Tuesday, October 4, 2011

No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving.

Remember high school debate?

A teacher would write a statement on the board.  You would have to come up with arguments for and against that statement.

Let's get nostalgic in the hizzy today, shall we?

"Young adult literature, for the most part, is about the story and the characters. Adult fiction is often about making some theoretical point about life/death/middle age, and all the philosophizing/navel gazing can get in the way."

I did not come up with that statement, my lovely friend ... (um, let's go with Rebecca today, shall we?) did in an IM conversation that got me thinking.  (Sorry for stealing your idea for the olde blog, Rebecca.)

I tend to agree with the statement -- the thesis for today, if you will.

Young adult literature tends to be very story-driven.  This is likely a result of marketing as much as anything else, since most publishers are aware that a largely teenaged audience will not put up with elegiac reflections on the whorls in a character's thumbprints.

Young adult literature is also (right now) a lot more daring creatively than adult literature because young adult literature is selling, and publishers are more likely to take a chance on something high concept if there is the potential for big payoff.

Young adult literature also has to pay scrupulous attention to character detail, since most young adults invest emotionally in their characters, and will not put up with a book where the characters suddenly begin acting in ways contrary to their established personalities without a good reason.

Finally, young adult literature is inevitably dynamic, in that the main character is maturing throughout the novel or series. I'm sure there are examples to the contrary, but for the most part, young adult characters go through character development as a necessary element of the genre itself.

Contrast this to contemporary adult fiction, where often characters are interestingly flawed from beginning to end. (Chabon, Waldman, Niffenegger, Franzen, anyone?) That does not make them more or less interesting than young adult characters, but it does mean that they can be more static characters. (Again - not as a rule, and for that matter, not especially a good or bad thing, depending on how it is done.)

(Can you tell from all the italics that I am aware this final paragraph is a controversial point that will be easily misinterpreted as me saying "Michael Chabon sucks"? Excellent! As long as we're all on the same page: Michael Chabon does not suck.)

On the flip side.

Young adult literature can dumb down important themes.  It can also present bad behavior in a box, removed from realistic and natural consequences.  (I'm thinking less here about characters that -- gasp! -- drink and have sex, and more about characters who stalk their love interests. Stalking, in the real world, is generally a bad thing.) 

And then to examine adult fiction.

I think we've all read a book that our brains knew was good (maybe even great), but found a paragraph (or two, or three, or four) that took us out of the story.  Maybe this was a good thing (Oooh, I'm re-examing priorities!)  But I have generally found it to be a bad thing.*

I am not saying literature shouldn't say BIG THINGS about life, but those big things should be an organic part of the story. The story should not be a platform for the big things. In general, adult literature blurs this line more than young adult does. (With the notable exception of our good friend Jack Weyland.)

So now we're back to the original thesis.

Can I get some yays or nays, fellow debaters? 

As a final thought: I am not saying young adult literature is better or worse than adult literature.  I am saying that the experience of reading it is often more enjoyable -- and no, not because it's simple or simple-minded.

(Here's where I wish I drank wine so the following analogy wasn't just pure bullshit.)

Young adult literature is like Saurtenes or Reisling.  It's light bodied, but when done right, its simplicity is what makes it delicious and flavorful. Adult literature is more like a cabernet sauvignon -- full bodied, complex, but when done wrong, with a slight tendency to stain your teeth, smell like cat pee, and taste like the back of an L.A. schoolbus.

(Did that sound like bullshit? I mean, I've seen Sideways like twice, which I think is pretty legit.)

 * Here's a potentially unhelpful example.  Have you ever seen V for Vendetta?  In V for Vendetta, Natalie Portman is acting.  In Black Swan, she's ACTING. Maybe ACTING is your cup of tea, but I think ACTING gets old after a little while.

So when I read The Time Traveler's Wife (for example), I get annoyed on page 120 when Claire sits down to drink some Earl Gray with lemon and read Moliere in the original French after making some more damn paper out of lavender and organic flax seed and angel snot and just think, "BACK TO THE TIME TRAVEL, DAMN YOU! You already tried my patience with that eye-rolling, rape-culture-promoting sexual assault scene!"

