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Monday, February 04, 2019

The Upside of YA Literature's Internecine Warfare

This post is neither about law nor about the substance, such as it is, of controversies such as that surrounding Amelie Wen Zhao and her once-forthcoming debut novel "Blood Heir," which she has now apparently requested her publisher to pull from its scheduled release. This episode was part of a larger phenomenon of internal debate and internecine warfare in the Young Adult literature community, and particularly the version of that community that appears on That Dreadful, Socially Destructive Social Media site. A substantial, and certainly partial, take can be found on the Zhao episode and its larger context in this article by Jesse Singal, although I gather vaguely that there are some for whom citing Singal is like citing the Devil and who argue that the whole thing is substantially his fault for having the temerity to write about it. Doubtless the same is true, for some readers, about Kat Rosenfeld, who has also written about what she, and apparently other people, call the "toxicity" of "YA Twitter." (I want to be fair here and suggest that while that sector may be particularly egregious, it's hardly unique. Is there a non-toxic sector of Twitter?) But although I have views on these matters, these links are purely for context (and, for fairness's sake, here is a contrary take), and my views on the controversy are irrelevant here. I want to talk instead about the distinct upside of the possible implosion of the young adult literature industry. 

If I may indulge in a "When I was young" moment: In my youth, there was much less literature that could be characterized as "Young Adult" literature, and plenty of it was, as I recall, unsatisfying for any reader of even faint ambition. For an active and eager reader, the paucity of fiction (and non-fiction) aimed at intermediate readers led to an obvious response: To walk across the room, in a library or bookstore, and start reading adult literature. Some of it was a stretch, no doubt, but stretching is good. Some of it was beyond me, I'm sure, but that's not a terrible thing either and actually has interesting and valuable effects. One could sense the larger themes and ideas even if one was not yet fully conscious of or able to see all of them; that sense created a feeling of resonance and of looming deeper mysteries and experiences in life that enriched both one's reading and one's sense of the world; and rereading those books over time, as one got older and saw more of those ideas more clearly, created a layered sense of richness in one's reading life. This was an important part of how one actually became a young adult, and eventually an actual adult.  

I can't say whether the same ratio of good to mediocre or bad still applies to YA writing today, although I have no particular reason to doubt it. But the sheer quantity has certainly changed, and as such the number of what I will stipulate as "good" or involving books for young readers, especially novels and series of novels, has grown hugely. My kids are both skilled and eager readers, and I have seen in them (and in other kids) one result of the availability of all that YA writing: It's harder to get them to make that move across the library or bookstore, to make the transition from "young adult" to "adult" literature, even though they are more than capable of reading the more adult work. They read and reread their favorite books and series--and the profit motive ensures there's often a fifth or ninth book in that series. And they resist the suggestion that if they like a particular YA book, they might well enjoy a vast range of more challenging books, written for adults, that involve some of the same themes or genres but are much better written and much more challenging and involving. With so much available to them between the shallows and the depths, and with all of their friends reading the same things, they can simply stay in place and tread water--if not indefinitely, then for much longer than one could when there was a lower volume of such literature.

Let me suggest, or speculate, that if the entire YA industry (and an industry it surely is) were to implode tomorrow, torn apart in mutual recrimination and political warfare, or if that warfare were to result in the available work becoming ever more homogeneous, schematic, and unsatisfying, the result could be good for young readers. Leave aside the fact that much of this enormous inventory is mediocre: that's true of any large inventory of writing. But they would be more likely to do sooner what they should do in the first place, and preferably as soon as (or before) they are able: to move on, to move up, to read more challenging writing pitched above their reading level, and so to actually advance as readers, thinkers, and individuals. They would read LeGuin or Orwell or Huxley or Cormac McCarthy's The Road instead of the endless pile of so-so dystopian novels and series that they can gorge on indefinitely but without much nutrition. They would grow as readers and grow up as people. Every cloud has its silver lining, and it seems to me that the diminution or death of YA literature would have a pretty big upside. And that's just for young readers. It seems to me that a pretty substantial number of actual adults, both relatively young and older, are more than happy to remain in a semi-infantilized state, wallowing in the same literature as 11-year-olds, treading water below their "reading level," and treating fiction as comfort food. Perhaps some of them came up in the Harry Potter era and suffered the lasting effects of not having to stretch as much and as soon. (This is one reason that, although I know that in theory my kids should grow out of the YA field as they get older, I'm not positive it will perforce happen in practice.) They might have to grow, or grow up, as readers too.

