On the Spectrum Books podcast that went out on Monday, host and author Nadine Matheson talks to me about an article from this blog’s 2014 archives, all about why I prefer writing adult fiction to YA. It comes at just the right time, because two articles came to my attention the other night about the genre. One by an English teacher with twenty years of experience who despairs over it, and the rebuttal from YA author Juno Dawson.
Humour me a little here: take a look. Click off this page. Return to me in ten minutes or so.
Are you back? Good. Did Joe Nutt’s article make you foam at the mouth like Cujo before he takes down sheriff George Bannerman? Even better.
I both like and approve of YA, even though I don’t write it (let’s stick a ‘yet’ in there for good measure) and I never read it as a teenager. I’ve done my duty and read all Harry Potter novels and the Hunger Games, and I think there’s a copy of Divergent on my slush pile somewhere, but those books notwithstanding I don’t feel drawn to YA much as an adult. But to those who are, readers and writers alike, I say ‘Knock yourself out, my friend! Go to that quidditch match, or Panem, or….erm, what’s Divergent got?’
Joe Nutt’s article is enough to make this author actually try writing a YA novel just to imagine him shuddering at it. It would give me the same kind of gratification I once got from a reviewer saying that he would be against ‘impressionable young people’ reading Shadow’s Talent, because my soon-to-be-18 protagonist is a little bit naughty. Yay, Tommy earns the Potential Subversive Influence badge! Perhaps I really should have gone for YA with Shadow after all, deleted a few F-bombs, cut that scene that’s a homage to J G Ballard’s Crash. Read my previous article and you’ll know that’s a pretty big change of thought, and I’ll probably shake my head and say ‘Nah, no regrets’ over my next glass of wine, but congrats Joe, for a moment there I was re-thinking my own books because of stuff you said!
I get it, the snark will get a little tiresome if I overindulge. Perhaps the kind of ‘cringingly adolescent belligerence’ Joe Nutt mentions, all coming from a 33 year old who can read in three languages, genuinely does enjoy and respect Jonathan Franzen’s books, and has a collection of other literature that would probably surprise many people who know his usual author-brand.
Oh well then, in the interests of some adult thinking, let’s discuss Nutt’s article.
Before anyone gets me wrong, I’m not on a personal vendetta against the guy. Looking at some of his other articles, I see a man who makes some sense of a somewhat controversial world: education. This article’s an interesting one. Just on this occasion, with YA, I think he’s got it wrong. So much so that even my day job couldn’t clear my head of this. There’s only one thing for it as usual:
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(Quotes from https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/why-young-adult-fiction-a-dangerous-fantasy, and from https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/suggest-a-book-written-young-adults-has-any-less-merit-classics)
‘Several generations of teenagers, especially boys, have been effectively prevented from ever becoming literate adults by a publishing industry that has decided young adult readers have an insatiable appetite for what amounts to nothing more than gossip fodder … So much young adult fiction is little more than a florid expansion of [the] headlines about the new love in Jennifer Aniston’s life, Taylor Swift’s dietary obsessions or Kim Kardashian’s latest sex tape.’
Read Juno Dawson’s article for some good examples of ones that most definitely do not fit the above description, just for a start. Then perhaps you can join me in taking issue with is the idea that an industry publishing books prevents literacy. Even if someone is reading a YA novel where the protagonist is an Aniston, Swift or Kardashian clone, at least they’re reading, and the last time I checked, an illiterate person was someone who can’t write or read.
Granted, it can also be defined as ‘Showing a lack of culture, especially in language or literature,’ (Dictionary.com) but if we’re to take that interpretation, then Nutt is still saying that YA causes this. Where’s the proof? A lot of people who fit that description probably never read much at all as teenagers. If YA books are a possible gateway to reading for those who are turned off by everything in their English class, then what could be so terrible about keeping it open? If we really want to split hairs, then in the world we live in, celebrities are part of modern culture. Disclaimer: I can’t stand Kim Kardashian. But I wouldn’t be misguided enough to think that I could blame books based on her for illiteracy.
Perhaps Nutt’s just worded his argument badly, because it clearly isn’t about whether someone’s capable of reading, or even that they’re uncultured and can’t use language, but rather that in his opinion they’re not reading what the literature fans and some teachers would call worthwhile books. Juno Dawson is right to call this kind of attitude ‘snobbery at its worst,’ but it goes beyond this.
Let’s face it: there are many authors of adult fiction who do write the kind of trash that Nutt’s description fits. It’s not just YA. Thinking back to my teenage, I knew plenty of girls who read the likes of Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper and Danielle Steele. Yeah, I’m stereotyping a little, but it always was girls who read those sorts of books, so I can’t buy Nutt’s idea that it’s a male audience who have fallen prey to reading celebrity-style trash. And I don’t really consider it falling prey either; it’s just plain old reading. It doesn’t matter if they’re YA books or not; appealing trash is available to the reader who seeks it, whether they’re male or female. YA did not invent that, nor do the sorts of YA books mentioned by Dawson seek to contribute to it.
‘It seems as though we have communally decided these young adults are either too stupid to be addressed respectfully, or too obsessed with their own anxieties and bodies to engage with the far more demanding world of ideas.’
If Joe Nutt wants to tell us not to insult teenagers, then maybe he shouldn’t imply that they won’t grow up to become literate adults if they (A) read a genre of books he doesn’t like, and (B) don’t share his enthusiasm for the alternatives. Is there really nothing more to becoming a well informed and educated person than your reading habits? Here’s an author who’ll dare say it: some people don’t read fiction at all, and they’re high functioning and pretty damn good at their jobs, and raising their families, and contributing something to the world that it needs. A good number of my friends fit that description, and they don’t even like reading much. Sometimes it means I have to remind myself to (gasp!) shut up about books and enjoy something else with them!
