Anyone who reads or writes young adult fiction will have had that conversation.
“But… why teenagers?”
You explain, trying to temper your enthusiasm and the urge to grab the listener’s arm and scream “CODE NAME VERITY! WE WERE LIARS!” in their face, but still you remain braced for their inevitable, dubious reference to sparkly vampires or, if they’re a touch more informed, arrow-wielding dystopian heroines. That an entire canon of YA literature exists, of which Twilight and The Hunger Games are simply a part, will likely never have crossed their minds.
It’s not news that YA as a section of literature is mischaracterised and misunderstood, but it was still a surprise to see Caitlin Moran make the same tired mistakes last week in an interview with the Bookseller. Not surprised because of the same incorrect clichés coming to light once again, but surprised because they came from someone bringing out a YA novel of her own.
In the interview, Moran talked enthusiastically about her upcoming novel How to Build a Girl, which apparently centres around a “funny, weird teenage girl” having “sex adventures”. Moran emphasised the importance of teenage girls having access to frank, honest material about sex. So far, so good.
Moran’s mistake was to go on to boldly proclaim that this kind of writing didn’t already exist and, in the process, completely mischaracterise YA fiction as being “always about teenage boys going off and having amazing adventures”. Moran’s intention is to correct this perceived imbalance and the absence of girls (“unless they’re being bitten by vampires”) with her novel. This is no doubt a worthy aim, if such a problem actually existed.
Young adult literature is, in fact, full of “funny, weird” teenage girls having adventures of all kinds. Historical adventures, contemporary adventures, paranormal adventures, sexy adventures. Adventures with boys and without them. Adventures with humour and heart and a few life lessons occasionally thrown in for good measure. In this sense, it is just like adult literature. The only difference is the age of the protagonists.
YA is, at best, patronised in the mainstream media and, at worst, outright ignored, precisely because it is written for and loved by teenagers, most of whom are female. This is a deadly mix for a media that traditionally has little time for teenage culture (unless it requires hand-wringing) and a superiority complex about anything deemed “women’s interests”. How could YA be seen as anything but wholly lesser than any and all other fiction? Aren’t teenagers just smaller, stupider versions of adults? Isn’t anything marketed to them inferior by default? Why would anyone have heard about it?
Moran’s real error was to assume that the lack of discussion about books championing quirky teenage girls and their sexy adventures meant such books didn’t exist. With no representation of young adult fiction in the mainstream media, the disconnect between the perception of YA and the reality is not a surprise. Even less surprising is the impulse to fill in the blanks with cultural stereotypes. Young adult fiction must be about teenage boys having adventures while girls remain invisible, because isn’t that the case in countless (grown up) books and film and stories from every day life? The problem isn’t that Caitlin Moran made this mistake. The problem is that it’s a mistake that is so easy to make, and one that is continually perpetuated by incidents exactly like this.
The YA community, made up of readers, writers and appreciators of all ages, was quick to respond to this mischaracterisation of their field. Keris Stainton, herself an author of several YA novels containing funny, weird teenage girls and frank discussions about sex, started the hashtag #caitlinmoranshouldread, with recommendations of books that prove to Moran why her statements were not just ill-advised, but actually completely false.
Even in the US, where the YA market is bigger and more established, YA fiction is only just starting to be considered by the media. Publications like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are starting to sit up and take notice, printing reviews and profiles of leading authors, as well as the occasional think piece about the so-called “rise” of YA (Judy Blume who?). But this new scrutiny is not without its problems. YA hasn’t been picked up by the press because its cultural worth and literary merit has suddenly been recognised. It’s been picked up because of the John Green Effect.
John Green is that most prized of literary things: a white, male, middle class writer of realistic fiction. To be clear, he’s a very good one. His novels, most recently The Fault in our Stars, are bestsellers all over the world, with a film adaptation due for release next month and millions of subscribers on his various YouTube channels. As an advocate and champion for YA, they don’t come much more successful and beloved than John Green.
John Green is not the problem.
The problem isn’t even that it took the success of John Green to convince the mainstream media that YA was worth talking about. The problem is that as these discussions begin to take place in the pages of mainstream publications, the erasure begins. Reading these articles, you’d be forgiven for thinking YA just didn’t exist until John Green arrived on the scene. The pioneers of YA, from Laurie Halse Anderson to Sarah Dessen to Meg Cabot, are all but forgotten. In one instance, Judy Blume’s incalculable contribution was written off in a dismissive line raising an eyebrow at the failure of her books to be made into films (never mind the fact that this decision was made by Judy Blume herself).
This matters because it perpetuates the entrenched impression that women’s contributions do not matter, and the only way for writing or art or thought to gain mainstream recognition is to be spearheaded by a man. Caitlin Moran may have bold ideas about redressing an imbalance, but by virtue of her femaleness history teaches us she won’t be the gamechanger she thinks YA needs.
The true imbalance isn’t within the books themselves. It isn’t the gender of the protagonists or the amount of sex contained within the pages. The imbalance comes down to true value and perceived value. Books that matter and books that don’t. People who matter and people who don’t. Until this imbalance is addressed, it doesn’t matter how many funny feminists throw their weight behind YA. Because, sadly, it’s just not that much weight at all.