Thursday, March 4, 2010

So, YA Literature Is Going Down the Toilet

I was recently involved in a sort of friendly(ish) debate in the comments of another blog and I decided in the interests of not hogging someone else's blog comment space, I would talk about my feelings over here.

The debate was sort of two-fold. Basically, the other commentor said that readers under 17 were being "literally robbed" because the quality of YA fiction was so poor. And then he lamented that great classics like The Secret Garden would be overlooked today because of the quantity of crap out there. He was free with his examples of good literature -- The Secret Garden, of course, as well as Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Anne of Green Gables. Not so free with his examples of crap: Artemis Fowl, Lord of the Flies, and Catcher in the Rye.

I was left with three feelings:

1) I thought, probably, that this commenter was at least thirty-five years old. And not a big reader of contemporary YA.

2) The commentor's views, while pretty darn wrong in my opinion, are probably not that uncommon among those with ages not ending in the suffix "-teen."

3) I needed to rant about the injustice of said views.

So here they are.

I have to admit that, as a YA author, I have heard on multiple occasions the argument that today's young adult literature is inferior to the classics. Oh, for the days of Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden and even Winnie the Pooh! I have two things to say to that.

1) Stop being nostalgic, it's ruining your camera lens.

2) Yes, those books are great. They are also classics, which means that they are the select few which have survived the test of time. Shockingly, there are countless other novels published at the same time as these classics that you have never heard of. Why? Because they were not timeless beauties. Are we really comparing every YA novel published today against the Audrey Hepburns of the children's book world? It's not a fair argument. Like with like. Every decade we create a classic, but it's sort of hard to tell which books will stand the test of time until, you know, they do.

3) Not every book has to be a classic. I read thousands of books as a teen. Some of them were classics. Some of them weren't. This may be shocking, but I enjoyed them all about the same. I mean, I had my favorites -- (they were not the classics) but I didn't really dislike some books the way I do as an adult reader with all my literary baggage. I jhad books I loved, and books that I just read. Great and fine. That was it. It irritates me when readers talk smack about commercial books that were never meant to be high literature. Some books can be just entertainment, very much rooted in the mores of the era, and the integrity of literature as we know it will not go down like the Titanic.

My other argument I hear as a YA author is that YA is inferior to adult literature. That's it's dumbed down or shoddily written or lacks meaning.  Perhaps not shockingly, I also have a response to this.

1) Are we talking mainstream fiction here versus YA? Or are we talking adult genre versus YA? Or are we talking adult National Book Award winners versus YA? Because the great thing about the YA section is that we have everything shelved in one place: genre, mainstream, award winners, everything under one roof. Sometimes inside one book, actually. So you can find Jellicoe Road next to the Gossip Girls books. Award winners (and future classics, to my mind) right next to the "vapid" YA. Shall we stroll into the adult section of the bookstore? Let's grab The Help, shall we, and compare it to a mass market romance, something involving dukes and doggy style. What, you gasp? That's unfair? They're not the same at all? 

Le gasp.

2) So therefore, all of these things are true: YA is vapid, trendy, excellent, profound, worse than adult fiction, better than adult fiction, short, long, magical, contemporary, etc. Because YA has no rules. We have the great and the mundane right next to each other. And like I said, not everything has to be great. Just like a bookstore full of award-winning adult titles wouldn't satisfy every reader, neither would a store full of thought-provoking and sometimes difficult YAs. I would challenge those who thought that YA was not up to par to find an equivalent YA to their normal adult reading material, instead of just grabbing any YA off the shelf.

3) YA literature shouldn't be dumbed down. Period. Teens are perfectly capable of grasping nuance and subtlety and context -- they are baby yous, after all, aren't they, and what were you reading when you were 12? -- and they deserve better than that. That's all I have to say on that.

 
And finally, I get a lot of reader mail from apologetic older readers who confess that they enjoyed SHIVER despite being "long out of their teens." They clearly feel guilty about this. To this, I say:

1) I never felt guilty, as a teen, reading about adults. I also never felt guilty reading Watership Down, despite not being a rabbit.

2) Adults never seem to have a problem with YA when it's on the big screen.

 







In conclusion, I don't believe that YA literature is slowly going down the toilet. There are other things to worry about, like world hunger and text speak.

52 comments:

Book Addict Girl said...

LOOOOVE this post. I'm 23 and I read more YA books than adult fiction. What's this guy reading that jaded him on modern YA? I bet he secretly reads Twilight and wishes he was Edward Cullen.

ElegantSnobbery said...

EXCELLENT post, Maggie!

And also, I snapped at my friend on the phone yesterday when, as I was moping about my poor writing skills, she said, "Well, you're only writing YA fiction... you don't need to write above a 4th grade level."

Luckily she lives on the other side of the country, or I might have torn her head off. I think I'll forward her this post!

