The Blight of Young Adult Fiction
Getting booed by a class of thirteen-year-old girls only required four words from me: “I didn’t like Twilight.” The clamor subsided once I launched into some logical reasons behind the choice: Bella is a poor role model for young girls, too weak, cliché, and simple-minded to be inspiring or interesting. Likewise, the other characters’ motivations and development are as ridiculous as a polar bear on roller skates. In fact, I explained, the adventures of these characters should be avoided by any reader looking for substance. For whatever reason, the girls accepted this explanation, returned me to my semi-beloved teacher status, and we segued into a conversation on independent and dependent clauses.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t make it past page 68 of Twilight, so call me unreasonably judgmental if you will, but at least let me explain. The first time someone accused me of literary arrogance, I was busy slinging books at Barnes and Noble. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had just been released in paperback, and my friend Vanessa asked me yet again, “Why don’t you just try it? It’ll surprise you.” After my fifth or sixth “Absolutely not,” she replied, “I can’t believe what a book snob you are.”
While undeniably picky, I dislike my undeserved reputation for having a green eggs and ham aversion to popular culture, so I gave into Vanessa’s pleas and have never regretted the decision. I devoured the first four books in two days and became one of those people who put her name on the waiting list for each of the three remaining books, waiting in line for their release. I wasn’t ashamed. The books did surprise me, and they deserve their popularity. With sophisticated character development, rich and varied sentence structures, and inspiring, consistent, honest plots, J.K. Rowling’s creations weave an enchanting and provocative world in which readers feel connected and delighted. Even a book snob can eat up every one of her yummy words and still beg for more.
I was so pleased with and surprised by Harry Potter that I proceeded on to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series and Rick Riordan’s Percy stories. After gobbling up those books, however, I fell back into my typical reading: Dickens, Austen, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and other dead white British writers, with a smattering of flavor such as Neil Gaiman. Still, as an avid fan of vampire fiction, and having read Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles from middle school through high school, I thought the reemergence of the craze might indicate the potential of some genius of phrasing or freshness of style in Twilight, by then-newcomer Stephanie Meyers. I decided to give my trusted friends, family, and peers the benefit of the doubt when one let me borrow his copy of the first book in the series.
After plodding through the first 68 pages, I determined that reading Twilight was akin to eating sawdust. Mystified by the enthusiasm of others with regard to the book, I asked one of my friends, “Why did you suggest this book to me? Do you actually think it’s well-written?” She replied, “Not at all, but the premise is interesting.” I swear, somewhere at that moment a fairy dropped dead and no amount of clapping could revive her.
The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins, was similar, though no one taunted me into its trap. I wanted to read the books, primarily because I had just finished my last degree, and after a semester of reading Thomas Jefferson, Mary Wollstonecraft and Michel Foucault, along with a slew of boring lit theory for my thesis, my brain needed a rest. It did not, however, deserve the battering of The Hunger Games. Once more, I do not address premise. Stories like The Hunger Games are provocative, and they sometimes offer profound and frightening glimpses into possible futures, which in turn causes them to go viral among friends and book clubs. A bookstore manager commented in the Los Angeles Times that “one strong writer leads to exploring that area more, so you’ve got several now who are leading people into all kinds of directions.” If only all directions were worth the attention.
The Hunger Games, unlike Twilight, does not suffer from needless exposition and annoying characters. Instead, it belabored my exhausted brain by addressing me directly, and inserting questions in absurd moments, breaking up the narrative flow. Just as I began to adjust to the present verb-tense of the story, she would knock me upside the head, as if to say, “Are you still paying attention? This is important.” After the success of an adventure series like Harry Potter, one might ask Collins about her motive for relentless storytelling. Instead of being deemed a snob for this reaction, I received a sour look from the friend who lent me the series, and, “Well, I thought it was interesting, but I guess you’re right.”
Contrary to what you might be thinking, I did not actually leave the sphere of secondary teaching for college due to my students’ poor taste in literature. Given that 55% of young adult fiction’s readership belongs to the 18+ category, my current students are more likely to be reading Twilight and The Hunger Games than my teenage pupils. When teaching middle school, however, the idea of, “Well, at least they are reading,” is fairly acceptable. Even poorly written YA fiction can become gateway books to more substantial reading.
What puts a knot in my tail is that a portion of the 55% of adults who bought the 85 million copies of Twilight and the nearly 28 million copies of The Hunger Games series are pouring into my classroom with an unrealistic view of the way writing should look. Rather than creating active, discerning readers, the seemingly innocuous nature of YA fiction allows bad writers to convince others that writing does not have to be good in order to be widely consumed. Rather, as my friends stated, it only has to contain an entertaining premise.
Subsequently, I receive papers with interesting topics and yet find myself continually fighting the wordy, trite, expository writing of my students as they try to ham-fist their ideas onto an imaginary audience. Granted, some of my students have never read Twilight or The Hunger Games series, but the books’ commercial successes indicate the type of writing publishers, and society, deem acceptable.
Granted, general expectations for English composition classes should be reasonable, and scapegoating Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer for the writing I encounter during the first few weeks of any given semester is too easy, but I see no obvious alternative. All I can do to retaliate is to try to improve my students’ literary sensibilities and set the expectations for better compositions, just as my professors did when I entered college.
Perhaps if I were thirteen years younger and a green college student, or twenty years younger and a tween, I would see no fault in the writing contained in Twilight and The Hunger Games. Education may have sullied any chances I had for appreciating premise over delivery. On the bright side, I will likely survive the loss.