I’m a bit late to the party on Michelle Dean’s Our Young-Adult Dystopia, which article appeared in the New York Times in mid-February; nonetheless, I can’t quite see my way to letting it pass without comment. Unlike the vast majority of people who end up wringing their hands in mainstream publications about how YA Novels Will Doom Us All, Dean appears to actually have read the books she’s talking about, rather than merely criticising them from afar. This has not, however, stopped her from writing one of the most pompous and irritating opening paragraphs of our times:
I sometimes wonder what Dante or Milton or any of those guys would make of the modern appetite for the young-adult epic. It wasn’t always a lucrative thing, writing grand, sweeping, fantastical stories, you know. It was a job for nose-to-the-grindstone, writing-for-the-ages types, and worldly rewards were low. Milton died in penury, blind and obscure; Dante met his maker in literal exile. Would they look with envy upon their celebrated and moneyed modern analogues — your J. K. Rowlings, your Suzanne Collinses?
Ah, yes – those were the days! How I yearn for the golden past, when fantasy was Serious Male Business to be ground out in penury, rather than Crass Female Business resulting in fame! Once again, I’m forced to play the game of Mainstream YA Article Bingo, and as you can see from the card below, it’s not looking good:
Having already compared modern YA with stories written over a century ago and dipped into the Free Space with the requisite reference to The Hunger Games (to say nothing of coming perilously close to an elitist dismissal of popular fiction as trash), Dean then proceeds to get the bit between her teeth:
You do not have to believe the latter [Collins and Rowling] match their ancestors in skill or intelligence to see that they live in a charmed time for their craft. Writing a big, imaginative epic, and particularly one aimed at children or that vaguely defined demographic, “young adult,” will get you plenty of money and status in the grown-up population. You’ll get your big Hollywood movie, and you’ll get your New Yorker profile.
Speaking as a YA author whose money, status, big Hollywood movie and New Yorker profile have all mysteriously failed to eventuate, presumably having been lost down the back of a couch somewhere between Berkeley and Manhattan, I am, in the parlance of the modern internet, 1000% done with people who wilfully mistake the massive success of a few bestselling and debut authors for a universal phenomenon. But then, where’s the sensationalist fun in that? You can’t kickstart outrage by pointing out that, even though most YA authors are still working day jobs to make ends meet, earning low four-digit advances, doing their own publicity and attending no shindig fancier than a launch at the local library, a handful of their peers have nonetheless experienced enormous success due to various trends and fluctuations within the marketplace but, most of all, the hard work of actually writing books. All those tedious humdrum facts lack punch.
There is, nonetheless, a downside to this epic bubble. As in every other area of American life, the sweet smell of success wafting from on high proves irresistible to Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies. Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than something called “Divergent” will come hurtling toward us. The film adaptation of the first book in this trilogy comes out in March. The economic success of these books, written by 25-year-old Veronica Roth, can’t be overstated. The finale, “Allegiant,” came out in October, and its announced first printing was two million copies — a number nearly unheard-of in the depressed coal-mining town that is publishing, these days. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists instantly, as though by divine right.
How dare new authors be inspired to write successful books in popular genres! Never mind that, owing to the long lead times in publishing, Roth’s Divergent was picked up by Harper Collins in July 2010, a month before the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, was even on shelves – of course Roth is a latecomer! And how dare the third book of a successful trilogy be printed in huge numbers, apparently! Down with big print runs! Publishers shouldn’t be confident in their authors! (Bonus points will be awarded to those who find it odd that Dean here refers to the publishing industry as a “depressed coal-mining town” when her entire piece is otherwise objecting to the lucrative new vein of stories it’s currently tapping, to considerable profit. Apparently, it’s only noble and right for publishers to make money if they’re not trying to make money.)
I am not the kind of person who sniffs at “low culture.” Still, something like “Divergent” has been so hastily assembled, and then so cynically marketed, that I cannot help being offended on the part of the reading public.
