With today’s release of the John Green film adaptation The Fault in Our Stars, Slate, a publication that has been ignoring the swell of good, interesting, arguably literary young adult fiction for years has decided to run a piece, “Against YA,” that makes the claim, “Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” It is possibly the most Slate-y piece that ever Slate-d, maintaining a contrarian and snooty tone throughout, telling you the many ways that you are doing it wrong.
I follow Ruth Graham, the article’s author, on Twitter, and she’s great — an intelligent, thoughtful writer whose roving mind can range from historical essays about self-made lesbian poets to work about bestselling evangelical books. She is not a writer who is just kicking a hornet’s nest in a Slate-friendly fashion. She has a point, and it is this: the manner in which YA has taken off as a genre means that a demographic of women aged 30 to 44 accounts for 28 percent of YA sales. That’s a significant number.
However, the article deals in Slate-friendly broad brush generalizations: presumably these women are reading more than just YA. And so what if they only read YA. There are really good YA books out there. Some may even stimulate the mind beyond providing “… endings[that] 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.” Come on. Pick up a copy of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, for one.
I get her point, though. It does feel, sometimes, like the passionate love of young adult stuff, from John Green’s books to spending any ironical time with 50 Shades of Grey to gals talking about The Vampire Diaries or even the childish machinations of The Bachelor franchise, is contributing to an overall dumbing-down in culture. It is legitimately a struggle (#mystruggle) to get a significant number of people to read about the latest in literary fiction, much less discuss it in any serious way. Something like last year’s kerfuffle over Claire Messud’s excellent The Woman Upstairs led to far more discussion over “likable characters” than any sort of legitimate engagement with the book itself, which was provocative and interesting and had sentences that would make you cry.
But frankly, this article paints Young Adult fiction with too wide and too condescending a brush, as if Amy from Gone Girl was writing the ultimate “cool girl” thinkpiece. Despite the fact that YA books have an engaged audience and the potential of sales, the prejudice persists that because it is a “genre” aimed at “teens,” teen girls even, it is automatically lesser-than and not worth any critical engagement. (And yet — critically acclaimed writers, from Meg Wolitzer to Joyce Carol Oates, are constantly dipping their toes in the YA pool, as it sells.) Seriously: some of my best friends write YA and people (mostly men) have straight-up asked them, “When are they going to write a real book?” I have gotten the chance to cover YA in a variety of locations because I read it and I know about it, but also because there’s a general air of disinterest around it from other writers and editors (again, frequently men) who fail to realize that there is something to be said for stories that encourage ardent love. Trust me: publications would not write anything about John Green, even in 2012. Male editors didn’t know who he was or why he mattered. Flash forward to 2014 and The Fault in Our Stars movie. I have written many articles about John Green this week. He is profiled in The New Yorker.
A final point: YA is, mostly, a marketing term these days. It is used for books that will be marketed towards teens, who read. It is a fluid generalization. Look at this 2008 essay by Margo Rabb, whose first novel, Cures For Heartbreak, sold — to her surprise — to Random House’s Young Adult division. This chunk feels quite relevant:
“A lot of people have no idea that right now Y.A. is the Garden of Eden of literature,” said Sherman Alexie, whose first Y.A. novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” won the National Book Award for young people’s literature last year. Even the prestige of that award didn’t make him impervious to the stigma. “Some acquaintances felt I was dumbing down,” Alexie said in a phone interview. “One person asked me, ‘Wouldn’t you have rather won the National Book Award for an adult, serious work?’ I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing Y.A.”
Look at the way that Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep fell into the category of “adult” (yet many houses rejected it for being “YA”) while National Book Award winner and stunning, heartbreaking writer Jesmyn Ward’s first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, was published as a young adult book. Paula Fox, a wonderful writer, wrote young adult books like The Slave Dancer that are just as difficult and literary as her Jonathan Franzen-approved Brooklyn classic Desperate Characters. (Oh, what else? Are most of these authors women? You’re correct.) Half the books you loved as a teen, that were sold as adult books, would be young adult today. I co-wrote a book, The Misshapes, out in October, that I have been telling people is young adult — it’s about teen superheroes with terrible powers and the forever-teenage topic of rejection — but when it’s stocked in stores, it will be sold as a middle grade book, because it’s squeaky clean.
There are a lot of books in the world. You are allowed to read what you want, despite Slate’s claim that you should be ashamed of reading Young Adult books. It is a familiar conversation, of course. People are touchy about genre. To wit:
Dear Y.A., Don't let the bastards get you down! Your friend, Chick Lit.—
Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) June 05, 2014
You should be ashamed of reading shitty books that don’t do anything to stimulate your curiosity and reveal some hint of human experience and connection, whatever its “quality.” There’s good and bad in every genre, from the most insufferable piece of self-indulgent, experimental, literary adult stuff to the most transparent picked-up-by-a-publisher New Adult fan fiction disguised as a book. Just make sure you find the good stuff, whether it’s Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. The books worth reading are out there, and they’re numerous, trust me — genre be dammed.