Thursday, May 23, 2013

The reductive approach to YA

I'm surprised not more people have responded to the link I shared last week to the New York Times Book Review of Andrew Smith's Winger which spends a hefty chunk of the review discussing John Green and "Green Lit."

I've read Winger and I have read Looking for Alaska. Yes, both books are set in boarding schools. Yes, both books are narrated by male protagonists. Yes, both books are contemporary/realistic. Yes, both books are written by male YA authors.

But that's about where their comparisons end.

This post isn't about those two books and comparisons, though. It's about the fact we need to stop being so damn reductive in how we talk about YA books.

It wasn't too long ago when all associations to YA fiction came through Twilight. The joke was that all YA books were bad knock offs or were filled with sparkly vampires. When books like The Hunger Games came out, people took to it a little slower, skeptical because it defied some of the expectations of what YA lit was and wasn't -- Collins's book is no Twilight, so suddenly, the frame of reference shifted.

Now, of course, we're in the hey day of John Green mania. He's racked up almost every accolade possible, and everyone and their mother and their aunt and their uncle has read The Fault in Our Stars. It's GREAT that the world of YA grows as more people read it. And it's great that good, strong books are getting recognition and are getting recognition as books written for a young adult audience. No one is comparing John Green's oeuvre to Twilight because his books are "nothing like that." Even though Green writes for a YA audience and even though this book is being seen as an amazing contribution to YA from readers who'd otherwise eschew these books, many readers only have him as their frame of reference. That then limits their own view of YA and -- in this case -- contemporary realistic YA.

Going back to the New York Times review, AJ Jacobs, who is himself an adult non-fiction writer, talks in depth about all of Green's accomplishments. He's sold out Carnegie Hall. He's never off the NYT Best Sellers List. Even though he didn't "invent" realistic YA (that honor is given to JD Salinger who, I note, didn't even write books for young adults, let alone invent realistic YA), Green's books pretty much define contemporary realistic. Jacobs calls these books "Green Lit," and they're books featuring strong dialog with self-aware narrators who have crushes and deal with twists and disobey authority. Writers of realistic fictions are chasing the Green dream, as they want their books to do what it is his books do.

Here's the thing: not everyone wants to read a John Green book. Not everyone wants to write the John Green book.

Not every book that is set in our world, featuring authentic teen main characters is worth calling "Green Lit." Because the hallmark of good contemporary realistic fiction is authentic teen characters. They can be funny. They can be heart breaking. They can defy authority. They can fall in love or out of it. They can go to boarding school. They can suffer pain. It doesn't mean these characters, the readers who want these books, or the authors who write them, are all aiming for the Green dream.

Reducing an entire genre to one person's books as a source of comparison is limiting and reductive of the nuances, the depth, and the range of voices that exist within it. Believe it or not, John Green is not the be all, end all of contemporary realistic YA fiction. Many amazing authors came before him and wrote with goals to portray real characters in real world situations -- Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, SE Hinton, Robert Lipsythe, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier -- and many amazing authors came after him and will continue to come after him. Yes, he has spent a long time on the NYT List. Yes, he's achieved a lot for having such a young career. Yes, he's easily recognized as one of the great YA authors. Yes, he's done a lot for the YA community.

But, he's one person who has written just a few books. He is not the definition of a genre, nor is he the definition of YA.

Comparisons among authors and books are inevitable. They're an important element of reader's advisory and they give grounding to new books and voices for readers who want to get a sense of a book's style. In short reviews, sometimes those comparisons to big, well-known authors is valuable -- it's a quick glance at what readers may like a book. But in an outlet like The New York Times, which is a big space with big readership, why is all of the richness of YA fiction reduced to a single name? And why is the review of Smith's novel really about Green's contributions to YA? Why is it written by someone who hasn't done their homework on the breadth of this field of work?

This chance to offer valuable insight into contemporary realistic fiction -- and insight into the broader spectrum of YA -- was a blown opportunity. It does service to no one.

I don't want to spend too much longer thinking or blogging about this, but I do want to raise a question to anyone willing to weigh in here. When we reduce YA to Twilight, it's meant as a sting and as a means of belittling the field. But when we reduce YA to John Green's books, it's meant as an ultimate compliment? Both authors have done exceptionally well. Both have appealed greatly to readers who are young adults and those who aren't.

7 comments:

  1. My thoughts...reduction is meant as a compliment vs. a sting when an author like John Green is the compass because lit snobs are still the ones making these assertions.

    Twilight will never be known for its prose or complex plotting. Meyer is a great story teller and Twilight kept people waiting for the next installment because they wanted to/had to know what was going to happen. Which is what reading any book is about at its essence.

    But lit snobs perpetuate the myth that reading is about something more. It's not. From the deepest tome to the lightest pop lit, reading is about that story and having to know what the heck is going to happen.

