YA Fiction, Elitism and the Culture of “Should”

By now I’m sure nearly everyone in the writing world has read or heard about the Slate piece on how adults should be embarrassed/ashamed to read Young Adult literature. (I’m not going to link to it, because I refuse to give them the clicks.)  I couldn’t possibly have missed it – when I checked Twitter on Thursday morning, my timeline was a seething mass of fury. And I… well, went off implies a brief explosion. This took place over the course of nearly three hours, prompting what I consider one of my top five greatest honors of my entire internet history:

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And, you know what? It was. When I get up a good head of steam on some righteous anger, it looks a little like this:

ImageMore often than not, I’m reduced to outraged sputtering, but every now and then I am able to find and use my words, and I will show you the life of the mind, even within the limitations of 140-character posts.  But Twitter is so ephemeral that I wanted to collect my thoughts on this topic somewhere more permanent.

Firstly, on whether YA fiction has merit: of course it does.  It has the same percentage of bad, mediocre, good, and transcendent as any other category (and it is just that, a marketing category).  I challenge anyone to deny that Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are serious, important books; or that the characterization and sense of place in Beautiful Creatures are exquisitely nuanced; or that the impact of socioeconomic privilege on the characters in The Raven Boys is poignant and boldly truthful.  But even beyond the merits of subject matter and of craft — what of imagination and fun?  I find Middle Grade and YA novels to be imaginative in ways that many adult novels are not; their target audience, after all, is not assumed to have figured out who they are or how the world works or what is and isn’t possible.  (Not that any of us adults really have either, though a lot of us like to make a good show of it, either for our own peace of mind or for the sake of conformity.)  As someone who’s always becoming, always questioning and growing, I find a great deal to relate to in MG/YA books — we’re all “coming of age” in one way or another, wherever we are in life, and I love the sense of possibility inherent in stories about young people.  It’s not that possibility only exists for the young; it’s just that a lot of us stop seeing it at some point.  Whether that point feels like comfort/stability or stagnation/suffocation depends on the person.

I can’t begin to tell you how many adult novels I’ve read — mostly for various jobs I’ve had — that focus on an upper-class, middle-aged character, usually from the general vicinity of New York City, who feels dissatisfied with and stifled by their life.  Certainly, this is a subcategory of book the same way, say, faery stories are a subcategory of Fantasy or space operas are a subcategory of Science Fiction — but if you think I have one ounce of sympathy for the privileged one-percenter chafing at the restrictions they placed on their own lives when they chose conformity (or just accepted it, being unaware of any other options)… ahahahaha. Stories like that might as well be science fiction compared to my rural upbringing and an adulthood spent struggling to create my own life as I want it to be rather than as I’m told it must be.  But, “the 1%”/”the 99%” aside, those books are about people who are miserable because they don’t see possibilities in their lives. I’d always rather read about the people who discover possibilities, and who set off on their own paths before falling into that grey flannel prison.  It’s not escapism, it’s inspiration.  (For some, it’s salvation — the number of readers who have gotten through difficult times in their lives with the help of “escapist” or “lowbrow” fiction of various kinds must be in the hundreds of thousands at least.)

Secondly, on attitudes fostered by Internet echo-chamber culture: I don’t know what angers me more — Slate-ism (“everything you love is inferior because you love it and are therefore not thinking critically/like an adult”) or Tumblr-ism (“everything you love is harmful because everything harbors *isms of various sorts and you are doing harm by choosing to see the good in flawed work”).  I’ve had a hate-on for Tumblr-ism for some time now, but Slate-ism is akin to the elitism of the college English department I fled without looking back, the favoritism of certain subject matter and media in the fine art world, and the blinkered attitudes of some media critics towards non-“Prestige” television; I’ve been fighting it longer and on multiple battlefields.  Both seem to boil down to the following ideas: love is blind, joy is infantile and good is a fairy tale.  Pernicious lies, every one, born in the festering cynicism of holier-than-thou intelligentsia, disillusioned idealists, and the kind of people who have bought into the ideas fostered by the “Eat your vegetables” approach to reading that’s taught in what I imagine is a majority of high schools and colleges.  It seems that not only is adulthood Serious Business, but to be an adult you have to choose the serious, the important, the high-fiber no-sugar no-salt no-fat no-taste grey flannel suit life and thoughts and attitudes.  Anything else isn’t really adulthood.  Which seems a rather juvenile and simplistic view of adulthood, don’t you think?  Especially considering that childhood and adolescence are Serious Business too, especially when you’re right smack in the middle of them — a fact that MG/YA fiction illustrates exquisitely, whether in realism or in metaphor, time and again. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, I want to address the great, steaming mountain of bullshit that is “Should”.  All this policing of what is and isn’t appropriate to read or wear or do or think or say is contained in that one miserable little word.  If we’re going to throw around ideas about what is and isn’t adult behavior, let’s start there.  That’s what adults do, right? Ask the hard questions and examine their own lives? Serious Business, remember?  So let’s unpack our “Should”s. Where do they come from? Our parents? Our communities? Our religions? Our jobs? Ideological choices made long ago, when entertaining the possibility that there was more than one side, more than one option, was too much for us to consider?  Who decides what “Should” and what “Shouldn’t”? What you “Should” read, watch, listen to, eat, do? Who you “Should” love, hate, marry, work for, emulate? Who you “Should” be? I’m sure a lot of the people who are raising holy hell over the fact that — gasp — people over the age of 21 are reading books that are meant to be marketed to younger people — would be the first to stand up and call bullshit on outmoded sociopolitical “Should”s. Some pretty sweet irony, that.

