Tuesday, 30 September 2014

YA-Bashing is the New Black, or something, whatevs

Look, I should be working on another article for the blog tour, but I can’t help it: the number of articles and the increasing fervour of the debate surrounding YA literature in the media lately has kind of infected me.  And I don’t like being angry, it generally makes me cry (embarrassing but true) or get all tongue-tied, and it’s emotionally exhausting.  But I have to say my twenty-cents worth, even though, as friends have advised, you can't reason with crazy.  Because the articles that have popped up all over the place have made me angry, and here’s where I rant, so I will have at thee, Helen Razer and all you people who have flamed my world.

For those of you who don’t know about it, here’s a little intro.  Articles about how YA lit is crap have been getting a lot of media time lately.  Here’s AO Scott in the New York Times, decrying The Death of Adulthoodin American Culture.  And here’s Robert Lipsyte in the same rag, talking about how YA is too Girl-focused.  And here’s Chris Beha in the New Yorker talking about Henry James and the Great YA Debate. Michelle Dean wrote about Our YADystopias here.  Laura C Mallonee wrote a piece here on how it’s Time for Teen Fantasy Heroines to Grow Up.  There's lots more.  And if you really want to make your eyes bleed, here’s our very own Helen Razer saying that People who read YAliterature Should Just Grow Up too.  If you want to go read them and get really pissed off about what’s being said, be my guest.  It’s probably good that you read them, so you’re informed about what’s going on.  My suggestion: keep a cup of chamomile tea handy, or something else that will help you maintain calm.

Because a lot of what’s being written about YA lit is uncritically opinionated, poorly researched, badly thought-out, academically non-rigorous bandwagon-jumping, based on a whole bunch of ingrained assumptions about teenagers and writing and reading and literature and women (I’ll get to that later), written by people who don’t read YA, and would never sully themselves by doing so.  Most of the articles are op-ed pieces – they’re clickbait, as Danielle Binks has pointed out, designed to provoke a reaction.  There’s no academic rigour; although the publication of them in places like The New York Times gives them a veneer of intellectuality, there’s no real examination of the underlying issues (and there’s plenty of issues: see Maureen Johnson’s Cover Flip).  It’s maddening, and engaging with it is frustrating, like trying to hit a buzzing mosquito in a dark room (and probably equally doomed to failure).  But there you have it – this piece isn’t academically rigorous either, because I’m too cross (perhaps it’s easier to engage on the same wonky playing field anyway?) and because I think others have done it way better before me (see below).

But I have to say the lack of standards bugs me.  How can you critically pick apart a whole category of literature, of which you have partaken of only the most recently-noteworthy examples (and it’s the same ones, alwaysTwilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Fault In Our Stars)?  I don’t know.  If you position yourself as a critic (Helen Razer, I’m looking at you), then surely you need to have some idea of what you’re discussing?  But no – the people who’ve written these articles seem to think that this handful of books is representative of the whole category, and reading them is the sum total of their academic research on the issue.  The idea astonishes me.  It’s as if I said I played Frogger once (in 1985), and I now have the right to offer scathing commentary on the whole of the gaming industry.

I would like to point out, at this juncture, that there have been a number of excellent rebuttal pieces written as well.  And here they are: Anne Ursu wrote a rebuttal of Scott at Terrible Trivium.  Sarah McCarry’s piece on pleasure principles is a must. Kelly Jensen talks here about how Advocating and Writing for Girls is a radical act.   And Foz Meadow’s writes the most entertaining stuff – her pieces in response to Dean and Mallonee are excellent.  Most of these writers have actually done some examination of the issues, and – most tellingly – they have read the literature of the category that they are seeking to defend.  They are all better quality pieces than this will be, and I heartily recommend that you go read them, if only to make yourself feel better.

But I would like to posit a theory of my own as to why YA literature is receiving such a pasting in the media lately.  I know – the issues involved are many.  But I would like to unpack two of them, and I think they are the most relevant two.

First of all, I contend (and see how I did that? I contend something, and I don’t even have to cite anything to back it up! I can say whatever the hell I want!  Two can play the game, folks) I contend that people who criticise YA literature are afraid of teenagers.  This, our society tells us, is a perfectly acceptable position to hold – teenagers are scary, everybody says so.  The ages between 13 and 19, depending on the laws in your state or country, are an amorphous grey area where individuals are neither child nor adult (see Scott Westerfeld’s useful unpacking of the concept of childhood/teenaged years).  Teenagers do crazy shit.  They slouch and spit and wail and groan and bellow.  They smoke and drink and drive fast and have sex and stick two fingers up at religion and politics and custom.  They are not polite.  But above all, they are unformed.

Most adults look back – not too long or hard – at adolescence as a period of their lives that was both embarrassing and frightening, when their bodies and minds were in a state of flux, when things were out of their control (quite literally, when your parents are still dictating to you what goes).  They remember – not fondly – a period of crazy experiences, painful growth and change, humiliation, lack of direction, social embarrassment.  So they find teenagers scary, because hey, it was a scary time in their own lives.  Yes, folks, they’re projecting.

Teenagers dress differently, think differently, act differently to adults.  ‘Yeah, well, obvs.  Whatever.  It’s all g’: teenagers even speak a different language.  At a really basic level, adult fear of teenagers is a xenophobic fear of a completely alien culture (and maybe a fear of what that culture will propagate after the current generation’s demise).  I find it particularly telling, the way adults are so panicked about the level of social media exposure teens willingly (nay, eagerly) participate in.  Because most adults remember adolescence as such a shit experience that they don’t want to remember it, let alone have it pasted up on the internet (and as Lauren Beukes pointed out, that shit is forever.  Your ghastly drunken embarrassment on prom night? Now anyone can see it anytime they want, and it will never go away).

