Why Criticizing Young Adult Fiction is Sexist

People who scoff at young adult novels are really scoffing at teenage girls.

Dianna Anderson is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity. She has a Master of the Arts in English from Baylor University, where, yes, she did write her master’s thesis on Harry Potter. She lives in Sioux Falls with her cat and has a whole bookshelf dedicated to her YA Lit collection.

“You have to admit,” said the other graduate student, “it’s not like it’s real literature.”

I found myself sitting in my shared office, staring at my fellow teaching assistant — a medievalist. I was a week away from defending my thesis on Trinitarian thought in the Harry Potter series, and my colleague had just insulted my entire field of study. I didn’t know which argument to make first — that J.K. Rowling was an educated classicist who drew both linguistic and literary history into her fantasy elements, or that her Church of Scotland-influenced weaving of Trinitarian ideology in her plot was on par with what I’d seen from many of the writers my colleague was studying.

In the end I said nothing. I’d encountered this argument before — the mature and experienced “grown-up” who looked down her nose at anything deemed populist nonsense, especially if its main audience was people younger than 20. We adult fans of young adult literature often find ourselves in the position of defending our tastes against a wider world that deems our choices “immature.” Some people think it’s embarrassing for an adult to care about “teenager problems”; others, like Ruth Graham in a recent article for Slate, argue that young adult literature inherently lacks literary merit. But at the core, people who dismiss YA books are, almost invariably, not engaging in good-faith criticism of the books’ aesthetic values. What they’re really scoffing at is teenage girls.

Graham’s piece takes stabs at two very popular YA targets: Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Based on these two books, Graham concludes that young adult literature “consistently indulge[s] in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.”

Graham also argues that an adult would “roll her eyes” at the portrayals of first love in young adult literature. “If [adults] are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something,” she writes.

Like Graham, my younger self longed for the stacks beyond the young adult section. Eighth grade found me devouring Jack London, Stephen King, and John Steinbeck. I read through all of Lord of the Rings in a two-week period during my sophomore year of high school, and was happily delving into George Orwell, Dostoyevsky, and Tim O’Brien by senior year. I thought I was beyond YA concerns — romance, fashion, the intellectual provinces of girls who were my age but not as high-minded. Indeed, I didn’t pick up Harry Potter until after I had graduated high school, prejudicially favoring more “adult” fare. I didn’t consider young adult books to have any literary value until my senior year of college, when I took a class on banned and challenged books and read several novels I would not have touched otherwise.

It’s fairly clear from Graham’s article that she didn’t read much YA either. It’s easy to be cynical about pat endings and the tying up of loose ends if you’re looking at a tiny sample of literature that exhibits those characteristics. But in the years I’ve been studying YA, I’ve learned that the only uniting feature of the genre is the age of the protagonists. There exists futuristic science fiction, dystopian fantasy, romance, stories of death and complexity to rival the heroes of the adult literary world. As it turns out, young adult literature is just as varied as adult genres. Writing it off entirely is like writing off all of popular music because you didn’t like that one Miley Cyrus song.

The arguments against adults reading young adult literature tend to be a unique combination of condescension toward teenagers and unexamined sexism toward female-oriented books. It’s well known in the publishing world that young adult literature is a field populated by women. Before John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars broke records, there was Maureen Johnson, Laurie Halse Anderson, J.K. Rowling, S.E. Hinton, Madeline L’Engle, and Suzanne Collins. Historically, women have populated the genres aimed at teenagers and children precisely because of a sexist publishing industry that deemed women unable to write adult literary fiction (see the continued disparagement of Jane Austen’s books as “fluffy”).

Young adult literature has long been the refuge of those on the outer edges of the societal zeitgeist. Women have legitimacy within its realm, seeing successes not often available to them on the mainstream market. And with such successes, pushback has happened regularly upon gendered lines — real literature is literature written by white men. Books by young women about young women are called “fluffy,” “immature,” and not dealing with serious enough topics. Ruth Graham rolls her eyes not because emotional catharsis and likability are inherently unworthy, but because these books are about girl things experienced by girls. We’ve been trained that this is less important than listening to Jonathan Franzen pontificate.

To be fair, there is some YA lit that makes me, a person with a degree specializing in the genre, roll my eyes. The Fault in Our Stars was one of those books — I simply didn’t connect with the characters in the way many others have. But there is a large difference between a personal reaction and an understanding of how such a book reaches out and touches people. There is a canyon between personal preference and actual merit.

The point of literature is not that everyone must have the same experience when they read a book. It is that we can touch some part of the human experience otherwise inaccessible to us, empathetically recognizing that we are part of a larger humanity. Good literature challenges us to think about others, and ourselves and such challenge is not restricted to age or genre. Continuing to disparage a category populated mainly by books by, for, and about women serves to revive that ages-old divide that says a man’s experience is universal and a woman’s experience is niche. When we request that adults stick to “adult” literature, we further the gap between parents and children, teachers and students, between, yes, men and women. Such uncritical promotion, based only on the ages of the protagonists, creates a false hierarchy of tastes and experiences — and has the effect of demeaning stories about young women.

Young women are a complex, wonderful, messy group of people, and we should not so quickly push aside their stories and their experiences, simply because we have grown cynical in our age. We may learn from the most unexpected of places, and that is the true beauty of reading.

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