Why Y.A. is not A-Okay

Living in my bubble (it’s a strong enough material to keep everything from Jersey Shore to Pauly Shore away), I have been slow to realize that Young Adult (YA) fiction is the next big thing in spec fic.

I know that Harry Potter was big. (Hell, even my bubble isn’t that effective.)  I read the first book when it came out, and was underwhelmed. I never read anymore, though I saw one of the movies. (But I digress: the problems with Harry Potter are well-documented, and neither here nor there.)

Of course, I had my favorites as a kid: the Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phoenix and the Carpet, A Horse and His Boy, A Wizard of Earthsea, Kidnapped, SuperFudge, Julie of the Wolves, and such.  Good books all, and I occasionally reread some of them.

But I don’t understand how YA has currently gotten so big with adults now.  It’s hard for me as an adult to read much YA now, for a trio of reasons.


1. The Gargamel Problem.

The problem with the villain in YA (especially spec fic) is that he isn’t very capable. If he was, the teen boy/perky girl/carebear would die and the story would be over. I can suspend my disbelief about magic and monsters, but in those worlds I can’t believe that evil overlords can’t summon the power to defeat a sullen teenager.

2. Teen Trauma.

One of the central conceits of YA is that is in a position to deal with the problem of coming of age.  This theme is one of the all-time greats, of course, but has to be handled with finesse.

I’m not a psychologist, but I am aware of many studies dealing with the modern invention of the teenager.  What’s more, there can be a tendency to dip into angst and melodrama.

What’s worse, while I don’t deny that teens have large challenges (moreso now than when I went to high school in the 90’s), the idea that a genre of books needs to pander to a group that, at its worth, can be entitled and not have perspective .  In fact, there probably aren’t too many problems that teens have that adults don’t. Ostracism, depression, body image issues are part of the modern (western) human condition.

3. Lazy as a Sloth.

YA writing is, like all writing, widely variable and not easily categorized. I’m going to anyway: it’s lazy. The best status your prose can achieve is “effective.” Probably the best-written YA prose I’ve seen is from Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising. Her writing is effective, but never beautiful.

Even the difference between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is telling, though those books belong to another era.

Don’t take my word for it, but the prose of Rothfuss, Kafka, Borge, Wolfe, Bakker,Valente, Meivelle, and Vandermeer. and Guy Gavriel Kay, Peake, Ford, and Zafón (as translated by Graves) is all considered exceptional.  I don’t think there are any YA writers in that conversation.  (The Giver is quite good, but its not comparable.)

I recently read the first Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan.  It was clever at times, and engaging, but very light.  I’ve taken a look at the three books I have (I’m not in a place in the world with a lot of book collections)  and compared the second paragraph on page 23.

I’ll begin with Percy Jackson.

The only person I dreaded saying good-bye to was Grover, but as it turned out, I didn’t have to. He’d booked a ticket to Manhattan on the same Greyhound as I had, so there we were, together again, heading into the city.

It’s not bad writing, but the second sentence is close to a run-on.  Compare that to Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree.

“You are too quick to renounce friendship, Dave Martynuik,” Marcus snapped back.  “But,” he went on, more gently, after a frozen instant, “it doesn’t matter here–and to make you see why, I must try to explain.  Which is harder than it would have been once.”  He hesitated, hand at his beard again.

There’s some stuff going on there–nice writing, characterization, and “frozen instant” is a damned nice turn of phrase.

That is just one look at one random page, which admittedly is a small sample size.

(Unrelated to anything, here is an excerpt of the third book: Almuric by Robert E Howard.  This was written 1939; what we expect from our writing has changed.)

It is needless for me to narrate the details of the following months.  I dwelt among the hills in such suffering and peril as no man on Earth has experienced for thousands of years.  I make bold to say that only a man of extraordinary strength and ruggedness could have survived as I did.  I did more than survive.  I came at last to thrive on the existence.

Yikes.

These are three reasons why I don’t think writing something specifically YA is as good as writing a book that applies to everyone.  I over-generalized some generalizations, and I’m happy to be corrected with any specific examples.  Let me know what your thoughts are.

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4 thoughts on “Why Y.A. is not A-Okay

  1. I think part of the issue is that YA is not so much a genre as a targeted audience. It seems to me that YA books may be classified as such because of their content, protangonist or writing style.

    It’s difficult to debate a topic that is so ill-defined.

    That said, I am a big fan of young adult fiction. Not sure if I can pin down what it is exactly that appeals to me, but if I had to pick something, I would say it’s the voice. When I read young adult fiction, I feel like I connect to the point-of-view character more strongly than some fiction written for adults.

    What’s great is that there is a fan base for just about anything we writers want to write. I love the internet 🙂

    • Hi Jessica.

      I understand what you mean about the distinction between genre and targeted audiences, but (in this case, at least) they’ve become essentially the same thing. I fully agree it is hard to discuss due to the nebulous nature of the definitions. It took me longer to write this than it should have because of how poorly defined some of these terms and concepts are.

      I can see how a strong narrative voice can be compelling. I still think it is more difficult, as a writer, to write a multiple (omniscient or semi-omniscient) POVs. For me personally as a reader, I admire the skill it takes to weave multiple characters together. It seems like, reading and writing YA, is often taking the path of least resistance.

      That said, I sometimes listen to Hall and Oates. My opinion means nothing. 😀

  2. I think you make a good point. A lot of YA fiction is lazily written. I’ve often thought as I read some YA novels, “This is ridiculous. My 5-year-old could write better stuff.” BUT I will cheerfully admit I read YA fiction because sometimes *I* am feeling lazy. At the end of a long day, when my brain feels like cheese, sometimes I just want to sit down and be entertained by my novel. I don’t watch reality television – I read some crap novels instead.

    • I totally get that. I do something similar with reruns of 80’s sitcoms. It’s a pity for YA, though, because it could be much less fluffy. I think Philip Pullman, for instance, does an excellent job of writing a story that has appeal to all ages.

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