I’m not casting any stones here — I have “Should”s, present and former. We all do.  But, for the love of all that’s precious and important in the world, FUCK the “Should”s. Listen to your own heart and your own instincts and follow your bliss, whether that’s curling up with the latest Booker Prize winner or devouring a stack of Gossip Girl novels or reading every issue of Hawkeye or watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again.  I don’t care whether you’re fifteen or fifty; if something brings you joy and causes no harm to others (which, memo to the intelligentsia: that does not count readers’ love of MG/YA hurting your feelings), you should do that as often as you possibly can.  Adulthood is serious business, and to get through it all and take on the responsibility of making the world what we want and need it to be, we need to feed our whole selves — we need those reserves of hope and joy, we need that catharsis, we need those reminders of possibility and who we were and who we could be.  And whether we find that in Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or the new Jay McInerney or a well-worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye — or, hell, all of the above; we are human, we contain multitudes — doesn’t matter at all, as long as we find it.

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Woman Writer Wednesday: Lucy Woodhull

Welcome to this week’s Woman Writer Wednesday, my new feature where I profile, review or interview women whose words I’d like to bring to your attention.  For today’s post, I interviewed romance/humor/space-opera writer Lucy Woodhull, whose Ragnar and Juliet II: Concubine Boogaloo and original recipe Ragnar and Juliet are available for sale at Amazon, AllRomance.com and Liquid Silver Books.

