Y are people still hating on YA?

This topic seems as old as the hills now, doesn’t it? The whole adult fiction=good, YA fiction=bad argument keeps cropping up in hoighty-toighty magazines, newspapers and blogs and, frankly, I’m sort of surprised. Wasn’t everybody convinced by Margo Rabb’s excellent essay in the New York Times, I’m YA and I’m OK? Maybe the snobs don’t read the New York Times. And they probably don’t read the outraged blogs of prominent YA authors ranting against the whole presupposition that if it’s for teens it’s “facile” and “uncomplicated”, to crib some vocab from this New Yorker article about Kathe Koja’s Headlong, which I got from Carrie Ryan’s blog this morning. And I’ve already talked about Caitlin Flanagan’s hilariously insane article about Twilight in The Atlantic (which, BTW, was a trivia question this Wednesday on pub quiz, and of course we got it right). “I hate YA novels; they bore me.” Riiiiiiiight.

If people are supposed to align themselves with “YA” or “adult”, then let’s talk about the stinkers Team Adult has put out recently, versus the rockstar books on the YA shelf. But, in truth, there are SO MANY BOOKS on the market, obviously some of them (in YA and adult both) are going to be terrible, uncomplicated, flacid, boring, badly written, poorly edited, full of flat characters with no real substance, preachy, dismal, or chaotic. That’s just the risk you run by producing art for consumption. It’s not always going to be deemed great by all, or most, or even some, of the population. But that really has nothing to do with YA v. adult. I’ve read some really dumb adult books in my day, believe me. The shelf a book appears on, the catalog it shows up in, is not an arbiter of quality. DUH. You know what’s facile? The argument that if it’s YA it’s simple and if it’s adult it’s brilliant and complex.

I never set out to write YA. I never set out to write not YA, either, I just never gave it a lot of thought because I didn’t start learning about the market until a few years ago. I was writing All Unquiet Things and focusing on the story, when my grad school adviser told me, “This is great, but you know it’s YA, right?” I didn’t, but that was actually the best thing anyone had ever said to me, because then I went home and I wore Google out investigating every aspect of YA. That research has not only helped me in my writing career, but it helped me get my job at Browne & Miller, through which I met Joanna, who is now my agent, and it helps me in my day job all the time. Once Nic made me think about it, I was like, “Of course YA! That’s the perfect place for this book.” And I’ve never looked back.

In my opinion, there is a reason why YA and children’s books are doing fine (even well, in some cases) in this terrible economy while adult imprints are struggling, being reorganized, freezing acquisitions, and enduring layoffs. Part of that is, as people have said, because adults scale back their own purchases but still buy their kids things, I’m sure. But I think a lot of it has to do with how innovative the genre is, how many good books are being put out that adults are buying because they’re making such a splash (hello The Hunger Games), and, most importantly, how deeply supportive YA authors are of each other. The world of adult books is fraught with contempt and competition, especially in the “literary” genre. YA authors, however, are using the mediums of their audience to communicate with that audience, and they support each other immensely. What a great place to be a debut author. I’m so lucky.

I have to say that I’ve gotten nary a negative glance about writing YA from the people I tell about selling AUT. Everybody’s just really excited about my book and my accomplishments. Maybe some of my snobby undergrad or grad schoolmates would be condescending about it, but I don’t talk to those people, so I have no idea. I’m proud of my book. I’m proud of the books I read by other YA writers I admire. And my friends and family are proud of me. That’s all I care about.

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Sex-y time

There are some debates happening on various blogs about sex in YA and whether or not we YA writers have a responsibility to the Truth (as we see it, of course) or to our readers and their parents. Well, of course we have a responsibility to our readers, but what does that responsibility consist of with regards to sex scenes in the books we write for them?

Well, it’s not an easy question. I was just going through John and Hank Green’s Brotherhood 2.0 vlogs the other day and I watched one entitled “I Am Not a Pornographer”, in which John Green explained why the sex scene in his Printz Award-winning Looking for Alaska was not porn.

Sayeth the John:

Pornography is designed to titillate. I don’t think there’s a single halfway normal person in the world who would find a single thing in my book in any way arousing. There is one very frank sex scene [I believe here he’s talking about (white text to prevent spoilage) when Miles gets a blow job]. It is awkward, unfun, disastrous, and wholly unerotic…the whole reason that scene in question exists in Looking for Alaska is because I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene, when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s ultimately very emotionally empty, and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection. The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails…it doesn’t take a deeply critical understanding of literature to realize that Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.

I personally think that’s a pretty made of awesome way to put that, but let’s be honest, not every sex scene in a YA novel is meant to explore that same idea. For a very personal instance, there is a sex scene in my novel. It is short and non-explicit, but it is not lacking in emotional intimacy in the same way that Green’s scene is. It is, in essence, a poor choice on the part of the protagonists because it is motivated on one side by a deep feeling of loss and tragic desire for oblivion, and on the other side a desire to make things better and the knowledge that he cannot, but it does not ruin them. There’s a fuzziness to the act, like it may or may not have contributed to the failure of their relationship, but I think that it comes from the same place inside Protag #3 (you don’t know how badly I want to use names) as the behavior that does cause the failure of their relationship, so, like, who knows?

I didn’t include the scene to make a statement about whether or not teenagers should have sex (although I think they shouldn’t), or whether or not they do have sex (of course they do). The sex that my protagonists have is not emotionally empty–actually, I think perhaps that it’s too full of emotion, and the act is an attempt to express and reconcile those emotions by using the body and the other as a conduit, which does not–and cannot–work because the emotions are to big for the act. Does that make any sense? They are using the act in an attempt to express those things that they cannot say to each other, because they’re too young and immature to recognize the depth and seriousness of their own emotions. But I think the lesson is pretty much the same–whether there’s too much emotion or too little involved in a teenage sex act, in at least these two cases, the physical act is a cheap stand-in for really understanding and sharing with someone.

I don’t read a whole ton of YA, but I suspect that there are sex acts in some YA novels (perhaps more than I think) that are meant to be titillating. I mean, hi, the entire Gossip Girl series? I think that probably however sex is presented in YA novels directly corresponds to how the author of the novel feels about teen sex.

I think this argument comes down, at the root, to what you’re trying to say. Even though I don’t think it’s necessary (or even good) that any given book have a specific “message” or “lesson” to “teach” to the reader, I think that most books written by contemplative authors do end up having a sort of thesis, which is pretty much the author’s world view or a world view the author aspires towards or fears. I think every book is a reflection of the heart and mind of the author when she or he wrote it, and readers respond to that as much as they respond to any other factor that determines how good or bad they think a book is (the writing, the characters, the plot, etc.). YA novels are the same, and YA authors are the same, and how an author writes about sex is part of that world view. There is no right or wrong but instead a desire–even a duty–to be authentic to the characters as you wrote them and to the world as you see it.