In his 1961 work An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argues that the value of a literary work can be determined, not by how it is written, but how it is read. “Literary” readers experience books as life-changing, enjoy reflecting on and talking about books, and reread their favorites multiple times. In other words, a good book may be defined as one that is so powerful, so memorable, that readers want to return to it again and again.
I often think about Lewis’s definition when I read YA because, even though I consider myself a fan of YA, I almost never reread a young adult book. In fact, I suspect that the only YA books I have reread are part of the Harry Potter and Keeper of the Lost Cities series–both of which actually exist on the divide between MG and YA. (I have also reread classics like A Separate Peace, but such books are often cross-marketed to teens and not necessarily seen as part of the YA “genre”–those books specifically written for the YA market and consisting of familiar elements such as the love triangle, the “enemies to lovers” subplot, etc.). This realization has made me increasingly uneasy over the years. Does my disinclination to reread most YA mean that most YA isn’t any good?
Perhaps to some extent, the answer is yes. When I reread classics, I am rereading a set of books that has already been vetted by a number of people who have decided that these books are worth preserving or worth bringing back to public attention. In others words, I am ostensibly reading the “best of” the 1800s and ignoring the hundreds or thousands of other books that were published at the time–books that I am to assume “weren’t any good.” (Though it’s worth noting that literary tastes change and authors do fall in and out of favor–even “classic” ones.) When I read books on the current market, this vetting process has not yet occurred. I am reading every book of the decade without knowing what will last and what will fall into obscurity. I get the garbage along with the gold.
I think that the realities of the current market and the need to sell books is, in fact, what often makes me not want to reread YA. Publishers sometimes seem to release books, not because anyone thinks they are very good, but because they know people will buy them. This attitude is clearly seen in the ways the YA market goes through trends. Twilight brought us love triangles and a paranormal romance fad. The Hunger Games brought us scores of dystopia novels. Six of Crows has ushered in a series of books about criminals and the underworld. This is nothing new, of course. Charles Dickens had his own struggle with knock-offs of his works. But it does suggest that the really good books may be the ones that brought us the knock-offs–and that a good deal of the rest of the market will one day fade into obscurity.
Though my disinterest in rereading most YA does still make me uneasy–shouldn’t I want to reread more than two or three titles?–I am comforted to realize that maybe the problem is not that YA is, as a whole, just not good enough to be rereadable. Maybe the reality is simply that hundreds of books are being published each year and not all of them can be amazing.