Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

(Young) Adult Literature

Whenever I teach YA literature in my children's lit course (which I do, because there is no YA lit course and I want to cover it somehow) someone objects that the book is not "appropriate" for kids. So then we get in a big discussion of how we define appropriate, and how we think about audience, and usually at some point someone realizes that, hey, the students sitting in the classroom are actually the intended audience for the book. Or they were, a year or so ago, when they were in high school. The category of "child" or "youth," that is, is very broad--though, of course, the category of "adult" is even broader.

Until now, though, I've had a hard time defining "young adult" for my students. We can talk a bit about age ranges and subject matter and such, but that doesn't always get us very far. So a recent panel discussion on "What Makes a YA a YA," sponsored by Publisher's Weekly caught my eye. I particularly liked Sherman Alexie's comments about condescension:
“I thought I’d been condescended to because I’m an Indian,” he said. “That was nothing compared to the condescension I get because I’ve written a YA novel.” He said that fellow writers have also accused him of chasing a lucrative market. “Because I’ve written a book about a 16-year-old,” he said, “that means I’m a capitalistic whore.”
(All the YA authors in the room now explode in laughter, since they've all gotten so rich off their hypocritical work. Not!)

I also resonated with these comments about the difference between YA and literature for "adults":
Writing for teens involves a stripped-down technique, Alexie said. “You tend to write more like Hemingway than Faulkner. More like Emily Dickinson than T.S. Eliot. It’s not a matter of more complex thoughts, but the number of adverbs and adjectives. In the adult world, the number of adverbs and adjectives* can be confused with great writing.” Martin put it another way: “Teen books are like adult books, without all the bullshit.”

Of course there's fabulous stripped-down writing for adults (even beyond Hemingway and Dickinson), but I have to say, I have been reading some "adult" novels by perfectly fine writers lately, and I keep getting really impatient with the literary effects (for want of a better word) they seem to be striving for. Every so often they just seem to want to remind me that they are writers, you know, real writers, so there are forced analogies or obscure metaphors or heavily symbolic objects littering up my pages. These are not bad books, but I find myself thinking, "get to the point!"**

Thanks to J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends for the link.

*Hmm, has Alexie read what people say about J.K. Rowling's use of adverbs?
**As Madeline L'Engle taught me, comparisons are odious, and YA books can be great without their greatness casting adult books into shadow. But when I read this and thought of the books I'd been reading lately (ok, not Twilight, in this case!), it resonated. That is all.

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