Dean doesn’t sniff at low culture. She just calls it low culture – rather than, for instance, popular culture, which is both more accurate and less snobbish – and thinks its success is an indictment on the industry. I also find it noteworthy that, by implied definition, the “reading public” here described doesn’t include any Roth fans. (Because, like so much else in discussions of popular culture, “reading public” is code for “erudite people who read a better class of book”. You don’t have to like Divergent to find this construction suspect.)
I know it sells, and God knows that publishing needs the money. But the pushing of this stuff is starting to make me feel as if we’re all suckers. Cruelly, the gilded age of young-adult literature threatens to suck the life out of the whole thing.
But for whom, though? Book blogs, digital imprints and teenage readerships are all booming, as are indie publishers, YA fandoms and online communities devoted to the passionate sharing, discussion and creation of YA. Nobody is forcing Dean to read Veronica Roth, or anyone else, for that matter. It’s not being “pushed” on her, like hard drugs or the execrable opinions of Jeremy Paxman. Dean is free to dislike Roth, or not, as the mood takes her. What I’m struggling with is the suggestion that Roth is somehow representative of the moral/commercial bankruptcy of modern YA, just because she’s successful beyond what Dean feels her writing is worth.
Few are bothered by the costs of this excitement, though successful writers in the young-adult market do seem to have noticed the way the industry depends on them. John Green, whose (excellent, though non-epic) young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars ” will get its own film adaptation in May, explained his predicament to The Chicago Tribune last fall: “It’s a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write.” And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.
It took me several attempts to parse this argument, because it’s so wholly ludicrous. For the first time ever, YA SFF novels – and particularly books written by and for young women – are considered a big, commercial Hollywood business. But rather than celebrating the unprecedented prominence of female-centric stories and daring to dream of fame, Dean says, YA authors and editors should be endeavouring to safeguard the jobs of film industry professionals by being harder on themselves. If only YA editors would really dig their heels in at the outset, bad movies wouldn’t happen, because Hollywood wouldn’t be tempted to make doomed-to-fail adaptations of “low culture” crap! Young authors need to stop writing commercially successful books, because if someone buys the film rights, another person’s job could be threatened years down the line when forces beyond the writer’s control lead to poor box office receipts! (That sound you hear is me banging my head on the keyboard.)
Setting aside the extremely pertinent fact that authors on film sets tend not to have an enormous amount of directorial discretion, even though it’s their books being adapted, such that the success or failure of what’s produced can’t reasonably said to rest solely on their shoulders – no novel makes it onto the screen verbatim. As various fandoms can attest, Hollywood has never shrunk from making merry with established canon, whether that means whitewashing a previously diverse cast, adding new characters to familiar stories, or generally just chopping and changing various details as par for the course, and that’s before you get to the question of successful promotion. Big studios might be snapping up YA movie rights out of a cynical desire to find the next Hunger Games, but if the end products are failures, authors are hardly the ones to blame. The fact is that, regardless of the editorial energies expended prior to a book’s release, it’s the finished product that attracts (or doesn’t) the eager eye of studios, whose adaptations are then perfectly placed to redress whatever failings the text might have. So while I can perfectly understand the authorial worry that one’s book adaptation will flop, thereby bringing untold misery to those kind souls who’ve expended so much energy bringing it to life, the idea that they could’ve prevented it all by begging their editor way back when to be crueller with the red pen is a solipsistic fear with no bearing on reality.
(And speaking of facts – vaunting John Green as excellent while criticising female YA authors? Ladies and gentlemen, check your bingo cards!)
…Roth was 21 when she sold the book and all this started. Had I been exposed to such widespread public scrutiny at that age, I doubt I’d have survived it.
Of course, Roth was selected for this fate in part because she was young. Youth is key to the marketing message.
Does Dean have any evidence for this assertion – that Roth is successful, not just because an agent, a major publishing house and a film studio all decided to back her story, but because of her youth? Evidently not, but that doesn’t matter: for Dean, it seems, it’s just the logical explanation for why a book she thinks is poorly written was given such advantages.
