On the "insipidness" of YA

| Monday, January 9, 2012
Today's Tune: I Will

I'm kind of cheating at blogging today and re-posting something I put up on AbsoluteWrite this weekend. But it's something I'm really interested in! And I want to talk about it more! Yeah. Long post ahead, but I hope you'll read and comment. I'm very interested in your thoughts.

So, Walter Dean Myers (author of MONSTER, HOOPS, and many other books about urban teen life) was recently named National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, right? Well, his appointment inspired this article in which a former high school teacher and literature lover speaks against his placement and implies that YA is not and can not be the equivalent of "literature that should elevate."

Originally Posted by Alexander Nazaryan:

"But [Myers'] mission is bound to fail, I am afraid. I thought it then, as I watched boys wrestle between desks over who would read “Bad Boy” or “Hoops” next. I think it now, with Myers having ascended to the heights of the YA world. Because while his own story is inspiring, his books are insipid.

I think that because I am an unashamed, unapologetic believer that the purpose of literature is to elevate. Not to entertain, to problematize or to instruct, but to take what Hamlet called our “unweeded garden” and revel in its thorns. Not to make the world pretty, but to make it true, and by making it true, make it beautiful. All real art is high art.

Myers’ books on the other hand, are painfully mundane, with simple moral lessons built into predictable situations: the projects, prison, redemption."

Basically, the guy is saying that kids reading YA is essentially a pointless exercise that will get them nowhere and teach them nothing of value, and that they should be reading "the classics" in order to gain true value from literature. This is, of course, flawed thinking for numerous reasons, but that wasn't even what caught my eye in this article.

What caught my eye were some of the comments.

Originally Posted by Rigsy:

"I think the phrase, "the purpose of literature is to elevate. Not to entertain, to problematize or to instruct," will be a point of contention. The reason is that the terms are broad, and you left them undefined.


My point is that [had you better defined your points,] you'd have covered your ass for the inevitable reaction from the consistently childish YA industry. And if they couldn't pick on that, they might have to present their own ideas for literature, for whatever goals might be considered worthwhile (or those that may be considered unworthy). It would certainly elevate the conversation.

But I get the impression from YA professionals (mostly the writers I've met, and they have been legion), that they don't like to think harder thoughts. Often, they popped over to the YA side because the community has that air of do-as-you-please carelessness. The critics mostly assess work based on whether or not they liked the protagonist. And anyone trying to grapple with the tough questions is pretentious. I get the impression that many of them haven't quite dealt with their own high school experiences, or wish to revisit them now that they're sufficiently strong enough to handle it. Much of Twitter, the blogs, etc, seems to be a population of grown-ups acting like their characters...and let's face it, kids don't like homework."

Originally Posted by Alexander Nazaryan:

"The following comment was related to me (author of the above original post) by Catherine McCredie, a senior editor of young adult fiction at Penguin Group Australia. Her response, in full:

This is (to my ears) a fresh and welcome attack on contemporary young adult literature. Those of us who produce YA literature are used to hearing that too much of it is too dark, but we don’t usually hear it’s too insipid. And I agree that most of it probably is, just as most contemporary adult novels probably are – especially compared with the ancient classics.

As someone whose job it is, in part, to look out for new talent, I search for that manuscript that has ‘the life force’ amid the reams of competent but uninspired writing that we receive, and have rarely seen it. So much of it, like so many people you encounter, is just mimicry.


Note: That last quote is taken out of context, so you should definitely go read the entire comment at the bottom of the comment thread, but the point made here is the one that caught my eye.

These comments naturally made me do the squinty side-eye, but I don't know that I think they're entirely unfounded. This is how people outside the YA community view it. They look at (some of) us and how we act and respond to criticism of our work or genre, and they see a tightly-knit group of grown-up children who like to stick their fingers in their ears and go "la la la" after they pat each other on the back.

This is something I think about a lot a lot a lot. I write genre fiction. I am under no illusions that I'm writing the next great work of literary nirvana or anything. Even so, I do want my work to be literary. I want it to be elevated. This is exactly why I buck so hard every time someone (usually not a writing/publishing professional) tells me they think my writing is too "high" for teenagers. No, it isn't. I wrote it that way on purpose. Because I think teenagers deserve and can handle elevated language and themes. So there.

