The OF Blog: YA Lit: Just what is it?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

YA Lit: Just what is it?

Still musing over this review of Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. Although when I first read it, there were other elements that annoyed me more, after reading a rebuttal posted on Fantasy Book News and Reviews yesterday, Pat's use of the label "YA" (Young Adult Literature) puzzles me more and more:

I reckon it's meant to be another dark and gritty fantasy epic, but it clearly doesn't fall into GRRM's "school of hard knocks" category. Although The Way of Shadows explores some very mature themes such as child and sexual abuse, the overall tone of the narrative is definitely YA. The resulting work makes for an uneven read, as the author tackles themes you'll never see in a YA work, yet the narrative appears to be aimed at a more adolescent readership. I have a feeling that Weeks might have been too ambitious to a certain extent, and thus he failed to deliver the emotional impact that would have made some scenes truly powerful.
Raise of hands for any others here reading this who might be confused by what Pat says there? Further raise of hands of any who immediately thought of Margo Lanagan's work, namely "The Goosle" and the upcoming Tender Morsels (fortutious timing on the latter). I'm going to guess that he is thinking that YA lit isn't supposed to deal thoughtfully and with a high quality of prose with certain troubling issues, but let's quote one more passage from what might be one of the more discombobulated reviews I have read in months:

Azoth and Durzo Blint will no doubt remind you of Salvatore's Artemis Entreri, Jarlaxe, and Drizzt. Entertaining characters, no doubt, but relatively clichéd. Some of the supporting cast seemed to possess more depth at first, yet as the story progresses you realize that it wasn't meant to be. And, though there are plenty of mature themes and graphic violence throughout this novel, the dialogues are a bit juvenile at times and not up to par in terms of grittiness. Again, the more YA tone of it all I mentioned -- not unlike R. A. Salvatore's works.
While all I know about Salvatore's work is that a large percentage of his readership was made up of those in his late teens, I don't think I've ever really heard of anyone else trying to make the case (regardless of how shallow and unsupported this case might be) for D&D-type novels of the sort Salvatore writes as being "YA." I'm just baffled at how Pat comes to such a conclusion with nothing cited as evidence, outside of an apparent lack of grace in the prose, a failing of a great many authors writing in a plethora of styles for a diverse range of intended audiences.

As I thought about this before going to bed last night, I couldn't help but wonder at the apparent vagueness of this "Young Adult Literature" label. I receive dozens of books each year that are labeled as "YA" somewhere in the press kit, from Cory Doctorow's Little Brother to teen writer Isamu Fukui's debut novel Truancy to D.M. Cornish's Lamplighter, not to exclude the aforementioned new Lanagan novel. I enjoyed each of these novels for very different reasons; each has their own style and storytelling mode. However, if pressed to define a common trait among these and other novels (from the Harry Potter novels to the ones just now hitting the market), it would be that there is a centering of the principal character focus around the needs and desires of an adolescent who is trying to comprehend a world that shifts much, much faster for the 12-20 year-olds with each passing year than it does for those older than that cohort group.

The language can be chaste or peppered with all sorts of choice profanities. Such a story could deal with vaguely sexualized "crushes" without there being graphic portrayals of sex; another such story could deal with the confusion that revolves around the unfolding of one's sexuality. There is nothing inherently "fluffy" or "light" in such stories, even if the emotions expressed might seem puerile to those of us who are older and more cynical about matters of the heart and loins. I have found that the best-written YA lit (defined here as being stories that focus on common adolescent themes and worries, often with a teen protagonist) is very frank and honest with its audience, even if the said audience is as disparate and divided as the stereotypical school lunchroom seating arrangement.

Perhaps others have a better, more concise definition than my own. I'm curious to hear some feedback on this issue, even if I'm supposed to be working on my presentation tomorrow. Thoughts, comments?


S.M.D. said...

I don't really agree with his assessment that you won't find themes like sexual abuse in YA literature. True, it's not very common, but there are stories that deal very heavily with such concerns that are written for teenagers. This is part of what I think is wrong with adults. We seem to think of young adults as toddlers, as if they aren't smart enough or mature enough to handle serious, adult issues. But they are. They deal with most of the problems adults deal with. They don't generally have jobs and rents and what not, but they don't live in bubbles either. They experience the real world too, but they are most often lucky to have a safety net, whereas adults don't.
I have a lot of respect for Pat, though, so this isn't an attack on him or anything. I just think he might be mistaken on YA literature, perhaps because he doesn't read a lot of it. I don't either, but I've seen books that do deal with stuff we might not expect to see in YA lit. And guaranteed those books have been banned by someone at some point or another...
The only thing that makes YA different from adult literature is that it is targeted to a teenage audience, whereas adult books are targeted at adults (usually, anyway). True, there are some stylistic differences, but it's inconsistent. Some writers write in a younger style and others do not. Plus, Ender's Game is now marketed towards teenagers and younger, even though his book was originally meant for adult audiences, or at least was marketed that way. The YA title is pretty much a stupid title anyway. I mean, I understand why we have it--it gives a place where teenagers know they can find work that is supposed to be for them--but at the same time I understand its pointlessness.

