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On Majoring In English and Reading #MorallyComplicatedYA

My freshman year of college I tried to be involved. In the past, I’ve been late with doing more than hanging out in my bedroom and watching Netflix. It takes me years to find a group of people I enjoy so I avoid extracurriculars.  I still dragged myself from my dorm and across campus for the first English Club meeting of the semester.  I stayed there for the whole meeting, but by the time it was over I’d already decided not to come back. I had been hesitant earlier about coming to English Club, suspecting that my reading list would be unheard of there. Not only did I favor novels that veered young, while everyone else was rereading The Catcher in the Rye and Animal Farm, but mine were also speculative. We went around the group and everyone named their favorite book. I was familiar with most of them. I’d either read them or decided I didn’t want to read them. When it was my turn I said The Night Circus (a great book, you should read it). Another girl said Vampire Academy, a YA series about a school for vampires. I’d read and finished that one, but this wasn’t a series the other members of English Club cared for or had even heard of. I sensed the confusion from people sitting next to me, who raised their eyebrows at her choice.

I decided to major in English because I loved to read, and I loved to write. It was all I knew I was good at, and it was the natural choice when deciding on a major. I still worried I wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I was a bad English major because I’d rather read some YA fantasy title than literary fiction.  When we think of English majors, we think of War & Peace,  Shakespeare, epic poems and the next “literary” hit. Not a story about a teenage assassin in a fictional land.

When I was younger, I’d go to the mall with my mom. Since I didn’t like shopping, she’d buy a book for me, and I’d sit on a bench and wait for her to finish up. Most of my reading was done in transit, under the overhead light in the car and just about all of it was YA. I grew up on YA lit, particularly YA of the speculative variety, but I’ve never grown out of it. I still remember one of the first YA books I picked up. It was Fearless by Francine Pascal and about a teenage girl “born without the fear gene”. Gaia Moore got in some pretty big scrapes with gangs and her CIA father’s shady brother, and I loved every minute.  The series wasn’t popular enough for me to find its many installments and finish it, but even going on twenty-three, I still plan to. Since beginning college, I’ve interned at The Missouri Review and The University of Missouri Press, neither of which engages with anything close to YA, and my Kindle library is as full of “literary” titles as it is YA. But it’s the YA book blogs I check regularly, and the YA section is the first place I look for something new to read.  I’ve read The Hunger Games and Divergent. I’ve read about girls who see ghosts, cyborgs claiming their throneshackers and fighter pilots aboard malfunctioning spaceships and plenty of splashy, frothy YA about too rich teenagers.  But the older I get the more clear it becomes that YA, no matter what it’s about or what points it makes, is always going to be seen by outsiders as frivolous.

Eric Bergstrom proved this once again. In the announcement for his new book, Bergstrom had a few things to say about YA lit. Describing The Cruelty, Bergstrom said, “The morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA.”  Bergstrom echoes a familiar sentiment about the validity of Young Adult literature. His comments imply a dismal understanding of the genre he’s trying to break into. The sample chapter floating around the web doesn’t inspire much confidence either:

I pull a book out of my backpack and lean against the door as the train shoots through the tunnel under the river for Queens. It’s a novel with a teenage heroine set in a dystopian future. Which novel in particular doesn’t matter because they’re all the same. Poor teenage heroine, having to go to war when all you really want is to write in your diary about how you’re in love with two different guys and can’t decide between them. These novels are cheesy, I know, and I suck them down as easily as milk.

Bergstrom says nothing that hasn’t already been said about YA literature, particularly about romance being a failure on its part. That’s a debate for a different post, but Bergstrom clearly doesn’t care for the genre that’s currently treated him to a six-figure deal. His comments can’t be ignored in the context of YA’s readers and writers, who are mainly women. YA’s faced plenty of gendered criticism over the years so this isn’t new, but it’s a wonder why Bergstrom bothered writing a YA manuscript at all if he can’t stand the way it works. Maybe because he’s convinced he’ll be able to turn the tide for YA lit, ignoring the authors who have already done so.

The Cruelty is coming into YA post-The Hunger Games, post-Divergent, post-Harry Potter, post-Twilight and post the thousand or so other titles that have come before it. All of which have been morally complicated.The very nature of YA lit is built upon coming of age and characters realizing who they are. There a reams of pages dedicated to the moral complexity of young people having to learn how to navigate their worlds, whether those worlds be contemporary or speculative. The novel Bergstrom is bold enough to bash in his manuscript is ending its film run this month, and even though Divergent hasn’t managed to live up to the expectations that it would eventually take THG‘s place as the YA franchise, it hasn’t been a failure either. It’s been more successful than Bergstrom’s book, which hasn’t even hit shelves yet.  Originally self-published, it’s now being published by Feiwel and Friends.

The Cruelty is a book I likely would have been picked up. Gwen Bloom is s slightly overweight (but hey, she’ll slim down so we can all be more comfortable reading about her) seventeen year old who sets out to rescue her kidnapped father. It’s described as “YA Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Bourne Identity, with a dash of Homeland.”  That’s a decent combination that I’d be interested in reading, and going off the sample chapter Bergstrom isn’t a bad writer. He’s pretentious and a bit full of himself but not bad at stringing his words together. I would have read The Cruelty and decided later if it had been a waste of time, but even without the book released, he’s already managed to damage his credibility and alienate potential readers of the genre he’s publishing in. #MorallyComplicatedYA trended on Twitter following the announcement’s release, with criticism and mockery from readers and published and unpublished YA writers. It’s the height of self-importance to trash the genre one’s capitalizing on and still expect to profit from it, and I’m interested to see how Bergstrom will navigate the small, YA world when The Cruelty is finally released.

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