Most adults display a general lack of awareness of how teenagers think, create, dream and feel.  That’s okay – they just don’t get it, or have wilfully or unconsciously repressed the ENORMOUS spectrum of mental and emotional and spiritual experiences that they went through themselves at that age.  But I find it a bit sad.

When I tell people I am a high school teacher, they look at me aghast.  ‘How can you stand up in front of a room full of teenagers?  Doesn’t it freak you out?’  Well – no.  I like teenagers.  They have a refreshing honesty, energy and transparency that I admire.  Their exuberance, their beauty, their rebellion, even their mood swings – I find teenagers incredible, and although I too don’t have great memories of my own adolescence, I admire their bravery and ingenuity and dogged optimism in the face of it.

Adult critics who denigrate YA literature (and other types of children’s literature) seem to want us all to be ‘grown up’, to move away from childish literature into ‘adult’ fiction (or even better, non-fiction).  They remind me strongly of those who also criticise genres like romance and fantasy, because they are wish-dreams, there’s no cold hard facts, no ‘real life’.

I could rant on about how this is stupid, but I think CS Lewis – quoted in Ursu’s article – says it best:
“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. … But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”  (On Three Ways of Writing for Children)

And I would also like to quote an entirely relevant excerpt from Ursu here:
“Isn’t this really the marker of adulthood? Learning to look beyond yourself to others? Isn’t a marker of intelligence a hunger to see the world outside your own experience? Isn’t that maybe why so many people outside of traditional power structures are draw to this lit in the first place? Everyone who insults reading these books is not just denigrating the quality of the books themselves, but of the very act of using your time to give a crap about kids and the things they give a crap about.”

Before this article gets too long, I would like to just point the finger once – and that should be enough – at the underlying sexism and assumptions about women and women’s writing in YA literature critique.  Female writers dominate YA, despite what the NYT Bestseller list might lead you to believe.  One of the reasons why YA literature is such an easy target is because it’s seen as a women’s field.  This is the second major issue I have with pieces like Razer’s.  Suggesting that YA literature’s success is a collective ‘dumbing down’ of culture – in other words, crying over the decline of the cultural authority of canonical (read straight white male) texts - is staggering perilously close to saying that women’s writing is shit.  I have talked about women and YA writing before.  And as I mentioned earlier, other people have unpacked this issue, and in articles way more erudite than this. 

Foz Meadow’s article says it best -

“…women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!...
 …Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.”

If you want more on that, I suggest you go read the article.

And that’s all I’m gonna say.

xx Ellie


  1. Excellent piece Ellie. That sound you can hear, is me shouting 'Amen sister' repeatedly from the back row.

  2. Replies
    1. Your response to Razer got an amen from me too: http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/2014/10/ya-bashing-sexism-meets-elitism/

  3. This is a brilliant response to the ill-considered articles that have been published recently. Thank you for saying everything that I was thinking so much better than I could have.

  4. I was saying the exact same thing on Twitter yesterday when the article popped up on my feed. It's the in thing now, let's bash young adult because clearly it's one of the most popular genres at the moment and we can't have these book loving adults with a disposable income spending their money on that.

    It's ridiculous. I'm in my thirties and didn't read a teen. I'm educated and choose to read young adult and spend my money supporting young adult authors. If I wanted to read children's picture books or only Ikea manuals, that's my own prerogative too. It's bullshit isn't it. Just more genre bashing to drive readers to failing or dead sites.

    Bugger that, they can go and get stuffed. I'll continue to spend my money on Ellie, amongst other YA authors and they can kiss my ass.

    1. Thank you :) And thanks for the support online

  5. Oh Lord, I'm close to climbing through this screen to kiss you on both cheeks and fall to my knees weeping. Thank you. x

  6. My theory is most definitely sexism, but also sour grapes. With the prominence of the young adult genre in the past few years (just in terms of the franchises that have been emerging) people are sour. But I am so with you about feeling the frustration in a few books being taken as representation of a whole genre.

    1. I understand her 'issue' - that YA lit is somehow infantilising the culture - but I strongly disagree with it. It smacks very strongly of lit/culture snobbery. And as Chuck Wendig points out, please don't act like YA lit is the Great Devourer, "as if the presence of young adult fiction somehow eats away adult fiction instead of contributing to the overall health of a great book market.". Over all, I just wish critics would read the books before they open their mouths on the subject.

      And thank you for the support :)

  7. Well said, Ellie. I agree, I think you are really onto something with this argument! People are scared to go too close to their own blurrily remembered pain, so they heap scorn upon it; and they are scared of teenagers! Brilliant.

  8. This is ace, Ellie. And you've totally hit the nail on the head of why I continue to read, and why I want to work in, YA lit. Because the teenage experience is remarkable: scary, painful, high highs and low lows. There's powerlessness but also responsibility. And I think people who write great YA capture this, and how special for a teenager to be able to read this. A YA writer takes their adult experiences/gained knowledge and is able to create a book FOR teenagers, ABOUT teenagers, and they do it with respect. Talk about a complex read!

    1. I totally agree. How many times have I been blown away by a 'Code Name Verity' or a 'The Incredible Here and Now', when picking up an adult book leaves me feeling a bit meh, or at best, a bit bored? So much amazing writing is going on in YA lit, and has been for such a long time... Great point, Kate, thank you!