written with an authentic teen voice and perspective. (Which can be done by a 40-year-old, but the author has to always be aware to set aside their adult biases).

    As for the lack of credibility, I have hopes that that's changing. After all, three of the five 2009 Hugo nominees for Best Novel are YA books. Although it's true that all three of them were written by adult authors moving into YA, I think it still begins to give YA a greater weight of credibility.

  2. "YA reflects the interests and voice and point of view of teens, which isn't necessarily the same as that of adults."

    I think this is often forgotten in adulthood. Which is very unfortunate.

    "A book with a teen protagonist isn't necessarily YA; it has to be written with an authentic teen voice and perspective. "

    But what exactly is an authentic teen voice? I'm not sure it's really clear. Is that as nebulous and ambiguous as it seems? Couldn't this be counted against YA?

    "As for the lack of credibility, I have hopes that that's changing. After all, three of the five 2009 Hugo nominees for Best Novel are YA books."

    This still leaves a big disconnect between the SF/F community and the much larger non-genre community of readers (the folks who are most likely to give such works the major prizes, or stick it in school curriculum, etc., and the folks who, right now, think they are the ones that determine goodness; these same folks tend to be the ones who are most hard on YA).

    And I think the one big thing working against YA is that there are a large quantity of books that have sold extraordinarily well that are poorly written or simply not all that good or different or interesting (I think of Twilight, which is, if I may be mean here, not really all that great of a story to begin with and I've heard a lot of negative comments on the writing as well).

    I don't know, though. There are a lot of fantastic YA books, but the whole genre is going to have a hard time digging itself out from the hole someone else dug for it...

  3. I read quite a lot of YA (one of the hazards of being a Youth Services librarian) and do enjoy a lot of it.

    Part of the YA's problem is that people see it as a genre, and it's not. It's an age range. Genres exist within YA--there is YA SF/F, YA romance, YA thrillers, YA historical fiction, YA realistic fiction, etc. etc. But we (both those who dismiss it and those who champion it) tend to lump it all in one pot, which isn't doing any favors.

    It's easy to dismiss YA as fluff when you only read the fluffy YA books (which, of course, there's nothing wrong with--they're quite enjoyable.) But anyone who has read the Octavian Nothing books, or Book Thief or any number of YA novels cannot dismiss all writing for teens as unimportant.

    Much like writing for women or minorities has been maligned over the years, so has writing for our younger people. We don't like giving them a voice. Or, apparently, a literature.

  4. Jennie: I guess it depends on how we are using the term "genre." I consider YA to be a genre in and of itself because it is so separated from most anything else, with exception to YA SF, which either doesn't exist or is lodged in the adult SF section.

    Personally, I like all the YA to have it's own section, because when I want a YA book, I need a YA section to find it in...otherwise I'd never find it.

    Oh, and I agree, there is a lot of great YA that isn't fluff. But it doesn't get the attention it deserves because of the YA label. It sucks.

  5. I enjoy YA and most of my YA has been a positive reading experience. I know some authors try to push the boundries, and we'll always have those.

    YA is definitely serious stuff. A lot of very large advances are going to debut authors for YA novels. My main concern is all YA novels are lumped together in the bookstore, and they have such limited shelf space that there seems to be a lot of turnover. I looked for A Curse as Dark as Gold a few weeks after it came out and I was never able to find it.

    How is a debut author supposed to be able to earn out their large advances if they are only on the shelves a couple of months? After that, it's online sales, only.

  6. Well, that' really how the industry works, Tia. Those first few months are basically the most important ones. If an author doesn't sell a lot of books then, they're probably never going to sell lots of books. At least, that's what the publishing industry thinks.

    The problem is that there are too many books coming out every month and bookstores can't keep all those books. They have to let a lot of them go, and the bookstore is almost always going to keep the ones that earn them the most money, that sell the most.

  7. Hmmm... I would like the world to look at YA the same way it looks at Children's lit-- it's often separated but when people claim it's a "genre" you know it's more nuanced than that, you know what I mean?

    Back when I was a teen (10-15 years ago) there just wasn't that much YA. There was some, but it only took up 1 shelving unit in the library. Today there is SO MUCH MORE. I think (hope?) that when the kids who "grew up" with large YA sections get into positions of literary power (so, are the new critics and scholars) we'll see a little more respect. Until then, those of us who know better can keep trying to sing its praises...

  8. Jennie: I think we'd all love a world that took it more seriously :P. But that's sort of the dream that all fans of any particular genre have...

    I recall there not being much as far as YA when I was younger as well, although, to be fair, much of what I was reading could be construed as appropriate for that age range even if it didn't fit into the YA group (lots of media tie-in fantasy and what not).

    I have no doubt that YA will get the respect it deserves, it'll just take a lot of time and hard work. SF has been at it for almost 100 years, and it's only just now getting significant attention (now as in the last 10 years). And I suppose this is the same with all rising "genres," from ancient times to now.

    And we can definitely continue to sing YA's praises because it deserves it. That's not to say that all popular YA books deserve such praise, but that's true of all genres I suppose :P.