The Thinking Chair: Young Adult Fiction, RE: Slate

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Slate recently released an OpEd article about the young adult genre ( http://slate.me/1nmpVgH ). 

I’m not going to pretend to be a champion of young adult fiction. On a personal level, I find that young adult doesn’t do it for me, but I’ll talk about that later. 

The slate article claims: 

(1) Young adult is all about wish fulfillment. 

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

Graham wants to argue that distinct endings are inherently bad. They don’t reflect reality, and, thus, ought to be rejected out of hand.

I’ll be honest. I’m a fan of messy endings. I do think they reflect reality, and I often want to see reality reflected in the literature I read. I do think that YA does this because, in large part, its proclaimed audience is younger (13-17 years old) and does not always seek out stories that don’t resolve themselves. The reasons behind this are vast and change with the reader. 

I’ll be honest. This is one of the reasons that I don’t find YA particularly satisfying. I like things unresolved (Granted I also enjoy the occasional lighter read that does resolve itself). 

However, should you be ashamed of reading YA because it has resolved endings?

Of course not. The truth is that people like resolved endings. Most books that we read are stand-alone. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting a resolved ending. Resolution is one of those things that we want as humans. It’s why we pick at those unresolved problems in our lives even weeks or months after we claim to let them go. To ask for a resolved ending in a story that will, in fact, end in page numbers, if not always in plot, is not unreasonable. Nor does having a resolved ending make a story any less valuable in its plot, character development, or overarching cohesion. 

(2) The author writes that:

I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives. But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up. 

I’m not going to address this point in detail, but a person’s individual feelings (the desire to present one’s self as more adult than they are) doesn’t mean anything regarding what someone else’s feelings ought to be. 

So, should the teenage desire to be seen as an adult mean that you, an adult reader, should be ashamed of reading YA?

Of course not. Let’s ignore the total pretension of this claim (The author may as well be saying that they’ve always been sophisticated and why aren’t you) and instead talk about the more basic claims.

You shouldn’t ever feel like your voluntary entertainment needs to meet anyone else’s standards. Whether or not a kid wants to read literature above their typical age level is a good thing or not, as an adult, you should feel free to read whatever you want and you should feel confident that you know your entertainment desires more than anyone else. At the end of the day, you’re an adult. Whether you want to pick up a copy of a middle grade, YA, or adult fiction novel is not anyone else’s business and someone else’s opinion should change your desire to pick out what you think will keep you interested and entertained. 

(3) The author is concerned whether YA novels are “literary enough”

Literary fiction is not the only thing in the world. NOR SHOULD IT BE. To pretend that the young adult genre doesn’t offer anything in the way of complex topics or narrative sophistication is a total denial of the multitude of worthwhile reads that are in the genre. 

I’m not going to pretend that I find the YA genre to offer much in the way of literature in the classical sense. I often find it to be lacking in character development and topical considerations. I often find that the way topics are tackled lacks complexity that appeals to me more now that I am an adult. 

Does this mean you should feel ashamed to read YA?

Of course not. I don’t read all of my books in order to be a sophisticate. I read because reading is my preferred form of storytelling. Reading offers an insight into human nature that cannot be conveyed in visual media. Regardless of whether a novel meets up to an arbitrary standard of literature, this storytelling advantage is there. It should not be put down simply because the storytelling isn’t poetic enough or the topic not complex enough. 

True. I don’t always find fulfillment in young adult fiction. But, my opinions or anyone else’s shouldn’t change anyone else’s opinion. It’s hard to ignore people’s criticism, but as an adult, you should be working towards, if not already have achieved, a sense of confidence in your ability to determine what you like. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

 

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