Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Young Adult SFF: Rant #1

Over the next however long, I'm going to be posting some observations I've made about the current state of SFF young adult literature. A few months ago, I joined The Ranting Dragon as a reviewer, and asked why there weren't a lot of YA reviews on the site, since they were popping up in the monthly Anticipation lists. The answer was simply that while many of the staff agreed that the YA end of things were important, no one was taking the time to read any of it. Well, I thought that was a shame, and with one thing and another, I stepped up to the plate. It helps that I work at a library, and so can borrow these books without the need to buy a book I'm only likely to read once.

I first started reading YA literature back in the mid-1990s. Ancient history as far as the genre goes, I know. The very idea that teenagers a) read books voluntarily and b) aren't likely to read children's books anymore was a new one. I'm not sure why that was new, but it was. While books had been published for this age group for some time, it had just become something that got shelved on its own in libraries and book stores. These sections were small, and filled with a lot of Cynthia Voight, Caroline B. Cooney, and Lurlene McDaniel. Not that there is or was anything wrong with these authors, but there was a general lack of SFF. About the only authors who were consistently publishing SFF for young adults were Tamora Pierce, Tanith Lee and Patricia C. Wrede. I devoured everything I could get my hands on, and then ran out by the time I got to high school. And so I moved on to the adult SFF section, and made only occasional return trips to the YA section.

And then, in 1999, Harry Potter happened. Just after the fifth HP book released, Eragon was re-published by a major house. YA SF has never been the same, and not just in terms of page length. Were I making the journey from Children's to YA literature now, I would never run out of SFF to read. My journey from YA to Adult would not have been so soon, and would not have been made because of lack of age appropriate reading material. (Let's face it, reading Bradley's Mists of Avalon when you turn 14 will warp you a bit.)

Sadly, I think it would have been made out of boredom. Don't get me wrong, there are a number of wonderful YA authors out there (some of whom I've never stopped reading since my own teenage years). There's also a lot of trash mixed in. While I don't expect to like every book that's published, or even every book I pick up, I am depressed at the sheer amount of boilerplate going around.

Let's pick an easy place to start: Twilight. I know, I've made some of you shudder in fear, and others are about to tear my head off. In my opinion, Stephanie Meyer did one thing right with that series, and that was know her audience and know what literary devices, tropes, and archetypes work for that audience. People tend to forget that vampires had been a big deal long before Twilight. There was Buffy and Angel on the WB (which later became the CW), Anita Blake had been flirting with Jean Claude since 1993, and Sookie Stackhouse fell for Bill Compton in 2001. Major films include the Blade and Underworld series. I could go on. Meyer didn't invent the sexy vampire love interest, she just got rid of the majority of their ick factor and made them even prettier. Teenagers are filled with hormones and just discovering love and lust, so writing a romance ups your marketability factor. There's a long long standing trope of the good girl who falls for the bad boy, and bad boy makes good. Everyone loves the rebel. So when I read Twilight, I wasn't surprised that it was so popular, I was just utterly shocked and insulted at the incredible number of grammatical mistakes (really, who was so supposed to copy edit that book? 'Cause they didn't). In the further series, there is again a long-standing trope of having the female protagonist choose between two possible lovers. It's everywhere in Regency and Victorian era literature, and now it's everywhere in modern YA literature (don't worry, I have a whole post for that particular rant).

What I can't get over is how many read-a-likes have been published since Twilight. Yes, you have a working model, but eventually you have to face the fact that you can't have twenty people all write the same book and have any one of them do especially well. You can only read the same book so many times, just as you can only eat the same meal so many times before you have to have something, anything else. Love story between girl and super-boy, with a few male distractions thrown in for her (but not him! although that would be interesting), is not so complicated or fascinating or important that it needs to be inundating teen girls' literature. Over and over and over again, I'm seeing references to companies like Alloy Entertainment, which package books. As in, someone comes up with a concept they think will sell, they hire a writer to do it, and sell the result (sometimes before it is finished) to a publisher. They then can also sell the film rights to the work. Alloy's credits include Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. This is fundamentally different in many ways from a writer coming up with an idea, working out the kinks, and then selling it. For one, they get paid more if they do finally publish the traditional way, but it also starts out as something they love. A book-packager is also not as likely to do something completely new, they want to do the same thing but just a little different. Because if it sold well once, they bet they can get it to sell well again.

Now, I'm not advocating a return to only 'literature worth reading.' For one, I'm not entirely sure what that means, other than I am likely to be bored. What major literary critic thinks SFF is worth reading? But I would love to see less pre-packaged fluff, and a return to some creative home-cooked books with some soul to them.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I agree. While I enjoy some smut in my reading, I have always had a demand for plot in what I am reading in order for me to really enjoy it.

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