Since when does YA save?

I have waited to blog about this. I considered not mentioning it at all, but there's something about the hashtag YASaves that requires reasonably-minded people to stand up and say "Who made you God?"

For those of you who haven't been following it, here's the short version of the most recent young adult literature internet squawk:
1. Meghan Cox Gurdon, a seasoned children's and young adult book reviewer, wrote an article criticizing the increasingly dark subject matter of YA literature.
2. YA authors protested her criticism on Twitter, grouping their comments under the subject heading #YASaves.

I know. This sort of thing happens all the time. It's not really news. Except it bothers me.

Plenty of people are in uproar about Gurdon's criticism, but few who object to the article have said anything very helpful, at least that I've noticed. Most, in fact, are more defensive about their own work than anything else. Because a large body of those protesting the criticism are writers themselves.

They seem to have forgotten their days in creative writing workshops when criticism was to be taken with grace and absolute silence. In the end, they're going to write whatever they want. That's their prerogative, after all. They're writers. And every writer has to learn to be able to take all kinds of criticism because they get to write whatever they want.

Readers react. That's their prerogative. When other readers come to the defense of the author, constructive conversation occurs. But when the authors start to defend their own work from the likes of audacious readers . . . to be honest, I can't think of any other genre that functions this way. And I don't think it's healthy or fair.

In the last few years, though, YA fiction has risen to a place of power in the book industry. This isn't hyperbole. YA fiction is by far one of the best selling markets. Both teens and adults (myself included) pluck reading material from YA shelves. A category that used to be defined by a certain maturity level (in the same way that juvenile literature is literally defined by reading level) is now being driven by its sellability. It's a subtle shift, but it's significant. Not to mention that "maturity level" is now such a loosely determined category that publishers, editors, book reviewers, parents . . . okay, anyone would be hard-pressed to identify what it means. Just how mature are teens these days? Should teen literature reflect or influence that maturity? Is there a literary purpose to YA beyond just telling a good story? Are there criteria - or should there be - for addressing the darker side of things in YA lit? Is there a standard? Who sets it? How is it monitored? What is its purpose?

Most YA reviewers I've read object to the limitations of maturity restrictions. But if there are no restrictions, why is it considered YA? What differentiates YA from adult fiction? Because there are adult novels that feature teens as their protagonists (though I don't think there are any the other way around), so it's difficult to say the only identifier is the age of the characters.

These questions are old and tiresome, but they exist because no one has answered them yet and without answers we find ourselves in #YASaves arguments. I don't foresee an end to this. It's kind of like the dress code protests in high school. Every generation has them. There are always parents who say it's too lenient, and there are always teens who say it's too strict.

Unfortunately, like the dress code protests, the issue usually reflects the current cultural trends. And Gurdon's most significant observation is that the trends have become darker and more harmful than ever before. The best responses to the debate that I've read so far have been from Alan Jacobs at Text Patterns and Veronica Roth, author of the New York Times bestselling novel Divergent. Veronica observes something important: that the issue is less about the inappropriate nature of young adult fiction than it is the world it represents. 

The best way to improve our YA fiction isn't to make it less like the world, but to make the world a better thing to represent. Idealistic and impossible. But seriously, probably the only option. In the meantime, it might serve everyone well for YA authors to acknowledge that words are powerful, readers are varied, and writers are accountable for the effects of their writing. What is cathartic and encouraging for one reader may very well be harmful and disturbing to another. And writers are responsible for that.

They are.


  1. I was wondering what you thought about the ruckus.

    Obviously I'm on the Good side. Whichever one that may be. :P

  2. My side. Always my side. :)


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