Arguable Merits: Young Adult Fiction and Its Rabid Discontents

The YA crowd is full of articulate, well-read, hungry hyenas. They'll rip my lungs out for this. They'll crucify me. They'll leave my corpse in a ditch.

Above: Katniss of The Hunger Games (2012) takes aim at Sean Bell. Image by QueridaPantufa from Fanpop.com

“So wise so young, they say, do never live long.”

Richard III, William Shakespeare

You have to believe me: I really didn’t want to do this.

It happened quite by accident. My last column, “Pronounced Dead: The Art of Cultural Assassination” dealt with questions provoked by certain artistic arguments which stagger on with no end in sight and no hope of conclusion, often to the detriment of the art they profess to celebrate. After filing the piece, I emailed my editor and idly commented that Young Adult fiction, given its recent overblown controversies, was shaping up to be the next never-ending slapping-match of the think pieces.

My editor, Machiavellian genius that she is, promptly emailed me back: she loved the idea, and couldn’t wait to see what I would do with it. I realised I had made a grievous error.

My first thought was to respond immediately, to point out that she had misunderstood my observation, and that the last thing the world needed was yet another impassioned, unremarkable screed on the subject that will, in all likelihood, change not a single mind, nor move the debate forward in any constructive way. YA fiction has been analysed, categorized, recategorized, attacked, defended, deconstructed, reframed and generally over-discussed long past the point of hysterical exhaustion. I had absolutely no interest in adding to this particular bookchat gang-bang.

My second, more ignoble thought was: wild horses could not get me within 100ft of that godforsaken debate. Are you fucking kidding me? Those people are animals. Articulate, well-read animals, but still, in all important respects, hungry hyenas. They’ll rip my lungs out. They’ll crucify me. They’ll leave my corpse in a ditch, and I won’t be the last…

On the other hand, that never stopped me before.

If YA fiction was forced to rely purely upon the critical and financial support of its target readership instead of its middle-aged, well-off cheerleaders, it might not be quite the publishing leviathan it is today.

At one time or another, I have pissed off the following: Heavy Metal fans, British nationalists, Armenian Genocide denialists, people who believe the West Memphis Three are guilty, people who believe Amanda Palmer is a Scientologist, and people who hate semicolons. It’s good sport mostly, but none of these groups give me the Fear quite like the advocates of YA fiction, not just because of how dedicated and vociferous they are, but because many of them are deeply incisive and intelligent. If you think being attacked by idiots is bad, just wait until you experience the alternative.

I also worried that I simply didn’t care as much as those who threw themselves willingly into this particular inferno. Sure, I have a few opinions — medication generally keeps them under control — but nothing like the zealotry that has thus far forced most literary commentators to start erecting barricades and honing insults. The frequently black-and-white world of YA fiction extends to the discussion around it. What could I do, other than play the dilettante while painting a target on my forehead?

And yet… It’s books. Without question, I care about books. I hope I do anyway, otherwise all I’ve done is spend a lifetime building the world’s most flammable fort. And, in caring about books, I inadvertently find myself caring about the people who write and read them. In the end, that was enough.

You win, dear editor. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…

“I don’t think I’m an elitist, because I don’t fit in anyone’s idea of an elite, but Jesus, if reading at your grade level is elitist now…”

— Sady Doyle, Twitter, 4 July 2014

If you missed the most recent bout of YA controversy, no one could blame you. The world is hardly short of bigger, bloodier and more tragic conflicts right now. Even so, since the circumstances have now been dredged over by the blogosphere so many times it would bore a Zapruder film fanatic, I will attempt to be brief.

The facts were these: Ruth Graham wrote an article for Slate, and the world fell on her head. I sincerely doubt Slate had a problem with this.

The essay, helpfully titled “Against YA“, did not even approach originality in its arguments (though, to be fair, it never claimed to do so). Indeed, they crop up periodically, when they can be assured a maximum level of clickbait exposure. Still, it’s important to be specific, since so few of Graham’s detractors could be bothered. What she argued was that adults (who could not, by the logic of the publishing industry, be considered ‘young’) should feel embarrassed to read YA fiction. In her own words: “Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.”

