On criticism and YA fiction

Risdale LilyYou know you’ve gone somewhere with your life when one of your idols criticizes you. You may not like the place where you’ve gone, but at least you’re no longer at the beginning. When several published authors, including Tamora Pierce, posted negative comments on my article about Young Adult fiction, it stung. As an aspiring writer of feminist fantasy novels, I love Pierce’s work. However, the backlash from her and others has made me see major cracks within YA fiction.

Their criticism resulted from a difference in assumptions. I assumed my article’s audience was only Lawrentians, and it reached much further. Those who posted comments assumed I wished to indict all of YA. Sure, Markus Zusak wrote some great YA without love triangles or dystopias, and Scott Westerfield actually made it work; but they have nothing to do with my article on badly written love triangles and dystopias.

What made the backlash so strange was not the content of the comments, but who posted them. The Lawrentian is a college newspaper and its audience consists mostly of college students, but not a single comment was from a Lawrentian. They were all from adults who read or publish YA. Everyone has a different perspective on YA based on whether they read or write it, or what age they are. As a young adult reader of YA, I do not have an insider’s perspective, but I can plainly see how publishers market YA.

Adult readers and writers of YA see it fighting for recognition of literary merit. They worry the rest of the literary community considers books for younger audiences to be exclusively for younger minds. Thus, when an article is critical of YA, they feel the need to defend themselves, even if the article isn’t really attacking them. I am an ant compared to Tamora Pierce, yet she still felt a need to criticize me. What adult readers and writers of YA do not realize is that my generation does not have that dilemma. No one accuses a nineteen-year-old of being ill-read when they see her reading Suzanne Collins. We grew up with J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry and Cornelia Funke. It is a basic assumption of young adults today that YA can be real literature.

As several comments pointed out, every section of the bookstore has some awful novels. According to Publisher’s Weekly, adults make 55% of YA fiction purchases. I’d rather read Kristin Cashore than Nicholas Sparks any day, and considering the abundance of adults in the comments section, I’m not the only one. However, if YA is the section we flee to when all others have failed us, then we need to take its problems into consideration. It will never get better if we do not criticize it. This is where books like Lauren DeStefano’s “Wither” come into play.

“Wither” is about Rhine, a girl forced into an arranged marriage in a post-apocalyptic North America where everyone dies in their twenties. Despite the interesting concept, lengthy descriptions of fancy dresses and society parties bloat the story. Spoilers: While the novel takes place over a year, Rhine escapes her marriage without having to consummate it. Her sister wives are not so lucky and their consent is ambiguous at best, especially considering one is 13.

In a book about forcible arranged marriages, the subject of rape cannot be avoided. Yet DeStefano does so, seemingly for no reason other than the YA audience. Dystopia is, by nature, a dark topic, and one founded on sexual violence cannot hide from the very controversies it brings to light.

Because the target demographic covers the wide range of teenagers 12 to 17, and the actual demographic contains all ages, this reluctance to recognize the audience’s maturity is all the more strange in the YA section. Moreover, plenty of YA books get away with very dark subject matter, such as “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness, which explores religious extremism, sexism, genocide and other fun topics. It’s fine for some books to be fluffy, but when a book like “Wither” has a plot with nothing light or fluffy about it, the author cannot bury it in pretty descriptions and walk away.

Flouncy dresses and love triangles may pander to teenage fantasies, but the best books do not offer up our fantasies. They draw out our nightmares. The popularity of books like “The Hunger Games” or “The Golden Compass” attests to this. Too much YA promises an elegant nightmare, but only delivers an incomplete dream.