Home > Opinion > What, if anything, is wrong with young adult fiction?

What, if anything, is wrong with young adult fiction?

I’ve decided to write this opinion piece because I’ve recently been exchanging emails with several authors and publicity departments about some of my reviews. It seems I’ve become somewhat notorious for dismantling both books intended for young adult readers and books with a gender bias for female readers. In fact, I’m destructive about any book, film or television episode I think poor. Although I seem to have been particularly vehement when it comes to the YA market and paranormal romance, I find the majority of books, films and television episodes average at best and more usually below average. It does no good pointing to the About page where I assert the right to say when I think a book is bad. So here goes with a more specific opinion piece, primarily thinking about YA fiction.

What is YA fiction?

I’m not at all sure when the concept of the young adult emerged nor precisely what it means in terms of age. You see some books fairly obviously targeted at the genuinely young, whereas others seem to be aimed at fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. If I was simply going to be cynical, I could suggest this is a catch-all category for all the books not good enough to sell to the adult market. Put another way, with reading ages as defined for educational purposes not mapping directly on to physical age, the wider the alleged age range for YA books, the less meaningful it is. For the record, the American Library Association defines the classification as books for those aged between twelve and eighteen. I suppose that means books aimed at a broadly intermediate group whose sensibilities have matured to such a point they can no longer be considered children, but have yet to grow more interested in books with adult sensibilities. In this, let’s remember one of the virtues of youth should be curiosity about the adult world.

Why do I tend not to like YA books?

I grow somewhat frustrated if I feel an author is patronising the readership. By this I mean the author is peddling mindless escapism or that the book suggests there’s always an easy solution to problems. In the poorer books, we see anodyne descriptions of criminal or dangerous activities. Situations containing more explicit challenges to health and safety tend to be avoided. Obviously this does not disguise the fact there are many books unsuitable for children. But thanks to the growth of the internet, one of the features of the modern world is the speed with which children mature. Whereas my generation remained relatively naive until teenage years, modern children are remarkably knowing. This sophistication, often denied by adults, does not mean I think books on YA shelves should be full of darkness and existential despair. The fact the youth of today face the probability of unemployment and possible dangers from climate change does not mean we should deny them the occasional happy book.

So here goes with a simple proposition

In all forms of fiction, authors should show life as it is with credible characters behaving as we would expect given the context. Obviously this includes the possibility of dealing with the “big” issues of parental separation and divorce, abuse of alcohol and dugs, the death of family members or friends, and so on. When we move into fantasy and start talking about vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beasties, we should understand these beings survive by eating humans. Having them as cute love interests rather belies their essential nature. Taking a different tack, setting characters in a dystopian context gives them a chance to challenge existing political systems and become beacons of hope for the downtrodden of their mundane reality. Such books are not inherently dark. They can be inspirational.

In other words, there’s no reason in principle why there cannot be a balance of elements in fiction intended for young adults to read. It may be legitimate to make concessions in terms of vocabulary selection and sentence structures. Reducing the barriers to comprehension encourages more to read. Encouraging the reading habit is a social good. But when it comes to the choice of subject matter and the plot, I’m completely opposed to sanitising or dumbing down the world for consumption by those deemed young. In this I categorically deny an automatic linkage between physical age and the need for protection. Indeed, I think publishers do an active disservice to the young by “censoring” the content made available for reading. This does not mean, as a generalisation, I’m going to dismiss all YA books as superficial and stand on a soapbox to proclaim all publishers should focus on depth and avoid relentless optimism and sunshine. I try to be fair and judge each book on its merits. This means looking at the characters and judging their credibility.

Going back a moment, it was probably wrong of me to use the word “censorship” in this context. Parents and other authority figures have an interest in controlling the nature of the fiction or other media content consumed by “children” in their custody. I respect the right of parents to deny the young access to information that may help prepare them for the rigours of the world. I may think it foolish, but that’s what parenting is all about. I shall, of course, continue voicing my opinion. Hopefully, over time, publishers will more consistently produce books that challenge the prejudices and preconceptions of the young, and parents will be more flexible about what they allow their children to read. It’s a case of less trivia and more realism, but avoiding anything pornographic. Although pornography is freely available on the internet, publishers can at least use their marketing to signal some degree of “safety” to parents.

My own age as a factor

At this point, I should remind readers that I’m a senior citizen and therefore far removed from the current experience of the “young”. People who disagree with me often criticise my views because I’m applying adult sensibilities to books intended to be read by people culturally different to me. They assert the best people to judge the worth of YA fiction are the young who buy and read it. Publishers point to the millions of profit they rake in each year and legitimately suggest they must be doing something right. The fact the books sell in such numbers is itself a confirmation of their fitness for purpose. Put another way, one of the primary justifications for consuming any fictional content is to derive entertainment. If our lives are full of pain and misery, it’s potentially good therapy to escape into a fictional world where people have better lives. It reminds us that, if we can overcome our own problems, we too can have happiness.

