Friday, January 9, 2009

Being Realistic About YA

There is a large group of people, and I would venture to say that most of them are either YA authors or editors, who keep saying that YA is real literature. I agree with them, of course, and I agree with them mightily.

But last night I went to a different "TEEN ZONE" at a new library, and I found books with titles like "Boyaholic" and "Confessions of A Teenage Stud" and "Boys Who Bite." Now, if I pretend for a minute I am not a YA author, that I don't really like a lot of the folks involved in YA publishing and say those titles to myself, I have to admit it sounds a lot like advanced comic book writing. That might make you mad, but that's what I admitted to myself last night.

One of my favorite papers to teach is the argument paper. The goal is to convince your reader of your point. Since most of the kids I teach are young adults, they have a tough time with the middle section where counter arguments are proposed. I had one girl, she was about 20, who could not write on the topic of girls not being permitted to play football because she could not think of a counter argument. When I suggested some, she got upset and asked for an alternate assignment. I tried explaining that to defend an opinion, you have to state and disprove common counter arguments.

I think that's pretty much how it is in life, too. There's a lot of cheesy writing in YA, and there's a lot of brilliant writing. But you have to at least comprehend why people might go to the YA shelf anywhere, read those titles, and move on.

In addition to the acne/angst novel, there is the vampire issue. I am not a fan of vampires, though I must admit at the age of twelve or thirteen I alternately wanted to marry either Bram Stoker or Dracula. That was kind of the pinnacle of vampire love for me, and I don't think anyone has come close to his level of writing since. I find vampires especially cheesy, and they abound in the YA genre. I'm not up on the differences between werewolves and vampires, they sort of seem like cousins, but I do remember reading really, really bad novels involving werewolves when I was in middle school. I read them because my friends did, and the writing was, unbelievably,more dreadful than the cover art. (They were the kind of books you hid inside your "Discovery Through Science" textbook during study hall)

But I accept the books that center on acne angst and blood sucking spirits; I just don't think they can be successfully defended. I have trouble accepting bad literature in general, but it exists, probably, because kids like it. It's sort of like Chucky Cheese's for the younger set -- it's a stage you can't wait to pass.

So when people say sensitive things to me like, "Have you thought of writing a real novel? You know, like for adults?" I don't get all huffy. I understand what they see on the shelves and the assumptions they make. It would be hard not to understand that.

On the other hand, I have never been aware of so many people who want to write YA, or who are reading and commenting on YA, and I think that's the key: the genre is improving. Some of the YA stuff I've read recently has been spectacular in every regard, and the title and cover art have been PBS level rather than Fox News.

Watching the genre get better is a lot like raising a teen: you have to hope for the best while you wait for a lot of stuff to fade away.


Marcia said...

Wow, fantastic post. I love your explanation for not getting all huffy about the "real novel" remark. The very commercial books going for mass market appeal are about all that some people know of the genre, and I'm one who has to remember that.

Anne Spollen said...

I think the folks who are writing YA right now are seeing the change, the elevation actually, of the genre. The same can't be said for people who are browsing it - at least not yet, so we do have to remember their perspective.

The last time I went for an eye exam, the doctor asked if I did a lot of reading and fine print work. I explained that I taught and wrote, and when I said YA, he looked at me, puzzled, and said, "What? You mean like the Hardy boys?"


Mike Collins said...

What about wizards and fairies in YA? Do you think that hurts YAs reputation?

Anne Spollen said...

Hi Mike. Wizards I don't know much aoout, and my daughter is obsessed with fairies, so of course I think they are great. (It's the theme of her room, her reading material and much of her conversation)

But I also don't associate magical beings that much with YA, at least not the pleasant, happy ones like wizards and fairies. YA beings are are more demonically inclined, I think -- so wizards and fairies are more MG where I think they live pretty happily.

Carrie Harris said...

You've got me thinking again. I hope you realize how dangerous this is.

But seriously, I know what you mean. I think that some books are dumbed down in a misguided attempt to appeal to teens, which gives them that all fluff, no substance feel. And sure, I agree that we want to write books that will appeal to teens, because otherwise they're not going to read them. (Kind of obvious, I know, but bear with me.) But there are plenty of books that are entertaining without being fluff, and those are the books that make me proud to write YA.

Sure, I write about superheroes and zombies and stuff like that, but that doesn't mean that it has to be vapid.

Anne Spollen said...

I think you could write about superheroes and zombies and probably even vampires and werewolves if the writing is really good. Hell, you could feature an air duct in your story if you're really talented.

It's when the zombies and blood suckers are bleeding on the covers and the books have sentences like, "He had no remorse about the ancient curse that made him immortal and immoral at the same time." Ow.

Mary Witzl said...

In our local library back in Scotland, the MG/YA section had more Goosebumps and Sweet Valley Twins than I wanted to see. But then the adults' section had a disproportionate number of Danielle Steele's and Catherine Cookson's novels...

As to your ophthamologist's Hardy Boys = YA comment and how reassuring: someone said something similar to me a while back: "Ooh -- I love YA -- like Nancy Drew, right?" But you really can't get huffy: why should people who don't write it understand? It's a bit like my brother-in-law wondering why I don't write the next DaVinci Code: if he has to ask, he'll never know.

Anne Spollen said...

Not that there's anything wrong with Nancy Drew...I used to love those books, but I know.

It's an up and coming genre, and like most up and coming things, it's going to take a while before it gets respectable.

Carrie Harris said...

Admission time: I now want to write about a zombie air duct, just to prove that it can be done.

Anne Spollen said...

Go right ahead, Carrie: I'll bet you can do it! Do the zombies live in the air duct or just come out of it? Or is it a zombie air duct as in it is physically in the place where the zombies are? And I am going to stop typing now because these are probably the two most bizarre sentences I've ever strung together in my life.

Still, if you do come up with something, we'd all love to see it.