Thursday, May 24, 2018

YA Genre Fiction

Michael Cart, author of YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE: FROM ROMANCE TO REALISM, had an article on this past Sunday's editorial page of the Baltimore SUN proclaiming that YA literature is an American invention. The essay summarizes the highlights of the history of twentieth-century fiction for teens and the emergence of novels written specifically for them as a distinct marketing category:

YA Literature

Since this author is clearly an expert in the field, and the Amazon blurb for his book's third edition mentions that it covers horror, SF, and dystopian novels, it strikes me as particularly puzzling and annoying that he dismisses all fiction for teenagers before the late 1960s with remarks such as these:

Quoting S. E. Hinton, author of the classic THE OUTSIDERS: "The world is changing, yet the authors of books for teenagers are still 15 years behind the times. In the fiction they write, romance is still the most popular theme with a horse and the girl who loved it coming in a close second."

And Cart's own summary of the pre-1960s literary landscape: "Before these two novels [THE OUTSIDERS and Robert Lipsyte's THE CONTENDER], literature for 12 to 18 year olds was about as realistic as a Norman Rockwell painting — almost universally set in small-town, white America and featuring teenagers whose biggest problem was finding a date for the senior prom." Cart praises novels such as THE OUTSIDERS, THE CONTENDER, and those that followed them as "hard-hitting, truth-telling fiction" that "embraced real world considerations like abortion and homosexuality." Not that there's anything wrong with that. Doubtless nobody denies that novels reflecting life as experienced by their target audience and grappling with contemporary problems are a Good Thing. But not all children and teenagers want to read about characters like themselves who face problems similar to the ones they have to cope with every day, nor should they be obligated to. (See the topic of "escape," discussed here recently.)

Can Cart possibly be unaware of the early "juveniles" by Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein, in which young adults venture out into the world (in their cases, the universe), take on jobs of real importance, and accomplish meaningful contributions to their societies? Does he think for some reason that these books don't count in the history of teen literature? This ignoring or dismissal of an entire genre reminds me of an article I once saw lamenting the death of the short story. So, for that author, the short story was dying or dead? He or she had never read ANALOG, ASIMOV'S, THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, CEMETERY DANCE, or WEIRD TALES (to name a few genre magazines flourishing at that time, before online publications)? Had never suspected the existence of the many original short-fiction anthologies published annually in fantasy, horror, and SF? That mourner of the short story's death looked for thriving markets in the wrong places. Likewise, judging from that one editorial article, Michael Cart is looking for pre-1960s YA fiction more "realistic" than "a Norman Rockwell painting" (not that there's always necessarily anything "unrealistic" about that, either; some of us DID live in lily-white suburbs in the 1950s and 60s) in the wrong place.

For a more comprehensive viewpoint: Speculative fiction scholar Farah Mendlesohn has published two books about the history of fantasy and SF for children and adolescents, THE INTER-GALACTIC PLAYGROUND and CHILDREN'S FANTASY LITERATURE: AN INTRODUCTION. Both are great reads, lively and informative. Although THE INTER-GALACTIC PLAYGROUND unfortunately has no reasonably priced edition (by my frugal standards; I read a library copy some time ago), the book on fantasy is affordable and well worth delving into.

On a completely different subject, have you been watching the PBS series NOVA WONDERS on Wednesdays? They've covered topics such as the microbiome inside us, AI, creating life, and the search for extraterrestrial life. Check it out if you can.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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