Teenage Wastelands

The Good News: The New York Times Magazine has an article about YA literature!

It’s called Teenage Wastelands by Charles McGrath and is in “The Way We Live Now” section. There is some good stuff. With the recent release of the I Am Number Four film, another reminder of this being a movie and book series factory-created for teen dollars is a good thing. (For more on the factory element, see my posts here and here.)

The Bad News: Readers of genre fiction, including YA fiction, have, I think, one thing they like to see in articles about the genre they embrace. No, it’s not for everyone to love it. Rather, it’s for the genre to be written about with respect. Because so often the genre is disrespected, sometimes the reader is a bit over-sensitive to slights, or to someone who doesn’t seem to “know” the genre. Criticism is good –but criticism grounded in respect.

To continue the good, McGrath mentions some better, recent YA books so that the person reading has a good starting place of what to read beyond Frey (Matched by Ally Condie, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). Unfortunately, the latter part of the article seems to reflect an overall view of YA as being lesser-than: “What distinguishes this kind of dystopian fiction from its adult counterpart — beyond its being less dire and apocalyptic — is a certain element of earnestness, even preachiness, and the moral is pretty transparent: be yourself. That’s because most young-adult novels are not written by young adults. They’re grown-up guesses or projections about what we suspect or hope might be on the minds of teenagers, or they’re cynical attempts to plant a profitable notion there. Frey didn’t have to do much more than think “vampires = aliens” before calling in someone to write it up for him.” McGrath earlier asserts that “In the realm of Y.A. fiction, the series is the grail; the single-volume one-off is a lost franchise.”

Goodness knows, I think some trilogies would be better served being edited down to one book. But you know where else “series is the grail”? Mysteries. Or, as I look at my next to-be-read book by Nora Roberts, romance. In other words, the desire to have a series is not limited to the young adult book world. For that matter, cynical attempts at profit isn’t limited to young adult books. And isn’t a writer who writes fiction always projecting, or guessing, or (insert word you prefer her) about their characters? I mean, most mysteries are not written by serial killers or FBI agents. Don’t those writers guess or project what they suspect or hope (or again insert word you prefer) into the minds of serial killers and FBI agents?

One last point. An article such as this lives or dies on the examples used, and the books compared. McGrath’s example of adult dystopia? Literary writers like Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy. Yet, does he mention the recent literary young adult dystopia Ship Breaker? No. It won the Printz Award winner and National Book Finalist, is clearly a dystopia, yet does not meet the McGrath-given label of young adult dystopia as one where “civilization feels an awful lot like high school and everyone is under pressure to conform“.

Yes, I know it’s unfair for me to be snarky and to deconstruct this sentence by sentence. Young adult literature is given such little coverage that when the coverage is given, one hopes for something more.  There is good news, though. Young adult book blogs and websites, especially those that write critically and deeply about young adult books, will continue to grow and gather readers because they are providing something that is not served elsewhere.

14 thoughts on “Teenage Wastelands

  1. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that The Hunger Games trilogy was pretty stinkin’ dire! I mean, seriously….kids killing kids for sport? Yea, that ranks up there with the dire factor. I don’t think it’s snarky for you to deconstruct this piece at all, if respect isn’t given willingly one has to fight for it and pointing out the flaws of one’s argument’s goes a long way to doing so. Not that McGrath is listening.

    I also find it ironic that he’s talking about profiting from the YA genre. What would this article be? His profit may not be money but he clearly sees the value in drawing in the YA audience.


  2. Michelle, I disagree with his interpretation of THE HUNGER GAMES (he thinks that watching the shows is supposed to unite the country? I thought it was pretty clear it was supposed to keep the country subservient to the capital and punished for past rebellions) and wonder if he read past the first book.

    I don’t think his audience is the YA audience; I think it’s the adult who has a pop culture familiarty with YA (so, his name-checking I AM NUMBER FOUR and HUNGER GAMES) and believes that ultimately they will agree with him that YA authors aren’t quite like other authors, etc. So, yes, he’s looking to profit but aiming at a different crowd. The crowd who will read Atwood and tsk tsk at the commercial YA books he’s named. Seriously, the more I think of how he used a Pulitzer Prize Winning book to justify his arguments, the more I’m annoyed at the artificiality of his arguments and the way he’s playing to an audience who sees what they read as “real” and YA as an interesting pop culture diversion.


  3. Love this response, Liz.

    Though the theme running through much of YA lit — dystopian or not — is the search for identity, I find the phrase he used to describe the theme, “be yourself,” reductive and patronizing. (Would he say Holden Caulfield is just trying to “be himself?”) And his suggestion that the world of Hunger Games feels a lot like high school? Feh. I think the reason the Hunger Games has touched a cultural nerve is that the book examines what it feels like to be a teen dragged into a false, brutal, rapacious and unforgiving *adult* world.

    I also find it telling when someone writing about YA only mentions titles at the very top of the bestseller lists, and ignores others (like Ship Breaker, which you mentioned). And of course he couldn’t include Ship Breaker, because it wrecks his whole argument about YA books being earnest and preachy. Ship Breaker was as dark and visceral as Oryx and Crake. (I’d also argue that McCarthy’s The Road is more hopeful than No Country for Old Men, but that’s another story).

    — Laura R.


  4. ‘That’s because most young-adult novels are not written by young adults. They’re grown-up guesses or projections about what we suspect or hope might be on the minds of teenagers,’

    So the writers of YA don’t know what teenagers think about and adults in general don’t really know what they think about, but the author of this article knows it’s not what YA authors are writing about. The logic, it blinds me!


