YA Isn’t a Genre: Another Manifesto of Sorts

I recently came across this article on Twitter (I think it was originally posted by Terra Elan McVoy but I can’t be totally sure) from The New Statesman called: “Ghost Stories”: The ubiquitous anti-feminism of young adult romances by Tara Isabella Burton.

Burton worked her way through college by ghost writing what she calls “YA romances” and she references Tanya Gold’s article from November discussing the anti-feminist elements of Twilight. If you’ve read Twilight or watched the movies or have followed news about it, then this is old news. Twilight has been called everything from abstinence porn in Bitch Magazine to anti-feminist. I actually don’t have any problems with Twilight or the people who love it. But I can see how some might. It happens. It’s called freedom of expression.

(Burton also mentions Twilight leading to its fan-fiction-turned-bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey and the poorly defined world of “New Adult” which should be about emerging adults AKA twentysomething characters but has somehow become a landing board for YA masquerading as erotica but that’s another story and one handled better by other bloggers besides. Don’t even get me started on Fifty Shades of Grey. Just don’t.)

Burton’s article is interesting and Burton raises some very valid points including the fact that books in what I’m going to call the “Twilight vein” can suggest and maybe even elevate questionable behaviors. Burton notes: “that romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth.” In other words, the hypothetical “Mary Sue” of Burton’s YA romances is cast as a love interest and all of her identity and value comes from whatever romantic relationship she pursues.

That’s really bad.

What I found deeply troubling about the article is that it is incredibly one-sided. Burton claims she is writing with an insider’s perspective but by “insider” she seems to mean “another author making sweeping generalizations about YA based on a very small percentage of YA titles.” Burton never qualifies that she is speaking to a very narrow part of the world of Young Adult literature and to an even narrower part of what gets grouped under the umbrella of YA Romance. Instead of qualifying her claims Burton makes sweeping generalizations about YA Romance and its anti-feminist tendencies.

And yes, the problems are very true for some books. But the article ignores all of the books where these problems do not exist. And it kills me because the general public still doesn’t really know how large the YA world is and read articles like this and thing that’s all there is.

Here’s the thing, actually two things:

First: Young Adult isn’t a genre in the traditional sense. Marketing-wise, of course it is. But really YA is about audience and character age and format. Grouping all YA books together is like grouping together books about World War II or books set in Europe. Sure, all of those books fit together in one sense. But there are also tons of ways that they are unique.

Second: YA Romance doesn’t start and stop with Twilight. It doesn’t even stop with mass market romances like the ones Burton probably wrote. When you mention Twilight there are two other obvious blockbuster comparisons: The Hunger Games and, more recently, Beautiful Creatures. I’m not going to re-hash The Hunger Games because it isn’t strictly speaking a romance and because everyone already knows everything about it. So let’s look at Beautiful Creatures where Lena is the female lead and also in the power position. She pushes Ethan away, she saves Ethan, she is powerful, she makes sacrifices. She is mysterious and quirky and well-read and dimensional. And, oh wait, she’s a heroine in a YA Romance. Go figure.

I’m probably not saying anything new here and given who reads this blog I’m also  probably preaching to the choir but I’m just so tired or people pretending YA can wok as a universal label or genre indicator akin to “fantasy” or “legal thriller” when the terminology was never (I think) meant to work on that level.

I find it equally frustrating to see all of this talk of romances as if Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James (and maybe Nicholas Sparks) are the only authors out there. Adult novels have a very specific meaning when they classify a book as a “romance” and it serves those readers well. Some YA publishing houses have a similar focus but it doesn’t work the same way. Furthermore, no genre–for any age–should have be treated so dismissively and criticized out of hand.

Every book–even the ones that are troubling, even the ones that aren’t literary–every single book matters. They start conversations. They lead readers to other books. They matter.

I just felt like that had to be said even though in retrospect it might be familiar territory. I’ll finish by pointing you to my favorite manifesto (that I wrote) on Reading Without Remorse.

I’ll also point you to my book club where we can talk about YA books in broader terms and have some good, old fashioned fun with books.