I want to be told if my work is not as good as it could be. I want it to be better. I want to eventually write something that will shut the mouths of all these people who think literature written for youth is this immature, lesser, invaluable thing.

And because of this, the comments above make me cringe and make me angry, but I don't think they're entirely off the mark. This is why I get so upset when the YA community behaves in the way of the recent (and past) Goodreads and blog war debacles. Because that kind of stuff just proves these people right. Unless we can show them, not just tell them, but SHOW THEM, that we are capable of handling criticism like professionals and adults, then what they're saying holds water. This is why I think it's important for us to learn to think critically of ourselves and our community and not fall into the trap of isolation and surrounding ourselves with yes-men.

At the same time, I think it's dangerous to get into specifics about which books are "quality literature" and which are "insipid." Obviously, that is highly subjective and NO ONE will agree. Nor should they. Not everyone is at the same reading level or has the same reading needs. I admit I tend to fall on the side of intellectualism, but even so, I acknowledge the value and merits of what most people would call "fluff" fiction. Not everyone wants or needs a complex brain workout with their literature. Reading is reading. There should be something out there for everyone.

Okay, now I'm totally rambling and this post is WAY WAY WAY TL;DR and I apologize. But I thought it'd be an interesting discussion topic to bring to the table.

So. Thoughts?


{ Sean Wills } at: January 9, 2012 at 6:34 AM said...

These comments naturally made me do the squinty side-eye, but I don't know that I think they're entirely unfounded. This is how people outside the YA community view it. They look at (some of) us and how we act and respond to criticism of our work or genre, and they see a tightly-knit group of grown-up children who like to stick their fingers in their ears and go "la la la" after they pat each other on the back.

(Emphasis added)

I'm really glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. I've been following the online YA community for a while now, and sometimes the air of false cutesiness is kind of suffocating. There are only so many times you can watch conversations between fully-grown adults that boil to 'OMG OMG OMG love your book!!' before it starts to get a bit cloying.

Not that other writing communities are necessarily flawless, mind you (there's a reason why I don't engage more with the adult SF community), but at least they seem REAL. I've never been able to shake the feeling that a lot of YA 'people' - authors, agents and readers alike - are projecting some sort of hyper-friendly persona onto the internet. I mean, no wonder we look ridiculous to outsiders.

Also, this:

The critics mostly assess work based on whether or not they liked the protagonist.

Again, it's not limited to YA by any means, but it does seem far more prevalent in YA.

{ Rachel } at: January 9, 2012 at 7:14 AM said...

(Found you via Sean's link at GR - thanks Sean!)

Great post. What people who praise the classics also frequently forget is that a classic is simply a book that has survived, and the ones people bothered to hold onto and pass down were the BEST. Percentage-wise, there was as much insipid crap published in the past as in the present. If you've never heard of any of it, that's because it didn't stand the test of time.

I used to work at an antiquarian bookstore; that's what gave me my perspective on this. People would bring in books to sell, assuming that anything old must be worth something, only to be disappointed. This book you found in your attic is obscure for a reason: it's a tedious piece of dreck.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: January 9, 2012 at 7:32 AM said...

Thanks for your insight, Sean and Rachel!

FTR: I am in complete agreement that the inability to accept criticism gracefully (even pointed, snarky criticism) and the existence of what some would deem "insipid" books exists across all fiction genres, not just YA. But I think there's an issue with us being very, very public via our Internet presence, and with our behavior being easily compared to our chosen topics.

What I mean to say is, it's extremely easy for someone outside the community to come in and say, "Oh look, a bunch of big teenagers who never grew up." The opinion that kidlit/YA is immature or lesser literature isn't a new thing. So. I think it's important to be mindful of that. I don't think it's going to stop -- no matter what we release or how THE BULK OF US act, I'm pretty sure some people will always hold that opinion of us. But why give them the fodder, you know?

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: January 9, 2012 at 7:37 AM said...

Also FTR, I wouldn't want to give up the kindness and support the YA community has shown me. It's awesome to have that. At the same time, I do still want contemporaries who are willing to look at my work critically and help me grow, and who won't be mortally offended if I do the same.

{ Emy Shin } at: January 9, 2012 at 7:44 AM said...

You, my dear, are entirely awesome.