    As a YA writer of color, reduction frustrates me on several levels - reducing YA to one author and reducing a race of characters to one setting or situation - street lit or historical fiction anyway? Isn't that what all Black readers want?

    In the end, readers of the genre understand it's more than that. But I agree that it's frustrating to have YA take the stage in something like the NYT book review and not have it reflected in all its many prisms and colors.

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  2. You ask a couple of interesting questions and although I do not agree with some of your points, there are a couple of things I'd like to weigh in on.

    You say: "It's about the fact we need to stop being so damn reductive in how we talk about YA books." I think you have to consider who the "we" is you are talking about here. Are you talking about "people who read YA and talk/write about it regularly" or "people who only occasionally pick up a YA book / people who only occasionally write about YA". In the former case, I think these people don't talk/write reductively about YA and know that there's more than one author, one genre, one book within the broad world that is YA. However, if you talk about the latter, you're absolutely right, I think. I don't feel it's fair to Andrew Smith and Winger to "reduce" his ambitions, if you will, to "be like John Green and write a John Green book" (but I don't think that's what the reviewer was doing at all), but I do recognize that the review is featured on a website where most visitors are not really as knowledgeable about YA as you or I or e.g. a YA blogger. So reading "Andrew Smith" and "John Green" in the same review (esp. in the beginning of the review) might be way for them to read on and figure out what Winger really is all about.

    This also brings me to something else you wrote:

    "But in an outlet like The New York Times, which is a big space with big readership, why is all of the richness of YA fiction reduced to a single name? And why is the review of Smith's novel really about Green's contributions to YA? Why is it written by someone who hasn't done their homework on the breadth of this field of work?"

    Because that's how the business works, sadly enough (I know this sounds cynical). Rarely are the people who really know their stuff the people who get to write about that professionally. Big outlets with professional and paid for reviewers... they don't need/want the in depth reviews or articles. They need what people know, think they know, think they want and think they need. I know this sounds extremely cynical. I live with someone who's a reviewer of free jazz and contemporary improvisational music. He writes for several (free) online and print publications, but do you think that "recognized" media ever features something that just lies outside of the "mainstream" (which is a weird word to use when you are talking about the stuff he reviews, of course)? Nope, if the genre is featured at all (even in outlets which would be similar to The New York Times - we're not American, btw - so respected newspapers or sites with a broad readership), it's done "restrictively", because that's how big media outlets work. Also, not all of these professional reviewers do their homework as much as you'd like they did...

    However, that doesn't mean that people who do know about YA, or any other form of art for that matter, should be as restrictive as they are. I know I'm not. As cynical as I may sound about how these media outlets work, I do think that if you talk about something long and often enough, it might get picked up at some point.

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  3. THANK YOU for writing this post. It's fantastic.

    I think reducing YA lit to John Green is seen as a compliment because his books "aren't really YA." (I mean, c'mon, TFiOS was Time's book of the year, amiright?) And it's also a way to solidify white dude power at the top of a genre that, as we're constantly reminded, is full of books written by women—because sure, the ladies can be involved, but WE'RE #1, WE'RE #1!

    Anyway, really dig this post. Thanks, Kelly.

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  4. This is a great post, Kelly. This year I have a number of students who love John Green, so when I read something literary or something with characterization like his, I'll compare that book to his so those students will pick it up. I also, however, make sure to give the book its due credit because I have students who don't know about John Green or who despise John Green. It's a tough balance as a teacher giving a booktalk.

    I think the whole NYT thing is that they really aren't familiar with YA in its entirety. They know about bestsellers and I agree that they're snobby. When I read this, I kept thinking of my department members who generally look down on YA. They may or may not have read Twilight, and if they do they bash it, and they may or may not have read The Hunger Games. A couple have read Looking for Alaska and I recently saw TFiOS on one member's desk. They're so limited in their knowledge of YA that if they're reading something like the NYT, they need an easy comparison because otherwise they'd never know or understand.

    In this case, I didn't read the article/review you're referring to, but if it's supposed to be a review of Winger, then shame on the reviewer for not simply focusing on the book. Really, a review alone should "sell" a book.

    Gosh, I hope this makes sense.

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    Replies
    1. I think your second to last sentence is really important to this discussion: "Really, a review alone should 'sell' a book." Which isn't to say that reviews should never make comparisons, because no. Comparisons are helpful. But a review that frames the book its reviewing entirely by how it aspires to be a book by a completely different author isn't a review that will do any book justice.

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  5. I thought the same thing when I read the review. AJ Jacobs also called the Marbury Lens "magical glasses," so I'm not sure he knows Andrew Smith's work at all.

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  6. BRAVO! Love John Green (mostly), but yes! Let authors be judged on their own merits and accomplishments, not some superficial yardstick that not everyone aspires to.

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