The most recent YA dustup revolves around author Katie Crouch’s take on “Writing YA Fiction” for Slate. It’s a cringe-inducing and infuriating read, not only because it is almost aggressively unprofessional (YA readers don’t care about good writing! Writing sex scenes makes us squirmy!), but also because it smacks of minstrelsy: “Hey, world. I don’t take myself seriously, so feel free not to take me seriously either.” Crouch doesn’t seem to have read widely in the genre. She’s a litfic author, and though she claims “there’s no shame in Y.A. these days” (was there ever?), she seems almost giddily desperate to let us know that, for her, writing YA is just a lark.
Poor Crouch has already been taken to task (most brilliantly by Courtney Summers), so I’m going to leave off beating her about the head and shoulders. But I’m often asked about the appeal of writing and reading YA and Crouch’s answer is so very far from mine that I need to offer another opinion.
Crouch suggests that the driving force behind the writing and consumption of YA is wish fulfillment: “Writing Y.A. as an adult is a chance to rewrite being a teenager… It’s way better than prom.”
(I’m going to assume that Crouch is only referring to her own work and so therefore felt free to completely disregard issue-driven YA, horror, much contemporary YA, and the darker YA so railed against by Meghan Cox Gurdon in the last YA clamor.)
I’m not going to deny the pleasures of wish fulfillment in my work. I love great clothes, a makeover, and awesome powers as much as the next girl. Possibly more. But that is not what drives my writing.
In the world of YA fiction, particularly in fantasy, the darkest parts of being young can move from metaphor to reality. The external world becomes just as dangerous and dire as the internal world, physical stakes attain parity with emotional stakes. As adolescents, we get our first real glimpse of power and come to our first real understanding of powerlessness. In fantasy, those personal and the political struggles can be made manifest in the paranormal. You feel like the world is going to end? Well, it just might. You feel like this guy is using you? Turns out he’s literally trying to steal your soul.
YA fantasy isn’t just about pretty people doing naughty things in mansions or sparkly vampires who love you longtime. It’s about the inevitable conflict that arises from learning to be yourself in the world. It’s about the havoc our decisions can wreak, the damage we do and the damage done to us. Sometimes the world is a post-apocalyptic dystopia, sometimes it’s a glittering palace full of schemers, sometimes it’s Brooklyn. But the goal is almost always the same: survive, become better, live unafraid.
That’s why I write fantasy. That’s why I write YA. And for the record, my prom sucked.