1. What/who inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, and was good at it in school and stuff.  (“And stuff” — that’s the kind of subtle brilliance I’m unfamous for.)  A few years ago, I began commenting on a Certain Ladyblog and got a bit of a following for being funny.  It made me think well, hrm, self, maybe you could be writing of the funny for to make monies!  Monies = good, my brain concluded.  I love romance as a genre, so I decided to write a funny romance novel.  Thus Ragnar and Juliet was born.  The first pub I sent it to told me it was too funny — I wasn’t allowed to just have a funny romance novel for no good reason!  It must have terribly SERIOUS parts to balance out the funny parts.  I said, “LOL nope,” and kept the book as-is.  I enjoy being edited and getting critiques (how else do you grow?), but I have learned, over time, to respect my voice.  I get further when I trust in myself, and I have more fun.  If I’m not having fun, what’s the point?  I’m not in it to write someone else’s version of a book.  I then submitted Ragnar and Juliet to the magnificent Tina Burns (at that time with Liquid Silver Books) and sold it in twenty-four hours.  Hooray!  I’ve subsequently written a sequel to R&J and a straight-up humor book, and gotten myself an agent for it, so things are proceeding apace.  By “things,” I mean “my plan for universe domination, and also unlimited Cheez-Its.”
2. What do you like most about the genre[s] you write in?
In romance, I love the happily ever after.  This is a part of the genre that people shit on a lot, claiming that there’s no suspense when you know the hero ain’t gonna die when he runs through a hailstorm of bullets to rescue his dog.  But lots of genres are predictable that way.  In a long-running series about a male detective, the dude probably isn’t gonna bite it with three books in and three more sold.  Happy endings are the best!  (Pun intended.)  Life’s a piece of shit when you look at it, so what’s so wrong with reading a book about love and sexy times that you know will end with hearts and flowers?  During the tough times of life, especially, I dig some escapism with my free time, and that doesn’t make me a moron.  Plus:  SEX!In humor, I love the silliness of it, the incongruity, the anything-goes nature of what is possible.  (But I say “anything goes” with an eye to avoiding jokes that are racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and all the other “ists.”  When humorists say they can’t make a joke without being an asshole, I say they must not be very good at it.)  I also adore and respect the power of parody and humor to right the world’s ills.  One needs only to look at something like Blazing Saddles to know how powerful humor’s statement can be.
3. What’s the best piece of writing-related advice you’ve received?
My best friend and sometimes-writing partner told me, in the midst of that first rejection and my struggles with the “rules” of writing, to stay true to myself and honor my voice.  And she was so, so right.  When I stopped trying to simultaneously play by the rules and be myself, everything was so much better.  Write what and how YOU love.  It’s the only thing that can possibly keep you going in this soul-sucking journey we call art.I’ll use this gif here, for these are my people.
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4. Is there any type of writing you would like to try that you haven’t already?
I would love to write a half-hour comedy or film.  I figure I’ll write books for now until Mel Brooks comes a-knocking to adapt one of them into a film.  What’s the point of dreaming unless it’s big?  Mel:  call me!
5. You’re a fan of satire… tell us why you enjoy it and what you feel its significance is.
Satire is a way to poke fun at the world’s ills, and thereby help to improve them.  It combines humor and activism, two of my favorite things, and when it’s done well, is so damn clever it hurts.  Just look at the way The Onion sometimes blurs the line between reality and satire in such a scary way, you almost can’t tell what’s real.  Especially during an election cycle.  Some folks respond well if you stand up and say, “Hey, racism is bad!” but others will watch Blazing Saddles and get a perspective on race they never had before… all undercover-like while they laugh.  And maybe, ever so slightly, their mind will be changed for the better.
Many thanks to the ever-fabulous Lucy.  You can find her on Twitter here or at her website.

Woman Writer Wednesday: Rachel Lynn Brody

Welcome to a new feature here at ye olde blogge.  In the spirit of Throwing Down the Rope, or at least reaching out a hand from the next rope over, I bring you Woman Writer Wednesday, where I profile, review or interview women whose words I’d like to bring to your attention.  For today’s post, I interviewed playwright, speculative-fiction author and anthology editor Rachel Lynn Brody.

1. What/who inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always loved reading, and writing came as a natural outgrowth of my love for storytelling. My mom was responsible for getting me to apply for my first paid writing gig, which was as a correspondent for the teen section of The Buffalo News, my freshman year of high school.
2. What do you like most about the genre[s] you write in?
In any genre, the thing that attracts me is the opportunity to explore human reactions. All my work contains elements of the fantastic, and how that expresses itself changes from genre to genre. In science and speculative fiction, the exploration of our civilization through the interactions of technology and humanity is a theme I tend to visit a lot. In theater, the idea that you’re presenting an experience of subjective consciousness as objective experience lets you leave naturalism behind for deeper human truths. Does that answer the question? (Yes.)
3. What’s the best piece of writing-related advice you’ve received?
A friend and I were talking over Bruschetta on the Lower East Side the other day, and she reminded me of a piece of advice I hadn’t heard in a while: “Know the rules before you break them.” Otherwise, maybe something my MFA supervisor said: “Kill your darlings.”
4. Is there any type of writing you would like to try that you haven’t already?
I’ve just been emailing a guy about a musical, so that’s something that would be really exciting, I think. We’ll see what happens. I’d love to write a video game. That would be something completely new, but in keeping with a lot of my fascination with theater as an immersive experience (for example, Sleep No More’s performance at the McKittrick felt a lot like a live-action video game).
5. For those of us who have never written for the stage — tell us why we should give it a try.
There’s not a lot to recommend stage writing to those who don’t love theater. It’s nearly impossible to make a living, even if you are produced professionally. It’s long and arduous and requires you to spend hours upon hours seeing new and interesting (and sometimes terrible) productions of other plays. On the other hand, if you can step away from your work and enjoy the collaborative process of creating theater, if you can stand up and defend your work while still taking on constructive criticism, getting a play on its feet and seeing actors perform your play so it lives outside your head the same way it lived in it is one of the most rewarding feelings I know as a writer.
Many thanks to Rachel for being the first of what I hope will be many interviewees.  Please stop by her website for more on Rachel and her works.  You can also follow her on Twitter here.