  5. Great post, Liz.

    Agree with David about the snot-occlusion: a pretty major difference between The Hunger Games and The Bachelorette/Survivor is that the characters on those shows are willing participants actively seeking fame, while The Hunger Games is a *critique* of reality-show culture and its soul-crushing view of the world. As for the “dorm-room speculation about whether life might be a dream” — I’m not seein’ it. But points for a vivid callback to stoner-think, I guess. Even if it has nothing to do with the books he mentions, which are NOT trippy or narcissist-wanky at all.


  6. Laura, I felt the article was very condescending in tone towards YA authors and themes. It’s reassuring to know it wasn’t just me.

    David, I look forward to using “occluded with snot” in conversation sometime soon.

    Jodie, interestingly enough McGrath is not a teen. So add to the logic that a non-teen McGrath knows more about teens than the non-teen authors who are only guessing… Oh, I give up.

    Marjorie, agreed.


  7. I didn’t find McGrath’s article condescending at all.

    He sais, “That’s because most young-adult novels are not written by young adults. They’re grown-up guesses or projections about what we suspect or hope might be on the minds of teenagers, or they’re cynical attempts to plant a profitable notion there.” I think that’s a very valid point, and for me it’s true of all children books, not just YA and certainly not just dystopian literature. Adults can find books written on subjects of interest to them by people similar to them–other adults. Children and teenagers rarely can. Their literature is almost always written by people who are different form themselves–adults. We can only guess about what is of interest to them, and children’s literature has a long history of adults writing what they hope is on the minds of young people, especially instructive material. As far as adults cynically attempting to plant a profitable notion in kids’ minds, if you want to interpret the word “profitable” literally, the recent James Frey factory story is a case in point. I don’t see how stating any of this is snotty. To me, it shows an understanding of the reality of writing for young people.

    And while it’s certainly true that series books exist in genres for adult readers, that doesn’t change the fact that series, and, more specifically, serials, are extremely common in YA literature right now. Why is it wrong to say so?


  8. Gail, for me it’s wrong because he is comparing apples to pineapples in doing so. As I mentioned, authors often guess (or project or whatever) for the books they write and series are common in many genres. Neither point is unique to YA.

    Yet in throwing out the adult titles, he does not use commercial adult titles — for example, Patterson who has his own fic series factory going on.

    So, for me, it’s snotty to say this is a reality for writing for teens, implying both it’s just a reality in YA books and that it’s all (or most YA) books when it is a reality for writing, period, and literary fiction exists in all genres and areas, not just in adult fiction.


  9. I think there is a difference between the kind of projecting an author does to create characters who have knowledge and personality different from themselves and the kind of guessing we have to do to create characters, setting, and a universe for people who live in very different circumstances from ourselves. The YAs of 2012 and 2013 (the years when a book being written right now would probably be published) are not the same as the YAs of 2001 or 1991 or whenever any of us were young adults. You sometimes hear writers say that they just wrote what they wrote and that the publisher decided to market it as YA, but I think most experienced writers for YA and children’s books consider their audience. They are trying to write something that thematically and in terms of character, action, and setting, will be meaningful to a contemporary group that they are not part of.

    So as far as that goes, I don’t think it matters whether you’re talking commercial or literary titles. It’s the audience that matters. There has to be something different in YA, something that appeals specifically to them, which makes YA different from adult literature. Otherwise, why have the separate designation? Different does not make it inferior to or lesser than adult. It merely makes it different.

    I think where I would argue with McGrath is over what he called the “moral” of YA dystopian literature. The few dystopian books I’ve read were, I believe, thematically about individuals trying to free themselves from some kind of controlling agency. They seem to be about personal freedom rather than an easy “moral” about being yourself, as McGrath says. I can understand why YAs, a group that is still controlled by the adult world, would be attracted to a literature in which young people are struggling to free themselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in them liking that type of literature, either.


  10. There’s just nothing more facile you can say about kids/YA than that it’s didactic. It’s just the go-to way to criticize these books, to make them sound “lesser,” and yet it has little actual bearing in the books themselves. It frustrates me to no end when people are unable to take these books seriously as an art form–it’s just a preaching/profit model.


  11. Gail, now I’m reminded of Martin Amis and while I hated how he said it & disagreed with some of his statements, I think there was something to it about an author having their own audience/style. Not everyone could or should write a children’s book just because they write adult fiction & vice versa. There has been some interesting discussion on that througout the blogs etc.

    Anne, I think part of the reason I’m not embracing self pub books is most of them include a pitch emphasizing their didactic nature. It’s a belief held far and wide & that is an entire post in itself, but yes, it’s one way “real” authors dis ya/kids. Even if in interviews they say “I want my readers to think about…. (insert serious adult concerns).”


  12. Liz, I thought about the Martin Amis dust-up in relation to this, too, because of the issue of audience. He objected to writing children’s books because he didn’t like the idea of “being conscious of who you’re directing the story to.” I’m fine with him feeling that way. That seems legitimate. Of course, he blew it in the next para when he was quoted as saying, “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.” I think an argument could be made that having to keep an audience in mind, especially an audience that you are not part of the way adults are not part of a child/YA audience, requires a higher level of…I’ll say effort, rather than skill…than writing without “restraints” as Amis prefers.


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