Monday, October 27, 2008

Stealth YA!

I was delighted to find that a new Kelly Link collection was coming out, and so I ordered it from the Bookery. As she was typing it into the computer, Rhian paused. "Oh wait--this is a young adult book." I told her I didn't think so. She said sure it was, it's listed as YA. We looked into it--there didn't seem to be anything in the descriptions online that suggested the book was YA. Maybe it had been misfiled, I figured. I ordered it.

The book came in the other day and I sat down to read it. Nothing on the jacket, flaps, endpapers, or title page suggested it was YA. Then I read about halfway through the first story.

It's YA. I love Kelly link, but wow, this has really got me steamed. Yesterday my friend and collaborator Lou Beach wrote me with this link to an article on Link and this new book; go read it, it's good, and bully for her for writing a YA collection: it's always a pleasure to see something for teenagers that isn't a horrific piece of shit.

But a big middle finger to Viking for disguising this work as something other than kids' lit. I'm happy to have shelled out to further Link's career, but I'm a grownup, dammit, and I've been deceived. As that article suggests, they're hoping that Harry Potter fans will dig it, and I'm aware that there are people over the age of 17 who were able to endure Harry Potter, so I suppose this sleight-of-hand is for them, and they won't mind a bit. But in my view, there is a big difference between YA and adult literature, and I want the strong stuff.

13 comments:

McQ said...

Hmmmm - I wonder if maybe you haven't been reading the right YA. When I switched to writing middle grade and YA a couple of years ago, I knew I'd better catch up on some of the YA that's been published since I graduated from high school all those decades ago. While I've certainly come across a few clunkers, many (MANY!) of the books I've read have blown me away with their creativity, emotion, depth, daring and/or plain and simple literary excellence. Today's YA is so much more than many adult readers give it credit for.

You, too, might be surprised at just how much truly fantastic YA there is out there. Give me a couple of days to think about it and I'll throw together a suggested reading list (including a few books that O. might really like).

I know, I know - YA will never be your first choice when browsing around for something to read, but I'm hopeful that a few more tries might at least persuade you that the difference between contemporary YA and your chosen adult "strong stuff" isn't quite as pronounced as you might assume.

jrlennon said...

Well, the Link stories seem to be very good YA, as far as I can tell. But the problem with reading it, as an adult, is that it presents familiar emotional problems as though they are novel--as they would be to a teenager. It isn't a question of the quality of writing, or the depth of feeling, or the stylistic audacity. It's the frame of reference. I want writers to make adult assumptions when they speak to me.

I would love recommendations for Owen though. He is picky as hell, and he knows when he's being talked down to. In general, he'd rather read all the Oz books again than take a chance on a new YA. So if you've found some good stuff, let us know.

And of course I trust that you will be producing good stuff, as well.

rmellis said...

YA books can DEFINITELY be excellent -- and I know many, many that are -- but they're still YA. That is, they address the concerns of young people rather than those of grown ups.

It's not a matter of quality, but a matter of purpose. I don't think JR is dissing the whole category as bad, so much as he's annoyed that a book for young people, and about young people, is not marked as such, presumably to trick adults into buying it.

jrlennon said...

Exactly, I'm complaining about the marketing of the book, not about the book itself! There's nothing wrong with YA--it just isn't what I thought I was buying.

Anonymous said...

Has Owen ever read MT Anderson? He's a Syracuse grad, just so you know he has upstate cred.

ed said...

Anderson also edited the great and strange lit'ry magazine 3rd Bed.

jrlennon said...

Which you and I have both been in, right, Ed?

gcm said...

Why, why, why is there even a YA category? I just checked out The Complete Works of Saki. Noel Coward wrote the introduction. There, he wonders:

"Who could have dreamed fifty-two years ago when, at the age of fifteen, I first read 'Beasts and Super-Beasts,' that I shouldn't one day be in a position to reintroduce him to a reading public..."

I'm reading 'Beasts and Super-Beasts' now. It's a tremendous collection. It may rank as one of the best I've read. It's not YA. It's just - good. It's just good, accessible literature. The same can be said for Kipling's work. Again, just good lit.

Saki, Kipling, Wilde and Twain were all read by both adults and children in their day. Or read by adults TO children.

I want to throw all blame on the publishing houses for participating in the Dumbing Down of America (trend cheerleader: Palin, S.), but blame also needs to be leveled at authors. First, authors should have the dignity not to stoop to writing below their level. Second, enough with the gratuitous 'adult situations'. I'm a big fan of coupling with that special woman in my life, but regardless of how fun it is, sex does not (or should not) dominate our world, or - by extension - the world of 'serious literature'. It's almost a necessary validation of merit that the author include a passage on either a) fucking, b) a character thinking about fucking, or c) masturbating. (Yes, I'm looking at you Updike.) Enough! Call me a prude, but I think we should encourage authors of skill, whose obsessions rise above the adolescent mindset.

How about - oh, I don't know - death? Death seems to be a pretty nice obsession. It's something we can all relate to, and fun for the whole family.

Happy Halloween.

E. said...

I took a graduate class in YA lit and last semester did an independent study on YA short stories. The form was "invented" and defined by S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" in 1967; fiction published prior to then is not considered by publishers, librarians or educators to be YA literature. Some of the defining elements of YA fiction include topics or themes of explicit interest to people between 11 and 18 years old; the absence of grownups so that hijinx and emotional epiphanies might unfold unencumbered by adult supervision or guidance; a relatively short timeframe (a semester, a weekend, a summer vacation); teenage vernacular; of-the-moment cultural references (iPods, Twittering, etc.); central characters of the same age or slightly older than the target audience; absence of subplots or structural complexities; and clear "moral" choices and consequences (galling). There's more, but you get the drift: the subject doesn't matter (religion, drug abuse, pregnancy, relationships, divorce, whatever) so much as the POV.

I'm with JRL; I lived through high school, and don't care to revisit all that angst through fiction. Wish I'd realized that before I spent a semester digging into it. That said, there is some well written YA fiction out there. Joyce Carol Oates writes some freaky-scary stories ("Small Avalanches" is a collection of previously published stories that's been repackaged as YA -- an exception to one of the "rules" above). Louis Sachar ("Holes") is consistently good, as is Walter Dean Myers.

Feh! Didn't mean to write a seminar. Maybe Owen would dig the short stories.

Cheers,
Elizabeth

jrlennon said...

gcm, I am absolutely not talking about sex, and I'm not sure if anyone else is, either.

When you talk to a 16-year-old, you do so similarly to the way you would an adult--you don't have to dumb yourself down. But you aren't going to make the same assumptions you would with an adult--like that both of you understand marriage equally, or the burdens of work. You might bring up those subjects, but you'll talk about them as though your interlocutor does not understand them, and needs an introduction to them. This is what reading YA is like for an adult, sometimes.

Books that can be "repackaged" as YA were never YA to begin with--they're just books that anyone can read and enjoy. Some of adult literature falls into this category, but a lot of it doesn't.

rmellis said...

Not to mention that YA fiction has kids as main characters -- it gives a kid's-eye view of the world. Again, nothing wrong with that, but as much as I like children, I just prefer to hang out with adults.

Again, I think some of the best literature in history has been written for children, so I don't think there's anything inherently inferior about the genre (if it is a genre). I think about A Wrinkle in Time and The Secret Garden more often than, say, Steinbeck.

Some Guy said...

I do want to point out that there are books featuring kids as main characters that aren't YA. The way I see it, Tom Sawyer is YA; Huck Finn isn't.

jrlennon said...

I see those books that way, too.