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Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Editorial: Three Problems With Young Adult Fiction.

Editorial: Three Problems With Young Adult Fiction.

I really like young adult fiction. In a book market flooded with nigh-identical crime novels; fun but ultimately lifeless romance; and far too many books with beige covers, blurry pictures of children, and titles like 'Don't Do It, Daddy', young adult and children's fiction is a refreshing relief, and a better avenue of escapist fiction than most genres. 

Luckily for me, it's also one of the largest sectors in publishing. Young adults make up a greater proportion of readers than any other demographic, and publishing houses are eager to cater to them, with new releases aimed at capturing their interest coming out almost weekly. 

But that's not entirely a good thing. After all, the more novels you have being released faster, the more likely it is that a bunch of them are terrible.

Here are some of my personal issues with the genre:

1. The people writing it often seem to not even remotely understand the generation they're writing about or for. 

This is a problem that's very obvious if you read anything written by John Green, but by jove, is he not the only offender for this, nor is he the worst. 

Still, a lot of his writing serves as a very good example of this. One passage that hovers around the internet and comes immediately to mind is a passage from Looking For Alaska, wherein the narrator declares "We think we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations [...] But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so cannot fail."

It's very poetic, to be sure. But six or seven or so years ago, when I was about the age of the narrator, if someone had said that to me I would have punched them in the face - and the same would be true two or three years earlier than that and any time later. The same can be said of any of my peers, any younger relatives I have who are reaching that age now, and almost every teenager to twenty-something I have ever met, because quite apart from having never thought they were invincible in the first place, most people reaching that age are anxious, nervous wrecks, overworked in an environment where they cannot control their own lives, and any manner of philosophical pondering on the immutability of energy is drowned out by the foreboding sense of impending doom.

But there are worse offenders. I find John Green's writing dire, especially in passages such as that, but I think it's fair to say he's coming from a fairly amicable place, and that his intention is to empower instead of demean. 

One worse offender, which I shall now use as a prime example of the very worst of this particular phenomenon, is Misfits. A Channel 4 series aimed roughly at my age group, Misfits follows a group of superpowered young adults doing community service. Kind of like Skins (another pretty terrible offender in this regard) with superpowers and, er, community service. It was praised for its sharp dialogue, which is fair enough, but it also had speeches like this:

"We had it all. We f--ked up bigger and better than any generation that came before us. We were so beautiful! We're screw-ups."

Again, no young adult has ever talked like that, because no person has ever talked like that. But more than that, it's insulting because it's talking about a set of generations that grew up in a world being ruined by their parents' generation. 

Let's be clear here: The baby boomer generation is distinctly different than any generation that came before or after it: Having been born in a unique time in history, a post-war boom in which economic prosperity was at a peak, with the shadow of a war unlike any other resting just behind them, they became a generation for whom excess seemed natural. 

That's not me speculating, either: Rates of obesity, alcohol abuse and drug abuse is startlingly high amongst the boomer generation, greatly exceeding both the generations before and after them. Financial reports speculate that the baby boomers' children will be 25% worse off than their parents by the time they reach sixty-five. Youth unemployment is startlingly high, and that's not including all the people with degrees working minimum wage jobs. That's not even getting into, for example, the Tory government, which statistically were voted for in vast amounts by baby boomers, with both their parents and their children voting differently.

It's something younger generations are acutely aware of. So for a writer much older than the audience he's penning his work for to turn around and have his young adult character declare that their generation enjoyed the most excesses of them all isn't only intensely insulting in a way John Green's utterly ridiculous but at least well-meaning rambles on energy can never match, it's also not true to life - young adults do not, by and large, view themselves as the most excessive generation. They know far too keenly who that title belongs to.

In both these instances, the problem is the same: These older authors are taking how they feel about a younger generation and assuming that it's accurate, and that the younger generation feels the same way. In Green's case, he's assuming that since he thinks young adults think they're invincible, they must think that, and he's trying to spin it into a positive. In the case of Misfits, the writer is taking his own rather unpleasant and insulting view of the people he's writing for and assuming they see themselves the same way, regardless of what common sense would tell him.

There is, of course, an entirely different form of 'I have no idea how young adults act' which can probably be best seen in Life is Strange, wherein people rather cringe-ingly talk like they're on tumblr (despite the fact that online communication and real life communication do not function the same), and that's annoying, but not offensive.

2. Dystopias. Dystopias everywhere.

I like some good dystopian fiction, truly I do. But gosh, am I getting tired of it in young adult fiction.

We know why it's so common, of course: A combination of the popularity of The Hunger Games and, having grown up in an economic crisis with an unjust war going on, amongst numerous other problems, young adults can relate to the idea of the total collapse of society. Many of these books deal with ideas like the commodification and objectification of youth, their usage to entertain an (implicitly or explicitly) older ruling class, and those are themes which young adults can relate to, for obvious reasons.

But I'm exhausted by it, and that's in no small part because many of these dystopias are very poorly thought out. 

The Chicago in Divergent is an absurd exercise in building a setting from the principle of 'what if this girl wasn't like all the other girls' and makes little to no sense either as a functional setting or as a dystopia, and if you start picking at its problems the whole thing unravels very quickly. The world of The Maze Runner goes from tantalisingly mysterious to a bizarre mess of ideas thrown at a page very quickly, and the thread of 'adults using youths for their own gain' becomes increasingly tortured and tangled as the dystopian setting starts making less and less sense. The world of Skylark, which I actually really like, falls apart once you spend more than five minutes thinking about it.

Let's see some other options. Let's see worlds where something horribly apocalyptic has happened, but the society isn't dystopian: A The Night Land type situation where the world is grim and awful and undoubtedly horrifying, but it's not because the people are bad. Even better, let's see some worlds where there isn't anything direly wrong at all, where actually it's better than our own world in a lot of ways, but there are different problems, or external forces. 

And for the dystopian fiction we do have, let's try to exercise some originality. Maybe not have your dystopian civilisation be built in the ruins of America. Instead of an ill-defined apocalyptic war, maybe have your dystopian civilisation have come about as the natural evolution of some of the worst aspects of our current politics. 

All I ask is some variety, but in many ways there are market forces at work which suppress that. Which leads me neatly to ...

3. There is a marketability issue, by which I mean that publishing houses are ravenous vultures.

Let's talk about John Green again. When he wrote The Fault In Our Stars, a book I find absolutely dire but let's leave that for another time, I really doubt he intended to make maudlin sick-lit a genre for young adults. Despite this, the book has spawned a host of imitators, and it's not the only one: Aforementioned dystopian fiction spiked suddenly when The Hunger Games became popular, supernatural romance fiction spiked when Twilight became popular. 

It's something that I doubt surprises anyone: When a book becomes popular, publishers attempt to capitalise on its success by producing more books like it. That's not the fault of either the authors or the readers, it's the fault of the publishers.

But gosh, is it choking the industry. Young adults are the largest demographic of readers, but also bizarrely possibly the least understood by publishing houses, so whenever it seems like something might have their interest, they're drowned in that genre. What that means is that often times books aren't being published for quality, or even necessarily for an objective appraisal of marketability, but whether they fit into the current trend that publishers are attempting to push.

It means lower quality work in less variety, and it's something publishers need to stop doing. The truth of the matter is that you can't compel popularity, and you especially can't do so by attempting to churn out a carbon copy of the last popular book. It's getting tiring by now. Stop it.

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