I have to admit, my first reaction upon reading the article and some of the comments is one of outrage. Because, really. Who is to define what is "elevated literature" and what is "insipid and merely entertaining"? Many of the current "classics" were, at the time they were written, entertaining and popular literature -- much the way YA and genre fiction are now. The thing is: I do think that some of the YA novels are genuine pieces of "literature." And that some of the literary novels aren't.

However, I agree entirely with your post. I love the YA community, I genuinely do. But I tend to stay out of most the debacles, even when I agree with the sentiments, because if I, somebody inside the community, cringe at some of the reactions to any sort of criticism to the genre and/or community -- then I can just imagine how we must look to outsiders.

{ Stessa } at: January 9, 2012 at 9:23 AM said...

I totally blogged about this today as well! http://stephsessa.blogspot.com/

{ Melanie Stanford } at: January 9, 2012 at 10:09 AM said...

I love to read books that are simply entertaining. Sometimes I read books that are "elevated" or "literary", and sometimes I want to read a book because I want to get lost in an adventure, or a love story or a fantastical world, and I couldn't care less how "elevated" it is. People should be able to read what they want and write what they want. But also realize that not everyone is going to love the same things they do.

{ Seabrooke } at: January 9, 2012 at 1:03 PM said...

My husband is a big proponent of the classics. I could definitely see him, in slightly different circumstances and with a slightly different personality, making some argument along the lines of Nazaryan's. He's on occasion told me flat out I should read more classics and consider writing more like that because that's good writing and obviously what people want to read, and I can see him do a mental nose-wrinkle whenever he lifts my latest library loan off my desk to examine the cover (though he would never admit to this).

The thing is, I have no interest in the classics. I read, and have always read, primarily to be entertained, and more than that, to escape my real-world problems. I was emotionally bullied by peers growing up; books were my refuge. I was not looking to be elevated, I was looking to forget for a while. These days my bullies are more along the line of bills and sick pets and other worries that prey on my thoughts, but the books I read are no less a safe place for my mind. If along the way I am given cause to pause and consider something I hadn't before, bonus, but it's not why I read.

I don't think it's fair for one group of people to tell another group what their values should be. I don't like being told I should be worshiping God and Jesus, I don't like being told I should be using a Mac and not a PC, I don't like being told I should read classics and not recent genre fiction. I have my reasons for being atheist, using a PC, and reading YA. They're not your reasons for being Christian, using a Mac, and reading classics. And there's nothing wrong with that. We're neither of us wrong, we're each living according to our needs and preferences.

Aside from all that, I /do/ in fact think that reading YA can have the ability to elevate. What are the odds that those same boys are going to be fighting between the desks over a copy of, let's say, Moby Dick? Treasure Island? Robinson Crusoe? Sure, there's action, there's story, but many (I won't say all or even most) are going to find the books a slog. So if the choices are between reading YA or not reading at all - as seems to be the case with so many youth these days, especially boys - I'd much rather have the boys read "insipid" YA. Reading improves grammar and vocabulary and has the potential to open your mind to other experiences and ideas. I don't care what their noses are in, I'd much rather they be reading something than be sprawled on the couch watching sitcoms or playing shooters.

{ Seabrooke } at: January 9, 2012 at 1:04 PM said...

As for the behaviour of authors et al within the YA community, I don't really know what other author communities are like so can't really comment. Perhaps we are largely a group of adults who never grew up... but I don't know that there's anything wrong with that. Recently my mom and I had a discussion about clothing, wherein she pointed out that, at 31, I'm an adult and much closer to middle-age than I am to my teen years, and there's nothing wrong with dressing that way. As if I was being peer-pressured into dressing young, and not because I was doing it by choice because I preferred the look of it to loose blouses and waist-high jeans. Same thing with behaviour. Yes, there are certain aspects of being an adult that I would expect us to all add to our public personas - a sense of maturity and responsibility for our actions, for instance, and not using the anonymity of the internet as a screen to hide behind as we make petty comments. But if we want to tell other authors whose work we enjoyed that "OMG OMG OMG love your book!!" (to quote Sean), is there anything wrong with that? Who's it hurting?

