Is it fair to compare incomparable literature?

| Monday, November 14, 2011
Today's Tune: L.G. FUAD

Thanks to everyone who entered my contest and who's been visiting over the last few weeks! It's so nice to see so many new faces around the blog. Welcome! The contest is now closed. Winners will be announced later this week, so stay tuned!

So here's a thing I think about a lot, especially given what I write: is it appropriate or reasonable to compare YA literature to adult literature? Also, is it reasonable to compare literary fiction to commercial fiction?

It's an interesting concept to consider. I write what's considered to be literary prose with a commercial plot, and I've often contended with people outside the publishing sphere who've read my work and asked me if I thought I was writing too "advanced" for teens. Funnily enough, I've never received that question from fellow YA writers or any of the agents who've read my work. So I suppose I'm saying that I sort of straddle the line between commercial and literary, stereotypical YA and stereotypical adult.

First, I think it's probably a good idea to talk about how all books aren't created equal and different books have different goals. There are books out there whose intent is to make the reader feel or think, and there are books that exist to entertain. Some attempt both. I certainly attempt both. But considering that books fit different readers and their needs, is it reasonable to compare them side by side? Is it fair to compare a bestselling commercial thriller against a bestselling literary tale of loss?

I guess that depends on your definition of fair, but it seems odd to me when I read reviews of people comparing completely incomparable works. Disparaging people for being entertained by a certain book and belittling their intelligence because they're not reading *insert appropriate literary masterwork here* instead seems counterproductive to me. And I say that as a self-confessed intellectual who loooooves many a literary masterwork.

Next, let's talk about how this relates to YA. I've lost track of the number of reviews I've read where a reviewer said something along the lines of, "The protagonist is kind of a whiny brat and the plot was loose and cobbled together, but it WAS written for teens, so what did I expect?" Which saddens me, naturally. It implies that "literature for adults" is always sensical and solid, which is COMPLETELY untrue. As with adult literature, YA contains a breadth of genres and plotlines all across the board, and not all are going to be created equal. There are going to be sloppily written diatribes alongside works of heartrending beauty. That's the way of literature.

Which links in to the way people outside the YA sphere (or even within the YA sphere) view YA. It's the overall stereotypical belief that all literature for teenagers and children is less cerebral, less emotionally deep, and less thematic than work for adults. It's certainly different, because the audience has less life experience and thus less exposure to "complex" literature, but it's not a completely separate entity.

This attitude cracks me up, because I mean, anyone who could argue that one of those detective romance pulp novels where the roguish PI sweeps the bombshell mark off her feet amidst a hail of gunfire is more cerebral and emotionally complex than The Book Thief can pretty much bite me.

But here comes the rub: is it fair to compare YA to literature written for an adult audience? A big part of me says yes, that YA can be just as stirring and brilliant as adult literature. On the other hand, it is written with an entirely different goal in mind -- to speak to the teenage experience. And the teenage experience is, by definition, a different animal than the adult experience. When writing for an age group that just doesn't have the life experience and advanced education that many adults have under their belts, is it fair to compare Looking For Alaska to The Waves? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't.

I'm making my own brain hurt with this post. TOO MUCH THINKING FOR A SUNDAY EVENING.

What say you, reader-pals? Is it reasonable to compare commercial to literary, or YA to non-YA? Why or why not?


{ Yael } at: November 14, 2011 at 6:29 AM said...

I don't know if it's fair to use The Book Thief as an example. (I think it was actually shelved as "adult" in its native Australia.)

Overall, however, I do agree with you. I think a lot of the people who reject YA because of its "simpler themes and dumbed-down writing style" are people who haven't read a lot of YA, and as a result, they think it's all Gossip Girl and Twilight. Since they also tend to read less genre fiction, they often forget that most adult novels are crap, too.

I try to look at each book for its individual merits. Back in high school, I was more of a literary snob, and while I still appreciate a lot of it, a complex character in any scenario is much more important to me than navel-gazing about God and death.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: November 14, 2011 at 7:27 AM said...

Hmmm, not sure about how Book Theif was shelved in Australia, but I was primarily going off of what it's considered in the US, which is YA. It's won various school and library awards as well as awards for young readers and is placed on the children's bestseller list here. But then, that's part of the argument, isn't it? It's a highly literary novel with very big, mature themes, so it could potentially be considered as "for adults."

I'm totally with you on only being able to take so much navel-gazing. I've found that as I've matured as a reader, as much as I appreciate the language and thoughtfulness of literary works, as a reader I tend to prefer plots that move and well-crafted characters. Which isn't to say literary novels CAN'T have those things.

{ Old Kitty } at: November 14, 2011 at 8:47 AM said...

All I know is that the wonderful Terry Pratchett whose fantasy books are of the deepest philosophical nature is forever passed over by these big literary awards (ManBooker prize et al) solely and only because he writes a genre deemed too commercial and popular and (heavens to betsy) fantasy! Yikes.

Sorry, so not YA but he does write books specifically for the YA market (the Tiffany Aching series for eg).

Erm.. have I contributed to the debate!?! Prob'ly not! LOL! Off I go!

Take care

{ Brooke R. Busse } at: November 14, 2011 at 12:18 PM said...

As a teenager, first I must say that your novel does definitely appeal to teens. I loved it. I know I have friends who would have loved it. Second, I get quite angry when I see things like that. Just because I'm a teen, I have to be retarded? Just because I'm a teen, I have to read dumbed down writing?

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: November 15, 2011 at 6:26 AM said...

absolutely i think that YA can be compared to adult novels. But as in any comparison, there must be a commonality in which you're basing the comparison. such as NEVERWHERE and TITHE, both books are about finding hidden fantastical world alongside our everyday life. can we compare world building? certainly! technique? of course. villains, characters, whatever? i don't see why not. good literature is good literature, and we can learn so much by studying what works and doesn't work amongst stories cross-genre or spanning age differences, whatever. i really think a lot of YA writers (and adult writers) could really learn a lot by studying humor in MG (not all of it is crass or silly).
i might be really partial, because i love YA, i love the coming of age and own themes. i love the seemingly invincible outlooks at life, and the freshness or YA hopes and idealism. i love the passion of YA characters (in general). it's an age group that i find fascinating. and when i went to my book shelves to look for an adult book to compare, i was kind of hard pressed to find one! yikes! must work on that!
but, i don't know how someone who has read HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT or CRACKED UP TO BE or THE REPLACEMENT can say that YA writing is poor, a step below, or dumber than anything. i think that YA is ground-breaking and thought-provoking. it tends to deal with issues that adults have grown apathetic about. i don't know. i think i've gone of point here... because i do that.
but absolutely, if there's a commonality, compare that lit. no reason not to. same with literary and commercial- actually my ideal novel to read would be a balance there, like gaiman's work...

{ Jessie Humphries } at: November 15, 2011 at 12:11 PM said...

Honestly, I think all is fair in comparisons as long as they are reasonable and make sense.

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