Books

A Young Adult Author’s Fantastic Crusade to Defend Literature’s Most Maligned Genre

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Last week, I read Ruth Graham’s article “Against YA.” In it, Graham contends that adults should be embarrassed to read YA novels. Instead, grownups should focus their attention on serious, “literary fiction” that grapples with “big ideas about time and space and science and love.”

As a YA writer myself, I was understandably offended. I’m not some schlocky trash-peddler. I’m a serious author, capable of far more than maudlin plot twists and clichéd dialogue. That’s why I decided to confront Graham in person.

I picked her up outside the graveyard before nightfall.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, as we stepped into my father’s beat up Chevy. We were going 70 miles an hour, two girls with different colored hair.

“Why did you say that about YA?” I asked, as tears streamed down my face like rain.

“Because it’s true!” she hissed. And I saw in the moonlight that her anger made her beautiful. This was before the war, when the oceans still had water, and the moon was still visible in the sky.

“YA is formulaic, worthless dreck,” she said, transforming into a vampire.

She bared her fangs.

“I’m 170 years old,” she said, and blew some smoke into my face.

“How could you?” I asked. “You know that nicotine caused my cancer.”

“Mine too,” she said. “Mine too.”

“Back to your article,” I said. “I think it annoyed me because you complained we live in an era of ‘read whatever you want,’ but the truth is that era has never existed, Ruth. Ever since the printing press democratized access to prose, the bourgeoisie has strived to vilify popular writing in order to elevate itself above commoners.”

I fainted from my cancer.

When I awoke, the moon was bright and I was turning into a werewolf. The transformation didn’t hurt as much as my period cramps, but I didn’t know what those were, because I was raised in a religious cult.

“The thing is,” I continued. “Cultural arbiters have always been the richest, whitest, most male-dominated groups.  Buying into this anti-commercial mindset that heralds esoteric writing reinforces patriarchal models.  The more you lobby for the literary status quo, the more you reinforce sexist paradigms.”

We locked eyes and climbed into my bunk bed, a waterbed in a not-so-distant future. It was all forbidden love, and undead love, and cancer. Everything was chrome.

“Let’s have a party,” Ruth said.

We laughed riotously, because most everyone we knew was already dead. They had perished in the apocalypse, been murdered by vengeful aliens from dark planets, or were currently being forced to kill each other for sport in our dystopian universe.

“The novel was invented in the 19th century,” I whispered, inhaling the sweet perfume of her glossy robot hair. “It was written for mass consumption and primarily consumed by women and poor people. Jane Austen and the Brontes? Rich white men would have been ashamed to read that stuff. They pored over what was then called serious literature—Latin and Greek texts that were hundreds or thousands of years old. Like you, they probably argued that the drudgery of simply getting through a text was a vehicle for meaning making. But does that make it right, Ruth? Does it?”

There was a cliffhanger.

“What does Harvard say about YA?” she asked.

“Funny you should ask,” I said. “Because I just spoke to Bret Anthony Johnston about your article.”

“Who?”

“He’s the director of creative writing at Harvard. He’s also a critically acclaimed author, and a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s workshop—”

“Wow!” She did a cartwheel in the moonlight. She laughed at the moon and became a wolf. “I love him!”

“Yeah!” I said, twirling with her underneath the stars, which were actually a disco ball, because the theme of prom that year was ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ which Ruth and I thought was stupid, because we were cool and liked The Smiths.

“Bret told me that they might hire a YA writer in the future. He also said that your arguments seem ‘elitist and unnecessarily provocative.’”

She wept and so did I. We were both ghosts, but we didn’t know it yet.

She took an arrow from her quiver and aimed for the sky. We laughed again, because what else could we do? The varsity team had been eaten by mermaids and werewolves, and everything was up to us.

Someday, when the oceans returned, we would retake the Throne of Gorgon. We would frolic in the woods, with flowers in our hair, while the elves stirred poisons for our enemies and brewed potions for our beauty.  The princes of Jakaka would perish in a hurricane of blood and the Prophecy of Meeps would come to pass. For now, though, we were just two crazy kids, in my dad’s beat-up Chevy.

“You’re special,” I said.

“I’m not special,” she said.

“You are.”

We locked eyes. We stared at each other so hard that we went blind. Then we listened to The Smiths and regained our sight.

“Last thing about YA,” I said. “It’s not an actual genre, it’s a market designation, and it shifts over time. To Kill a Mockingbird was originally published for children, and everyone from Flannery O’Connor to snobbish reporters at The Atlantic used to grumble about how adults shouldn’t read it—your arguments about taste are nothing new. They’re not as radical as you think.”

We were dying anyway so we didn’t even talk about condoms. The ensuing sex was perfect and involved no bodily fluids.  She took off my glasses and I became beautiful.

“Anyway,” I said, when we were finished, “Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote an ornery letter to his editor complaining about popular fiction. He went on and on about all the ‘scribbling’ women who sold hundreds of thousands of copies while he sold none. He thought they were dumb simply by virtue of being popular. Don’t you understand?” I scooped a lock of hair behind her ear in a way that said I would support her if she decided to have our baby. “You don’t gain credibility by being widely read, Ruth, you gain credibility by being accepted by rich, white, men.”

Her gills shimmered furiously. She was a mermaid, I realized. But I wouldn’t tell. We were September Girls, full of recovered memories that remained secrets in our hearts. We had eating disorders, and got pregnant every time we had sex. We were a cautionary tale.

“I’m going to get my license if it kills me,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’m going to get out of this bullshit town. Grown-ups suck.”

We screamed into the infinite void.

I closed my eyes. “Will you go to prom with me?” I asked.

We went to prom, lost our virginities and got so pregnant. It was horrible but taught us something.

“A girl,” the nurse said in the delivery room. I handed her a mix-tape. Every song was The Smiths.

I put a finger to Ruth’s lips.

“Shh,” I said. “You rest now.”

She muttered something, but the words were indistinct and muffled underneath my war-calloused hands. I decided to pretend that I had won her over, even though I knew I never would. The realization hit me like a bolt of lightning and knocked my hand off her mouth.

“Ha!” she yelled. “Muahaha!” (She was now a witch.)

I sighed. What did it matter, in the end? I was growing hoarse from arguing and dying of all my cancers. Besides, soon the sun would rise. Ruth and I were two immortal undead creatures. We needed to crawl into our coffins and dream about becoming prom queens, beauty queens, or nerdy prudes—our only options for what would invariably be a very happy ending. Life was a mystery we would solve by the last page. It was all a dream, I realized. But there would be a sequel.

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