When I woke up this morning, there was rage all over my Twitter feed. I couldn’t find the source, but it seemed to have something to do with YA readers being shamed for, well, reading YA. What’s new, right?
I went about my day normally. Later, a friend posted the link to the offending article, and I read it. It’s called Against YA, with the tagline, “yes, adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books.” It argues that by reading young adult literature, adults are missing out on more “important” literature, namely literary fiction. Such readers are apparently selling themselves short by choosing “escapism” over more complex, ambiguous works only found in the adult section of the bookstore.
This article reeeaaally got under my skin, for a number of reasons.
(Side note: I’m not entirely comfortable with posting the link to the article, since I know controversial articles love to generate more traffic, and I’m contributing to that by posting it. But it’s not fair for me to present my argument without offering up the other side, so there it is).
If you follow this blog, you know I write YA fantasy. You might also know that I write YA contemporary, and adult contemporary, or what the writer of the article calls realistic fiction. I am interested in a variety of different perspectives and audiences, so I don’t feel comfortable limiting myself to just one category or genre. Naturally, then, I don’t limit myself as a reader, either.
I used to. You’ll know from some of my past entries that I used to limit my reading to realistic, literary fiction, particularly classics (yet I was writing YA fantasy?? Yeah, I was still figuring out the whole read-the-genre-you-write thing…don’t worry, I learned). I agreed with this woman, mostly because I considered most YA books to be carbon copies of Twilight, which I disliked. I looked down on these books because I thought people used them for escapism. I, too, thought YA limited itself to “instant gratification” and shirked the harsher realities my classics offered me.
There are so many problems here.
First off, there is nothing inherently wrong with escapism. The reason it used to give me pause is because I thought people who sought out escapism wanted to ignore the problems in their lives, and thus never deal with those problems. I thought if you wanted to escape, you were weak, and your real life would fall apart around you.
My prejudice against YA was probably wrapped up in this mindset. But how unfair is it to assume that someone who wants a little escape is going to let their world go to pieces? There’s a difference between wanting to get away for a little and being seriously dysfunctional. Also, I’m a hypocrite–what the hell do I play video games for if not for the escapism? The graphics? It’s definitely not the graphics.
Secondly, the generalizations about YA listed in this article make it clear that this woman has not read widely in the YA category, or at least not widely enough to appreciate its many nuances and opportunities for complexity. According to her, YA is full of hunky dory protagonists who never self reflect and always get a perfectly tied-up ending. YA is meant to be pleasurable, she says. It’s fluff. It doesn’t let you empathize with people who aren’t like you. It’s easy on the heart and satisfying.
Right. That’s why The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which she mentions in the article, leaves us with a good feeling. Wait, never mind. It ends with the main character suffering a serious emotional breakdown thanks to a traumatic event from his past. The readers are left wondering how he will cope with this latest relapse, and we don’t get to know. If Katsa had never self-reflected in Graceling, never confronted an upsetting emotional reality about herself, she would never have won my respect. Boy do I wish the end of The Amber Spyglass was “easy on the heart and satisfying,” because then I could’ve avoided the overwhelming panic and indignation I felt when I realized what was going to happen (I kept flipping the pages back and forth as if that would change it). If we’re counting Harry Potter, I managed to empathize with Severus Snape. Last I checked, I wasn’t a bitter, thirty-something-year-old man with greasy hair and an unrequited crush he really should have let go of a long time ago (yes, I’m being critical of him here, but feeling empathy for someone does not eliminate your ability to criticize that person. I felt sad for Snape, but I could still see issues with his behavior).
Or, let’s take the book I’m reading right now: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which follows a girl in her late teens who is placed in a women’s concentration camp during World War II. The narrator has a captivating voice. The characters are interesting and respond to trauma in their own unique ways. The author does not shy away from the gruesome realities of a concentration camp, nor does she give us closure about what happens to everyone (oh, look! Ambiguity!). It is frustrating and, at times, sickening to watch these characters endure what they have to endure. It is not “pleasurable”–the only “pleasure” I could think of getting out of this book is being glad I’m not the one in a concentration camp, but I wouldn’t call that “pleasure.” I am not reading it to feel better about life; I’m reading it because I want to see what happens to these girls.
But, Morgan, wouldn’t you ultimately get more out of a piece of literary fiction? Doesn’t this book pale in comparison to those classics you love? Aren’t you an adult?
Ah, there you are, Ulysses by James Joyce, which I spent last month reading with a class. I knew you’d come in handy.
When it comes to literary fiction, Ulysses is about as literary as you can get. It contains made-up words, nonsensical sentences, literally hundreds of obscure references (many of which are crucial to the experience, so have fun looking them up!), confusing narrators (who the hell is talking in this paragraph?), and stream-of-consciousness prose that is sometimes impossible to follow. Also, every chapter is written in a different style. Every time you think you’re used to how Ulysses operates, boom! It transforms into a different monster.
Many people who haven’t studied it closely or approached it blind think the book is a load of nonsense and isn’t worth it. But I loved the hell out of this book. If you have it, or next time you visit a bookstore, flip Ulysses open to chapter eleven, the music-themed chapter. The chapter has a freaking overture made out of language. What does that mean? It means it operates like a musical overture, which plays a collection of sounds that will later appear throughout different parts of the performance that is to follow. Except Ulysses does it with words. The overture is made up of of a page and a half of short phrases that, in some form or another, appear in the chapter. As you read, you find yourself playing “Where’s Waldo”–“Ah, there’s the reference to the first line of the overture! Look, that must refer to line twelve!” It’s mind-blowing and exciting. It makes you re-think how we use language and how stories are formed.
I also love the hell out of Rose Under Fire so far. I feel a rush of anticipation every time I sit down to read it, just as I did with Ulysses. How is it possible for me to sincerely enjoy such different books, especially one on top of the other? Because I understand that these novels are aiming for different effects, and those effects are equally legitimate. Rose Under Fire places compelling characters in a terrifying situation. It wants me to feel their reality and stress over the characters’ fates. Ulysses challenges my expectations as a reader and demands that I pay just as much attention to the language as I do to plot and character–probably even more attention. These are both great goals. They are both stimulating. They both make me feel something.
Of course, if the article angered me as a reader, it angered me as a writer, too. I took most issue with the writer’s claim that “[YA readers] are asked to abandon the mature insights into [an emotional] perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”
If this is what YA is about, then evidently, I haven’t been reading YA. I’ve seen plenty of observations and epiphanies in YA literature that some adults never even think about or achieve. I have stated that there is nothing wrong with escapism already, but as someone who does not personally read for escapism, I tend to write against it. The novels I write (about and for teenagers) depend on mature insights. They feed on them. They could not exist without them. The more you follow my main character, the higher and higher she reaches for these insights, though sometimes she’ll flinch away from them, too, because they’re painful and she’s human.
To argue that YA forces you to do away with adult emotionality negates everything I’ve been writing for, and negates a sizable percentage of the feelings a teenager experiences. Because many of the things teenagers feel are very real, very adult feelings. That’s part of why adolescence is so terrifying–emotions aren’t simple anymore. The feelings are new, but that does not make them lesser. As for adults who think reading about these “first” experiences is a form of regression, well, most of the adults I know would benefit from revisiting the roots of these emotions. That “first” feeling laid a foundation, after all.
Are you a literary novel? Give me feelings. Are you a YA novel? Give me feelings. Grip me by the heart, book, and I will love you, because feelings are the whole damn reason I’m here.
*Avatar by Charlavail