Saturday, June 7, 2014

Why I'm not embarrassed to read YA

So then there’s this, an article by Ruth Graham on Slate titled Against YA, with this tagline: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

I won’t lay out every argument Graham makes – you can go read it for yourself – but suffice to say that the tagline is exactly representative of the rather superior position she takes.

In her article, Graham makes many points with which I take issue, but I’m going to focus the convergent beam of my disagreement upon a couple of her more general points, precisely because that’s what they are – extraordinarily generalised.

As far as I can tell, all books written for adults are about people having affairs. Or people being missionaries. Or about surviving cancer, then not surviving cancer, then saying goodbye to the rest of your family as they watch you fail to survive cancer. Of course this is an absurd claim, and to make such a claim is to make it abundantly clear that I’ve only ever read books about affairs, missionaries and people failing to survive cancer. 

This from Graham’s article:
Most importantly, [YA] books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with 'likeable' protagonists.

This is a little like saying that all country music is simplistic and sentimental. One can make a strong case, using myriad examples both prominent and obscure, for precisely this assertion. Except it’s not true. And it can be demonstrated to be untrue by anyone with a more than passing familiarity with country music. 

Okay, I think that’s enough of that. That point needn’t be laboured, except to quote Graham from later in her piece:
I do not begrudge young adults themselves their renaissance of fiction. I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives.
To acknowledge the breadth of variety within YA in one breath, but to then generalise so bluntly in the next feels lazy at worse, dishonest at worst. But to then double down by characterising John Green’s juggernaut The Fault In Our Stars as 'a nicely written book for 13-year-olds' as she does is at once arguably true and unarguably narrow. Add to this her suggestion that YA is all about 'escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia' (apparently we “defenders” of YA fiction “admit” this) followed by this quoted line from Jen Doll: 'At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable'; and you have a wilfully restrictive view of what is not so much a genre as an entire market. Restrictive and, in many, many cases, downright wrong. Demonstrably so.

But even that’s not my greater concern. My greater concern is touched on ever so slightly by Graham, when she opines: 'There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott.'

I’d go considerably further than that. I would argue that a great many of the books and stories now considered classical mainstays would, if published today, find themselves on display in the young adult section of our bookstores. Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver TwistTom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles are all about young people finding their way in the adult world. Finding a place of belonging, if you will, or an identity beyond that of their childhood. Romeo and Juliet, published and premiered today, would be YA. Even the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet, calmly and systematically checks off many of the tropes often associated with the YA 'genre'. We can list them: 
  • Hamlet is an “emo”; 
  • his father is dead; 
  • his mother is in a bizarre rebound relationship; 
  • his best friend is so cool that it hurts; 
  • his girlfriend is so crazy she ends up face-down in a pond; 
  • he’s suffering from suicidal ideation; 
  • he’s talking to himself a lot
  • and in the end, pretty much everyone dies.

So Graham is right – there is no shame in writing about teenagers. As I hope I’ve pointed out, there is a long history of doing just that to be found amongst the work of some fairly handy writers. But even in making that point, I think a greater point is at risk of being missed: that there is no shame in writing as a teenager. And I don't mean teenagers who write, necessarily, but adults who write from the teenaged part of their experience.

You see, while I can’t speak for any one my YA-writing colleagues, writing as a young adult is what I see myself doing. All the time. Finding those stories that resonate so strongly with the fourteen-year-old James that the forty-five-year-old James has to tell them.

If you'll indulge me, let me offer a tiny slice of my own history. I grew up in a missionary family, and every two or three years our parents would announce that we were moving. Friends, relatives, everyone was going to be left behind while we headed off to do our Christian duty. As a result of this, I got to grow up in some fairly remarkable places. But the down-side was a crippled sense of identity. A kind of arrested social development. An itch between my emotional shoulder-blades that even now I sometimes struggle to reach. The only way I’ve found to scratch that itch with any kind of satisfaction is through my writing, so as a result, that 'trauma' (a dramatic word, I know, but it’s the best I’ve got) has also been one of the great blessings of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be doing this, right now. Writing for a living. And I love this. 

Graham, in her Slate piece, says: 'I have no urge to go back and re-read [the books I read as a child], but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader.'

In response to this, I would say the following: I’m happy for you. I’m happy that the books you read as a young person set you up so neatly for all those 'real' books you now enjoy. But for every 'literary' reader such as yourself, there’s at least one of me. You see, I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about someone’s affair, or the search for the code to the identity of the Illuminati, or a glass cathedral floating down a river, or Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power. I'm not saying you shouldn't either – if you want to read about an Indian sweet-maker defying the odds to become a successful businessman, I say fill yer boots! But no, I’m much more interested in a story like that of Arnold in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Because I’m a native American kid from a reservation in Washington State? Of course not. Because I was – and in some ways remain – a kid who, like Arnold, is trying to find my place in the world.

And while I thank you for your concern, I refuse to be embarrassed by that.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Staple said...

What a fantastic post. I tend to dismiss anyone who says, "I don't like [incredibly broad category]," but I have a particular disdain for people who say it about YA novels. I also write YA, and your observation that it helps cure some teenage ill hits startlingly close to home (illness necessitated homeschooling; missed high school). More than anything else, I find that people who look down on YA are the same people who dismiss kids as having nothing of value to offer -- or the elderly, or women, or whatever other group you want to fill in there. The really ironic thing is that the people making these pronouncements think that it makes them sound so worldly and adult, when it reality they just come across as narrow-minded and ignorant.