Although there are links between reading and human behaviour, I fail to believe that the people Nutt describes at the end of his article, the ‘angry, thwarted young men and women’ who frequently engage in ‘cringingly adolescent belligerence’ would become that way through a lack of reading on its own, let alone grow up to be such adults because they read YA. If anything, YA can do a lot to help teenagers avoid such a path, and to believe that life is about more than their anxieties and body image. A character who starts a book obsessed with both may even learn this lesson themselves. (If you know a YA book like that, please do share in the comments.)
But let’s take a momentary step back here though: I almost want to admit that Nutt has some sort of point. If it were my son or daughter in this picture, then of course I would try to encourage them to read books that in my opinion had more merit than the Swift-Aniston-Kardashian clones, and could teach them more about life, in my humble opinion. Yes, I’d encourage them by suggesting the books and authors I’ve read. But one way to totally discourage them from reading would be to label their taste as a ‘dangerous fantasy’, be the parent who denied them their books of choice, rammed his own choices down their throats instead, told them that reading YA meant that they were self-obsessed, and suggest that they would grow up to be illiterate if they did not read as I’d prefer them to.
I would give my teenager a YA book like The Hunger Games. My two cents on those three books: they contain the very kinds of issues and human-condition debates that Nutt’s article lambasts YA for not containing. Good old Suzanne Collins might just break my book-delinquent teen of their Swift-Anniston-Kardashian habit, just as a bonus.
Nutt’s article gets better though:
‘It’s time we took a frank, retrospective look at the past few decades and acknowledged that we have systematically deprived thousands of children of their literary inheritance, of a timely and natural introduction to the concept that you can engage with the minds of some of the most intelligent adults in the world through the books that they write and have written.’
Write me a list of books and authors you feel fit into this category please, Joe. Before you do it, I’d be willing to make a bet that they’re still available at libraries and bookshops all over the place. If you’re talking about the classroom as well, then you already said you’ve been teaching these same books you love for the last twenty years, right at the start of your article. That doesn’t sound like deprivation to me. It sounds like you shooting your own argument in its face.
If a teenager makes the choice to read YA instead of a Penguin Classic or something their English teacher recommended, well, we’re back to the freedom of choice argument. At least you tried, and you gave them the choice. But you’ve failed to convince me that teenagers are blind to the choices of books out there simply because the YA shelf is sometimes more appealing. There has never been a better time to access ‘the most intelligent adults in the world,’ and reading is only one way to do this anyway.
If we’re talking about the great authors and thinkers who have departed this world then I still see plenty of interest in the preservation of them and their books. Sure, I’m a sci-fi writer who reads bestsellers and indie authors and books that wouldn’t belong on that list I asked you to write, even if they’re sometimes deemed to be the ‘classics’ of the sci-fi genre. (Let’s face it, you lit guys often don’t regard us that highly unless we’re the likes of Huxley, Asimov or Clarke.) But you know what my favourite book is? The Count of Monte Cristo. Good old Alex Dumas has an ‘intelligent’ word or two that I’d love to share with any teenager who’d be interested. So do many of the authors taught in schools. I loved Lord of the Flies; it helped me get my English Teacher’s Pet badge when I was 15. I want to see books like on shelves forever. And it’s actually people like you who can help, if only you’d appeal more to both readers and authors by getting off your high horse, and accepting that not everyone’s gateway to reading and to life wisdom in general is high literature, or books your think are better for people.
‘For far too long publishers and others have patronised or turned teenagers off reading entirely with books they think are good for them, instead of helping them seek out and enjoy books that matter.’
Please, someone, punch me in the face right now and tell me we’re are both intelligent enough that I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with that picture. Perhaps I’ve just been punched too many times before, because here we go anyway: you might as well substitute ‘publishers’ with ‘teachers’ in that first clause, because that’s kind of thing I hear every time someone tells me how their English teacher didn’t so much kill any chance of them ever reading literature, but stabbed it repeatedly like Macbeth stabs Duncan. If a teenager is really that turned off by YA, they can always seek out adult books through a whole variety of sources. If they don’t, they probably weren’t that excited by reading anyway. Either way, a publisher killed nothing.
About that equally daft second clause: YA is important, because if that’s what teenagers are interested in when it comes to books, then it’s not just another way of getting them reading, it’s another way of reaching them about important ideas, and good authors are already doing it.
Forget about the ‘gossip’ based YA books, if they even exist to the extent Nutt thinks they do. The well written, engaging YA books out there are a train, and teenagers are choosing to get on it, while people with Joe Nutt’s point of view just stand on the platform and shake their heads. That used to be reserved for teens smoking cigarettes in stations, but now even the books they read are getting them those looks! Alternatively, the disapprovers are writing articles, in which they throw themselves off the platform just as the YA express hurtles through the station. Nothing like being a martyr to the cause of high literature.
Thing about modern martyrs is that the death part is often a big final ‘so there.’ If this is Joe Nutt’s equivalent then it’s just as unlikely to stop authors and publishers from providing good quality YA, books shops and libraries from stocking it, and intelligent teens with bright futures from making the choice to read it.
Time for me to get cracking on that YA novel about a student who softens the heart of an English teacher who’s in despair over the modern world.