Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why I Read YA

Lately--lately, in this instance, meaning always--there are some opinion pieces making the rounds comparing YA books to

Sometimes my dad tells me that he likes my books and he thinks I have real talent, and he thinks I really could write a real book. He asks me when I'm going to write the

I'm currently a senior year English major. You have no idea how many people I know whose big goal is to write the great American novel. In class, I read great piece of literature after great piece of literature and I really, genuinely like some of them. I do. But when it's time for me to curl up with something I'm actually looking forward to? When stretched out on a towel on the beach or balled up crying on my bed and I need that book, it's Melina Marchetta or Amy Reed or Steve Brezenoff or David Levithan or Jaclyn Moriarty, to name a few. It's YA.

People used to ask me if I would write
when I grew up.

I am twenty-one-and-one-half as of last Friday. I'm not saying I'm ancient (I'll leave that to my infant girlfriend) but I'm unquestionably outside of the YA age group. I know I'm far from the only adult reading YA, and I don't know if it's my on-the-cusp age or my body of work or my major that has people so fucking confused by the fact that I care a lot more about stories about girls by their lockers than about men who want to fuck their sisters (what up, Faulkner, write a different book why don't you).

And see, that there is part of it. When my dad asks me why I haven't written that great American novel, I have totally told him, "Because I'm a Jewish girl."

There are some fucking fantastic literary ('what the fuck is literary anyway?' is a topic for a different post and a better writer) adult books written by women, but, um...where are they? Ohhh that's right, they're being ignored and shoved aside by literary purists just like YA books are! Come sit with us, ladies, our table is ever-expanding.

I've mentioned this before, I think, but I had a teacher in high school who once said to me, after Break sold, "I just feel like there's a level of depth missing in YA books, you know?" in this thoughtful voice like she expected me to agree.

Well, you know what? No, I don't fucking know.

There is a reason adults come back to these high school stories, and it isn't a reason I can figure out how to articulate. But it's the same reason people who very much aren't teenagers love Glee and Friday Night Lights. There is something enduring and universal about these stories.

And there is something twisted and weird and personal and so, so not monolithic. And while we're still working on the diversity-of-characters thing (and trust me I am giving myself a get-out-of-fucking-nothing-free card, I have written waaay too many books about white boys to get off scot-free--I mean, I love my books, but write a fucking Asian girl, hannah) we have a ever-changing, ever-evolving body of authors. 

And I get that literary canon moves a lot slower. I get that.

But maybe it means literary canon needs to shut the fuck up a little bit. Because this isn't 1950 and writers aren't (just?) impotent men with typewriters and dark rooms and alcoholism and complexes. Writers are moms and teenagers and gay boys and black women and Jewish girls trying to tap out a blog post while the aforementioned infant girl watches RuPaul's Drag Race. 

Maybe it doesn't have to be such a fucking art all the time. Maybe I shouldn't be getting a degree in this shit. Maybe I just don't get it.

Maybe I should go back to just reading my little YA books on the beach or balled up in my bed.

God, what a fucking waste that would be!

When I was a sophomore, a creative writing teacher told me that after he finished his
he wanted to write some really commercial book about zombies. What a fucking joke, right! A real writer deigning to write about zombies!

Last month I ran into a girl from that class who has him again this semester. I asked if he'd finished his great American novel yet.

He has not.

My zombie book came out ten months ago.

(I love the taste of brains in the autumn. Tastes like legitimacy.)


Unknown said...

I love this post. Perfect!

You keep writing your amazing books. All of us who don't give a shit about whether a book is "literary", or just a good book, will keep reading them.

Aemilia Grace said...

Sounds like to me it's the same shit, different day, whether it's with YA books or video games (my sister's husband once asked why I don't play REAL video games, i.e. Call of Duty, when all I play are JRPGs, or what he calls Final Fantasy 58). I've always wondered why a great American novel can't be a YA book.

I'm not the age group YA is aimed at (21 as well), but I'm still going to read the shit out of it. I'm still going to write the shit out of it. I'm still going to give zero fucks about what other people think about it, too. It has nothing to do with being young and dreaming about the high school days (my days during high school were the shittiest times I've ever had; I rather not relive it). I like what I read, and it's hard finding exactly what sparks my interest in YA in adult books.

I don't know why YA books aren't considered real books to some people (because it deals with teenagers? So it can't be real?), but they're as real as any adult book out there. And just as enjoyable, too.

tlbodine said...

I think, to an extent, part of the appeal of YA literature to older readers is that teenagerdom in general and high school especially are kind of like microcosms of "real life." You don't necessarily notice this as a kid. But once you get out in the world, you realize that it's all the same shit. Fiction, then, is a microcosm of a microcosm, and that extremely narrow focus ironically makes it completely universal. It's like a fractal.

I might be talking out my ass because I've had a long, surreal week and I spent the better part of today researching estate tax (don't ask), but...that feels right to me.

AimeeLSalter said...

I've thought a LOT about why, as a thirty-six year old I read predominantly YA. There are some personal reasons, but there's one theme I suspect has a lot to do with the "crossover" appeal of YA:

At 36 I understand a helluva lot more about what happened to me in high school than I did at the time. Now, when I read YA, I read it with different eyes. There's real depth there, because there's real emotion. Whether the characters understand what they're going through or not, the themes resonate through my life today. And, let's be honest, most of the YA today has at least some solid elements of a happily ever after. How much would I like to rewrite my past to reflect that?! Yes please...

None of us leaves high school in reality. We never change the rules, we just move the playing field. What used to be jean labels and hairstyles and whether or not you know how to swear with credibility becomes parenting techniques, ability to look like you're still alive while raising other human beings, and whether or not your career aspirations are laughable.