So a potentially legitimate complaint about my reviews of YA fiction and, to some extent, romantic fiction is that, as an elderly male, I’m not the target audience and so have little meaningful to contribute to the discourse on the merits of either form of fiction. This would be a somewhat ironic way of dealing with my opinions. The adults who run the publishing industry are predominantly male, and they decide what’s fit to print and market to the YA and romance niches of the market. Parents feel competent to judge what their children should read. Teachers and librarians assume the right to judge which books should be made available to younger readers. And, of course, the majority of individuals who write YA fiction are themselves adults. Denying the right of older readers to review is not terribly rational. As applied to adult women, they can make up their own minds what they want to read without taking any notice of my views.

A conclusion

So, to be clear, I’m not against YA fiction or paranormal romance because of the genre labels imposed on them by marketing departments. But I am against all books peddling plots that make no sense, involving characters with no credibility, and written in prose that shows a lack of writing craft. That my experience to date tends to find the majority of YA and paranormal romance books suffer these faults is just an accident of fate. Every now and then, I do find good books in the most unlikely of genres or subgenres. Serendipity is what keeps me reading. However, here come a few closing thoughts. I think there are too many books published each year. The vast majority are poor. If commissioning editors were more discriminating and the editorial staff actually worked with authors to maintain a higher standard, all readers would benefit regardless of age. So I would throw away all genre labels. I’m for good books offering interest and/or excitement when I read them. If readers want the dull and boring stuff, they can dip into the self-published pool where, sad to say, most of the books fail to achieve professional standards.

  1. October 11, 2013 at 7:36 am

    What is YA fiction?

    There is no hard and fast rule, but based on my own experience, I would say that YA fiction is fiction about YA characters (generally) and fiction that is character-based more than plot-based. More Robert A. Heinlein than Arthur C. Clark. I am skeptical of any attempts to narrow the definition further, since as a young adult I was quite omnivorous–whatever its intended audience, if it was fantasy or sci-fi I was willing to give it a try (although I did leave a lot of unfinished books in my wake when grazing in the library’s sci-fi/fantasy section.

    What is good YA fiction?

    The same stuff that makes good adult fiction: tight plots, page-turning tension, engaging characters being resourceful and intelligent, experiences that resonate and perhaps even provoke thought.

    Unfortunately, I think you’re right; with YA fantasy, paranormal, and dystopian sales booming (and solid romance sub-genres in all three), the market is being flooded by crap that shouldn’t have gotten past the editorial filters. I write better than half of them (though the best are way beyond me), and all I usually use for an editorial staff is a close circle of fellow readers.

    But really, this is normal. How many authors are remembered from even the golden age of science fiction? Or fantasy? There has always been a lot of crap out there–time provides the ultimate filter and the good stuff gets read and reread, remembered, imitated until the fresh ideas are stale, and eventually achieves iconic standing. And then it becomes mostly unreadable as the culture drifts further and further from the writer’s foundations. The survivors are forced on students as literature.

    • October 11, 2013 at 11:07 am

      “There has always been a lot of crap out there–time provides the ultimate filter and the good stuff gets read and reread, remembered, imitated until the fresh ideas are stale. . .”

      It’s always been Sturgeon’s law. My hope for better title selection or editorial control is a pipe dream. Whether publishers control the flow or open the faucet, the result is a flow of crap. As you say, time is a great filter because we rapidly forget most of what we read. Unfortunately, short-term memory is almost immediately filled with more crap.

  2. October 11, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    I don’t think YA fiction existed as a category in my days (which isn’t THAT long ago, I fell into that age group in the late 1980s-early 1990s). I just moved straight from Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Mallory Towers and the Moomins to Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moll Flanders and any other books on my parents’ bookshelves. They had an excellent no-censorship policy, which meant that I read ‘Forever Amber’ with lots of anticipation and giggles at the age of 12-13 and then decided that bodice-rippers were not for me. I suppose anything that keeps young people reading (so many lost interest at that particular age) is good, but I do wish there was a way to show them just how great, how interesting, how relevant adult classic literature can be.

    • October 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm

      “I suppose anything that keeps young people reading (so many lost interest at that particular age) is good, but I do wish there was a way to show them just how great, how interesting, how relevant adult classic literature can be.”

      I couldn’t agree more. That’s the pernicious feature of the publisher’s marketing strategy. It requires they promote YA as the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread. The necessary implication is that all potentially relevant adult fiction is boring or unsuitable to YA readers for some reason. The result is an artificial delay in YA readers abandoning their current long-running series and moving on to the best of the current adult crop.

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