I wasn’t happy with the brief things I said over on Meeka’s blog about young adult literature. First, it sounded like I was slagging it, and I’m not. Second, it wasn’t an elaborate critique of it, which I will attempt here. Like I said over there, if you want to read someone who loves this stuff, read Thomas blog. Otherwise, here’s why I resist young adult literature, or at least the labelling of it.
In a certain way the young adult genre has never seemed to me to be anything more than a label that limits how you can write. There are obvious genres that exist for marketing purposes, of course, like SF and Fantasy. Why those genres exist is fairly obvious. They are guides for the readers. Some readers want to read about spaceships, others want to read about elves and magicians. It’s an easy genre that is logical.
Then there are more subtle genres like the “young adult” genre, and I think you get into more of a murky reasons for why the genre exists. What does that “young adult” even mean? Arent “young adults” actually adults at all? Are they lesser than adults? Do they have different needs and wants from other adults?
In the UK there doesn’t exist anything called YA; not really. It is more of an American thing, although American influences are starting to “create” that genre even in Britain. If you go into a bookshop in Britain, you won’t find sections of it dedicated to “young adult”. That may be changing, but it’s not a big feature yet.
In Britain The demarcation is between Children’s literature and adult literature. Harry Potter would be considered children’s literature. “The Brothers Lionheart” by Astrid Lindgren is considered Children’s literature. But where does a book like “Junk” by Melvin Burgess fit into an arbitrary genre demarcation? In the US Junk is marketed as “young adult fiction”. In Britain? Not so much.
Junk (which is called “Smack” in the USA) is about Tad and Gemma, two fourteen year olds, and the book is about their destruction. They run away from home to the streets of Bristol, get involved with heroin use, become addicted, and at one point the book describes how Gemma turns to prostitution to fund her habit.
It is a dark book that describe the dangers of drug use, and it is nearly 20 years old now. Still, it’s a powerful read that serves well as the example of what I’m talking about. Smack, the US version, is presented as an example of “edgy young adult” literature.
Whenever I object to the label “young adult” it is held up as an example that YA is not limited. It is true that YA is not limited in subject, and for natural reasons this is a book that is banned in many places in the USA as an example, as one reviewer put it, “the habitual amorality of the British, a book in the same mould as the Skins TV show”. But that’s not the limit I talk about. I’ll get to that later.
“Men då sa Jonatan att det fanns saker som man måste göra, även om det var farligt. ’Varför då’, undrade jag. ’Annars är man ingen människa utan bara en liten lort’, sa Jonatan.”
My translation: “But then Jonatan said that there were things you had to do, even if it was dangerous. ‘Why is that,’ I wondered. ‘Otherwise you’re not a human being, but just a little poop’, Jonatan said.”
Particularly the ending of this book has made it so that “The Brothers Lionheart” joins “Smack” on the banned book list in some places, but also central strands of themes in the book are complex and difficult.
Death, the meaning of being human, the responsibilities inherent in being human, pain and loss are often themes that Astrid Lindgren cover. Other books with different tacks on these things are “Mio, my Mio” and “Ronya, The Robber’s Daughter”.
So, there is no limit on what can be written about, but the reason I’m not a fan of the label of young adult literature is that the quote below implies that it is written to a spec for the genre. The spec deals more with how it is written, and what assumptions you make. And I think the assumptions inherent in that spec is more like this.
This is a view I come across quite a bit, and if this view is correct then I am incapable of making decisions about school, education, the future, and my own life. Me living with Mark for the last two years should, in this perspective, be treated as gross negligence on the part of our parents, and probably be an example of child abuse by way of neglect. The quote is about something so simple as sex and age of consent.
The logical conclusion is that if sixteen year olds can’t decide about who to have sex with, they must also be incapable of much more esoteric and elaborate and long-term decision about what school to enrol in, and what courses to apply for.
Carry that attitude over to literature, and you start to get an idea of why some people push for books to be written in a certain way with simplified language, a ban on having characters older than teens as main POV characters, and an immediate teenage voice – rather than to explore themes and conflicts in whatever way is needed for the story.
The how then eventually limits the what.