Thursday, December 18, 2008

Where Young Adult is a Point of View, Not a Reading Level

And now the NEW YORKER is throwing its rumpled hat into the "can YA be literary" debate. And not doing a very remarkable job of it.

In the comments section, the inimitable John Green points to the same argument I always use when someone tries to define YA as any book with a teen protagonist: Well, then, CATCHER IN THE RYE is YA. Funny, that's not where it's shelved. That would also make Brian Malloy's YEAR OF ICE a YA novel (again, not where it's shelved). Jonathan Safran Foer's EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE becomes a middle grade novel with its 9-year-old protagonist. THE LIFE OF PI was released as an adult novel, shelved in the literature section, until someone realized its crossover potential and a YA edition was later released. Would it have received the accolades it did if it had started as YA? (Sadly, probably not, owing to an excess of snobbery.)

How can people accept that adult literature can fall into literary and commercial categories (and Michael Chabon would argue that even that delineation is an atrocity) but refuse to accept that YA can offer the same depth and breadth of character? Is it simply because it's easier to dismiss that which one doesn't understand? (Well, duh, yes.) The problem, as I see it, is that little effort is made to even start to understand. That the entire YA oeuvre has, in many cases, been condemned on a small sampling. That would be like reading one poorly written science fiction novel and condemning the entire genre as a result.

I've given up being outraged when I see people whose alleged education would suggest they know better than to make blanket statements of condemnation based on their peripheral experience with YA novels. It's not worth my time or energy. It's sad, though, when the media feels the need to present only one view point on the subject. And it's always the one with the weakest arguments.

Go fig.


A.S. King said...

I read that two days ago and it was a turning point for me. I no longer care what those sorts of people think. YA bashers are like every other type of basher throughout history. Usually ill-informed, close-minded and afraid of changing their minds. *shrug* It's like arguing with a racist or bigot - so not worth my time.

Since I write literary adult novels and YA novels, I know that neither is easier or more or less "worth it." Every book holds its own challenges, which have little to do with its audience.

This article did make me thrilled that I canceled my New Yorker subscription last renewal time, though. :) I'm sure a haiku will come along any minute...

Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...


To be a little more articulate, I agree with ASK: it's like arguing with a bigot. Good luck with that. And, as she says, it's another reason not to read the NEW YORKER. I gave up years ago.

Stacy DeKeyser said...

I think eventually YA will get the respect it deserves. It's grown beyond "problem novels" to every possible sub-genre. But that took a long time too.
I remain optimistic, dammit!

Liviania said...

My bookstore does keep CATCHER IN THE RYE in the YA section.

As for that article . . . I couldn't make it past the first several paragraphs. I didn't know being a teenager made me incapable of appreciating complex themes and a rich vocabulary.

David Ostow said...

I read somewhere that when the novel began to take off (19h century maybe?) it was criticized on the grounds that young people were locking themselves in their rooms for hours on end and losing themselves in made up stories that have no bearing on real life.
So I think that anyone who takes for granted that adult 'literary' novels have an inherent value that's lacking in YA literature could benefit by considering the history of the medium.

Speaking more generally, I don't think it takes a very thorough knowledge of history to recognize the pattern by which cultural output that is initially dismissed as 'pop' often ends of up a few years, decades or centuries down the line within the canon of great cultural achievements. Artists like Matisse and Monet were laughed at when they tried to get their works shown in the Parisian salons of the day. When Gene Krupa performed his famous drum solo in Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing', the culturally enlightened establishment shuttered at the primal, sexual forms of movement it elicited in the teens of the day.

As far as the New Yorker - well, a good deal of the magazine's regularly contributing cartoonists cut their teeth in the once-marginalized field of independent comics long before the term 'graphic novel' meant anything. So don't worry. It's likely that one day some of us will be in control of that magazine. When that day comes, let's resolve to remain open minded.

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