Semesters are like manuscripts for me: the middle is the toughest part to get through. Up to my eyeballs in reading, writing, and revision, I haven’t had as much time as I would like to actually enjoy any of it.
Earlier this week I read two books for review, back to back, that sent crazy tingles up and down my spine. In both, teens were using digital cameras to make movies as projects for school; both projects were subjective documentaries; both projects were hailed by adults and peers as wildly successful, amazing accomplishments for first-time filmmakers. It speaks to the availability (the democracy, as some would have it) of the medium that teens can just jump in the fray with a vague idea and come out with a perfectly edited work that impresses adult mentors. Then again, it also speaks to a society (and especially a youth culture) brought up and weened on cheap reality program that has brought down standards of quality and diminished expectations.
What initially struck hard was the fact that my as-yet-finish YA novel, on hold until I can sort out some plotting issues, featured teens who also make films. They do this out of a twisted love of silent movies, but that isn’t what bothered me. What bothers me is the casual use of filmed media as a story telling device for YA titles, a camouflaged gimmick used to tell without telling. These “scenes” add a false sense of drama — as anything worth filming is automatically dramatic, if not documentary — where if the camera was removed the story would collapse. Indeed, the idea of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” is about as old as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney back in the 30s and 40s, the show being nothing more than a gimmick used to allow the characters to sing and dance.
More cliches appear: The younger sibling who takes care of the older screw-up sibling, the good brother versus the bad brother; The girl who eventually realizes she’s with the bad boyfriend and takes up with the good one (usually the main character) when she realizes his heart of gold; The guy who can’t confess his feelings to the girl he likes, but eventually they hook up so it’s okay; Teens rallying against The Man, against society, against corporate greed, against artificial additives in food, against their meds, or, as Brando once said “What’ve you got?” The gym coaches are bad; The gifted kids are always more interesting than any other students; It isn’t impossible — in fact it’s almost required — that there be at least one sensitive jock who also has some hidden talent like art or music (or maybe all three!); All adults are dolts, except for the cool ones whose behavior is more adolescent than the teens, which makes them palatable; Parents are dysfunctional, or clueless, or both.
Yeah, all of those from two books.
Crap, I thought, what if YA if nothing more than the marketing of successful cliches? What if everything I thought would be good and fun and original in my stories were nothing more than the artful accumulation of genre specific cliches? All of a sudden I don’t know who I am.
You see, whenever people would ask me what I wrote I would say “young adult fiction” because that’s where I felt my heart was. True, my interests are all over the place and I have ideas that span picture book to YA with a smatering of poetry and non-fiction in the mix. My interests are varied, so the things that I write will probably be as varied. But overall I always associated with YA because… well, because of what?
Have I bought into the marketing so much that I cannot see the difference between a story featuring teens and a product pushing all the right buttons? YA has this problem of not being able to define itself because there are so many definitions floating around out there. Is it a book whose main character is a teen, or a book whose story or topic is of particular interest to a teen? By creating a separate market of books for teens are we saying “These are designed with your tastes in mind” or are we attempting to retard their jump into adult books because, as a society, we no longer hold a collective consensus on what we consider to be good national literature? Is YA little more than the PG-13 rating for books, another way for parents to relinquish their duties to monitor what kids read by creating a safe haven until they’re out of the house?
So many questions. I look at the books on the shelves that are called YA and wonder where they would have been shelved 30 years ago, before there was a YA section. Would they have even been published? Wouldn’t The Clique books or the Traveling Pants series have been mass market paperback in the grocery store back then?
If I’m writing stories intended for YA, is YA even a legitimate audience? And if so, how, what makes it different that writing literature that happens to have teens as main characters.
After all, there isn’t a “Middle Age” fiction section in the book stores and libraries, no “Elderly Fiction,” no “Fiction for Adolescent 30-Somethings.”
I understand the need for middle grade books, for the progression in language and as an introduction to literary themes and concepts. But once a kid hits 12 or 13 why aren’t they looking for stories that take them beyond their limited world of high school and navel gazing social drama? Why don’t they want to jump into books about the world beyond themselves, beyond characters they recognize, into stories about the non-teen world? Are they really not ready to accept that there’s a life beyond high school. Indeed, so many of them are clamoring to get out of school, why do they want to read about it?
I look at the “classics” that end up in YA sections, that get assigned as class reading in high school: Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, Animal Farm, Heart of Darkness, Sister Carrie, The Trial, The Stranger, Siddhartha… not a one of these traditional YA books, nor would they be marketed as YA had they been written today. Are we selling YA readers short by not giving them future classics? I’m not saying one or two here and there might not slip into the canon of classic literature, but…
I guess that’s the ultimate question: Why aren’t we, as writers, as people who care about YA fiction, not more concerned with making sure that YA is more a literary genre and less a marketing gimmick?
It’s on us, I guess.