InABox said...

This was a great post, and I completely agree. Sometimes I feel that I should be reading "grown-up" books, but I honestly don't like them as well. They're full of a different kind of emotion than I'm feeling right now, barely out of my teens. I relate to YA. After all, do those teenage insecurities ever really go away?

Also, this made me laugh aloud. "I also never felt guilty reading Watership Down, despite not being a rabbit."

Not Hannah said...

Omalawsy, the Watership Down response is so perfect that I want to tattoo it on my forehead. Except I didn't really like Watership Down. So I'm gonna go with Tailchaser's Song.

Crystal Cook said...

I can relate to this so much, I used to feel so embarrased about browsing the YA section of the bookstore while pushing a stroller and holding a toddler's hand. But no more! I let everyone who asks know that I love YA because honestly I feel most are better done than the adult books I have read. I don't say every adult book, just the ones I read or halfway read and then had to put down in disgust. And I agree with the other two comments about Watership Down, that made me laugh! Although I did love Watership Down, it was one of my favorites.

Kelly@ JustWrite said...

LOVE IT! You tell 'em!!

Jessica Kennedy said...

Couldn't agree more! I <3 YA!

Amy and Sean said...

Bravo! Thank you for articulating the response that most of us (well, I mean myself) have always wanted to give...but it usually ends up with me saying "whatever" and sticking out my tongue, which is sad given my "non-YA" status.

Nicole said...

Great post! I love how eclectic YA literature is today!

Anonymous said...

Two things.
First, way to go totally agree with everything said. As a middle school librarian I love reading YA and passing it on to my students.

I actually find that a lot of YA literature is more creative than most adult literature. Maybe it's because the world is still so new and open to teens...or maybe I just have the mindset of a teen, I do work in a middle school:).

I often find that people who don't work with teens or know any teens have no idea about the inner workings of the teen brain. Although I work with them day in and out and I have no idea either but at least I can make an educated guess. Most days.

Also I am a firm believer in everyone needing that good and vapid read once in a while, even teens. What's wrong with reading a book simply for the pure escapism? It's why I buy romances at the dollar store.

Second and somewhat unrelated but I only recognize two of those movies and that would be the ones from the 80's...I'm officially old.

I hope that made sense. I've been writing all day in between classes :)

Phoebe said...

Maggie, thank you for this. I've been getting myself into a tizzy today over this goodreads review where the author (who wants to write for kids/teens) talks about how terrible most YA is, despite having obviously read little, and how teens aren't capable of understanding what adults do, and it makes me stomach hurt to think about people with these attitudes writing for teens. Ick.

BrittLit said...

Agreed, I find YA novels much more entertaining and sometimes much less vapid than adult fiction. I'm NOT saying that one is better or worse, but I do still enjoy YA more than adult, and I'm not dumber for it.

Andrea Cremer said...

Fantastic post, Maggie. (And Watership Down is my favorite book!)

Tiffany Neal said...

LOVE THIS! So much so that I am screaming! I read YA, I write YA, and I love YA. And it's not going anywhere.

I also totally agree with not dumbing things down for the teens. I mean, seriously, we live in a society where morals have gone down the tubes and my students in 4th grade are hearing and learning things that I didn't know about until I was in high school. I guarantee that YA authors aren't the reason for that. AT all.

So many people treat teens like they're another species. They aren't. Period.

Thanks for another great post as usual!

Christine Danek said...

Fantastic post! I just smiled as you posted one point after another. I agree with you on everything here.

Thank you so much for this! I am a 36 year old who loves to read YA, write YA, soak everything in that is YA and yes I do dabble in other genres but YA takes me to a happy place.

It does not dumb things down it gets kids to read.

Thanks!

Sarah said...

I don't have more to add I just want to say agreed. Oh, and good post.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks, guys!!

Ohmigosh, Phoebe, I just read that review and it gets my panties in a serious twist. There are so many reviews of YA on goodreads that say "well, it was good, I guess, for a YA" -- well, if it hadn't been labeled YA, I don't think they would've made the points they did. But because they are preprogrammed to look down on YA, the entire book is read through that filter. Sad! I'm going to start reviewing adult titles, "pretty good, for an adult book . . . "

Thank you guys for being wonderful readers (and librarians and teachers).

A Simple Love of Reading said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A Simple Love of Reading said...

When I pick up a book off the shelf, I honestly don't care what "section" of the store I found it in, a good book is a good book! Why does everyone have to put labels on everything? As you said "if it hadn't been labeled YA..." Ugh! This drives me crazy...so because I like to shop the "romance" shelves as well that makes me some kind of ninny that can't appreciate a well written book? Any way, not sure if that came across the way I wanted it too, but great post and I agree with your opinions.

