Sunday, October 3, 2010

What Do You Want From Me?

As a self-proclaimed YA writer, though I converted, I've been driving myself crazy trying to find out what the hell YA is, what are the criteria, and do I fit them. What I've figured out so far, through reading just a few titles on both sides of the divider, is that YA is simply stuff and junk that teens would like to read.

Sounds impossible, right? How the hell do I know what the little ankle-biters want? I'm pretty sure they don't even know what they want half the time. Well, it turns out in four years of teaching, and countless years in retail bossing the little whipper-snappers around, I have a pretty good feel for what they like.

Since they seem to be incurably negative,* it's probably easier to talk about what the don't like. What they don't like is stereotypical teens. What they don't like is being portrayed as only caring about their cell phones and their iPods. What they don't like is having to stop every five seconds because they don't know a word or to re-read a passage because the sentences are a page long and wind around themselves twelve times over. In short, they don't like pretentiousness.

I know they do like funny. They like to laugh. Not pretentious, complex humor that we all know isn't really funny, but we laugh at it anyway so we don't look like the beer drinker among wine aficionados. Sure, you may say, "they just like immature potty humor and curses!" Well, potty humor and curses are fucking funny.

They also like when teens talk like teens. This goes back to pretentiousness. They don't like some teen rambling on like Edgar Allan Poe or F. Scott Fitzgerald or a seventeen year-old saying things like, "I'm not quite sure" or "You don't say." They just want to punch him in his fucking mouth. To tell you the truth, so do I.

They do like sex. They do like drugs. They do like edgy content, but to tell you the truth, so do adults. Compare plots. Which do you want to read? Drug dealing pimp falls in love with his drug addicted cutter of a prostitute or Johnny gets a new iPod for Christmas and thanks Mom and Dad with a big hug. They cry. Unless the crying has to do with the abuse Mom and Dad bestowed upon Johnny when he was younger and Mom is addicted to meth and Dad wears women's underwear to work, who gives a fuck?

I bet you like sex, don't you?

Now that you mention it, I don't think adults like pretentiousness much either. I think the average reader out there doesn't want to get on the plane with a paperback novel and Webster's latest tome. In fact, they'd probably have a kindle and dialed up on their laptop, but either way, it's a big inconvenience. Can't we have thought-provoking reading that doesn't involved talking in knots?

Therefore, it is my contention that YA literature is literature that human beings would like to read, rather than literature that human beings force themselves to read. Maybe all that's not YA us big boys and girls have just been forcing ourselves to swallow like all those vitamins and colon-cleansing bio-whatevers** they've been trying to sell us. Maybe we could all learn from teens.

Who knows?

*I know not all teens are negative. I know one in particular that is always keeping me from being negative and shedding the positive light on me and all that stuff. I'm just sayin'.

**Listen people. If a dude goes on TV and tells you to buy a pill from him, take it, and then examine your own feces so you can see all the black, disgusting sludge that now comes out because it is "cleansing" all the gunk that's built up in your shit track or whatever, and you don't realize that the pill is just causing your shit to turn into black, disgusting sludge instead of the cute little loafs you're used to pinching, you deserve to have black, disgusting sludge pouring form your asshole 24/7. K? K.


  1. I agree, but I disagree, too. To some extent, YA is like those evil Saturday morning cartoons that hook young junkies on sugary-sweet cereal and the latest gadget. Kids don't come into this "I must have a bowl of Trix immediately" consciousness on their own. So, marketers, and especially the big retailers TELL everyone what teens must be reading... hence the popularity of certain recurring themes: weak girls who seek identity and meaning by throwing themselves at bad boys, etc.

    On the other hand, as you imply, when given an actual choice, (and especially if they have not been re-educated to the extent that they can no longer think for themselves), kids will actually tell you what they like, and they'll have some surprisingly articulate reasons for making those choices.

    Teen Read Week is coming up, and I'll be writing about exactly this topic.

  2. I think kids are smarter than you're giving them credit for. I think stories are windows to other worlds and if you read you want those other worlds, even if they are full of all kinds of language that you wouldn't necessarily use. I think if a character reminds you of yourself it's accidental on the part of the author; intending to create characters to reflect some representative of youth at a given time seems like the road to disaster, same as giving your characters voices designed to reflect how kids really talk. I think reflections of yourself can happen in the oddest places -- for me, in the daughters of King Lear, or the abandoned toys in The Mouse and His Child, or the muddy heroine of Pride and Prejudice or the sloppy attitude of a Dublin girl in The Snapper, or the 9-year-old boy mourning his father in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Oddly, I feel most jarred by stories that are meant to be about modern day Americans, whose written lives are meant to resonate with me.

    The shorter answer is that I agree with you that nobody knows what they want to read. Why ask? I try to write what I want to write -- which is, at least in the first concept, what I think I want to read, or what is missing - -in hope that it fills a gap for someone else, too.

  3. First, to Andrew. Yes. There is some brainwashing going on out there. And I'm sure a lot of what we think they want to read comes from some marketing executive telling us what they want to read. It's a huge mess. And I'm sure I'm projecting a bit based on what I want to read. I can look back at heavy literature and love it for it's ideas, but it doesn't mean I was having a ball getting through it.

  4. Next, to Karen. Yes. I really hope I didn't imply teens were dumb. I love my students, and some of them I would put up against any adult out there for maturity, intellect, and character. In fact, I've spent most of my teaching career defending teens against the stereotypes that have placed on them. Some do deserve it, but there are amazing young adults out there that somehow give me hope that the human race isn't on its way down the toilet. the deal is, though I know if I give them some heavier literature, some Shakespeare, they may come out the other end loving it to death. But would they have sought it out and found it entertaining to read if I hadn't given it to them. I doubt it. I guess I'm drawing a line between what can be a moving, life altering read, and what a teen would enjoy reading. For the most part, my students hate what I make them read even if they read on their own all the time (YA titles). There are some diamonds in the rough that come back a year or two later talking about loving Gatsby and reading this that or the other on their own because of studying that author in class, but for the most part, they don't want anything to do with that stuff.

    MAYBE, part of the answer is teens don't like reading what we tell them they have to read. Maybe it's not the literary classic-i-ness of it all that turns them off, just the fact that some adult said they had to read it. F-you mentality. Hmmmm...