I think the idea of "adult" versus "teen/youth" behaviour is largely an abstract and subjective construct. I think that becoming an adult has less to do with the language you use or the clothes you dress in as it does with a sense of taking responsibility for your actions and applying the wisdom that comes with age to consider situations before acting. I wouldn't say that YA hosts any more petty or irresponsible authors than any other genre; the difference is that YA seems to be more of an outgoing, open community with a stronger web presence, and as a result, that small percentage of irresponsible people are much more visible in this genre than others.

And now that I've written a small essay (it was too long to post as a single comment!), I'll stand down. ;) Sorry for the rambling! Great, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) post.

{ Carrie K Sorensen } at: January 9, 2012 at 1:16 PM said...

I agree with you that teenagers can understand more complex terms and concepts than the fluffier books present to them them, and hope my own writing caters to that line of thought as you hope yours does. This is why we can teach them the classics and they can understand.

More on the MA front, having taught 4th and 5th grade, many of them just aren't ready for the classics. MA and YA books can help form the more complex understanding of literature before moving on by both teaching and entertaining. That fact can make the newer, popular books of today have an 'elevating' element, even if it's not the one some people think it should be.

I think as long as we're teaching well written books while keeping in mind age and developmental factors, new readers will eventually be able to decide and distinguish for themselves what is 'elevating,' which should be the point of learning - creating independent, educated individuals.

{ Andrew Leon } at: January 9, 2012 at 4:13 PM said...

I think there's too much here to talk about (especially in the time I have available at the moment), but I do want to make a couple of points:

1. I've spent a lot of time working with teenagers, and, amazingly enough, adults often think teens aren't capable of, well, anything. Very often, in conversations with parents (or whoever) about behavior (or whatever), the response would be "you can't expect" X behavior from a teenager. My response would always be "yes, I can."

2. I hate the YA and MG labels. I hate that people want to call my book one of those things. The fact that my MC(s) is a kid doesn't -make- it "childish" (or whatever) any more than The Chronicles of Narnia or A Wrinkle in Time. I wrote a fantasy story that happens to be about kids. Of course, part of the reason I hate the label is because of the behavior of the YA community in general and the fact that so many of them aspire only to write the insipid.

{ We Heart YA } at: January 9, 2012 at 4:52 PM said...

Wow, what a minefield. We read the whole post, and we can see validity on many sides, but to be honest we'd rather not comment too in-depth. At least not here. We may think on this and do a post of our own. The bottom line is we agree with what you said about halfway through your remarks: reading is reading and there should be something for everyone. Why is there so much judgment? Argh.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

{ Mindy McGinnis } at: January 9, 2012 at 6:14 PM said...

I can't tell you how much I agree with the idea that teens are very capable of digesting tougher material. Does that mean it needs to be Crime & Punishment? No. I think YA in general is doing a better job of taking itself seriously, but at the same time there's room for what I call brain candy as well. Hmmm.... Maybe (gasp) it's no different than the adult market?

{ Brooke R. Busse } at: January 9, 2012 at 6:37 PM said...

I greatly appreciate your drive to write "elevating" books for teenagers as I think I have expressed to you before. Your respect for teens far surpasses that of other, supposedly "wiser," adults and for that I keep you in high regard. I have no words to fully express to you what I feel about this whole topic because I don't know exactly what I feel (I'm a broader), but I just wanted to express that to you.

{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: January 9, 2012 at 6:47 PM said...

Yeesh. I read the original article when it came out but hadn't followed the comments. A few thoughts:

1) This debate, as others have pointed out, ranges all over the place and not just in YA vs. Classics. Even within the English dept. at my college, I felt like I had to apologize for preferring Austen and Dickens (stories! about coming of age and falling in love and trying not to die of poverty! also jokes!) to Joyce and David Foster Wallace (footnotes! switchbacks! obscure references! pretty much exclusively male protagonists!) And don't get me started on my college Theater department, where my dear friend and I were all but shunned by several faculty members after taking the radical stance that Theater should sometimes be fun to make and watch and mounting a production of The Mystery of Irma Vep as our senior project (mummies! gothic parody! really nothing but jokes!) This is to say--I'm kind of over it. I'm perfectly capable of reading whatever I choose, and a lot of the time I choose YA. Sometimes I choose classics. Sometimes non-fiction, or poetry, or even David Foster Wallace (I try, and try, and try.)