Unfortunately, most 36 year olds I know still act like they're 16.

But that's a diatribe for another blogpost.

Kate Larkindale said...

Hell, I'm almost 40 and I still read mostly YA. There's something refreshing in reading about people who are still trying to find themselves, and who haven't given in to the cynicism most people over 25 have.

Those YA years are the years people do the most self-discovery, and that's way more interesting to me than reading about people who just force themselves to fit into whatever mould society thinks they belong in.

Emotions are bigger in YA because so many things are being felt for the first time. And really, who doesn't want to feel things for the first time again?

That's why I love YA. So keep writing your amazing stories, and forget about the great American novel. Most of them aren't so great, really...

Josin L. McQuein said...

If a book is too difficult for grown-ups, write it for kids -- Madeleine L'Engle.

YA is where creativity lives, and it comes with the greatest freedom. You're free to be literary because teens have the attention span for it (along with a tolerance for vibrant language that often dies as people lose their patience with age and responsibility). But you're also free to be funny and silly. You can tackle all those darker topics that grown-ups seem to think teens can't handle - despite the fact those teens face them every day. And most importantly, you're free to make your readers think.

Sometimes it feels a bit like the Oscars vs. The People's Choice Awards. The Oscars are all pretty and shiny and prestigious, but often involve "serious" works that maybe five hundred people have heard of. People's Choice is taken less seriously because it's not a matter of "Academy" selection, but it can actually mean more to winners because the choice is made by people who have actually experienced and enjoyed their work.

(And that teacher, like so many "on of these days" writers needs to watch The Book Job episode of The Simpsons. They're Lisa.)

Shaun Hutchinson said...

There was a time, once, I might have agreed that there was a level of depth lacking in YA, but that was a very long time ago.

I love adult books and genre books and YA and all kinds of crap. But YA is where most of the really experimental, adventurous shit is happening. Where writers are free to move from writing contemp to fantasy to sci-fi. Hell, have you read Daniel Kraus's ROTTERS? It's about a freaking kid who helps his father rob graves! It's one of the most twisted books I've ever read. It's also one of the most nuanced examination of the crazy relationship that often exists between fathers and sons.

At this point, anyone who says that YA books aren't real books clearly hasn't read a single YA book written in the last decade. And all I can think is that they're attempting to put down YA books in some attempt to legitimize their own failure to produce books people want to read. Seriously, so of those adult books are pure crap. Not all. But a lot.

Finally, what use is "art" when no one wants to read it?

Unknown said...

I love this post, Hannah.

But, one point I must make is regarding the teacher who told you YA books don't have depth. I think her statement might have merit, if she's talking about YA books from when I was a YA (about 15-20 years ago). See, I never read YA when I was a YA-er simply because I felt the books weren't as "good" as adult books. Yeah, there were some here and there that were stellar, but books like PERKS and SPEAK and the HP series hadn't come out yet so there wasn't a great assortment of good YA. IMO

BUT! Now, well, now, in many (if not all) cases, I think YA blows much of the adult fare out of the water. The genre has grown so much in so little time. Very seldomly is there a YA book that I come across that lacks depth, which can't be said of many "adult" books.

MBee said...

I would like to print this out, laminate it and carry it around in my wallet to whip out when people give that " write YA?" look.

I have always wanted to write and I have NEVER wanted to write the great American novel. I want people to read and enjoy my work, not necessarily have to dissect it in order to understand it.

Having an under grad degree in comparative literature and languages, I've read some great literary works but sometimes, they just feel like work!

I think YA is something people can relate to because we all went through that awkward awakening period. It's familiar and comfortable and can transport us back to those times.

I have no problem telling people that even though I'm 35 yrs old I enjoy young adult novels the best. Judge me if you want, but if you're not reading it, you're missing out on some fantastic literature.

hannah moskowitz said...

hey karla--

the teacher in question was in her mid-to-late 20s, so there wasn't a big generation gap or anything.

Ariana Ferrone said...

Great post. A girl in one of creative writing workshops back in my undergrad used to continually slam my work based on the fact that it was young adult fantasy and not anything serious or adult or meta or LITERARY. Meanwhile she wrote James Joyce-like stories that really didn't speak to anyone but herself. I like that young adults novels are so diverse in comparison to literary novels with their often rigid limitations.

Arlaina Tibensky said...

Word. XOXO!

Ann Summerville said...

Genres have become so fuzzy these days. It's difficult to find where writing fits in and makes it hard for the reader to figure out what genre a book really is. If you write, you're a writer - simple as that. Sounds like you're on the right track.

Margaret said...

Hannah, I happened upon this post a little late, but I have to say that (1) I'm old enough to be your mother; (2) I've read hundreds (maybe thousands) of books over my lifetime; and (3) if I had to put my desert island list together, I'd have to include The Outsiders, Catcher in the Rye, The Little Prince, The Hobbit, and To Kill a Mockingbird in my bag. (Not sure if those are all technically YA.)

I don't get the bias against YA lit. The first book I wrote was YA coming of age, and it was so incredibly challenging to write, much more so than my next book which wasn't YA. Getting the voice right and not phony or stilted took a LOT of effort. Every word had to be filtered through the idea of staying authentic to my MC. I honestly don't know if I'll ever write another YA book again because of the level of difficulty. Anyone who thinks this is an easy genre or somehow lightweight is mistaken.

My two cents. And Invincible Summer and Marco Impossible are both on my to-read list. You're an amazing writer with so many more books in your future.

All best wishes, and great post!