I keep circling back to this essay. Every time I put it away, I eventually come back to it. It is the essay in which I try to define YA literature.
And it got really long, so this is the first of a three-part series in my examination of YA lit. This is a rough essay, and certainly some of you out there are more well-versed, so suggestions (not for books to read, oh god, please not for books to read) and critique are welcome.
So today’s topic is an introduction of the problem.
I made a post once about how I had difficulty with YA lit, both with writing it and plotting it. Most of the people engaging in the discussion at the time made a good point: I couldn’t very well be saying that if I didn’t have a good definition of what it was. Besides, defining a problem is the first part of solving it. But a definition of YA lit is like a definition of porn. Most people just kind of know it when they see it.
I thought a lot about how to define YA literature. I thought about discussing how I never liked children much even when I was one; about how I started reading “Tween and teen” books when I was eight, and how when I was a teen I was mostly frightened of the other teens around me. I fled to the adult company of the newly-minted internet, and avoided most of my peers. It’s not a particular badge of pride or shame, it’s just what is: I was never any good at being a Young Adult, and they still hold that mysterious power for me. A cool kid at the age of sixteen will always be cooler than I am no matter how old I am. I don’t especially have a burning desire to encounter many.
I also thought about the discussion that my readers had about “writing down”, a reaction to the condescending youth-aimed literature of the mid-twentieth century. SFNovelists had an essay on what YA is:
It described fiction written for adolescents, who weren’t quite ready to move on from Middle Grade books to more adult reading matter, but who nonetheless wanted more complex and challenging subjects. What this meant was that YA books had a more limited vocabulary and syntax than books written for adults, and it showed. We found the language patronizing, and the characters, often simplified to make the author’s point, annoying. YA was for people who, we thought, didn’t really like to read, or they’d learn to do it properly.
One of my commenters posted a quote from a LeGuin essay from 1973:
All you do is take all the sex out, and use little short words, and little dumb ideas, and don’t be too scary, and be sure there’s a happy ending. Right? Nothing to it. Write down. Right on. […] But you won’t have every kid in America reading your book. They will look at, and they will see straight through it, with their clear, cold, beady little eyes, and they will put it down, and they will go away. Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: they have not yet learned to eat plastic.
Now, on the one hand, good points all; on the other hand, see what I mean about how frightening Young Adults are?
It’s also easy to say kids should be treated like intelligent beings, because lord knows I wish I’d been treated that way more often, but it’s not the end of the story. Children aren’t miniature adults, even the really smart ones. I wasn’t any good at being a kid, but I would have made a shitty, irresponsible, miserable adult, too.
I considered studying the loud and vicious debate that’s going on right now regarding “darkness” in YA literature. It does look as though things have been getting darker, but I wonder. Kids half a generation below me get Hunger Games, but I got Christopher Pike novels — and we both get The Hobbit and the Narnia chronicles, just like our parents and grandparents did. They weren’t any less dark, really, they just had fewer televisions in them.
And I think it’s better to write dark books for youth and let their parents decide, rather than legislate what a writer can and can’t say to a fourteen-year-old. The publishers are already going to keep those gates pretty tight. One YA author, James Dawson, said that the things publishers keep from YA lit are the three S’s: “Shagging, swearing, and slaughter”. Despite, as he points out, these being three very popular things with teenagers.
And while Dawson doesn’t like being told what he can and can’t write, he’s aware that if he wants his books published, there are certain things that won’t fly. This isn’t necessarily a problem with self-publishing the way I do it, but of course traditional publishing still has perks that selfpub doesn’t, and one of those is a very strong connection to schools and libraries that buy YA literature.
At the start of this I was left with the problem that I am trying to understand books written, in the main part, for someone I never was, in a field (traditional publishing) to which I don’t fully belong. I could read a lot of YA Lit; in the past, I have, particularly in college where I used to pick books at random from the YA shelf and read them to relax. But I never read them at the right time, first too young and then too old, and finding the patterns and traditions is hard going.
So I turned to the internet, and we’ll be talking about that adventure on Tuesday.