But that's me...

Elena said...

My impression of the label YA, or more specifically calling a novel published as being for adults a YA-like novel, has to do with the mode of storytelling. Not necessarily that it deals with young adults (though almost invariably they do, but so do plenty of adult novels so I hardly consider that definitive), but that it is a straightforward story. It's not trying to trick you or mislead you or surprise you. It's not rife with deliberate ambiguity. And it probably has a linear narrative.

Maybe that's a simplistic way to look at YA lit, but that's how I see it. What you asked for. :)

Mulluane said...

As per wikipedia: Here

"Young-adult fiction, whether in the form of novels or short stories, has distinct attributes that distinguish it from the other age categories of fiction: adult fiction, middle grade fiction, and children's fiction. The vast majority of YA stories portray an adolescent as the protagonist, rather than an adult or a child. The subject matter and story lines are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character, but beyond that YA stories span the entire spectrum of fiction genres. The settings of YA stories are limited only by the imagination and skill of the author. Themes in YA stories often focus on the challenges of youth, so much so that the entire age category is sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming of age novel . Writing styles of YA stories range widely, from the richness of literary style to the clarity and speed of the unobtrusive. Despite its unique characteristics, YA shares the fundamental elements of fiction with other stories: character, plot, setting, theme, and style.

YA novels currently in print include content about peer pressure, illness, divorce, drugs, gangs, crime, violence, sexuality, incest, oral sex, and female/male rape. Critics of such content argue that the novels encourage destructive or immoral behavior. Others argue that fictional portrayal of teens successfully addressing difficult situations and confronting social issues helps readers deal with real-life challenges.

Debate continues regarding the amount and nature of violence and profanity appropriate in young-adult fiction."

Now as is indicated by that article the line is pretty blurred and getting more so all the time. What was considered YA back when the term was coined is far different then the YA books of today.

I try on my reviews to offer an opinion on what I think is the appropriate age for reading the book, while making it clear (I hope) that its just my opinion. I can't do otherwise when there just aren't any clear guidelines and it is further complicated by the fact that YA is considered to be anywhere from 12 to 21 years old.

I do however feel that the school of thought that says a YA book is simply a book where the protag is a young adult is too narrow a standard. I've read plenty of books where the main character was a young teen that I would never ever give to a 12-13 year old.

SQT said...

I read this book and it didn't strike me as a YA book. I liked it more than Pat did though. It has its flaws for sure, but for entertainment's sake, it's not bad.

To me YA isn't just about having a young protagonist. A lot of adult novels start the hero's journey at childhood into adulthood- which is what happens in Weeks' book. At the same time, the book could appeal to both adults and teens-- though it doesn't have the sort of teen slant YA fiction usually has. So I tend to disagree with Pat's opinion that the book is essentially YA fiction.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Pat's got an idiosyncratic view of what YA is; he seems to be taking "YA" to mean "whatever teenagers actually read." That's a defensible position, but it's not what publishing people usually mean by the term.

(Salvatore has never been published as YA, but Pat's right that his audience was originally -- and probably still is, in some large part -- teenagers.)

YA has been going through an escapist phase recently, driven by the rise of YA fantasy caused by Rowling's massive success. But, before that, for several decades the mainstay of YA was the "problem novel." Some of them were more demure than others, and some had more minor problems than others, but they were, as a genre, about teenagers having major life problems (from moving to a new town all the way up to the death of a parent, rape, incest, and racial harassment) and so very much did have "adult themes."

Those kind of books have ebbed a bit, and they had become a bit of a cliche even before that -- note the title of Sonya Sones's acclaimed One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies -- but they were what an awful lot of librarians and teachers thought of as the best of YA for close to three decades, from the '70s through the '90s.

Anonymous said...

I don't think YA exists, apart from as a marketing category. The traditional definition of YA books being books about young adults is both ridiculously broad, unhelpful and inaccurate. The slightly more nuanced version - that it is about young adults in transition to adulthood - has the same problems and we had a perfectly good German word for these stories already.

Some more thoughts here and here.

Jeff C said...

I thought I might take a lot of heat for posting that rebuttal to Pat's review, but it seems most folks think I raised some valid questions. My big problem was that the review was so generic, that it was hard to tell he even read the book. Plus the fact that when reading it, I don't see how anyone could EVER classify this book as YA. It was just a weird review to me.

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