Literature is dying. Well-written, respectable, lyrical prose like, “We loved with a love that was more than love” is being replaced by atrocities such as, “I must be the color of the Communist Manifesto.” Okay, that last E.L. James quote isn’t exactly borrowing from the YA (Young Adult) genre, but you get the drift. It is bemoaned by old and young readers alike that in today’s world, excellent writing is getting harder and harder to find. And given today’s hyper-obsession with instant gratification, where even the most serious news stories are subject to public eyes before facts are ever verified, the ultimate proof of our generation’s preference for speed over accuracy, is it really surprising that literature seems to have taken a turn for the worst?
In some ways it is easier to claim that we live in a true literary democracy, what with the sudden explosion of personal blogs and the clamor of self-publishing. But this expansion brings equally powerful consequences. It’s debatable that, as of right now, the world is filled with shittier books than ever before. It has become more difficult to be taken seriously as a credible author, now that virtually anyone with access to a computer can voice his or her opinions online. This is not to say that well-written books aren’t being published year after year – of course this is not true. It’s just to say that in today’s world, it is easier than ever for anyone to publish a piece of prose, whether they’re necessarily qualified to or not.
Book publishing has changed so drastically in the last fifty years, hell, in the last five years, and there’s no sign of it slowing down anytime soon. Agents and publishers are racing to keep one step ahead of the another, scoring deals and scouting fresh talent, scrambling to get their hands on the next great American novel, resorting to young people, celebrities and YouTube stars in hopes of hitting some sort of profitable niche market. There are hundreds of books being published in genres that didn’t even exist fifty years ago at such rapid speed, all in the hopes of one thing: the promise of a steady paycheck. And surely this is where common sense begins to disappear. At what cost are we running this publishing free-for-all? Surely the quantity of books published each year does not reflect literature’s quality.
But I digress. The reason I’m writing this article is because YA — that is, the new-ish book genre of Young Adult fame – has gotten some fire lately, and I’m here to defend the likes of some contemporaries (such as John Green, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, Rainbow Rowell, Meg Cabot, James Dashner, Jenny Han, Lauren Oliver, E. Lockhart, David Levithan, Sherman Alexie, Matt de la Peña, Scott Westerfeld, and J.K. Rowling), as well as the OG YA authors (J.D. Salinger, Lois Lowry, William Golding, S.E. Hinton, Stephen Chbosky, Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Ray Bradbury, and Douglas Adams, among others). The list of authors and books goes on and on, but what these novels have in common, despite their ever-diverse plotlines that range from dystopian sci-fi to paranormal to action-adventure to romance, is that they all deal with some irreversible change in the lives of young people. Here are the classic coming-of-age tales that have always been popular, and for good reason: because we can all relate to them! We’ve all at one point in our lives been forced to make a choice that would change us forever, whether or not we knew it at the time. We lost innocence and gained experience. Whether it’s moving across the country, having our heart broken by our high school crush, finding out we’re a witch/wizard or getting thrust into the Hunger Games, we can all relate on some level to what these similarly lost and confused characters are going through.
So is YA any different than the hundreds of shitty new books out there, being rushed to the printer for the sake of boosting sales numbers? Does this genre, a category that didn’t even exist before WWII, deserve to be on shelves with the likes of Dickens and Tolstoy? Certainly the lack of “proper” language warrants some criticism. Sure, lots of similes and metaphors abound, but they’re often so cliché or blatantly obvious they erase any need for the deeper between-the-lines reading required of more eloquent texts.
Most though not all of YA these days seems to follow an unofficial set of rules. For example, many are written in first person and are mostly plot-based. They have shorter sentences and obvious phrases such as, “I don’t know” ought to be included. Some claim that this style of writing is the downfall of modern literature.
But YA is only deceptively simple. It has a quiet confidence of a story easily read and digested at the surface level, but with a truly powerful meaning underneath. YA may lead characters on a plot-based journey, but the real journey comes from the inside.
Here’s what YA does at its core: it tells emotional truths. And isn’t that, when you strip away all the flowery language and fancy metaphors, the whole point of art? Art makes you feel something. Simple flattened words on a page can make you laugh, scream, cry, , sob. That is the magic of art. That is the magic of words and books and stories. And that is why we should never look down upon one genre or another, because the point of all stories is to get some reaction from you. Books, no matter the type, spread ideas, promote empathy, and remind us that for all our outward differences, we are all, on some level, of the same mind.
Most importantly, YA forces readers to interpret the events of the story however they see fit. That is what YA is ultimately about: laying out plot, and letting the reader take whatever personal truths they may from the story. YA isn’t afraid to sound a little more colloquial; it isn’t embarrassed to use words that are a little less fancy. It is easier, reading YA, to forget that you’re reading a story, unlike other genres where the paragraphs are so dense you could read something a hundred times and still not know what’s occurring.
And I know this is the whole point and beauty of literature: the complexities of language, of words weaving and twisting around each other, forcing the reader to acknowledge that yes, this is not only a story but a work of art, a stringing together by some desperate author of some frustrating, complex but beautiful tale.
YA will never be old Victorian literature, nor should it try to be. The two are incomparable. Of course The Hunger Games will never read like Pride and Prejudice, nor should you expect or necessarily want it to. If you’re in love with classic lit, that’s great. We certainly need to read the greats of the past in order to move forward into the future. But if you’re back from school or work or whatever, and have a little down time, and you don’t feel like reading something that feels more like deciphering hieroglyphics than providing a simple escape, crack open a YA novel. There is no shame in reading “simpler” styles of writing. Read whatever sets you afire, be it romance novels, sci-fi, fantasy, classic lit, or YA. As long as you feel something when the book ends, you’ve made the right choice.