Why the Pushback on YA?

Every other week, it seems, I’m reading an article attacking young adult literature. It’s trashy, it’s too dark, it’s not dark enough, it’s juvenile, it’s too sexy, it focuses too much on girls…the list seems endless, as Aja Romano pointed out at the Daily Dot earlier this year. In response to every ludicrous opinion piece on YA arises a whole new slew of responses from people ardently defending YA and the genre’s place in the literary canon; talking about its rich history, about the diversity of the genre, about what it does for both young adults and older adults (olds?) who read it.

Yet, the masterstroke may have come from author Kathleen Hale, who wrote an absolutely fantastic piece at Nerve that expressed what many of us are thinking when we read these columns: I honestly don’t care what you think, you bigoted old windbag, this genre is obviously not for you, so why are you talking about it as though you have some kind of authority as a reviewer or commentator?  Hale captured the important essence of a point that often seems to go undiscussed: Simply not liking something doesn’t qualify you as a critic, and being ill-read in a genre makes you even less of an adequate critic.

Though YA isn’t actually a genre so much as a publisher’s label. It’s a categorisation for a huge class of books written by people who are targeting teens and, yes, young adults — a label which can be quite malleable — with their writing. They’re thinking of people anywhere from 13 to 30 and beyond, writing works of literature that might be intended to reach classic status…or just to entertain. YA, like adult fiction, is diverse. It has its own literary fiction, mysteries, romances, Westerns, and more, each written with slightly different audiences and goals in mind.

Confronted with the pushback against YA from adults, I often find myself mulling over why so many adults seem to think it’s so important to register their distaste with the genre, and their anger at other adults who read it. Adults have been trashing adult genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy for decades, and the stigmatization of readers who don’t read like you think they should has mapped over neatly to YA readers — who, like genre fiction readers, rarely read just YA, and instead read broadly in a range of areas. The teens I know are just as likely to be holding a copy of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as they are Illusive, because they’re drawn to books that interest them, whatever form that interest may take.

Adults seem extremely invested in making their disdain for this genre very, very clear, and I suspect that ageism plays a very large role in how adults interact with YA readers of all ages. It’s telling that many dismissals of YA target it for being ‘juvenile,’ for example, or ‘simplistic,’ or, simply, ‘written for children.’ Are we surprised that books written for and marketed to teens focus on juvenile — as in young adult, not as an epithet — concerns? Shouldn’t we note, with interest, that ‘juvenile’ has become an insult used to put people down, rather than a simple descriptor? A 16-year-old is juvenile. She’s not a fully-grown adult. She’s coming into her own. She’s dealing with a massive number of social inputs and internal pressures as she prepares to enter the world.

Shockingly, her concerns are different than those of the adults around her, because she’s living a different life than they are. Yet, the line between childhood and adulthood is increasingly blurring, because our very society is changing. Historically, it was common to marry young, settle in a job, stay there for life, and start having children. Now, people in their 20s and 30s are dating, in a social model that’s entirely new. They’re flitting between jobs. Their housing situations are often unstable. They’re creating new ground. They’re struggling to define themselves in a world that hasn’t created space for them — sound like anyone you know? How about millions of teens figuring out who they are in a world that disdains them for not being like the generation before?

Readers in their 20s and 30s, those much-maligned adults who are devouring YA, have a lot more in common with young adult readers than people seem willing to admit. They’re crushed under student loan debt, struggling in a crappy economy, living with parents or friends, not able to actually fully stretch their wings and fly on their own. While the exact nature of their lives isn’t a precise mirror of the teen experience — most 16-year-olds aren’t facing thousands of dollars in student loans — they are in an extended transition period that defies neat categorisation, and they’re struggling to understand why the promises made to them have been repeatedly and systematically broken, much like the young adults growing up behind them.

People determined to trash YA don’t seem interested in exploring why so many readers are entranced by it and getting value from it. They’re casting their own value judgements on YA — garbage, boring, for kids — but they’re not talking about the social and political shifts that have accompanied the YA renaissance, and the women fighting so hard to legitimise the books they write. Telling, too, that YA, heavily dominated by women, should be the target of so much ire as ‘garbage’ and ‘trash.’ Sexism and ageism wind together in quite a Gordian knot here, wouldn’t you say?