Why YA Fiction Is Great

I just came across this great article from salon.com about why female YA authors outnumber the male. In her article, Laura Miller posits that this is because there is so little prestige associated with the genre, and while men are accustomed to achieving “greatness” in the world of literary fiction, women are more inclined to write whatever they’re passionate about, regardless of whether or not it will grant them recognition because they have traditionally received less of this kind of critical acclaim.

In her exploration of why this is true she pinpoints the very reason why I love the YA genre so much:

“YA’s relegation to prestige limbo has also liberated the many authors who find themselves exasperated, bored or intimidated by adult literature’s greatness sweepstakes. In prestige limbo, success and respect are not mutually exclusive. Setting out to provide your readers with pleasure, even the old-fashioned kind, is not automatically viewed as pandering. Your readers will not care if you got a MacArthur grant or what James Wood said about your book or whether it was well reviewed in the New York Times — or, for that matter, whether it was reviewed at all.

When your intended audience is kids, you have a shot at the most enthusiastic and devoted readers in the world, but you can’t delude yourself that you’ll ever land a Pulitzer, let alone the Nobel Prize.

It turns out that a lot of adults like to read fiction written under those conditions, too. The best YA provides a holiday from the self-importance and intellectual anxiety that plague and often deform the world of adult literature.”

This “relegation to prestige limbo” is what makes YA books great. YA writers are not preoccupied with the larger literary world’s obsession with status. Young adult and children’s authors are so looked down on by the rest of the literary world that they don’t have to worry about trying to impress anyone, they can simply get on with telling a great story.

I remember arriving at this conclusion a few years ago while reading an adult novel that was so ponderous and heavy-handed I could feel the author ‘s self-conscious attempts to write a “great” novel. The meandering descriptive style of the prose and the psychoanalytic nature of the character’s perspective made me turn with some desperation immediately after finishing it to one of my favorite children’s authors, Karen Cushman. I remember reading The Ballad of Lucy Whipple with the purest glee. The characters and the story were so vibrant, so vivid and full of life they seemed to leap out of the book and take hold of me of their own accord, with no apparent manipulations on the part of the author. Here was a book where the language was fresh and exciting, and where the story felt real in the way that good stories feel, because the actions of the characters made emotional sense. To put it simply, here was great story-telling.

And maybe that’s one of the biggest distinctions between writing for adults and writing “for children and teens” (or, as is often the case, without an intended audience in mind…), which is that in writing without an intended audience in mind, you’re not preoccupied with the awards that await you at the end of the book, or the critical acclaim you will receive once it is published, you are rather writing the way writing should be done, which is for the pure joy of the act itself. That ability to separate from the preoccupation with ego is what makes great art. It reminds me of something Maurice Sendak said in one of my favorite interviews with Roger Sutton:

“Yes, you need to get out of the center of attention. You need to stop obsessing. Am I a believer? Am I not a believer? Should I have won the Caldecott three more times? How come? Why not? When you pull out of that orbit — and you can — that’s when you’re plankton. Then you’re just swimming in life.”

I leave for Oregon in four days, so my desk has been disassembled and carted away, and thus the Brenda Ueland quotes I usually have posted above my desk are not currently accessible to me, nor is my actual copy of If You Want to Write, as it’s in a box somewhere halfway across the country. However, I know for a fact that Brenda Ueland would agree with me on this.

The truth is genre matters little to me. Regardless of whether a book is “intended” for adults, children, or teens, what matters to me is that the language is exciting, the characters are engaging, the story is compelling. It just so happens that a lot of the great books being written today are marketed for young adults. And so I’ll keep reading young adult books as long as they continue to be great.


2 thoughts on “Why YA Fiction Is Great

  1. Beautifully articulated! I love: “you are rather writing the way writing should be done, which is for the pure joy of the act itself.” Reading this post feels liberating.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! One passionate academic who teaches on all things Tolkien and children’s literature, Dr Dimitra Fimi, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Wales, UK, regularly reminds her students what utter nonsense some “literary” types have spouted out about children’s & YA’s books in the past. In their eagerness to look down their noses at children’s writers, they totally overlooked that people like Jane Austen and the Brontee sisters for example wrote as children for other children. “Greatness” only comes AFTER the work has stood the test of time…not because some rarely sober journalists gave it an award…and sitting down to write “literature” has only ever produced yawn-inducing stuff, but never anything that would stand the test of time.

    Thank you for this wonderful post!

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