The result was depressingly predictable: Slate got the page views which are its lifeblood, while Graham got it in the neck. This probably won’t hurt her career in the long run — controversy sells, sooner or later — but nevertheless, it was Graham who became the focalized hate-figure for a vast swarm of the commentariat that has yet to forgive her. For Slate, publishing the article was deeply cynical. For Graham, despite the much-discussed flaws in her argument, writing it was very, very brave. Going up against the popularity of YA fiction undeniably takes guts. Brains help, too.

The emotive and widespread responses from YA advocates could have come from any alcoholic swimming upriver through denial, to whom it had been politely suggested that six tequila slammers may be enough for one lunchtime. “What? I don’t have a problem. YOU have a problem. Why don’t you mind your own business? I enjoy it. Leave me alone. I hate you. You’re history’s greatest monster. Etc.”

It was, in short, a truly legendary display of pissyness. In questioning the reading choices of YA fans, Graham had apparently insulted them, the genre they adored, their favourite authors and perhaps even their pet dog, too. Armchair libertarians fumed over their keyboards that they would not allow the all-powerful Graham to dictate what they were “allowed” to read, despite the fact that Graham has absolutely no power whatsoever to enforce her opinions or stop you from reading whatever the hell you want.

In reality, Graham wasn’t forbidding anyone from doing anything. She was offering a judgement. To anyone unfamiliar with literary criticism: welcome to the party, pal.

Of course, there are few more dangerous trends in journalism than the urge to write confidently on the subject of something which you know little about. Next thing you know, you’ll be calling yourself an ‘explainer’ and working for Vox. Some critics reasonably argued that referring to only two novels, Divergent and The Fault Is in Our Stars, was poor grounds for such sweeping generalisations, and they were quite correct. How many should Graham read, then? How many novels did YA’s earnest supporters read before becoming committed to the notion? Why do people say “I love YA” as opposed to “I love many YA books (but not the shitty ones)”?

You can advocate for as many books as you can read and genuinely enjoy. You cannot advocate an entire genre/category/publisher-imposed demographic whatever, except to point out the potential within it. This inevitably becomes pointless, since the areas of human expression that do not possess limitless artistic potential are few and far between (warfare and tax returns are the only ones that leap to mind).

Many argued that Graham was perpetuating a hierarchy of reading. As I suspect everyone secretly knows, there is a hierarchy of reading, whether it’s perpetuated or not: good books are better than bad books. Differentiating the two, and all that lurks in between the two extremes, is where the arguments start. But for the love of Nabokov, let us never seek to end such arguments.

“When critics decide its time to pull up the gates and seal us all inside our castle of grown-up things, they cease to be people who deserve being listened to,” wrote John Warner in response to Graham’s essay. True enough. But when critics pull up the gates against a siege of crap, they are fulfilling their duty as critics. Everyone is a snob about something; as individuals, we must either justify our snobbery or find a better one (incidentally, this is why Gore Vidal should be taught in schools — AP Withering Sarcasm? — but that’s a different column).

Alyssa Rosenberg, writing in the Washington Post, though also disagreeing with Graham, at least attempted to see what truths her imperfect argument might be reaching towards: “Graham might have had a more defensible case, and made a more effective plea against what the film critic A.O. Scott called the “cultural devaluation of maturity,” if her piece made a comprehensive case against readers who seek out a certain kind of easy enjoyment and moral satisfaction no matter where they find it.”

With so many rebukes and replies stacked against Graham, the firestorm inadvertently dealt a blow to one of YA’s most enduring myths: If there truly is a stuffy, disdainful critical establishment which turns up its nose at YA fiction, as its defenders are prone to claim, where exactly is it? Because, last I checked, Graham’s article had prompted angry rebuttals in the Washington Post, the New Republic, CNN and Slate itself, not to mention Josh Idnar’s eloquent column here at PopMatters, to name but a few. Her sympathizers were few and far between. None of this suggests that YA fiction and those who love it are being unjustly marginalised.