(for example).


  1. I don't read young-adult fiction often. I usually tend to read either non-fiction or "serious" adult fiction, but I get your point.

    Two of my favorite books suffer from this problem. The Once and Future King might be the prime example of a book that one would think of as young adult fiction, but because of its intense themes, small print and long, long, long story arch it is decidedly not. Lonesome Dove is a western which may be the male equivalent the romance novel, but the fact it won a Pulitzer and is one of the more poignant books I have read dealing with mortality, friendship, family, legacy and morality it is far more than the average Zane Grey novel.

    Also, weirdly enough I just finished the novel Sideways that the movie was based on (making a point of the fact it was not the novelization of the movie. I have only read one of those in my life and it was the novelization of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. No fake.) And you're pretty on point with the grape stuff.

  2. Well, I take a look at the audience and understand the dynamic differences. Young adult literature is targeted for an audience in evolution and discovery. Young adults are trying to find their place, figure out the foundation of what will make them "them". By the time we get to adulthood, the "idea" is that we're grown up so the point-making tends to happen more as a manner of entertaining the "developed" mind.

    Though I'm one of those so called "grown ups", I'll take a Riesling or a Fuki plum wine any day over something that drowns my palette with hoity-toity pretenses.

  3. Some YA fiction I've read is dumbed down for youth. Frankly, it bothers me. Adult fiction can tackle big issues without being "dark" or "inappropriate" but YA can't talk about suicide without being banned. I'm torn on this subject, and I think I'll tackle more of it during I love dark YA blogfest.

  4. I am, unfortunately, totally worn out (yay cashiering!) to comment on the metaphor + analysis to comment, but I know that my less-tired self really really wants to think + talk about it, so I might be back...

    Also: DUDE. Hated The Time Traveler's Wife. For the reasons it annoyed you and also the characters got so old with all that weird pretentiousness going on. "Can't be cool if you're trying that hard, guys," is how I kept feeling
    Another Also: I wish I knew of a way to fit elderberry wine into your metaphor, because I just learned today that it exists.

  5. This made me smile. I agree that YA fiction is generally more story driven and therefore generally more enjoyable to read, but sometimes I feel like it's been watered down a little too much. Sometimes I like a little literary flare here and there, just for the enjoyment of the words, or something that makes me think a little harder. I find so much YA fiction these days, particularly in the fantasy realm, is ALL about the story, and gives us nothing of good literature. Sometimes I read a book and I think, "Why didn't they just make this a movie and save me the time?" If I'm going to spend a few hours or more reading something, I'd like that something to have some literary meat and veggies on it. Snickers and Oreos are delicious, but after I stuff myself with them I'm seriously craving spinach.

    BUT, if I have to choose gorgeous writing with a lame story to a kick-butt story with mediocre writing, I'll take the latter. But I really appreciate it when I get both.

  6. Emily - I agree, and by no means am I suggesting that YA (as a genre) is perfect, merely that it has potential strengths that get overlooked.

    Liesl - both is ideal, and yes, there has been some terrrrible YA cranked out in the past. On the other hand, that makes the really fantastic YA stand out more, so at least there's a silver lining.

  7. The flatness of characters in YA novels really bothers me. Sure, character detail is almost always present, but that does not always involve depth. I have no interest in reading books full of perfect characters who everyone inexplicably loves. (I'm looking at you, Bella Swan.)

    I'd rather deal with a little over-the-top theme reflection if it means I get more fleshed out characters. Also, I know that my favorite books have often been about BIG THINGS and that I remember liking books with a great story, but I'll often forget what they're about. I loved The Shadow of the Wind because I remember how quickly it moved and how compelling it was, but I can't really tell you what happened. On the other hand, I loved Atonement because of it's reflection on deeper issues and can remember it vividly.

    I think they're more challenging, generally, but also more rewarding.