I could not help noticing how Roth’s case echoed in another over the summer: Samantha Shannon’s. She was a 21-year-old Oxford student when her first novel, “The Bone Season,” was declared the Next Big Thing last August… Hopes were clearly high for its instant blockbuster success, and Shannon had all the ritual blessings the young-adult epic market can offer: a six-figure deal for the first three planned books of seven and a prepublication purchase of film rights. The “Today” show declared it the inaugural pick of its Book Club.
But readers did not respond, not this time. According to Nielsen Bookscan, American sales were in the low-to-mid-five figures in hardcover.
This is, once you break it down, an incredibly misleading statement. Firstly, Dean is citing only the American hardback sales of a book that’s been published both internationally and in ebook format – at a time when ebook sales are surpassing hardcover sales in the US market – as evidence that The Bone Season has failed to live up to its promise. Secondly, those “low-to-mid five figures” in the US hardcover market alone were still strong enough to see the book debut at no. 7 in the New York Times bestseller list, which is hardly something to be sneezed at. With the paperback version not forthcoming until April, and the film version as yet unmade, it seems a little preemptive to judge as a failure a book that’s been sold in 21 countries on the basis of its early sales in just one of them.
I often wonder if the people in charge of these decisions noticed that Rowling was 30 when she sold “Harry Potter,” or that Collins was 46 when “The Hunger Games” appeared. If they did, then they must have also noticed how much the present state of affairs resembles the Hollywood starlet system. But I know why movie producers prefer the young ones. That position is even less defensible among book editors.
Though I can think of a number of other modern YA authors published at young ages beyond Roth and Shannon – myself among them, for the sake of full disclosure; I can scarcely call myself famous, but my first book was nonetheless bought by a publisher in 2009, when I was 23, and came out the following year – the idea that publishers are deliberately mimicking the “starlet system” is absurd. While some journalists certainly get a kick out of emphasising the improbable youth of authors like Alexandra Adornetto and Steph Bowe (both published in their teens), the plain fact is that if some YA novels are being written by young adults, it’s not because of some creepy decision to market books in tandem with the nubile flesh of their authors; it’s just a natural consequence of the fact that young adults like writing for themselves, and are, on occasion, good at it.
Judging by her heavily gendered comparison with starlets, however, Dean appears specifically to take issue with the success young female authors, presumably because she, like almost everyone else, has been taught by our sexist culture that successful young women must necessarily be trading on their youth and beauty, rather than being in possession of any actual talent. Whether she’s an author, a fan, a singer, an actress or anything else in the public spotlight, if a young woman does something, you can be guaranteed that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say she’s not a “real” whatever-it-is, because clearly, young women can’t be. Even so, if young women were the only authors having their books adapted to the big screen and given the five-star treatment, then perhaps Dean would have a point: if nothing else, it would certainly be worth discussing. But as she herself acknowledges, the authors of many other successful franchises – like Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, to name the requisite Big Three – are all in their thirties and forties; and while YA certainly boasts a number of prominent female creators, there are plenty of men being given film deals, too. Besides John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which Dean is already demonstrably aware of, there’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, now on its second instalment, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and, of course, the three Narnia movies. (Naturally, though, when male-authored films meet with poor or only middling success, as several of these have, no one ever seems to suggest the source material was at fault, or takes it as an indictment on the skills of male authors generally – they were just bad adaptations). Hollywood doesn’t care who writes the books – it just knows that YA and SFF are popular, and wants to get in while the getting’s good, a slapdash attitude that often leads to subpar films regardless of where the inspiration comes from.
But by all means, let’s continue to focus on how undeserving young women are of fame.
Children’s literature toys with our chronological expectations because the best of it has always been written, actually, by the comparatively elderly. Lewis himself was 51 when the “Narnia” books came out; Lois Lowry was 56 when “The Giver” was published; Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in her 40s, and L. Frank Baum his “Oz” books in the same decade of his life.
Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears…
Books like Frankenstein, perhaps – one of the undisputed greats of modern literature, and the arguable genesis of modern science fiction? Which was, of course, conceived of and written by Mary Shelley at the ripe old age of 19. And how about Jane Austen, who started writing Pride and Prejudice when she was 21? Edgar Allen Poe began publishing short stories in his early twenties, receiving a prize for MS. Found in a Bottle at 24 – the same age as Alfred, Lord Tennyson when The Lady of Shallot first appeared in print. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, also produced his first major play at the age of 24, in 1958; award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi famously wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school; and just three years ago, Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize with her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, at age 25. Which isn’t to say that no writer ever matures or improves with age – quite the opposite. It’s just that a blanket belief in incompetent, callow youth is equally as inaccurate as a sweeping assertion that age necessarily leads to great books. For every new YA author aged in their teens or twenties, I can think of others in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties whose works aren’t automatic masterpieces. If I were going to try and make any sort of general statement about the relationship between one’s age and one’s ability to write, in fact, all I’d say is this: that first novels, regardless of the age at which we write them, are seldom our very best works, but that their quality is more likely dependent, not on how old we are, but on how long we’ve been writing when they’re published.
English literature is full of young male writers lionised, both then and subsequently, for their incredible gifts, not least because most of them were busy dying of sybaritic illnesses before they got their first grey hair: John Keats was dead by 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley by 29 and Lord Byron by 36, and that’s just for starters. But once again, it’s the young women of today whose outpourings are held to be inferior, not on the basis of individual talent or literary preference, but because young people just can’t write.
I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again.
I see: having first stepped in to defend the honour of the “reading public” from the insult of commercially successful YA novels, Dean has proceeded to fix the blame on YA authors for being too young and YA readers for being too “childish”, and on everyone else in the equation for giving young women power, whether as creators or as members of a demographic audience. On the basis of the evidence, then, it’s harder to say if Dean really resents Roth and Shannon because they’re successful in a genre she dislikes, or if she dislikes the genre because it’s made them successful without recourse to her opinion of their talent. Clearly, though, it’s not just the problem of commercialism in literature that’s upsetting her – or if it is, then I’d humbly suggest that she’s drawing a bead on the wrong target. If the soul of publishing is truly being imperilled by the relentless drive for monetary gain, then the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly and David Baldacci are far more worthy targets, each of whom has produced far more pulp bestsellers than Roth and Shannon combined. But then, of course, these are adult men, and even though we might collectively mock novels like The Da Vinci Code or wonder who on Earth keeps giving Nicholas Sparks money, we never question the rights of adult male readers to enjoy whatever the hell they like, no matter how trashy and poorly written we find it.
But women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!
And this, ultimately, is why I end up gritting my teeth whenever I see yet another mainstream article lamenting this female-heavy trend in YA – and that’s really what Dean is doing here, for all that she’s trying to pretend otherwise. It’s not that YA and its authors should somehow exist beyond criticism (they shouldn’t) or that there’s no problematic trends, romantic or otherwise, being perpetuated by the current crop of YA novels (there are), or even that it’s inherently wrong to analyse the logic underpinning commercial YA (it’s not). It’s because, overwhelmingly, this sort of analysis isn’t what happens. Instead, we get sour grapes and grudge matches: journalists outraged at the success of particular stories confusing their failings with the failings of an the entire genre; pundits decrying the ubiquity of books they’ve never read in genres they don’t understand for audiences they didn’t know existed, and calling it the end of civilisation; moral crusaders up in arms that girls are reading about sex, or writing about it, or doing anything other than waiting chastely for the good Christian wedding night where they’ll lie back and think of England, because even stories dealing with the aftermath of rape are somehow pornographic; and on, and on, and on. Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.
While the YA market should be criticised for many things, like its habit of whitewashing book covers, its faith in the works of young female writers isn’t one of them. Let young people write books for each other – the result might not always be literature for the ages, but it’s still produced some damn good stories, and with so many new authors entering the field with decades still ahead of them in which to develop their talents, I for one am excited to see where not just YA, but the future of writing is headed.