As a postscript, let me note an idea that I stole quite happily from a friend. As a condition of the use of electronics (one could condition it on other things; for my friend, it's paying their phone bills), my wife and I require my kids to read one adult book of our choice each month. We keep their tastes and preferences in mind, since part of the goal is to help them realize that within their range of current interests there are many better and more challenging choices available to them, both in fiction and in history and other forms of non-fiction, and to get them to start browsing the adult shelves for themselves. But we also sometimes force them to read books we think they ought to read or to have read, regardless of their preferences. Parenthood is not, of course, all about making and keeping your children happy, being their friends, or doing what they want, and children are not their parents' equals in these or many other matters. Some of the books we've assigned haven't hit much of a responsive chord with them--for now, that is; who knows what effect reading that book will have on them some time in the future? Other selections have hit a chord, and have encouraged them to seek out other books and learn about new topics, but at a serious and challenging level instead of remaining perpetual Goldilocks types, content with what's "good enough" or "just right." It's been a very useful house rule. I encourage others to try it out if they too worry about their kids treading water instead of pushing into the depths, and certainly would love to hear about similar or other approaches. 


Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 4, 2019 at 09:18 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


We just ban electronics. (And yes, with a teenager.) Long car rides: no electronics. (Actually, to be fair, there are none owned, to ban.) Summer vacations, also: no access to screens for very long stretches (measured in weeks). People will read, if that's all there is to do. My oldest even taught herself how to play solitaire with cards on the floor last summer.

Posted by: nana | Feb 13, 2019 7:07:33 PM

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Posted by: Rental agreement form | Feb 13, 2019 6:07:54 AM

"universally accepted moral or political lessons"

The reason college students are so intolerant of speakers on their campus is because they've been taught that schools should only be about universal values and therefore should suppress speech on any other points of view.

If high schools exposed them to diverse points of view, they'd tolerate it in college.

Posted by: Been Shapiro | Feb 4, 2019 2:19:52 PM

"universally accepted moral or political lessons"

I guess the question is, should school expose kids to the great diversity of moral and political lessons of all cultures? or just the universal moral and political lessons, so they don't know what to expect when they meet people of other religions, political parties, etc.

Posted by: University of Nowhere | Feb 4, 2019 2:09:40 PM

"universally accepted moral or political lessons"

You mean we should only assign novels that the Saudis, Chinese, Nigerians, and Iroquois would all approve of? I wonder which books would make the list.

Posted by: Cosmo Paulitan | Feb 4, 2019 2:01:37 PM

I guess I'd question whether 1984 is actually better than the best young-adult dystopian fiction, in the same way that I'd question whether a lot of cherished adult films are better than the best Disneys, even if they are more challenging strictly in the sense of requiring a larger vocabulary or acquaintance with adult topics on the part of the reader or viewer. It seems to me that a lot of the adult literature we tend to teach to young adults is taught to them because it's didactic, contains universally accepted moral or political lessons, is susceptible to easy analysis, can easily be taught by people who themselves aren't always very well-educated, and so on. Without reading contemporary young-adult fiction, I find it difficult to hazard a guess about how good its best works are, but I'd at least think there's a pretty good chance that some works are as good and difficult as Orwell's and that most speak to more contemporary and immediately pressing concerns -- not to suggest that the study of totalitarianism or fiction about it has become at all irrelevant (but maybe to suggest that early Cold War fiction about totalitarianism may not have much to say about contemporary problems with liberalism and can even suggest a kind of complacency about it).

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Feb 4, 2019 1:43:08 PM

"But they would be more likely to do sooner what they should do in the first place, and preferably as soon as (or before) they are able: to move on, to move up, to read more challenging writing pitched above their reading level, and so to actually advance as readers, thinkers, and individuals."

I'm sure some would, but I'm guessing that others would decide that reading books is stupid and boring. And I don't have a good sense of how the camps would divide.

Posted by: jph12 | Feb 4, 2019 1:15:58 PM

Shouldn't your child's high school be assigning works like 1984, Brave New World, Notes From the Underground, The Fountainhead, etc.? Or does their english classes only assign Dickens and Austin?

Does their high school even assign R.A.V. or Tam? Or is it just daycare

Posted by: Slanted | Feb 4, 2019 1:12:58 PM

If the purpose of the plot is to show characters of all races living in harmony after they convince the white characters to become democrats, I don't see how you can say that 1984 has a plot.

Posted by: Mudblood Heir | Feb 4, 2019 12:53:38 PM

What about Luigi Pirandello's One, No One and One Hundred Thousand? Would you consider that YA or adult?

Posted by: Italian Job 58 | Feb 4, 2019 12:33:39 PM

I mean, now that I know you know just exactly what the facts is.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Feb 4, 2019 10:03:06 AM

Please feel free to delete my comment, of course.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Feb 4, 2019 9:58:47 AM

Quite right. I've fixed it. Thanks! One of those cases where you thought you'd copied the link and paste without checking, while some previous link is still on your clipboard. I must say that those who clicked on the original if mistaken link were at least privileged to watch some superb drumming.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 4, 2019 9:47:20 AM

I have a sneaking suspicion the first link isn't quite what you intended.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Feb 4, 2019 9:41:01 AM

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