Monday, December 22, 2008

The New Yorker Trashes...I Mean, Talks YA

Last week, while we were celebrating Girl Week on Reviewer X’s blog (strong YA heroines! Fabulous YA authors!) came this post from the pinched-nostrils section of the internet litsphere. As if Part I wasn’t enough, it was followed by parts II and III… because when it comes to disdain, ignorance, and wrong assumptions, more is of course better.

The posts discuss Kathe Koja’s latest YA novel, Headlong. This ought to have been exciting--one of the premier book-celebrating magazines in the country, talking YA! And yet, not five seconds into the discussion, I can tell you: none of the panelists knows anything about young adult literature. Unfortunately, they don’t let this stop them from spouting insanely incorrect generalizations about the entire genre.

Q: Did you have certain expectations of “Headlong,” given the Y.A. label? Did it confound or surpass those expectations—or prove them right?

A: The book totally surpassed my expectations. I tend to think of young-adult fiction as sort of facile—a straightforward style, uncomplicated themes and morals—but this had a complexity, an ambiguity, that surprised me, and I loved Koja’s sentence structure, how she interweaved dialogue and exposition so fluidly.

What?! Complexity and ambiguity in YA fiction? A YA author who is an accomplished writer? Shock and amazement! The mind reels! But wait…the panelist isn’t done:

It fit my expectations in terms of length and enjoyableness, though: I assume that anything branded “young adult” needs to have a plotline that captures a teen’s attention, and also needs to be not too long or challenging.

Honey, I’ll put this as gently as I can: You assume completely bats**t wrong. Have you ever set foot in the teen fiction section of a bookstore, even once? Ever heard of M.T. Anderson, Sara Zarr, Laurie Halse Andersen, E. Lockhart? Not challenging? Are you kidding me?

More amazement from another panelist:

It was far more subtle and experimental than I expected, and Lily is a complete character…A potentially boring heads-tails vision of morality is mercifully absent, and the book isn’t sanctimonious, much. And the plot was unpredictable. I don’t know that I’ll be reading a lot of Y.A. in the future, but I don’t feel that I wasted my time.

Well, thank God for that. Crisis averted! By the way, a “boring heads-tails vision of morality,” sanctimoniousness, and predictable plots went out with those 1970s After-School Specials…which you would know, if you read any YA fiction at all.

The discussion continues:

Well, of course we do demand of “great” writers—literary-fiction writers—higher moral and philosophical stakes. Like I said, I think the Y.A. genre is typically defined by very straightforward moral messages, ones that are deemed “suitable” for children, even if the subject matter deals with more grown-up topics (like sex or drinking).

At this point, I’m sputtering in incoherent indignation. The panelist “thinks” the YA genre is defined thus. She doesn’t know, but she has assumed, and therefore it must be so. And yet she is so wrong, on so many levels, it makes my head hurt.

From the third blog post:

Q: What did you guys make of the italicized sections throughout the novel, where different adult voices (of the swim coach, Lily’s mom, the dorm R.A.) would give their general comments…

A: I hated those sections…They’re perfect evidence of another characteristic of Y.A. literature: condescending to the reader.

My aching head has now exploded.

These people not only don’t know YA fiction, I doubt they know any actual live young adults. In my YA reading, none of the novels, no matter their sins, committed the sin of condescension. It’s not hard to understand why. Any YA author will tell you that teens have a fantastically honed bulls**t detector. Young adults expect a novelist to be scrupulously forthright. Any author who condescends to a teen audience is an author who is unpublished. Period.

Indeed, the only condescension I’ve seen in the YA world is the condescension directed at us from the so-called “serious” lit folks. Sherman Alexie, who has written nineteen books for adults and one YA novel, said, “I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing YA.” This was after he won the National Book Award for young people’s literature for his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Friends, he said, worried he was “dumbing down,” and asked him if he wouldn’t have rather won the award for one of his adult, “serious” books.

Look, New Yorker Book Bench blog: I think it’s fabulous that you’ve discovered the world of YA. Kudos to you for picking Kathe Koja, who is a lovely author, and for recognizing the quality of her work. But please—please—before you discuss YA in public again, do yourselves a favor. Know what you’re talking about, instead of blatting assertions that are to reality what sheep are to quantum physics. (No insult intended to sheep.) You’re New Yorkers, for God’s sake. Take a YA editor out to lunch. Peruse the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books for the Teen Age, and (gasp!) read half a dozen or so. Take advantage of this newfangled thing called the internet and touch base with an actual YA reviewer/blogger. Venture a tippy-toe into the Teen Lit section of the bookstore.

Scary, I know. Don't worry, we don't have cooties...and you won't lose IQ points. In fact, it's very likely you'll gain some.


Melissa Marsh said...

Wow. Talk about a lot of insane generalizations. Some people's children...

Good for you for speaking out against this. I tend to ignore lofty book reviews anyway. :-)

Walter Rowntree said...

It was ever thus.

Kathryn said...

Amen, Sister! You should see the blogs going up about this over at livejournal. It's insanity.

Christine Fletcher said...

Melissa, the really sad/irritating thing is that some of the best writing out there now is in YA. These people are missing out bigtime, but they don't care to know.

Walter, very true...and yet, we'll still rant. It makes us feel better. ;)

Kathryn, thanks for mentioning the other blogs (YA authors aren't putting up with this quietly!) Many are more articulate and elegant than mine. There's even a great video response:
But I still had to put in my own 2 cents!

sally nemeth said...

Yeesh! Makes my skin crawl. You should send your ENTIRE blog post to them as a comment. They need a little schooling.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to read those articles for the same reason I don't listen to political talk radio (of either party)--I don't need another reason to be ticked off. I'll take your word for it, having read your post and the quotes you've included.

I did go browse the comments section of that blog, though, just to see how people were fighting back. Kudos to you and all the others who stood up to this ignorance.

Now forget about this ugliness and go back to writing your next wonderful book. :)

Christine Fletcher said...

Sally, if I wasn't already coming late to the party, I would! :)

Lisa, you're right, of course...and having vented, I'm moving on and back in writing mode.