the so-called "y.a. debate" rages on, but doesn't a debate have two sides?

In June of this year, Slate ran a now-infamous piece called "Against YA," in which Ruth Graham argued that adults shouldn't read young-adult fiction, and should be embarrassed if they do. A flood of posts and essays were written in response; my own response is here. In the short term, as far as I can tell, not a single writer agreed with Graham.

Despite this lopsided showing, some headline writer (possibly here) dubbed this "The Great Y.A. Debate," and the name stuck. There must be people out there who agree with Graham - surely hers was not an original idea - but one cranky article does not a debate make.

I did find a few interesting essays that used Graham's piece as a springboard to unpack some interesting ideas and cultural trends.

A. O. Scott, in The New York Times Magazine, is one reader who found himself agreeing with Graham, and asking himself why. Scott's The Death of Adulthood in American Culture joins the crowded field of "things ain't what they used to be" stories, gazing fondly back on a time when a cultural elite drew a very bright line between "high" and "low" culture, a line that, if it still exists, is too blurry to locate and carries little cultural currency. Scott, however, reflects on his nostalgia and acknowledges its curmudgeonly (and sexist, exclusionary) nature. It's a nicely ambivalent essay... and it has very little to do with youth fiction.

In Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate, Christopher Beha, writing in The New Yorker, uses the same so-called debate to muse on the state of the novel, how literature from different eras reflect entirely different worldviews, and why the work of Henry James is still, in Beha's view, relevant to the contemporary reader. It's a good piece, worth reading, and again, none of its ideas are stated or implied in Graham's essay in Slate.

Beha offers this comments on A. O. Scott's piece.
...Scott’s essay is an expression of great ambivalence. He isn’t happy about this trend in movies, but he also isn’t sure how justified his unhappiness is. He admits to “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” but he quickly adds that he’s “not necessarily proud of this reaction.” He is scrupulously mindful of what it means for a self-described “middle-aged white man” to pine for an earlier era of cultural authority. Indeed, the real subject of Scott’s essay turns out to be not the infantilization of culture but the decline of cultural—if not political or economic or social—patriarchy, and the ways in which this decline is reflected in the culture itself. He takes this change to be the underlying subject of several of the past decade’s prestige TV dramas—particularly “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” In Scott’s view, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are “the last of the patriarchs.”

This is where the essay becomes a little confused, in my opinion. If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art. The fact that we find this decline represented on television seems in this sense a sign of cultural maturity, one that cuts against the idea that our culture reflects an “essentially juvenile vision of the world.” Many shows now grapple more honestly with the world as it actually exists than did the sitcoms that I grew up watching, in which mom and dad had all the answers and were waiting in the wings to save us from our mistakes.

The strong ambivalence running throughout Scott’s piece emerges from the fact that he sees an intimate, even necessary connection between the decline of the straight white male’s stranglehold on the culture as a whole (which he views as all to the good) and the rise to dominance of a juvenile strain within popular culture in particular (which he likes a lot less). But even assuming that both of these things are going on, it’s not at all clear how much they have to do with one another. There is a difference between art that merely enacts a culture’s refusal to grow up—say, a Y.A. fantasy turned summer blockbuster marketed at adults—and art that engages thoughtfully with that refusal.
The New Yorker also pointed to a 2008 article by Jill Lepore (one of my favourite writers in that magazine's circle), illustrating the long history of self-appointed reading gatekeepers. This one was a librarian who was horrified by E. B. White's Stuart Little. And not just any librarian: it was Anne Carroll Moore, who invented the idea of the children's library. Great reading: The Lion and the Mouse.

Throughout, I am left wondering if anyone on the "against" side of "Against Y.A." has read any youth fiction other than The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games and has read any children's fiction other than Harry Potter. Often I'm left wondering if they've read even those, or merely read about them.

These essays are all worth reading... as are many youth novels.


John F said...

Here's a quote from C.S. Lewis that I have always liked:

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

laura k said...

Nice. Thanks for sharing.

Amy said...

I have always believed that people---children, teens, adults---should read whatever interests them. I don't care if it's a classic, a comic, a trashy magazine, a math text---reading for pleasure is one of civilization's greatest gifts. I never told my kids what to read; I just prayed they would like reading.