:)

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, this was just what I needed to read today! :) (Sadly, I am nearing the end of my teen years. I'm only a few months shy of turning twenty, and I was starting to think, "Oh no, does this mean I shouldn't go out of my way to read mostly YA anymore?" But reading this post had almost entirely obliterated any doubts on my part.)

Personally, I believe YA reaches a larger audience than adult literature (that's just my opinion) due to the fact that YA literature has the ability to reach children, teens, AND adults -- whereas most children and teens are turned off by what is strictly labeled as "adult" (I am one of those since, seven times out of ten, the language and graphic themes I find in adult novels entirely turn me off despite my supposedly "mature" age).

(Also, you need only look to Harry Potter to see that YA and children's literature of the modern age has the capability to attain classic status. I don't think any book in history, besides the Bible, has been read as much as HP -- and I think that trend will only continue as the books become more beloved and cherished as time goes on.)

I'm not ashamed to admit that my entire focus of writing is mostly YA. I feel most comfortable, I suppose, writing in "teen mode" since it is a time of warped and changing feelings, fluctuating growth, and discovery of the internal and external. YA is just more . . . flexible, I suppose. Anything's possible in YA -- whereas, with typical adult literature, you're actually a bit more limited (sad but true).

Those are just some of my thoughts after reading this post. I'm glad I stopped by to read it. :)

Erica said...

Fantastic post Maggie. I completely agree!

Am I right that he/she said "Lord of the Flies," and "Catcher in the Rye" were crap? Wow.

On another note: I love "Adventures in Babysitting." Ferris too.

Thanks for the post - you Rule ;o)

Sara said...

I'm 33 and I almost exclusively read YA and you're right, I almost feel apologetic about it. My friends smirk at me when we discuss books and they realize I gravitate to the YA section. I know it's silly for me to feel this way, but I only do because of other's opinion, which is uncool, I know. I wish attitudes would change as well, but in the meanwhile I will continue to read YA.

Kelly Lyman said...

Well said, Maggie. Well said.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Nice rant!

I've been out of my teens for a looong time but one of the reasons I started reading YA and MG books again is for the variety. There's so much more imagination, a sense of adventure, that anything is possible in books for children. I love that! And I've stopped apologizing for it :)

Phoebe said...

Maggie, sorry the review upset you--though I felt the exact same way! I really, really can't imagine why someone who feels that way would write YA (unless they're imagining that it's a cash cow). Your reply to him was great, though!

Danylle said...

Text speak, you kill me! lol! That's the worst dumming down of youth than anything else I can possible imagine.
I believe there should be all kinds of books for all kinds of people, "in all kinds of moods". Reading is like eating, sometimes you do it because it tastes so good, other times, because you know it's good for you and then sometimes just because there is nothing else to do. So why shouldn't there be books for all moods as well? Some that are classics to stretch your inner Id and some the times when you just need brain candy to escape reality whether you are 13, 17, or 34 and so on.
Besides these classifications of YA vs Adult made up by the publishing community not the reading community.

Sara McClung ♥ said...

Bril.li.ant. post Maggie :-)

Kelly said...

Great rant, exactly how I feel :)
I do agree that YA authors, especially adult-turned YA authors, dub down there books. I'm a reviewer and I'm not afraid to say that many authors are ignorant when they're doing this.
I love your books, Maggie!!

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

amen sistah!

Donna Gambale said...

What a brilliant thing to read on a dull Friday. I'm linking this on FNC tomorrow.

Mrs. Huch said...

So, my dad asked me why I read so many "kid" (YA) books once. Besides the obvious, that I teach reading at a middle school, I pointed out that most "adult" books have a lower readability level then many YA books. He never asked me again...

Maggie Stiefvater said...

You guys have such brilliant insights in the comments -- I always find a different way to look at things. The readibility issue is SUCH a good one. And the food analogy. And also HP as a classic!

iluvhersheys_andbooks said...

What a great post!!! I think it was due time for someone to really stick it to people who seem to feel they need to pass judgement on books they don't even read. And especially coming from an actually author of these books!!! Way to go, awesome post!!!

Karen said...

I am 36 with 4 kids and I prefer YA fiction than to adult fiction. I mostly prefer YA because the material is cleaner since they are geared to a younger audience and therefore I can share a good find with my kids and enjoy the love of reading with them. If a YA book gets youth to enjoy reading, then that says something. I think a child who learns to love reading in their youth will learn more during their academic careers than those who don't.

Ann Elise said...

This was an excellent post. I read the comments that prompted you to write this and I honestly think the guy was just arguing for the sake of arguing in the end. I'm going to link this on my twitter and facebook page.

I always feel this growing resentment when someone looks down on YA fiction. I'm still in the target age group myself, and I can hardly ever bring myself to read adult fiction...especially AUSTRALIAN adult fiction. Urgh! I'm Australian, and I'm ashamed of some of our 'best' authors.

