The always-smart Sarah Ockler has an interesting discussion on her blog today about the New York Times’s latest dispatch from the world of Young Adult Fiction. As is her custom, it seems that The Gray Lady is confused and jumbled on whether books for teenagers are good or stupid, but needless to say takes it as a given that the point of them is really just to be long Hints From Heloise columns in disguise, intended mostly to impart helpful tips and life lessons to wayward, advice-starved readers with entertainment added only as an enticement. AND ALSO WHY OH WHY doesn’t anyone read good old Anne of Green Gables anymore!?
As Ockler points out this is very silly: the main goal of fiction is always to tell a story. Those who think YA books bear a different responsibility are not really getting it, and the Times does its readers a disservice by misrepresenting teen fiction as so hopelessly at odds with the goals of good art.
But is the Times actually wrong?
While I agree with Sarah for the most part, I’m not sure that this is simply a case of New York Times writers being their usual condescending and birdbrained selves. While it’s always impossible to underestimate the NYT’s ability to miss the boat when it comes to talking about books for young people, I think the attitude that YA fiction is all about The Message goes far beyond being a misconception of the clueless and foolish.
One thing I’ve been consistently surprised by since I started writing fiction for teenagers is how many other YA writers I’ve talked to DO still seem to think that our books should be somehow prescriptive— that YA fiction is different from other fiction because of the kinds stories we should be telling and the morals we need to impart (or not impart).
I’ve had discussions where other YA writers who suggested that the difference between YA fiction and adult fiction is that it is by nature more optimistic, or that it’s necessary to tell a positive story because teenagers aren’t sophisticated enough to decode more ambiguous themes.
Even among writers who would never say such preposterous things in unequivocal terms, there seems to be a general attitude that YA literature, at its best at least, should enrich our readers. Young people should be able to read our books and walk away with raised social awareness, more positive body images, ways of dealing with abusive relationships, tools for feminist action, better coping skills when it comes to bullies at school, and of course a shuddering aversion to the word “fag.”
This attitude exists even more explicitly among gatekeepers— the editors and librarians and reviewers and booksellers who decide what actually gets read. Even if we can agree as writers that a books main purpose is to tell a story, a librarian or teacher is often (understandably) more inclined to look at a book from the perspective of what he/she can feel good about putting in the hands of a kid. i.e., what’s the message? Do I agree with it? Disagree? Does it make me uncomfortable? A reviewer from PW recently told me that if she disagreed with The Message of a YA book she would have no choice but to review it negatively.
Books for grownups don’t really face these considerations, or if they do it’s to a much more limited extent. We naturally assume that grownups are smart enough to draw their own conclusions from a book without having to be led by the nose. We don’t really look at didacticism and pedantry as positive qualities in art.
I don’t personally think it should be any different when it comes to books for teenagers. While I am of course in favor of teens enriching their lives and learning all the right lessons and not calling each other fags (I guess), it seem to me that to look at YA books from the perspective of The Message both underestimates readers and degrades literature as an institution.
But I’m starting to realize that this opinion is more radical than I used to believe. So should it come as any surprise that the New York Times should be confused on this score when even those deeply embedded in the community of Young Adult Books don’t seem to agree?
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- colinfitzpatrick said: I mean the education grants business is where a lot of this ‘Message’ idea starts to speak in $$ and why it becomes a critique… there’s this push to make YA novels conform to educational national standards, we deal with this at PBS all the time
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