Not content to merely be an exceptionally talented writer. Foz Meadows also maintains a must read blog where, amongst other things, she skewers literary tropes, decries injustice in all its forms and shines a harsh light on the various isms of pop culture and genre. As someone who is constantly learning something new from her posts, and finding himself looking at the world in different ways, I am delighted to welcome her here to talk about YA as vehicle for discussing social change.
Is YA an effective genre for examining social issues?
In many ways, YA is the most popular and versatile genre of the moment. Having effectively doubled not only its actual readership, but its target readership, once the success of series like Harry Potter and Twilight made it clear to publishers that grownups were reading it, too, YA has become defined by its ability to appeal to both adults and teens alike. Like every genre and creative medium, it has its fair share of contributions that are meant purely as escapist fun: some trashy, some well-written and others somewhere in between, but all unapologetic about their pure entertainment value. Others are meant more seriously, issues-based works whose primary purpose is to inform, question and educate, discussing the hard realities and tough choices facing teens of all types and backgrounds. But these are far from being absolute or even mutually exclusive categories, because in YA – as in all art – the most successful stories are frequently those which both entertain and make us think.
Some people, however, remain skeptical of the value of YA – not just as a legitimate source of enjoyment for adults, but as a worthwhile endeavour for teenagers. Innumerable columnists and naysayers have set down their thoughts on the danger of YA as a corrupting influence, whether through introducing impressionable youth to dark, disturbing themes or sending bad messages to girls in particular. The issue of book-banning in schools is one that almost exclusively affects YA, as parents and teachers struggle to control what their children and students are reading. Others, though, object on different grounds: that far from amounting to the literary equivalent of a den of iniquity, YA is simply bad. Such detractors scorn, not specific titles, but the genre en masse, accusing it of simplistic writing, repetitive plots, meaningless stories and juvenile characterisation. Maybe once in a while they’ll acknowledge the worth of a particular title, but if so, they’re more likely to view it as a classic or a misshelved adult work than proof that YA as a whole has worth; at the absolute least, they’ll call it an anomaly and move on.
By and large, then, the two most common criticisms of YA as a genre are as follows:
1. It’s frivolous, fluffy, valueless literature; and
2. It’s subversive, propagandising, negative literature.
Or, put another way: YA is badly written, pointless and trite, and yet simultaneously capable of exposing teenagers to everything right-minded adults think they should be protected from. The banality of evil being what it is, this isn’t necessarily a contradiction, but it nonetheless veers perilously close. A book can be utterly pointless, or it can have a point you don’t agree with, but it can’t be both at once, and even taking into account the fact that not every detractor holds both these positions simultaneously, the fact that they’re still so disparate is telling. As a vehicle for discussing social issues, therefore, the paradoxical complaint about YA becomes that either it’s so effective with teenagers that concerned adults should be wary of its impact, or so ineffective that nobody, not even teenagers and least of all adults, should bother with it.
Personally, I think YA is no more or less effective at discussing meaningful themes than any other genre; nonetheless, it does have an advantage, in that its audience is quite reliably composed of both teenagers and adults, and that the involvement of the latter group is frequently (though not necessarily) predicated on the interest of the former. The popularity and abundance of YA has, I think, made adults increasingly interested in what teenagers are reading, with mixed and interesting results. At one end of the scale, this has resulted in some books being banned outright, and while that’s certainly detrimental in terms of censorship, it’s also a case of real-life involvement in social issues, as book-loving teens and allies fight for the right to read and engage in open debate about content, maturity and freedom of speech. At the other end, parents and teachers who take a positive interest in the books their offspring and pupils read have begun to invest in those stories themselves, creating new enthusiasm for reading, supporting libraries, changing curricula to incorporate modern novels, joining in multi-generational discussions about themes, characters and stories, and jointly participating in an online community of literary fandom, reviews and criticism.
This, to me, is the real strength of YA: the power it has to bridge the gaps between teenagers and adults. Without wanting to privilege the written word as an artform over films, TV and the like, each creative medium has different strengths and weaknesses, and one of the strengths of writing is its comparative freedom from the groupthink condescension of marketing and developmental committees. While there’s still plenty of problems with the whitewashing of book covers, the preponderance of stories featuring straight, white protagonists and the extent to which both these issues are aided and abetted, however subconsciously, by publishers and their marketing departments, the fact remains that authors have much more autonomy than Hollywood or television scriptwriters to explore different themes, and – just as importantly – to trust in the intelligence of their audience. This isn’t to say that authors never have to negotiate with their editors or publishers over content, but it doesn’t seem controversial to assert that the average author has a much greater ability to dictate the flow of their own narrative than, say, the writer on a TV show does. What this means, then, is that whereas a TV show or film aimed at teenagers might end up being dumbed down, simplified or otherwise homogenised by condescending, fearful or conservative producers, a good YA novel is just as ambitious and intelligent as the author wants it to be – and while some might argue that this still happens less often than it should or could, for me, it goes a long way towards explaining why, out of all available forms of entertainment adults might choose to share with the teens in their lives, YA novels seem to be the runaway favourite.
Because the fact is, one of the most potentially embarrassing, painful and/or awkward things an adult can do is attempt to talk about sensitive social issues like love, sex, death and politics with a teenager. Most of us who are adults still cringe to remember what such conversations could be like from the other side, and rightly dread the prospect of one day trying to initiate them with our own children. But a shared love of stories can smooth that path immeasurably. Rather than talking to teens about their relationships and risking the Eyeroll of Doom, adults who read and love the same books as their teens can instead talk about the relationships of their favourite protagonists, engaging the issue in a context of shared fandom rather than parent/child angst. So not only can YA novels deal with social issues as part of the narrative, but sharing those stories can lead to real-life discussion of them, too.
Obviously, I’m a fan of YA; after all, it’s what I write. But all personal bias aside, I’m generally skeptical of anyone who’s prepared to write off a whole genre on the basis of a negative generalisation. All artforms have their pros and cons, and will inevitably encompass just as many bad, unimaginative or mediocre works as they do examples of brilliance, originality and genius. The trick is picking the ones that work for you – and finding other interested fans, whatever their age, to share them with.
Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. Her first novel, Solace and Grief, is now available from Ford Street Publishing. She likes cheese, geekery, writing, webcomics and general weirdness. Dislikes include Hollywood rom-coms, liquorice and the Republican party. She is a member of the Melbourne-based SuperNova writers’ group, and between October 2009 and May 2010, she also wrote a weekly column, Speaking to Geeks, for Trespass Magazine. (Her archived ramblings can be found here.)
Foz currently lives in St Andrews, Scotland, with not enough books and her very own philosopher. Surprisingly, this is a good thing.
You can read her blog here.