With startling regularity these days, the mainstream media publishes essays on young adult fiction, generally debating the question of whether or not YA is too mature or "dark" to be read by young adults. Recently, two more essays joined this growing body of opinion: Maria Tatar's piece in the New York Times, "No More Adventures in Wonderland"; and Brian McGreevy's post at Salon.com, "Why Teens Should Read Adult Fiction." I react to these kinds of essays with a mixture of resignation and indignation, because generally they're characterized by a glaring blindness on the part of the authors. Most of the people who write these essays don't seem to have much of any familiarity with today's young adult book market. ((Yes, the infamous Wall Street Journal article is an exception, and I think that's why it engendered such a heated backlash from the YA community.)) They tend to base their conclusions on personal experience of the dated kind: what they read when they were teens (usually 20-30 years ago), and how today's bestsellers (typically Twilight or The Hunger Games) compare. Usually, The Hunger Games is more cold-bloodedly violent, and Twilight is a bad example for girls.
I think that author Andrea Cremer said it best in her tweet about the Salon.com piece:
I absolutely agree. This debate about YA's qualities or lack thereof is clearly a way for adults to express their anxiety about adolescence today: whether it's coming on too soon, whether it's ending too quickly. The world in general seems to be an increasingly brutal place, not only in real terms (the war in Afghanistan, uprisings in the Middle East, etc.) but in virtual ones as well (the American entertainment industry contributes substantially via everything from crass TV to first-person shooter video games).
Books have traditionally been seen as "good for you," and I think that the commercialization of young adult fiction — pushed by the success of the Harry Potter series, Twilight, and, yes, The Hunger Games — strikes a certain kind of terror in the hearts of the predominantly upper middle-class literary types who eat up these articles. If the books (which are supposed to be virtuous and moral) are going to hell, what's next?
As a writer of young adult novels, I'm sometimes amused by the fear that these articles seem to express. Books: So powerful! So influential — possibly in horrible ways! And yet, of course they can be. That's why they're so wonderful.
On the other hand, these articles often express a snobbery about YA that is a bit more difficult to brush off. YA books: So trashy! So poorly written! So simplistic! Though yes, of course that can be true, too. ((I want to note that it can be true of all fiction. Plenty of adult fiction is trashy, poorly written, and simplistic. But somehow that's accepted as obvious, whereas YA is often held up to a higher "moral" standard.))
What frustrates me about this whole debate, I think, are the assumptions that people who don't read YA make. I get this not only in these articles (which are, at least, not personal), but in person. I've had good friends say to me, "I tried to read Ash, but it was so hard! I thought books for teens were supposed to be easy to read!" ((I don't actually mind that my friend said this to me, though it was startling. She's a really good friend.)) I've had other friends look at me in bewilderment when they realize my books are young adult novels. I can practically see all their assumptions whirling through their mind: These books are for teens, so I probably won't be interested. They're probably dumbed down and not worth it. What is my friend doing writing for teens, anyway? She's better than that!
As a writer, my own path to young adult fiction was an unexpected one. Some stereotypes about YA fiction are based on the idea that a YA novelist is deeply nostalgic for her teen years and wants to relive them through fiction.
Well, I can tell you for sure that I am not nostalgic about my teen years. I hated them, and I'm very glad there's no such thing as time travel so that I never have to go back.
Many YA writers I know came to write YA fiction because they enjoy reading it. But I didn't read YA until after I sold Ash. I think that's why Ash has a kind of old-fashioned feel — it's based in the reading experience of my own teen years, approximately 20 years ago. However, once I started reading YA, I quickly realized that as a writer, I absolutely belong in this category of fiction.
For me, there are some very specific things about YA that make creative sense. YA is particularly story-based. Think TV and film: you are drawn in to a story immediately, or at least, that's the goal. Story, story, story. This is YA.
I'm the first to admit that I've never been especially drawn to adult literary fiction. I very rarely connect with it, although I have read and loved the odd literary novel. This is because I generally value story over literary affect. I tend to prefer an arresting tale over a pretty sentence. If I want a pretty sentence, I will read poetry, and I do enjoy poetry when I read it (even if I don't understand it!).
Another thing I enjoy about YA is the fact that it allows the writer to mash together many genres. Adult fiction is fairly divided when it comes to genre: science fiction does not usually cross over into mystery, which does not usually cross over into romance. There are exceptions as always, but typically, a book is published in one genre, and the book must obey that genre's conventions or risk alienating the genre's readers. YA, on the other hand, lets me combine mystery and romance and science fiction into one glorious hybrid whole.
I think this is a reflection of the fact that adolescence is about trying new things. Teens aren't fixed in their personalities yet, even though they have very definite ideas about what their personality is. They're not afraid to smush things around a little and see what results. That kind of freedom is what I find so endearing and so liberating about YA. It enables me to tell the story I want, using many of my favorite tools (mystery! romance! intrigue! magic!).
Of course, there are some limitations to the YA category, and anyone who says YA can cover any subject is not telling the whole truth. You won't find navel-gazing books about middle-aged people in YA, and you're unlikely to find explicit sex or truly extreme evil. This is not because teens can't handle these subjects or because they don't encounter them in real life — they do. It's because YA is, at its most basic level, a marketing category, and libraries and schools are hesitant to buy books that are likely to upset parents. Parents, not teens. I'm pretty sure teens want to read about sex and death.
This is where that debate flares up: adults expressing their anxiety over teens' incipient adulthood.
I'm sure that someday I will want to write something that involves explicit sex and/or extreme evil ((I'm not saying that a book must include explicit sex or extreme evil to be worth reading or writing. Plenty of wonderful books that I love don't include any of it.)), because as a writer, I've noticed that I'm increasingly drawn to telling stories about the highest highs and the lowest lows. I want to tell Big Stories (again, emphasis on story). So, I'm sure that someday I will write an "adult" novel. I'm not sure, though, whether I will ever really fit into the world of adult fiction. I do enjoy adult genre fiction; I've been a mystery and scifi/fantasy reader for decades. But what if I want to mash up those genres? I'm pretty sure I will. How will that work in the adult fiction market?
I don't know, and I'm not that concerned about it. I'll write the story I want to write, and I'll go from there. For now, I'm happy to be writing young adult fiction, even if I do get that weird shifty-eyed look from my (adult) friends every once in a while. I like the creative tools that I get to use when writing YA. They make sense to me as a writer, and that's why I'm writing young adult novels.