Friday, 6 June 2014

Ashamed of Reading YA?

Despite the fact that it’s Friday and I should be providing a little teaser for Chasing Freedom, I have decided to go a different direction today.

I have decided to give my own response to this article  posted online yesterday. It created quite a stir in the writing/literary community. It spurred a trending hashtag on Twitter #PromoteaYAInstead and numerous angry comments and discussions.

As both a writer and a reader of YA books I have been thinking about it a lot since I first read it, and so I have decided to get my thoughts out there.

For anyone who hasn’t read the article it basically suggests that adults (and I’m not sure what the author of the article considers adult – just turned 19? Or some other arbitrary number?) who read YA books should be ashamed of their reading habits.

The most telling quote is this one: ‘Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this. I know, I know: Live and let read. Far be it from me to disrupt the “everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like” ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.’

To be honest, I take offense. Because what she suggests throughout the article is that YA books are simplistic and that ‘adult’ books are not.

Firstly, I would argue that there is a large chunk of adult literature that is far more guilty of simplicity than YA books. Who could argue that 50 Shades is complex and ambiguous in its ending? Dan Brown? Danielle Steele? Sophie Kinsella? Stephen King? I am not saying by any means that these books/writers are bad, but I would argue that their novels are no more complex than many YA books. The very things this writer says makes YA books simplistic, the endings for example, could be found in 90% of adult books.

On the other side of the coin, there are YA books that are incredibly complex and thought-provoking in the message they provide if you are willing to look at them as more than just ‘a book for kids’.

Let’s take the most popular ‘children’s book’ and admittedly one of my favourites. Harry Potter. Whilst it’s easy to say that it is pure magical escapism (and on the surface it is) does that mean that there is nothing that adults can take from it? Politics, philosophy, the nature of life and death, all these things are there.  Admittedly, they are all tied up quite neatly in lovely bundle of escapism and a certain amount of whimsy.

But that aside, I don’t think I have ever read a YA book that doesn’t have some depth to it. Books that deal with bullying, loneliness, fitting in, choosing the right path in life, tolerance, acceptance, illness and death. Do these things suddenly become irrelevant the moment we become an adult? I hardly think so. I know that I, at 30, still deal with every single one of those issues on a daily basis.  What is simplistic about those issues?

On a personal note (and this is my blog, so if I can’t talk about my books here, where can I?) I don’t believe the books I write are simplistic. The overlying plots may be magical in nature, escapist and hopefully enjoyable, but at their heart I like to think they are all a little more than that.

In The Last Knight, Cara Page may discover she has a magical heritage, but she also deals with a mother who suffers from mental illness and doesn’t even recognise her, bullying, loneliness and isolation.

In Chasing Freedom, the most obvious plot may be about a boy becoming a werewolf, but underneath that is a book about a boy accepting who he is, learning that life doesn’t always work out the way we plan, and learning that growing up sometimes means taking responsibility.

As adults are these things in anyway irrelevant to us? I know I relate to them – that’s why I write about them. And I believe that the people who read my books can relate to them too.

Why must escapism and complexity be mutually exclusive? We take from a book exactly what we want to take from it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do not, by any means, claim to write great literature. I write fun, entertaining books (I hope), but that doesn’t make them any less worthy. That doesn’t make them books you should be ashamed of reading.

So I am going to end with two final thoughts.

Firstly, why should a book that is not deemed ‘worthy’ of adult consumption, be considered OK for young adults to read? Aren’t they as deserving of quality as we are? IF YA books are indeed simplistic then teenagers should be embarrassed to read them too. In fact, I would suggest that books for children and teenagers need to be of a far higher standard than books for adults. They should be better, not worse.

And secondly, isn’t the greatest joy of art (and writing is art) that it is entirely subjective? That the books I think are great literature, might not be the same as what you consider great literature? Back in their day both Austen and Dickens were considered writers of ‘trashy’ novels – they wrote for the masses and were looked down on by the educated elite. They are now considered the writers of classics. The books I consider overwritten and pretentious might be the books you love. And the books I love you might consider escapist nonsense. But at no point does that make either book less worthy.

Like love being in the eye of the beholder, great literature is in the eye of the reader.

So, no, I will not be ashamed of reading and writing YA books, just like I will not be ashamed of reading Pride and Prejudice for the 100th time.

Read everything, read anything. Just read.

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