In any case, blanket statements of love or hate are useless when applied to YA or any other dubiously defined area of literature; they will invariably prove flawed and inaccurate, because the virtue of books comes not from what they have in common, but the elements that make them different. At best, what critics of YA fiction have identified are recurrent problems within some of its bestselling, best-known examples. YA’s defenders either believe these problems don’t exist, or that they can be safely and easily ignored. As a strategy, this is both imperfect and disturbing.

“Think Happy Meals.”

— James Frey, as quoted in ‘Inside Full Fathom Five: James Frey’s Young-Adult-Novel Assembly Line’, New York magazine, by Suzanne Mozes, 12 November 2010

Once I sat in a classroom, watching a presentation by a well-known and highly regarded writer of science fiction (who I won’t name, since he could probably do without the grief). Another student innocently asked him what he thought about Young Adult fiction. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then went to the whiteboard and wrote the letters ‘YA’. He then drew a line through them with the kind of viciousness one might normally associate with cutting throats. I laughed. Not everyone in class did the same.

This did not, he was quick to elaborate, reflect his feelings about the arguable merits of YA novels; any sufficiently well-read person can name-check the uncommonly good or the laughably terrible (I’ve always been very fond of Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World, if you’re curious). Rather, he took issue with the very idea of defining readership by age. Despite YA fiction’s near-omnipresence in the 21st century thus far, it’s amazing how quickly this aspect of the debate has been forgotten.

Not so long ago, a great swathe of authors, publishers, librarians and readers in general were united in outrage over the very idea of age recommendations in literature, which they saw as putting up false divisions between what different age groups can read. (I cannot recommend enough that everyone read Philip Pullman’s characteristically unforgiving opinions on the subject). That outrage seems to have run out in the face of YA fiction’s burgeoning popularity. While many industry-created demographics fail in the face of unpredictable reality and uncategorizable consumers, YA fiction’s loose definitions have allowed it to prosper. When was the last time you even heard the phrase ‘teen fiction’?

Paradoxically, age-banding endures and triumphs in YA fiction precisely because the unspoken rules of age-banding are ignored. These books may be intended for an audience of young adults — that is why, we are told, The Hunger Games is YA fiction, but Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy or Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, all of which deal with teenagers and teenage themes, are not — but, as everyone privately acknowledges, there’s no stopping readers outside that demographic from buying, reading and enjoying whatever books they please. In fact, if YA fiction was forced to rely purely upon the critical and financial support of its target readership instead of its middle-aged, well-off cheerleaders, it might not be quite the publishing leviathan it is today.

Still, in the face of these realities, it would be easy to assume that the objectionable aspects of age-banding have been effectively defanged. Unfortunately, this is not the case: the vast majority of YA fiction, no matter how many not-young adults read it, is written, published and marketed according to rules designed to safeguard youth, with all the censorious consequences that implies.

According to the American Library Association, book censors of various stripes now focus on Young Adult fiction to a disproportionate degree. “There is a lot of pressure to keep teenagers safe and protected, especially in urban areas, and we are seeing many more complaints about alcohol, smoking, suicide and sexually explicit material,” said Barbara Stripling, president of the ALA, in an interview last year with the Guardian newspaper. Naturally, the ALA has always been an admirable defender of free speech, but there’s little it can do about the culture of self-censorship that has become virulent amongst YA writers and publishers, particularly in recent years.

If you want your book to sell, don’t have your teenage characters drink, smoke, do drugs, have sex, or hold unpopular opinions. If you want them to challenge authority or social conventions, make sure they do so in a safely depoliticised dystopia that has little to no resemblance to the world in which we live. Try to avoid big words as much as possible. Welcome to YA fiction in the 21st century. Why so many of its adult devotees might seek to retreat into such a cozy, sterile literary landscape is between them and their therapists.

There have always been those who believe literature should have some relation to truth, poetic or otherwise, no matter how juvenile or escapist its intentions may be; I count myself among them. But based on what most of its advocates are prepared to put up with, YA fiction — as a publishing phenomenon, at least — does not share this belief. For the sake of profit, it may even fight against it.

Well, it can try. Such a state of affairs will not last. As they have done throughout history, both writers and readers will eventually become frustrated by those subjects and styles that the world’s unfairness has deemed off-limits, and will start shattering conventions as a matter of principle. Tell a teenager that something is forbidden, and watch what happens next.