I think the only modern-ish adult fiction I have read of my own accord was 'Wicked' (the book the musical was based on). It was torture. I can't believe I forced myself to read it. I'll never do that again.

Anyway, back on topic, I'm currently writing a YA novel and will gladly flip anyone the bird if they look down on me because of it.

(Maggie, I read "Shiver" and it's officially my favourite book. You beat out Harry Potter to get there :) )

frootjoos said...

Awesome post. Great way to sum up how I (a 31-year-old reader) feel about YA and YA snobbery. People just don't know what they're missing.

I have to say I am embarrassed not to know what the 2nd movie still is from. (Don't watch tv and see about 6 films in theater per year, because I just can't bring myself to spend the $20 or whatever it costs to go now)

Help?

Hardygirl said...

Such a fantastic post! I think that many adults are missing out by not reading YA (our book store actually double shelves some really great YA titles in their adult section--yay, for our great indie bookstore). Some of the best stuff being written today is being written for teens.

sf

ibeeeg said...

Great post. I am glad you wrote it, and I plan on sharing it with others.
Simply a great post.

Guinevere said...

great post. There is a lot of YA stuff out there that makes me roll my eyes, but there's also a lot of brilliant YA books, with writing second-to-none. IMPOSSIBLE and ALL UNQUIET THINGS, for instance, are both beautifully written and creative. There's a lot of variance in the market, but that's no reason to get down on the whole genre.

Michelle said...

Such a fantastic post and I agree with ALL of it!

O. said...

Thank you, Maggie! Couldn't have said it better.

NotNessie said...

Fantastic post! I think I'll print out a dozen copies and hand them out to various "friends."

briansplicing_chick said...

I dont know about you guys but Anne if Green Gables and Winnie the Pooh don't exactly seem to fit the YA world at the moment. You've gotta change with the times. Teens want more gossip, violence, supernatural creatures or whatever you give it to them. Jesus, some people can be so annoying. I personally prefer YA novels. They're awesome.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Again more great insights, guys. And thank you. :)

Ann, I'm really glad that you loved SHIVER -- *blush*

and froot, that second movie is Charlie Bartlett, one of my favoritist movies ever.

Kit said...

Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm a seventeen-year-old writer who just wants to read YA. It's not trash. In fact, much of it is quite good. My father--who I love dearly--bought me a box of "serious, real books" for Christmas, as opposed to "all that fantasy crap" I read. I might be able to see his concern if I was reading dime bodice rippers, or, perhaps their YA equivalent (it does make we wince a bit to see perfectly nice people reading Gossip Girl or books of that ilk, I must confess), but within the genre of YA (which is less like an umbrella and more like a large and tastefully decorated bus shelter), there are all kinds of books! And none of them should be ridiculed because, as you say, they are classics in the making.

I realize, though, that you have it fairly rough. I've been to some writer's workshops and fantasy is not taken seriously at all unless you are Phillip K. Dick in the flesh. YA fantasy is even more looked-down-upon.

But have faith--there are many of us out here who not only believe that Shiver and Lament are classics in the making, but also believe that YA is a genre like any other and deserves proper respect.

PH03B3 said...

This is SO true, and any way nobody would read adult books (if theyr'e not adults, obviously) so then nobody would get money and everyone would complain...well you know that could happen :) anway good point and i LOVE shiver it is my all-time favourite book.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks, Kit. :) And yes to the bus shelter -- I was amused.

And hahah, yes, @PH03B3, right now YA is the only growing segment of the book biz, so they can just zip it. :)

Miriam said...

Well done great post. I don't really have anything else to add - you said it all. YA can be of any genre and some are good and some bad, but you should never feel guilty about reading YA because who cares!? A great book is a great book. End of story- you can forget who it's aimed at after that.

Diana Dang said...

I agree. I actually think that YA Literature is booming to the fact that people are more exposed to it, seeing that there is a large amount of blogs that exist now compared to a year or two ago.

Ladybug said...

Maggie, this was an excellent post! I think YA literature is for everyone really. YA lit are books with main characters at an age most of us looks back to and remember well. I'm 26 and I have no problem admitting that I love YA!

I own a copy of Shiver but I haven't yet have a chance to read it. Looking forward to it though =)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I hope you enjoy it, ladybug!

Silvia said...

I read Shiver at 35 and I swear it's in my TOP 10 books EVER! It's an amazing story, your style is terrific and I still suggest people to read it, because it's good.
Genres and Classics are only labels, a YA book as far as I know is first of all a story, and if it's a good story why don't read it even if the ID says "you're young anymore!" ?
I think a lot of critics are only full of themselves and anchored to old criteria.
By the way I love Catcher in the rye and I consider Anne of Green Gables a nice story, but not a masterpiece... Am I a bad reader?

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