By Allyson Larcom '17
It was the sixth week of class when the same inane topic resurfaced, this time disguised as an academic debate. I’d heard it before, coming at me from every angle—I’d seen it on the internet, in the news, in the eyes of strangers when I talk in any detail about my writing. “Class,” my professor announced, “this week we will be debating whether or not YA constitutes real literature.” Peering at the syllabus, I discovered that the book we would be using as our exemplar Stephenie Meyer’s masterwork Twilight.
Fantastic. This book, notorious for its triteness (to put it gently), was now being used as a representative for an entire genre of fiction.
The debate over the validity of the young adult genre of fiction—typically termed YA—often feels to me like a debate over the validity of my own future, because I write YA.
To put it broadly, YA is a genre typically defined as fiction featuring a young adult or teenage protagonist, primarily marketed towards people in the age range of thirteen to eighteen. Within YA, these fictions span a wide range, from literary fiction to romance to science fiction, from fantasy to dystopian. There is no hard-and-fast line between what constitutes YA and what is considered “adult” literature. Adult literature sometimes offers its story through the perspective of a young adult protagonist, and critics often praise particular YA books for their adult themes and insights. So why exactly does YA get such a bad rap?
Many people point fingers at the supposed immaturity of the genre, citing its target audience of teenagers as reasons that adult readers shouldn’t read YA, even though its average readership stretches all the way to people in their thirties and forties. Elitist literary critics like Ruth Graham of Slate decry the growing population of adults reading YA, declaring shrilly that “they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature.” But if a story is told through the eyes of a young narrator, does that suddenly divorce it from all complexity? Most would give a resounding “no.” So naysayers are forced to look elsewhere for reasons to discount the genre.
Complaints abound about the fundamental nature of YA: that it’s hackneyed and clichéd, too fanciful, or all about wish fulfillment and instant gratification. Like the majority of almost any other body of fiction. Or are you, critics, trying to tell me that Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station or Lauren Oliver’s Rooms don’t rely on stale and unimaginative literary tropes? That Philippa Gregory’s Tudor Court books aren’t simply ahistorical daydreams? But that’s unfair of me. You got something out of reading those books! They touched you emotionally! They challenged you intellectually! And besides, you really liked them!
YA, just like literally any other subset of fiction, has its garbage. It certainly has its hackneyed, its maudlin, its over-the-top, and its underwhelming. But it also has gems. Books that keep you up until four in the morning. Books that leave you reeling for a week after you finish them. Books that force you to change the way you think. YA fiction runs the gamut, and yet, it seems we only ever hear about how trashy and humiliating it is.
Much of the reason YA has been made out to be “less-than” compared to other forms of fiction is, frankly, because it is a largely female genre. YA occupies a highly feminized space in the modern literary sphere, as one of few genres almost entirely dominated by women from the top down, creator to consumer (romance novels and so-called “chick lit” occupy a similar space, and are quite similarly scorned and derided). Uniquely pinned between the crosshairs of misogyny and ageism, YA literature was viewed, for a long time, as hardly even worth consideration as a serious form of writing. However, with the genre’s recent rise in popularity within groups outside of the target audience of teenage girls, people were forced to take notice. The most prominent resurgence of the argument over YA’s legitimacy came surrounding John Green’s 2012 bestseller, The Fault In Our Stars.
For anyone who somehow missed it, The Fault In Our Stars charts the brief romance of teens Hazel and Augustus, both of whom are diagnosed with different types of cancer. The book was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for children’s literature for seven consecutive weeks and received a starred review from Kirkus, went on to be adapted to the big screen in 2014. Adults who had never given YA a second glance, because of its frivolous and girly reputation, were caught up in Green’s current. I, personally, thought the book was good but not worth the hype. That being said, it forced a great many people to take a closer look at this genre and decide that maybe it could be worth some respect, after all. (The cynical part of me thinks, “Of course it’s the work of a straight white man that finally forced people to consider the validity of YA. Nobody took us nearly as seriously when The Hunger Games was popular, and that certainly had more to say about our society than The Fault In Our Stars.”) However, many of the most outspoken skeptics still hurl their stones in the direction of YA’s vacuity.
That’s not to say that there aren’t also legitimate criticisms to be had of the genre. Last year’s #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign brought to light one of YA’s biggest pitfalls. While it may be a primarily female genre, YA is also hugely lacking in representation for POC, queer, and trans narratives. Although the genre may pass muster in terms of the authors it publishes, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of making YA a more inclusive, more positive environment for the voices of marginalized groups. However, I am hopeful about its future: Young Adult is a genre grounded in the struggles of youth—struggles with identity, struggles with belonging, struggles with understanding the world we live in, and struggles with challenging the things we don’t like about it. It lends itself to an attitude of forward thinking.
Which brings us back to the question: why are we even debating the validity of YA as a genre? Hell, what makes us think we can debate the “validity” of any kind of writing? If it makes you think, if it makes you feel something, if you for whatever reason decide to pick up that book and skim through it, then it has done its job. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as “legitimate” writing, and it’s impossible to define the quality of a body of fiction based off anything but your own experiences with it.
The fallacy of the YA argument is that it’s intrinsically a useless one: people will continue to read YA, and continue to enjoy it, even if others demand they don’t. And hey, if you step down off your high horse once in a while, you might be surprised at what you find.
From March 2015 Issue