Judging YA and Concerns about its Topics

There’s been a lot of inflammatory talk about Young Adult novels, something that probably should not inspire a lot of inflammatory talk. But in the book world, it’s become a hot topic. So I’d like to give my opinion on a few of the topics arising from the conversations over Young Adult novels and their place in literture.

1.) How do we judge YA?

Certain literary writers questioned whether or not YA novels should be compared to literary novels, and then YA authors scoffed at that insinuation. And then…. well, there are a few problems. Firstly, there is a bad stigma for YA novels. Readers and writers alike like to say “I liked Harry Potter, despite it being YA” or “I like the Hunger Games despite it being YA.” And that opinion holds some ground. There’s a sort of stereotype surrounding YA books, making them seem too childish. For the longest time, I avoided them to pursue “more adult-appropriate” readings, but the truth is… if you enjoy a book, you enjoy it. True, YA has certain limitations because of its audience. Or does it?

All YA novels are pretty simple. Like that one with the boy wizard who has to kill a dark wizard whose soul has been split into 7 pieces and hidden in magical artifacts in the meantime dealing with the implications of being the supposed savior of his world? Or what about that one where that girl is forced to fight other children to the death because of a rebellion that occurred fifty years ago, suffering under totalitarian rule? In other words, YA novels are indeed complicated- teens aren’t stupid. We can grasp complicated plot lines and will be bored with anything too bland.

Which is where the problem enters. We have short attention spans. Therefore, YA novels tend to be paced faster. We’re not mulling over how exciting The Instructions were, are we? Wait, you’re under 20 and have never heard of that book? Probably because it’s slow-paced and sometimes rather dull.

So, how should we judge YA literature? Well, on whether or not we enjoy it. We could analyze the prose and characters, but at the end of the day, we’ll know those things are strong if the book sells well. Some may question, as I do, a teen’s ability to discern good from bad books. For example, I don’t care much for Twilight. Or for any book in which vampires don’t eat people. But its grand success say something for its quality. Or at very least… marketability.

2.) Is YA too dark? 

This argument began with an article written by a parent concerned with what her kids were reading. You can find it here: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038-MyQjAxMTAxMDAwNDEwNDQyWj.html

Then others questioned the logic of the article; my favorite response can be found here: http://barrylyga.com/new/wsj-ya-art.html

As a teenager and reader of YA, I suppose I have a bit of expertise in this argument. Firstly, there is a lot of smut out there. Oh, yes, there is. I’ve browsed through YA and well… self-infliction and incest get tiring for a teen. But that’s fine… a lot of teens really like to read that, and so do I. In fact, books that might have been considered controversial helped shape me as a writer and a person. I’d love for teens to read my book which is full of upfront ugliness.

I think teens can relate to it. There’s only so much belief we can put behind white knight protagonists and happy families. Firstly, YA is not children’s. These books are read by teens mostly, not anyone under 12. Sometimes, sure, they are. But the book depends on the reader. We can read whatever we want, so the existence of books with “smut” in YA is equivalent to books with “smut” in adult fiction.

I think YA books do become more and more controversial, though. Maybe this is to have more teachable moments. But I know why these scenes are really in novels. We LOVE them. We absolutely adore anything that is tragic and dark. I’m not being sarcastic: teens want this gruesomeness. When I was 14, I relished reading horror stories for their goriness, for their gross-out factor. Or books that my parents disliked that those by Thomas Harris and those by Henry Miller. These raised my awareness of strange, dark books. My own book is strange and dark, but it’s not for YA. Sure, teens might enjoy it even more than adults, but I’m not marketing it toward young adults.

Maybe though, I should.

Because this is what teens want: the shock factor. The sense of grown-up suffering. To validate the teenage experience of endless suffering, right?

Basically, I’m saying there’s a fine line between a story and exploitation. Some books are written with the hopes to connect to teen readers, to write about what they might be experiencing. Others want to lasso in teens with promises of unrealistic sex. Of grotesque horror. Of rape for the sake of rape. For shock factor.

What happened when Judy Bloom was shocking enough?

Teens don’t need Henry Miller any more to be shocked. Any book with anything really grotesque will be solely for them. So, yes, some YA is too dark. Sometimes it needs to be; sometimes not. But as a society, we need something better to shock ourselves with. Books about suicide bore us. We tired of stories of teens dealing with their homosexuality or sexuality or identity at all. So we’re upping the ante. I’m not blaming YA authors for exploiting teens, because really, we’re doing this ourselves. We’re too “grown up” to read anything YA, so YA must evolve into something that our parents will be afraid of.

And frankly, that’s what we enjoy. That’s what works. We’re obsessed with books that explore taboo subjects. And sometimes, they are incredibly inventive and well-written. The reader will experience something unique. But sometimes these books simply preach “awareness” of drugs and murder. Of the damaged teenage psyche. The truth is, meth abuse is not something every teen suffers with.

I’m for controversial books, but if a book’s only purpose is to be “controversial” and filled with taboos, why bother? A story is about people, not themes. Not edgy topics.

Book I consider to have dark implications, but still be great: The Hunger Games. I suggest it. Not that it reaches into the echelons of some other books, but it does contain violence among children. Which is just plain cool. When books, however, instead insist on children who rape each other and all do cocaine, that’s not entirely believable. Of course it happens, but…

On that note, however… parents who complain about dark YA… don’t buy it for your teens. Or rather… if a person does not a enjoy a book, it won’t be bought. So, there’s not a need to blame the industry for shoving these books down your throat. Some books, sure, I think are pretty crap. so I just don’t read them. Let them read something a bit lighter. Because at the end of the day, teens always want something dark. The more controversial material you can deliver, the better.

But if you are a concerned parent… it is your duty, not the industry’s to separate the good from the “smut.”

About derekberry

Derek Berry is a novelist, poet, and student located in Charleston, SC.

Posted on June 27, 2011, in books, Random, Word Salad, Writing, YA and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. One of the reasons I tend to not read a lot of YA is that the plot will interest me but I’ll find that the writing quality itself is so poor I can’t get through the first chapter. This is obviously not always true, and a lot of fiction outside of the YA category has the same problem, but I seem to find it more with YA. I assume it’s because a younger audience is less likely to notice “bad” writing as long as the story is captivating. Have you noticed this?

    I agree with your points on why YA is dark and your closing line.

  2. It’s a stigma for YA to say that all of it contains bad writing. A good bit of it is not very well written and not interesting, but as “the younger audience,” I definitely notice the bad writing. What is good and creative, however, is easily identifiable. There is no scholarly kissing-up in YA, because kids don’t care about looking intellectual. They just enjoy books, so a kid will never ask you to read a book because he thinks it will make him look good. A YA book will never be famous simply because people look good reading it. Instead, because they are good.

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