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.