2) There is too much crummy YA. That's why I try to be active in the online community, get exposed to as much as possible, make educated choices, and read as much as humanly possible of what I stock in my classroom. YA can elevate, and I try to find the best of it for my students. Then again, sometimes I go for the cheap thrill of getting a kid who's napped through my class all year to crack his or her first book since elementary school, and if it's trashy, so be it. On the other hand, I spent my summer guiding a motivated 11th grader through her first Austen novel via email. So there's a balance.

In summation:

Reading > not reading

Reading good books > reading crummy books

YA ≈ any other huge, burgeoning category of books

Good stories with likable protagonists = A-OK

{ R.C. Lewis } at: January 9, 2012 at 7:10 PM said...

I wonder if there's any category of the arts that doesn't suffer from this sneering-down-the-nose elitism.

Fact is, YA literature has as full a spectrum as any other category. Film has everything from super-artsy *cinema* to fun "popcorn" movies. Saying YA is insipid is like saying no good movies were made after 1974. It usually just means somebody's not taking a wide/large enough sample.

(Have I mentioned I hate generalizations?)

Totally agree on the way we need to present ourselves to "outsiders" as well.

{ Yael } at: January 9, 2012 at 8:09 PM said...

Honestly (and I hope I don't sound like a bitch) but I'm sick of hearing people complain about how "people think YA is insipid/silly/intellectually-inferior." If you want to change people's minds about YA, you should be having this discussion with the guy who wrote that article, not with a bunch of YA bloggers. (Most of us have already realized that teenagers can think for themselves.)

I do agree with your point about how one YA writer's flip-out makes all YA writers look bad, but what can you do? People in EVERY genre make asses of themselves on the internet. (Anne Rice, Christopher Pike, etc.)

{ Sean Wills } at: January 10, 2012 at 2:57 AM said...

But if we want to tell other authors whose work we enjoyed that "OMG OMG OMG love your book!!" (to quote Sean), is there anything wrong with that? Who's it hurting?

The problem isn't that people are dropping the occasional OMG into their tweets, it's that the YA community, particularly from an outsider's perspective, can often look as though its composed of nothing but 'OMG tweets'. I'm trying to remember the last time I came across a widely-known YA author discussing another YA author's work without it turning into a circlejerk (excuse the crassness, but that's what it is), and honestly, I can't. I mean, this blog post we're commenting on is one of the very few reactions to criticism of the YA community I've ever seen that doesn't come across as a knee-jerk 'everything is fantastic, boo negativity' response. I've even seen YA authors apologise prior to posting anything political or potentially controversial on their blogs, because...uh, they might be harshing all the squee, I guess?

I mean, I follow plenty of non-YA authors on Twitter and on their blogs, and the level of discourse among them is a LOT more mature than what I'm used to in the YA world. I don't see why we can't have that as well.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: January 10, 2012 at 5:23 AM said...

wow! great discussion going on!
i think with reading, as with many things, you only get out of it what you put into it.

there are many YA books out there that elevate.

but there are also many that basically entertain. (though i'd like to argue that sometimes there's more depth here if you take the time to look for it.)

i do think sometimes all the support and shared humor online would look silly to others. but i don't think a little silliness is a bad thing, or that it makes us not adults. adults can be silly, too.

but the level of maturity when it comes down to taking criticism... that's a very valid point, and an area where a few rotten apples gives the whole bushel the appearance of being spoiled.

{ Sarah Wedgbrow } at: January 10, 2012 at 6:59 AM said...

I've read the article and through most of the comments, and agree with both sides to an extent.

I've been on both sides. I studied literature, really enjoyed it, felt it was worth more than "insipid" stories. I wrote only literary short stories, and got good grades. I then went on to teach literature to college age students. I was elevated.

But the thing I enjoyed the most about teaching was not the stories I taught (Animal Farm...how you plague me!), but taking indecipherable concepts and breaking them down into stuff that made sense. For everyone.

Because I'm going to make my own controversial claims: Art should be accessible to ALL. Art should be affordable. Art should speak to the masses. Art should move (not just elevate).

I can pinpoint the moment that I read an "insipid" book and felt release from my literary bindings. I was inspired to do more, to be better.

