This morning, my Twitter feed was all aflutter over a quote by British feminist writer Caitlin Moran. In an interview with the publication The Bookseller (the full text is available for subscribers only), Moran says, regarding the approach she took in writing her upcoming bildungsroman How to Build a Girl: “I think it’s really important which sexy books you read — particularly when you’re a girl… These form your sexual imagination and I wanted to get in there before anyone else and talk about sex.”
Which is a valid point! The books and culture that you consume as a kid do have a powerful affect on your burgeoning, developing sexuality. It makes sense that the retrograde politics of Twilight are disturbing to the average developed adult who thinks that’s the only thing that kids are reading these days.
But, that said, when Moran talks about YA as a genre, she dismisses it completely, in a Johnny-come-lately fashion. To her, YA consists of “boy adventures.” “You don’t see teenage girls anywhere unless they’re being bitten by vampires so I wanted to write about a funny, weird teenage girl having adventures, particularly sex adventures,” she says.
Now, these quotes are out of context. Twitter is already fighting back, whether it’s through the hashtag #caitlinmoranshouldread or general comments addressed her way. But Moran, who made her name as a journalist and broadcaster before turning to fiction, is wildly off-track regarding YA. (And is her book YA, per se? Or is it just a coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl? Genres are so fluid lately.) I made a list just yesterday of 15 Teen Feminist Books everyone should read, and it may have been the easiest list in history to write. Also, to be honest, it barely scratches the surface of the loads of challenging, interesting, and fantastic YA out there. Just last week I read Ariel Schrag’s could-be-considered-YA novel Adam, a book with lots of sex and a queer sensibility, about a 17-year-old boy’s summer in New York City.
The thing about Moran’s attitude towards YA is that it’s emblematic of the mainstream media’s misunderstanding of the genre. Since the end of Harry Potter, the rise of Twilight, and the dominance of The Hunger Games, young adult fiction has become a beast. It sells. It’s created multimedia franchises. It’s often dismissed as girl stuff — which is to say, culturally unimportant. So when the average reporter writes about it, he or she is often fairly unfamiliar with the riches that lie beyond the small number of books that have dominated the conversation.
This is where The Fault in Our Stars author John Green comes in. Green is a great writer and clearly a mensch, but as publications are realizing that The Fault in our Stars movie will very possibly become a sleeper hit, they’re running more profiles of him, discussing his particularly unique hold on the young adult audience, which is a result of being on the Internet at the right time — he used YouTube as a way to reach out in 2006 — plus being non-threateningly cute on top of his talent, and the fact that he’s one of the only men in the room as well.
But the thing about publications getting hip to Green (which is new; although he’s long been a phenomenon, the editors at most publications have not understood it — my “rejected pitches” folder can vouch for that) is that there’s a certain tone to writers’ writing about him, and it’s this: here is the man who will bring young adult literature back from those icky, girly vampires towards the realistic fiction we all need for our kids. To wit:
Some credit him with ushering in a new golden era for contemporary, realistic, literary teen fiction, following more than a decade of dominance by books about young wizards, sparkly vampires and dystopia. A blurb or Twitter endorsement from Mr. Green can ricochet around the Internet and boost sales, an effect book bloggers call “the John Green bump.” He’s thrown his weight behind several young-adult authors who write realistic novels and are now regarded as rising stars, including Rainbow Rowell, E. Lockhart, and A.S. King.
And in a recent review of John Corey Waley’s young adult novel Noggin, A.J. Jacobs writes, “But Noggin actually owes more to the John Green genre, which I like to call Greenlit. Green is the master of first-person, funny-sad young adult novels.”
The problem here is one of subtlety. It shows an ignorance of the genre of young adult fiction and the many (wonderful) writers — often women writing about young women — who are Green’s peers. It’s a frustration that female young adult authors are vocal about on Twitter, as they should be:
John is a peer, and a friend to many of us, including me. This isn’t about picking on him, but the way the whole category is covered.
— Sara Zarr (@sarazarr) May 15, 2014
And it’s a problem that, in its way, snuffs out a plurality of voices by acting like John Green is the only YA writer that you should read. You know, beyond that vampire stuff. In a blog post, author Anne Ursu writes: “There’s so much innovation in YA (and, hi, middle grade!) and its audience is wonderfully open to new stories told in new ways. By holding up Green as an exemplar, by shoving his peers into his shadow, these critics are telling writers who might be innovating: if you want to be important, write like him.”
That’s where the frustration comes in. For each bit of mainstream coverage that didn’t do enough research about the books out there in YA, or for each writer taking a turn towards YA to make some money (get yours, it’s cool) without, again, acting like they know anything about the genre or the other authors out there, it’s insulting to the work of people in the genre, one’s ostensible peers. It’s a culture that creates three celebrity authors who write books aimed at teens and a lot of mid-list authors who have their chance and disappear because they can’t afford to continue writing. Let’s call it what it is: The Hunger Games.
Funny enough, Caitlin Moran’s book came in the office last week, and it will be out in America in September. I read the first couple of chapters yesterday. It reminds me, at least in plot, of Emma Forrest’s Namedropper, which is one of those books I picked up as a teen and carried around like an amulet. It was an important book for me; I can still quote from it. For the right girl, Moran’s book could be that book, and I’m glad it’s out there. But it’d be nice if she had more curiosity regarding the other books for girls in the world. I’ve seen some of them, and they contain multitudes.