Get off of my lawn, YA Lit!: a rant


(The following post has slight spoilers for The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Nothing too revealing, but if you know literally nothing and want to remain knowing literally nothing, skip this.)
Seriously though read this. I cried. Seriously,
Story time: Out of the 18 seniors in my English Literature graduating class, 6 of us did our senior theses on YA lit topics. Our professor tried to dissuade those of us who weren’t planning on going into education from doing those topics, and to consider something “more literary.” She flat out told us she didn’t see much merit in it. My own research discussed how subtext effectively functions for adult readers of The Hunger Games, which sort by nature goes against her point, but I swear I came up with that before she was telling me and my classmates that we should do our papers on Caribbean literature instead.
(I should also say I had another professor who used Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for our Native American literature class, and it was probably the most effective book we read—not because we weren’t capable of digesting the denser texts, we were, but because even though we’re a bit older than the target demo, it still had and honest, blunt, engaging, funny voice. Never underestimate the power of well-done bluntly honest humor. More on that later.)
As someone who is no longer a teenager, but (I think) still qualifies as a “young adult,” as someone who reads a lot of YA books, as someone who attempts to write fiction for teens and young adults, let me just say that there are so many inherently problematic things with the criticisms of YA lit that actually have nothing to do with the actual books they’re supposedly critiquing. This actually is probably a set of many, many issues I have, rooted in various things I’ll probably go on about in the future, but for now I’ll start with the big one.
That was a really long, expository way of saying: here, have a rant.
So, I recently read John Green’s newest book, The Fault in Our Stars. I think it’s a brilliant book for many spoiler-laden reasons I won’t get into here, and I highly recommend it—it may be my favorite book of his. And I adore everything John Green writes—because John Green writes about incredibly smart teenagers being incredibly thoughtful about the same existential panic that much of culture seems to think is reserved for a mid-life crisis. I love John Green because a common (and utterly absurd, in my opinion) criticism of his books is that his characters are too smart: they use big, sprawling SAT words and memorize the last words of famous people and read a lot and celebrate metaphorical resonance.

This criticism is problematic on two levels because it a) assumes that there is a standard teenager experience, a blanket way teenagers talk and act and think, as if teenagers are this alien, uniform culture rather than young people with individual quirks and it b) implies that teenagers either aren’t capable of meaningful thought or are too apathetic to manage it.
The Fault in Our Stars is the story of 16 year old Hazel, who has thyroid cancer and has never been anything but terminal in diagnosis, and Augustus Waters, who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. You have teenagers who are grapping with their own prominently looming mortality making beautifully phrased existential declarations about the limitations of human consciousness, while mere paragraphs later they are blowing things up in video games. (Actually, sometimes the beautiful declarations happen during the blowing things up, which I think should be an awardable art form in itself.) They crack jokes, not only for the sake of breaking the levity of the situation, but because they are kids making the silly jokes kids make. It’s a funny, funny book, and not just in the artful way of books-about-serious-matter-that-aren’t-always-serious, but in the way that teenagers and young adults are funny.
In essence, John Green has mastered writing characters that talk and act and have the mannerisms of a kid with the developed critical thinking and observational skills of an adult, which is the definitional function of a young adult. I’m not making the argument that every teenager (or even most!) is going to act like a character in a John Green novel: that would be ridiculous and very much untrue, but I think it does an incredible disservice to the capability of teenagers to say it’s unrealistic.

Here’s the crux of YA lit for me: characters in YA novels, at the most basic level, go through the same issues that an adult character would go through, experienced through the lens of a different stage of life. And too often, it’s trivialized, written off as fluff, dismissed as not exploring anything real. And if it does explore meaning and handle reality like a book for adults would handle reality, it’s unrealistic and contrived. YA books can’t win. We’re too quick to say what it can’t address and where it can’t go based on the target age demographic. People like my former literature professor dismiss the literary value of YA novels because they don’t believe it’s possible to explore depth in a novel written for teenagers.

And this is really, really dangerous territory to me, because what we are saying when we say novels for teenagers can’t have intellectual depth is: this is not for you yet. We have to teach you through the thought process of the adults we hope you become, but sorry, you’re just not capable yet.

It’s not only insulting, but it’s incredibly untrue. Take time to talk to a few actual teenagers. They won’t bite, probably.

And whether or not a novel has literary merit is weird and subjective across the board, but the idea that you can give an entire demographic a resounding no has always seemed crazy to me. And I’ve got a pretty large stack of books by Markus Zusak, Suzanne Collins, Paolo Bacigialupi, Laini Taylor, David Levithan, and, of course, John Green, that make pretty good cases for themselves, anyway.

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