Unfortunately, the immediate problem is that those who rush to defend YA fiction from the likes of Graham will not be the ones who move their beloved literary subset into unexplored territory. In seeking to protect YA fiction, problematic elements and all, their zealotry may actually restrict what YA fiction might become, were it not for the claustrophobic confines of their unquestioning enthusiasm.

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Often, when thinking of YA fiction and the discontent it can provoke, I am reminded of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Apart from her good heart and her magical (if somewhat terrifying) telekinesis, Matilda’s defining quality is her intelligence. This comes not from having a brain like a supercomputer bestowed on her by fate, but simply from reading a lot. Just how much she reads is demonstrated in an early scene, when she exhausts every book in the children’s section of her local library and moves on to the adult stacks. Dahl, horrible old bastard that he was, did have his moments.

I ask you to think about that for a moment: a children’s book, essentially telling any child reading it that exploring beyond their literary age-range might, in fact, yield untold rewards. How many YA authors would include such a plot development? Few, I suspect. As the PR people say, it’s not good for the brand.

There’s an unpleasant, unspoken quality to the YA debate, which is that of money. In a deeply uncertain industry where authors’ financial remuneration is possibly at its lowest point in modern history, YA fiction is profitable. Obviously, this does not apply to all YA novels, but enough of them that publishers regard it as a better bet than most. This fuels the anger of its proponents. Their favoured genre is bringing home the bacon at a time when literature as a whole is pretty light on pigs, and thus they feel that some critical credibility is the least they deserve. As even Michael Bay could tell them, that grift won’t fly.

Is YA fiction dominated by commercial motivations? Sure, but its far from alone. Yet in other genres, when we see authors shamelessly chasing the bottom dollar, we adjust our perceptions accordingly. For now, it seems, most seem happy to give YA writers a free pass. Of course, it’s hardly their fault that YA has become profitable (though it’s clearly, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, to their credit). But the fact remains: YA fiction is one of the most profitable publishing phenomena of our time.

If its fans wish to be taken seriously in their enthusiasm, they need to stop acting like an embattled minority. They are the tastemakers and consumers who are sought after far more than fans of so-called ‘literary’ fiction, whose supposed cultural preeminence brings out so much petty resentment in YA advocates, they barely notice their own gilded position.

As you may have figured out by this point, I have a few problems with YA fiction – as a definition, a phenomenon, and a collection of clichés which, though by now means universal, are far too prevalent to be easily ignored. Yet literary genres are never perfect, either in theory or practice. Even when they come furnished with grand manifestos, or are spurred into existence to fill a gaping hole in the culture, the business of literature — creating it, building on it, advancing it in new directions — is trial and error, and it should be no other way.

That is not an excuse for apathy, or inaction. We should continue to argue about publishing trends, what informs them and the nature of the industry that cons them into being; about how the books we’re reading (no matter what our age) can be better, and how, as a result, they can help us towards a better world.

If this debate must continue, then we might allow for the possibility that there will come a time when, no matter how many people in their 30s, 40s and beyond are reading YA, it has become unfashionable amongst young adults themselves. There have always been children and teenagers eager to show off their precocity by reading books which their elders regard, almost always erroneously, to be somehow unsuitable for them. That may yet become the norm. Part of me hopes it does.

Young Adult fiction, in and of itself, contains no internal fault that prevents it from being great literature, great entertainment, or both. It may, depending on your viewpoint and possibly your politics, be seen as being held back from its full potential by forces within the publishing industry, its own fanbase, and capitalism in general. If The Fault Is in Our Stars is what makes the moolah, we can expect to see a lot more of its like over the next few years, just like Twilight before it. That’s the zombie principle. That’s life in our time. Suck it up or fight back: your choice.

When last I wrote of artistic arguments that never end, I did so with a weary resignation: this time, I do so with some degree of hope. We argue because we care. For those who find the argument distracting — and I would be the last to blame you — take a break for a while. Maybe read a good book.

Just don’t read The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is garbage. I’ll die on Calais sands before I change my mind about that one.