I came across this blog post a few days ago by Shaun Duke I believe: Young Adult Fiction Can’t Win.
I can’t really respond to Shaun because I’m not really sure what he’s saying. The post mainly made me want to go off on a tangent… what is YA fiction? Why is it needed? I think it’s a stupid idea in the first place!
There might be plenty of definitions, but the one that makes the most immediate sense to me is: YA fiction is fiction in which the main character is a YA, a teenager.
Some might argue that the nature of a story’s conflict also makes YA fiction what it is; the plot must deal with teenager issues. But such a definition makes me cringe. What in the world is a “teenage issue”? (To be perfectly honest, I hate the notion of there being a “teenager” stage in the course of human development at all.)
My own teenagerhood
Maybe I just had a very fortunate adolescence, but in high school and college I was more of an introvert (am and always will be really), and tended to hang out with people who shared my interests and were right around as “nerdy” as me. I never wanted to be popular or look cool or attractive, and that never made me feel lonely. I never had any peer pressure to do any drugs or drink any alcohol or do anything risky or stupid. The world of relationship woes is still another world to me.
That said, I still hated adolescence. But it wasn’t because of drugs or relationships. It was because of SCHOOL. School was a lot of hard work that I still believe was mostly absolutely meaningless. Society just thrusted upon us because that’s the tradition. It gave me a lot of unnecessary worry and stress, and took away a lot of time that I would have loved using in more useful ways. I was not and could not be in control of my life, and that’s what made me angry and moody and depressed. It had nothing to do with “coming of age” or dealing with drugs or relationships or a “changing brain” that people are now claiming teenagers have. It was just plain old not being in control.
And the only way out of it was to just get through school.
(I still get extremely angry just thinking about how the generations before me could allow something as dismal and pointless (and harmful and depressing) as the current high school educational system to emerge and sustain! What complete buffoons!)
Still, I’m 23 years old now, and I don’t think anything magically changed within me from when I was 15 or 16 or 17. Of course, I have learned more about certain things… I can drive a car much better now, I think I can write music and literature better, I can program in Java better, blah blah blah, but nothing has drastically changed inside. I never “came of age” or learned some mystical truth that made me pass from “teen” to “adult” … I just got through school.
So maybe I didn’t have the normal “teen” experience? Did I miss something? What do teenagers really want? For me, it was just control and freedom. For others, is it popularity? Wanting to feel loved? Wanting this-or-that person to be your boyfriend/girlfriend? If so, then yeah, I did (and hopefully always will) miss out on suffering over those things, but I don’t think those are just “teenage” issues, those are life issues that all must learn to deal with; there are plenty of adults who still struggle with those things.
Even “being in control” is really a life issue, but getting older and out of school tends to solve it. (Though never completely!)
Some confirmation bias
I came across this article about an adolescent Bill Gates which stated:
The battles reached a climax at dinner one night when Bill Gates was around 12. Over the table, he shouted at his mother, in what today he describes as “utter, total sarcastic, smart-ass kid rudeness.”
That’s when Mr. Gates Sr., in a rare blast of temper, threw the glass of water in his son’s face.
He and Mary brought their son to a therapist. “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control,” Bill Gates recalls telling the counselor. Reporting back, the counselor told his parents that their son would ultimately win the battle for independence, and their best course of action was to ease up on him.
Aha! See?! Told you so. It’s about control. This Bill Gates anecdote proves it!
When I was a teenager, I didn’t care about the age of the protagonist, and I didn’t read fiction to commiserate with a fictional character. (Not entirely, at least; I guess it’s more about trying to understand your own struggles in different ways, so I don’t mean to say that fictional characters shouldn’t deal with real-world issues. They should.) Nor did I much care for the notion of being “written down to” … the notion that there was some adult who could “understand me” and impart wisdom. One of the first things you learn when you’re a teenager is that adults actually aren’t always all that wise. (The wise ones will be the first to admit that.)
So I think the whole idea of YA fiction is just a stupid emergent property from this whole “teen culture” that’s been created by a society that infantilizes and seeks control over their youth for far too long, and it’s really not needed at all. (Or at least the need has been artificially created.) Teenagers can enjoy any book they want, and I wouldn’t mind it if the YA market vanished completely. Books with adolescent main characters could of course still be written, and it’s probably only natural that younger folks would be more attracted to those stories, but those books don’t have to be an entirely different subset. We don’t have “twenty-ish fiction” … fiction about adults in their twenties for adults in their twenties. Likewise with “thirty-ish fiction” or “senior fiction” … but those stories are still out there. Every main character has an age.
Eh… so there’s my rant.
By the way, check out Robert Epstein’s book The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Not sure he’d necessarily agree with my opinions, but it was some more confirmation bias for me when I first came across it.
Also, here’s a Wikipedia article on what confirmation bias is, in case you’re curious!