Just as I found value in the classics, I found value in the more ancient craft of storytelling. We can call our writing modern, contemporary, but really these stories were conceived along with language.

My novels might be for a younger audience, but they don't belie the Realness of things. That would be irresponsible. I can think of countless examples of YA that are the exception to the "insipid."

What I like about the YA community is the positive energy because it is hard, lonely and discouraging work to be a writer. I don't think there's anything wrong with praising another writer's work, getting the word out, and generally being a cheerleader for a fellow writer.

Having said that, we don't have to plague the internet with OMG. There has to be a sense of genuineness, a further dialogue on critical issues.

I tend to read Kirkus reviews on books everyone is gushing over. I respect that source.

Just as I respect the shoulder shruggers of the world who have wordlessly mastered the best response to criticism.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: January 10, 2012 at 7:42 AM said...

AWESOME discussion, all. Thank you for indulging me.

Yael - I can respect your position, totally. I guess, for me, I think it might be easier to encourage discussion and change from within, rather than without. I think the people who view YA as "whateverwhateverwhatever" will always exist, but if we can internally give them no quarter for their criticism, well. That's okay with me.

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: January 11, 2012 at 7:07 PM said...

FWIW, late 19th/early 20th century there was a great and serious academic argument over whether or not to include American literature within the canon of "English" literature, which heretofore had been the province not of English _language_ lit, but of UK (or maybe mostly) _English_ lit. You can find the same arguments today regarding works written in English from South Africa and Australia.

All of which is to say, there are all kinds of reasons why we're going to segregate our reading lists and say that one is inherently superior to another (or to all of the rest). YA/MC sets itself a high bar in that it intentionally aims at a not-yet-mature-but-still-maturing demographic. It is also, historically, a fairly young category.

Which is pretty cold comfort when someone says we're copping out or aiming low or cutting corners, since all of this will change but probably not noticeably in our lifetimes.

{ hannah moskowitz } at: January 12, 2012 at 3:47 AM said...

Love this, thank you.

{ Cara M. } at: January 13, 2012 at 6:28 AM said...

You know, I'm someone who likes Classics. I love Ovid, and Catullus. I think Plato was a bit of a queer fish, but Euripides knew how to have a good time. I like sharing my favorite stories, and I adore good writing. But the truth is, most Classics are full of dirty jokes and political pandering. They're not worth this calvary charge in their favor.

Classics are important because they open the door on a completely different world, and a different worldview. That's what education is, seeing the world from someone else's perspective. But they were written by people embroiled in that perspective. They were chosen by historical accident, by the Church, by a highly ego-centric West that believed itself the heir of Greece and Rome. And yes, a lot of them are great stories, but we don't know if they're the best stories, because so much has been lost. I think of the burned library at Alexandria and I feel like I've been punched in the stomach.

What I can't stand is when people make pronouncements about categories of books that they haven't even read. I think one of the unsettling things about the YA market these days is that it's gotten so popular and prolific. I adore a lot of YA and MG books. I think they can be engaging and thoughtful and moving and thrilling. But I also think that we seem to be trying to turn YA into a genre, when it's not. YA can't be a genre, because young people don't all want one kind of book. And I am afraid that a lot of books are being published that could have been excellent rather than just okay if they had been worked on longer or if the author had wanted to reach a little higher and deal with a bit more complexity, but that's market forces at work, and there's nothing wrong with an okay book.

Insipid is a rather hilarious word- since it means lacking vigor and intensity, but if I were going to call out some books as being insipid, I'd say that I've read a couple cosy mysteries that were lacking in vigor, i've read a few adult romances that seemed pallid and washed out, I've read fantasy that takes such an affected tone that it stagnates like a mosquito-laden pond, I've read literary fiction that was dull and uninspired, and I've read classics that were overwritten and flat. I've read YA that I've hated with a fiery passion. But YA books, no matter how misguided or offensive or dissatisfying, are very rarely insipid.

I think we should push YA to be better. I think YA authors need to think about what they're saying and what they want to say. And they need to write books for all the kids, not just some of them. I think Classics can be wonderful, but they're not a replacement for other books. The truth is, people read for pleasure, and that's a good thing. Because reading is a good thing. If pleasure can be found in these books, then they're worth it. And if there isn't any, maybe it's time to let them go.

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