Value and Ideology in YA Fiction

When studying popular culture (that created for younger people in particular), the question of value inevitably appears. YA fiction is often seen as not worthy of serious regard, particularly if it’s ‘genre’ fiction such as paranormal romance (gritty realism is more acceptable, especially when it debates ‘issues’). And the female-oriented nature of paranormal romance itself attracts further disdain. So how do we justify studying it as literature (rather than, say, as an item for cultural studies, where aesthetic value is not a concern).

I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but I’ll recap again briefly. I’m not a relativist. I don’t think that it is at all a radical stance to say that canons are merely arbitrary, or that they are simply ideological constructions which serve dominant interests. Literary value means something important (though this is too complex an argument to defend here): Pride and Prejudice just is better literature than 50 Shades of Grey, and it doesn’t serve human emancipation to argue for a faux democratic relativism that renders all human artefacts on the same level.

And yet I research, and enjoy, paranormal romance. I’ve read around 250 such novels in the last five years, most of them YA. Many are terrible (Twilight, which I’m no fan of, is by no means the worst). But some are of great interest—imaginatively plotted, often engagingly characterised, and dramatising themes such as identity, free will, human existence, and the relationship of humanity to nature in ways that are unexpectedly complex. A few are written with style and care and rival much contemporary ‘literary fiction’ for literary value, and these justify and reward my reading adventure in paranormal romance.

Another reason that this research is justified in terms of literary scholarship is the formal interest in seeing a new genre (or a subgenre of the novel) emerge and develop (often into further sub-subgenres—the taxonomical problems are quite daunting). This casts light on the system of literature as a whole. And the collision of Gothic horror with romantic fiction that is paranormal romance, with its domestication and making lovable the monstrous other not only shows how the interaction of genres plays a part in the evolution of forms but displays the uneasy dialectics of differing epistemologies that are part of contemporary culture. Paranormal romance can, for example, act out some of our hesitations about human agency or the place of humankind in nature. Often, other genres, bearing their own perspectives on the world complicate the generic blending even more, with the positivist attitude of science fiction conflicting with more humanist views from romance, for example.

I’ll conclude this dense and rambling thread with some links to items I’ve found recently which contribute to this debate. Now, I’ve not read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) (or, in fact, any similar realist YA fiction recently). This article by Ruth Graham does make some strong points against the trend of adults reading YA fiction; I think, though, that the best YA paranormal romances, at least, evade some of these criticisms. Daniel Hahn, in turn, has selected eight YA fictions that he argues that adult readers can value; some have paranormal features. (Marcus Sedgwick has been a close ally of OGOM since we began; his marvellous Revolver (2009) is included here.) Nyssa Harkness, a postgrad student researching YA paranormal romance at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, gives a spirited defence of the genre against some of the more moralistic and determinist attacks.

Andrew O’Hehr and Ewan Morrison both attack the new YA dystopias such as Hunger Games (2008; filmed 2012) and Divergent (2011) as unambiguously promulgating a right-wing ideology of neoliberalism. I think these are very simplistic and superficial readings, and make unwarranted generalisations; I haven’t the space to refine my objections here. Such is the rapidity of the evolution of these subgenres (partially because of the capitalist dynamic for new commodities) that the dystopia has already encountered the paranormal romance and produced a new mutation, exemplified by the vampire dystopias of Julie Kagawa’s Blood of Eden series (2012-14) and Holly Black’s marvellous The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (2013). The latter alone justifies any time spent on this research and, with its complex critique of commodification, is evidence against O’Hehr’s and Morrison’s claims. The YA writer Alex Campbell gives a counter-argument, defending the new YA dystopias and explaining their popularity. And Jennifer Phang, the director of the independent SF film Advantageous (2015), talks about the resonances with her own work she finds in the Divergent films (2014-).

There is much debate to be had on this subject and I hope these links give a flavour of it and spur further, and deeper, thought.

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0 Responses to Value and Ideology in YA Fiction

  1. Jenn says:

    The problem with YA is that (without exception, in my experience) deal with trope and cliché excessively. Even things you have cited like Hunger Games are, essentially, watered down versions of previous, more comprehensive and more cogently written tales. YA pigeonholes itself somewhere between the simplistic whimsy of actual children’s fiction and holds itself away from committing to its themes, characters etc. The characters, even in the better YA books I have read (and that you mention), are static and 2D and rely more on recognising them as an emblem of something external to the work itself.

    • I’d disagree, Jenn; I don’t think you can say ‘without exception’. I don’t make any great claims for Hunger Games, but three that certainly stand out for me are Daniel Waters’s GFeneration Dead, Maggie Stefvater’s Shiver, and Holly Black’s Valiant. In all of these there are full realisations of characters who are certainly not static and who show a convincing development. I don’t think these ones are ‘watered down versions of previous, more comprehensive and more cogently written tales’; if they are, please tell us which ur-texts they derive from. I think they are each highly original. And if they are clichéd (I think that in both plot and style they are fresh and original), then the onus is upon you to demonstrate that with examples, I think.
      These three are exceptional texts and what you say can certainly be applied to many others of these texts (though I think ‘the simplistic whimsy of actual children’s fiction’ is another unwarranted generalisation). I do think you have to be careful *not* to generalise in this way when making literary judgements; there are always exceptions and you need careful textual evidence to support claims about clichés and lack of originality.

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