Every few months, it’s the same story. A debut YA author comes onto the scene with the perfect marketing pitch: “I,” they claim, “have written a great new breed of YA. It breaks from the trends. It has a real, more appealing type of female protagonist. It presents complex issues in a way that is not black and white. I have proven that YA can be written intelligently. (Please buy my book.)”
And every few months, the YA community reacts with the same, understandable backlash. After all, it takes a lot of gall to come into a community of books you admit you’ve never or barely read (because you hate them) and tell the denizens that you’re doing it differently and better. And it takes a lack of self-awareness to mock “trends” when your understanding of the YA scene is dated by about a decade. (Hint: People aren’t still writing Twilight knock-offs. Even The Hunger Games no long defines the genre.) Let’s not even talk about what it takes to walk fresh-faced into a community, insult it, then expect the people you’ve dismissed to hand you money because you have done them the favor of raising up their community to more sophisticated heights than they could have ever imagined without you.
All of this, however, just angers me. It’s arrogant and ignorant, which is a terrible combination. But there’s something worse behind all the claims that someone has finally made YA worthwhile and smarter and maybe even readable. It’s the sense that the authors who claim this, then go on to target young readers as sources of profit, no longer remember at all what it was like to be a child or a teen. That’s sad, and it’s dangerous because it leads to two awful assumption about teens.
1.) The problems teens face aren’t “real” problems. 2.) Teens are kind of stupid.
The kind of author who asserts that they have written the first YA book that tackles “complex issues” in a way that isn’t “black and white” makes the assumption that all other YA books are about trivial things, things that teens might buy into but aren’t like the hard, tough problems that an adult would face. There is, of course, the simple fact that the existing range of YA books takes on just about any problem anyone could think of, from a girl agonizing over what dress to wear to the prom to siblings dealing with their parents’ divorce to a boy having to make a decision that will either save or destroy the whole world. These authors don’t see that (they don’t read much YA, of course), but if they did, they would still make a hierarchy of problems. Books about dealing with drug abuse or saving a kingdom are about “real” problems; books about girls struggling with their appearance and feeling left out at school are not. And that’s simply wrong.
The problems teens (and children) face are real problems for them at the time. To brush off a girl’s concerns about her acne or whether she’s wearing trendy enough clothes because you, an adult, have “more important” problems, is to have forgotten completely what it feels like to be a teen. These things matter in high school, and it’s worth respecting that. Even if you come to the realization twenty years later that whether you did or did not go to prom or what you wore there or whom you went with was not a big deal once you look at your whole life in perspective, you can respect that it was a big deal for you at the time. It’s worthwhile to write and publish books that relate to teens going through similar issues. And to admit that sometimes it really does matter. Maybe whom you chose to date in high school or whom you chose as friends actually did affect the trajectory of your life.
Yet even more insidious may be the assumption that these authors have to write an intelligent YA book…because up to this point no one else has. All the other authors must have been intentionally dumbing things down and simplifying the prose so it could appeal to an audience of young readers. The “new” and “better” book will free YA fans from the mindless drivel they previously had been reading and (more foolishly!) actually enjoying.
Yes, these authors often assert they believe just the opposite—that they’ve written a complex character in a way no one else has done because they understand that young readers can handle it, that they’ve beefed up the prose because they know teens can comprehend these “sophisticated” vocabulary words—but behind it all is another belief: that all other YA books are stupid and simple. And the corollary to that must be that the type of people who have been reading and buying and loving these books must clearly be people who like their prose stupid and their ideas simple. The “new” YA book is going to save them from themselves and show them a better way, open their eyes to a world of complex ideas.
The condescension is palpable. So, yes, I am angry. I am also incredibly sad. It’s heartbreaking that authors who feel so little empathy for teens and have so little respect for them feel the need to write books for them. Maybe they write out of a misguided sense of helping, of raising YA literature to “acceptable” standards so the next generation won’t be idiots who only read “fluff” instead of the classics. Often it feels as they’re doing it for more selfish reasons: either because they want to prove that YA can be smart and they’re the talented writer to achieve this great feat, or because they know the money in publishing right now is in writing YA. It’s hard to believe novels by such writers would actually resonate with teens, but maybe they do. Perhaps I can only end with some practical advice: If you’re a new writer breaking into any genre, have enough self-awareness not to publicly insult the genre you’re joining, even if you do sincerely believe you’re doing it better.