How does one even define YA literature? Is Catcher in the Rye YA? Is A Separate Peace? Is Huckleberry Finn? Is it something about the age of the characters? Or is it about vocabulary? Or is it about content---nothing too dark, nothing too sad, nothing to sexy?

As you know, I now have a particular interest in this question as I am in the process of writing a book that I think of as being for young adults, but then I wonder---is it too long? Why not make it an adult book---what is the difference? Is there a magic line that defines what makes something YA?

laura k said...

All three titles you asked about are YA, although none of them were written to be YA. Catcher in the Rye is arguably the first YA novel. Many other general-fiction novels are like that - my favourite example is To Kill A Mockingbird.

What distinguishes YA. It is most definitely not "nothing too dark, nothing too sad, nothing too sexy". The most popular youth novel on the planet right now is incredibly sad and quite sexy.

Sexual content is never explicit, but characters do have sex, which is one thing that distinguishes youth lit from children's lit.

Length is not a consideration at all. There are many very long youth novels and children's novels.

All youth novels will have a teen main character and be told from a teen's point of view. (As I write that, I can imagine industrious readers digging up exceptions. There are always exceptions, but in this case, they would be... exceptional. Rare.)

I should mention, too, that if you're thinking of middle-school readers, that is probably not youth, it's probably children's - "tween" reads, like Rick Riordan.

laura k said...

reading for pleasure is one of civilization's greatest gifts.

So true!!!

Amy said...

My main character right now is a sixteen year old male. I would say I am targeting teens---12 and up. I originally thought more 10-13, but as I write, I see that it's more for real teenagers. These things take on a life of their own!

Someone suggested to me that young adult books should not have long chapters (or be too long overall). She also was concerned about content that is too dark. I was thinking I should read a few young adult novels to get a sense of these things. Do you have a good suggestion? (Maybe I should go read your next post!)

I would never have defined Catcher in the Rye or Huck Finn as YA because both are such classics and considered literature, even taught in college classes. But if that's what Graham was talking about, she really had her head wedged. She couldn't possibly think that adults shouldn't read these books, could she?

laura k said...

Let's see, a lot to respond to here!

First of all, write the book that's inside you and don't worry about the market. Books that are written for markets may succeed as products but often fail as books.

Those were not the books that Graham was talking about. She was talking specifically about some very popular teen reads.

But YA can be literature! I was naming some classic lit that is also very much YA.

Anyone who tells you that YA cannot be too dark or too long is not qualified to give advice on the field.

But no matter what advice you get, there is no substitute for your own research. Read some!

I never knew my writing was YA until a writing teacher in university told me it was. My fiction writing is just naturally YA or tween. If yours is, it is. If it's not, don't give it another thought. Just write what you write. You are way too early in the process to be concerned with such things, IMO.

And th

Amy said...

Thank you! Great advice, and I will follow my intuition and my heart. You are right---she has no experience as a writer, but was just expressing an opinion. I will have to be strong enough to listen to my gut, not hers! Thanks!

laura k said...

Everyone tells you something different. For me, I have to listen to the voice within that tells me what advice works and what doesn't.

But.... nothing too long, nothing too dark?! The usual complaint is that YA "these days" is all dark and dystopian!

laura k said...

Thinking more about this, I realized what's missing from the discussion. It's not that YA books lack darkness - or sex, for that matter. It's how those themes are handled.

Since you've read The Book Thief, that's a great example. Some things happen "off stage," to speak, implied but not written in graphic detail. The imagining of Death itself can be seen as a device to keep the most disturbing action implied but not explicit.

The sex in How I Live Now is another good example. The main character does (we assume) have sex. But the focus is on her emotions, her love for and obsession with the other person. The sex is implied and assumed but not explicit.

I still think you shouldn't worry about any of this yet, and just write the book that you write. But this might give you a better idea of the YA sensibility.

Amy said...

That is helpful. I do recall the use of the Death figure in The Book Thief, which I thought was very well done and very effective. I can't say I remember as well the assumed sexual relationship in How We Live Now, but I read that even longer ago.

When I was a young reader, I know that I would often fail to see the sex in stories. I was so innocent (even as a young teen) that I assumed there was never anything more than kissing! When I went back and reread some of those books as an adult, I was amused by how much I had missed on a first reading!

And yes, I am going to take your advice and write the story as it comes out of my brain. There will be plenty of time to edit later on.