I love YA. As we all know. I read a ton of it, I love interacting with YA authors, I love YA readers. I think it’s a fantastic genre with tons of potential and my favourite books right now are all YA. I’m not alone; crossover fiction appealing to adults as well as teens and young adults is growing in popularity and there are lots of YA fans in their twenties, thirties, and beyond.
There are also, of course, haters. Genre bashing is a popular sport, whether people are dissing on romance, mystery, or Westerns, and YA is no exception. I’m inherently suspicious of anyone who declares blanket hate of an entire genre[1. ‘I hate rap.’ ‘Really? You’ve heard all rap music ever made and you’ve hated all of it?’], because it usually shows that the person isn’t actually reading or following what’s going on in the genre at the moment. It’s also indicative of some contempt for the readers; if you think a genre is pointless and dull and ridiculous, you’re also effectively saying the same thing about its readers.
In the case of YA, discussions about hatred of the genre often come with some serious ageism, as readers are attacked along with the books they love. Since we live in a society where teens are automatically positioned as less-than, it’s troubling to see people using YA as a front for saying nasty things about them, reminding them yet again that they don’t belong and aren’t real people in the eyes of adults. People declaring a vehement dislike for YA and its readers are just reiterating what the dominant class of society says, and they certainly aren’t adding anything particularly original or interesting to the discussion.
YA reads and feels differently from adult literature, because it is aimed at people who are at a different stage of their lives. When I was 14, I didn’t get a lot out of The Scarlet Letter, widely regarded as a literary classic, because it didn’t really speak to me at all. That changed when I was 20, and when I read it again at 25 with more awareness of the themes, and the eyes of someone who had some life experience to approach the book with, a greater understanding of what Hawthorne was doing and why. Many adults don’t like reading YA because it’s not for them; it doesn’t speak to their experiences or needs as readers.
That doesn’t mean it’s useless, or that people who do need YA are somehow lesser human beings. They’re often younger human beings, and they’re often grappling with things adults have already moved past, like exploring their sexuality for the first time, preparing to leave home, getting jobs, and going through lots of other first life experiences. Growing up is a scary and complex and sometimes overwhelming thing where all sorts of stuff is going on, and books are one way to help some people process that, to let them know they are not alone and that other people have made it through this.
YA is dismissed as childish and irrelevant, particularly YA fantasy. In doing so, people often sneer at readers, suggesting that young adult readers have no taste, no ability to read complex texts, and nothing to add to conversations about literature and society. This neatly writes off teens as a group, and also dramatically underestimates their awesomeness and abilities. Like other human beings, teens are a diverse bunch, and the tastes of YA readers are incredibly varied, both socially and literarily. Some are reading a wide range of books and turning their reading into social action; look at John Green’s fans, many of whom are teens and many of whom have been involved in serious social campaigns. Likewise with the Harry Potter Alliance, which was recently featured in The New York Times; how many adult readers bashing teens can say that about themselves?
Bashing teen readers reinforces an age divide, creating artificial barriers that are hard to break down. Framing teens with contempt means that they have no reason to want to interact with adults, let alone participate in adult activities and projects. The same contempt for YA readers comes up in dismissive conversations about teens in other media contexts, particularly teen girls. Teen girls like trashy movies. LiveJournal is a useless diary site for pathetic teen girls. Teen girls on Tumblr have no social purpose. In the perception of a lot of adults, teen girls should never be seen or heard, and should quietly hide somewhere until they are ‘mature.’
At the same time, these adults provide absolutely no guidance or assistance to help teens get ‘mature.’ In bashing YA and other media loved by teens, they send the message that their interests are pathetic and tasteless, but don’t invite them to participate in adult media, if they think that’s what teens should be engaging with. In telling teens that they are bad people, adults may succeed in forcing teens to ‘go somewhere else’ to interact and explore popular culture and build friendships and relationships, but they’re also replicating the same systems that they themselves probably railed against as teens, where some people are regarded as inherently more trustworthy, reliable, and authoritative simply because of their age.
Every time I see people trashing YA, I catch a whiff of this disdain for teens and their habits. Genre bashing in general bores me, but when it comes with an extra side of hatred for consumers of that genre, I’m even less thrilled. You want to evaluate themes in YA and talk about media positioning and discuss the impact of YA on society, probing into some of the negative aspects of some common themes, I’m on board. You want to say YA is stupid and so are its readers? You’re not impressing me at all.