On the pervasiveness and popularity of young adult fiction
By Ghausia Rashid Salam
It seems that everyone over 25 is experiencing a second â€œteenage-hoodâ€ as they clutch their copies of young adult (YA) books such as â€˜The Fault In Our Starsâ€™1 and weep overâ€¦ well we still donâ€™t know what theyâ€™re weeping over. It definitely isnâ€™t tears of pain over reading bad fiction, thatâ€™s for sure.
While the genre has existed since the sixties, when the term â€œYoung Adultâ€ was first coined, YA fiction has travelled a long distance, and not necessarily down a good path. Consider books such as â€˜The Outsidersâ€™2 by S.E. Hinton, a coming-of-age tale that deals with themes of violence and death. Do we even need to discuss Judy Blume, the writer who gave teenagers dealing with spiritual crises a fictional character to relate to in â€˜Are You There God? Itâ€™s Me, Margaret,â€™3 not to mention teenage sexuality in â€˜Foreverâ€¦â€™4 And while â€˜The Catcher In The Ryeâ€™5 might not have been targeted towards the tween/teen audience, itâ€™s theme of alienation quickly made it popular with similarly troubled adolescents. Madeleine L’Engle gave us the much-beloved, much-hated, bizarrely fantastical â€˜Time Quintetâ€™6 series, and â€˜The Color Purpleâ€™7 is a lovely book that deals with internalized oppression, sexism, female solidarity, and racism. While these are the more common and popular examples of YA fiction, the genre in its early stages was certainly never limited to just a few writers.
Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine may have made their mark on the genre with their horror YA fiction, but authors such as Meg Cabot were quick to follow. It would be particularly difficult to criticize Meg Cabotâ€™s â€˜The Mediatorâ€™8 series, a book about a teenage mediator who navigates the trials and tribulations of teenage life while answering her calling as a guide for ghosts. Sound familiar? (Buffy, ahem) Similarities aside, the series isnâ€™t a complete travesty, and Iâ€™ll admit, I might pick up my copy to start re-reading the series at any given point. And while â€˜The Vampire Diariesâ€™9 book series was definitely not as good as Cabotâ€™s series, it was less atrocious than other â€œsupernaturalâ€ books that would assault our eyes and minds with their obnoxious existence. And if weâ€™re discussing YA, it is imperative to mention the story of a boy who lived in a cupboard, and woke up on his eleventh birthday to find that he had magic in him all his life. Yes, â€˜Harry Potterâ€™.10 The series is problematic for me as an adult, but itâ€™s an excellent way to get children involved in reading and it isnâ€™t poorly written either.
We return then, to the previous question; what went wrong? When the YA genre has seen brilliant works of fiction, why do some of us decry the genre and scoff at those who read it?
Because weâ€™re scoffing at 30-somethings weeping over â€˜The Fault In Our Starsâ€™ maybe?
Granted, the genre has increasingly become more trashy by the year. From controlling boyfriends and abusive relationships in â€˜Twilightâ€™11 â€” yes children, your beloved Bella is in an incredibly abusive relationship â€” to hard-to-swallow plots like â€˜Divergentâ€™,12 it seems that the genre has embraced the approach of selling their soul to make millions, while those of us with any brain cells remaining are left bereft of our brains, since our mind tends to commit suicide after reading what constitutes YA fiction today. Even recent YA fiction like â€˜The Perks of Being A Wallflowerâ€™13 wasnâ€™t that terrible, despite the desire to bang oneâ€™s head on oneâ€™s desk every time a 40-year-old breathlessly updates their Facebook status with, â€œIn that moment, we were infinite.â€
The truth is, YA wasnâ€™t problematic as long as it was well-written. As Ruth Graham snarks in Slate, â€œIf Iâ€™m being honest, it [The Fault In Our Stars] also left me saying â€œOh, brotherâ€ out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like â€œIâ€™m in love with you, and Iâ€™m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true thingsâ€ to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.â€14 One might wince and roll their eyes. Besides, hasnâ€™t that dreadful â€˜A Walk To Rememberâ€™15 covered teens with cancer already? Which brings me to the crux of the problem with YA; clichÃ©d, tired, hideously commercialized plots recycled constantly for the sake of profit. Lack of change is not the only reason a genre can stagnate, selling the soul of the genre for profit will kill it just as efficiently.