Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lifestyles of the rich and well-read

This week's media coverage of YA literature is brought to you in part by an opinion piece in the Tufts University Observer: Falling for Young Adult Literature.

I had high hopes for this piece, because it appears to be written by someone who has not only read more than two YA books in the past five years, but actually enjoys them. You all know I'm a big advocate for those over 18 reading YA.

The biggest problem with this piece (and yes, I know it's an opinion piece; that's why I have a blog, so I can disagree with opinion pieces) is a problem that YA librarians see every day when doing RA, collection development, and professional reading: YA literature is held to a different standard than adult literature. Not once does Ms Surya complain about the small, subpar selection of adult novels that has dominated the adult section of the bookstore for years, but the truth is that the percentage of great vs crappy adult novels is about the same as great vs. crappy YA novels. About three thousand YA novels come out every year. Every year, there are fights over what will win the Printz and every year, there are books that are quickly forgotten. Such is the way of reading and publishing.

I quote:

As a response to this recent sales explosion, publishers have started churning out YA books faster than Stephen King novels. A large chunk of the YA genre shows a trend toward developing books with poor writing, repetitive or clich├ęd plots, and an unnatural, unhealthy focus on romance.

What's wrong with this statement? A few things, if you ask me. First, she says "faster than Stephen King novels" like it's a bad thing. From what I've read and seen online, Stephen King is a dedicated, thoughtful writer and contributor to the art of writing. Also, what Ms Surya calls a trend of developing bad books is entirely a matter of opinion. Cliched plots? There are only 12 plots in all of literature. Poor writing? What makes for poor writing? Even I in my jaded years of reading YA have arguments (friendly ones!) with my colleagues about what good writing is and is not. Last, but not least, what exactly is an unnatural focus on romance, and do these unnatural books really make up a "large chunk of YA?" Books like Gossip Girl, states Surya, "are sad and inaccurate portrayals of teenagers today. Their characters are engulfed in worlds of beauty, fashion, and premature sex— two-dimensional universes that unfairly stereotype teenagers. These authors fail to provide us with any kind of critical lens for our lives, reducing us to mere piles of Gucci and fluff." I think the unfair one here is Ms Surya, who fails to recognize that not all books about teens set out to portray their lives with middle-class accuracy. Books like Gossip Girl are meant to be over-the-top and escapist. They're meant to give a different slice of life. This goes back to the problem of holding YA to a different standard, both moral and quality in this case, than adult literature. Ms Surya seems to think that it is an author's responsibility, and especially a YA author's responsibility, to "provide us with any kind of critical lens for our lives" when in fact, this is not the job of a YA author or the YA genre. An author's job is to tell his or her story. Period. Authors, regardless of what age group they write for owe nothing to their audience except a story.

At the end, Ms Surya reassures us that though the YA market is seemingly dominated by crap, there is still hope in authors like Libba Bray. Well, that's nice. The closing paragraph of the piece begins:

I don’t just want to hear about the girl that I am—I want to know about the woman I will become or, more importantly, the woman I want to become. Books are meant to do more than indulge our fantasies.

That's all fine and good for Ms Surya, and to be fair this is her opinion piece, but isn't this statement a slap in the face to those of us who like to read to indulge our fantasies? Truth is, there is no wrong way to read. Books mean different things to everyone and everyone reads for a different reason. Think of books in the same vein as movies. Some movies are meant to make you laugh, others to make you cry, others to make you think or scream. Books are the same. One art form is not better or more meaningful than the other.

When you read, in the immortal words of Hannah Montana, you can have the best of both worlds. I say we embrace the Gossip Girl and read for whatever reason is closest to our hearts. Even if our hearts contain nothing but Gucci and fluff.

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