Another day, another published article discussing YA that makes eyes roll and twitter typing fingers fly furiously. The difference this time is that the article is not some so-called YA expert or a journalist whose only experience of YA comes from shelf browsing or assumptions; this article, published on Slate, is written by a YA author, or rather two authors who wrote a YA novel together. It revealed some interesting things, not to mention incredibly stupid.
Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix, writer of “The Magnolia League”, (which my fellow Torch bearer Vinaya reviewed here with particular zeal) managed to pull a double whammy by slamming both YA fiction and literary fiction in one swift generalisation:
“But readers in Y.A. don’t care about rumination. They don’t want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase that evokes the exact color of the shag carpeting in your living room when your dad walked out on your mom one autumn afternoon in 1973. They want you to tell a story. In Y.A. you write two or three drafts of a chapter, not eight. When kids like one book, they want the next one. Now. You need to deliver... In many ways, Y.A. is the lookingglass world to literary fiction, where everyone's jockeying over who got the biggest advance, the ultimate dream is to be anointed by the New Yorker, and you're expected to take two years or more to turn in your next novel that very few people are waiting to buy. The direct relationship with teen readers actually comes as a relief since the literary fiction crowd can get a little full of itself.”
To be honest, after this article, where Crouch and Hendrix manage to insult their reader base by patronising them and acting as if they’re stupid, displaying sheer arrogance in relation to any type of criticism and displaying a questionable lack of skill and respect for the work itself, I’ll be surprised if “The Magnolia League” finds any new readers.
But this article is a puzzling piece to me, because it appears to be an author standing up and admitting that she’s on the bandwagon, and that profit trumps quality every time. I’ve commented frequently about my cynicism regarding YA publishing trends and their potentially problematic content, and I’ve displayed disappointment over the lack of author/industry discussion of it within the community (although that has been changing somewhat lately), but I’ve never seen an author be so bold and arrogant as to admit this sort of attitude so publicly.
YA’s had to fight for its place a lot lately, between this, the Wall Street Journal’s hack-job and every other YA controversy that seems to come as regularly as the setting of the sun. Despite its massive popularity, increasing sales and undeniable power in getting young people to read, it’s still seen as lesser, somehow unworthy of true merit, merely a tool for profit. James Frey has exploited this space in the market well. He comes up with a basic, simple but easy to market premise, sells the movie rights then churns out a simple novel with the help of a very low paid graduate who receives none of the credit (at least James Patterson gives a co-author credit to his minions) to flood the market and set the pace for the movie publicity. While “I Am Number Four” didn’t set the box office alight (thank god for that), the book has been on the New York Times children’s bestseller list for 22 weeks. We may jump up in arms over Frey’s blatant lack of respect for his readers, his exploitation of others for monetary gain and his less than skilful output, but it sells.
The market wants this stuff, and there’s only so much of it we can blame on publishing hype and marketing. YA is no longer just a book thing, it’s an entire money making industry that spins out into movies, TV, merchandising, etc. It inspires movies to release YA novelisations, as was the case with “Red Riding Hood”. It commands how millions of dollars are spent. Countless YA books have been optioned for a movie, many of which had the movies rights purchased before the book’s release, banking on these trends (e.g. Divergent, Matched, the upcoming Black is the Colour.) I’m half convinced one of the reasons YA, and romance, get so much flack is because they’re one of the few bits in the industry turning a profit these days. One can’t blame an agent for pointing out a profitable gap in the market to their clients (although maybe they should also tell them to keep mum about their true intentions.)
Awful books have always existed. There will always be awful books in every genre and YA is no expection. There have always been terrible books for kids and teens, many of which were churned out to meet popular demand, such as the Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High books. The difference between the derivative nature of the market then and its current state is that the derivative, trend following books of the 70s and 80s weren’t reportedly selling to publishers for 7 figure sums. I don’t know how well “The Magnolia League” has been selling but there is an intrinsic appeal to what is popular. Why? That would take a much deeper analysis than I am capable of giving.
Crouch and Hendrix displayed a complete lack of tact in their article, as well as ignorance and disrespect towards their readers and the industry they openly want to exploit for financial gain. But let’s not pretend that they’re the only ones doing it. There are many wonderful YA writers dedicated to their craft, and I’d argue that the market’s more diverse than ever, even with the blasé trends and next-big-thing campaigns. We should continue to demand the changes we want, both readers and writers. We may not like Crouch and Hendrix’s piece, but the industry stays the same as long as this stuff keeps selling. They know exactly what they’re doing.
Hopefully, we do too.