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Are Teen Novels Literature? by Bernard Beckett

teen boy reading a novel

To write for teenagers is to be classified as a genre writer: to dwell on that small, slightly shabby shelf, near the back of the store.  From this vantage point there is a question that naturally arises: are we writing literature? We ask this self-consciously, perhaps defensively, worried that somewhere out there real writers are looking down their noses at us, or worse still, not looking at us at all. Such paranoia is not without fuel. Consider the way our work is treated in schools. It is not uncommon for a senior student to be told that a certain book isn’t ‘challenging enough’ to warrant their attention. The subtext is clear. Some books are light relief, a form of entertainment and nothing more, while others have a more worthy purpose. Real books dig beneath the surface, expose us to thoughts and feelings that would have otherwise eluded us, they expand our horizons, add colour to our palette. And, as a helpful short cut, genre fiction, be it romance, crime, fantasy or YA, is lumped together in the diverting-but-shallow category. But is such a distinction valid, and how effective a filter is the genre/literature divide?

Actually, in terms of YA, I think the filter works pretty well. I certainly wouldn’t argue that teen fiction can’t be great literature (I have my favourite counter-examples), but I would argue that mostly it isn’t. What’s more, I think this is perfectly predictable, and shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of failing on behalf of the YA writer. Indeed, a case might be made that the opposite is true – teen fiction authors self-consciously attempting to create great literature would be doing their readers a grave disservice.

To make this case, first it’s necessary to establish that the notion of literature is itself meaningful. Some argue that the very term is nothing but a code word for elitism: a small, culturally self-referencing clique, define literature against their own tastes, needs and prejudices, and then impose this definition upon a bewildered public, primarily as a means of exclusion. The bored schoolboy struggling through Passage to India on a hot afternoon might have some sympathy for this view. However, I think it’s too easy a dismissal. When I consider the books I have read, some simply passed the time in a pleasant manner: entertaining, intriguing, manipulating me, spinning stories. Others did something else. They deepened my understanding of the human experience. There were moments of clarity, of insight, indeed wisdom. Now of course this is an individual response, what counts as insightful will depend upon the state of the reader’s current model of the world (whereas an adult reader might treat The Da Vinci Code as a bit of escapist fun, a twelve year old reader might be ‘blown away by the ideas’). Furthermore, many books that aspire to insight, expose us only to the limitations of the author’s world, and are almost unreadable. The definition of literature is always going to be slippery with subjectivism, but I’m not sure we should do away with it altogether.  Some reading experiences are intellectually richer than others, just as some writing is poetic, while in other cases it’s purely functional. To deny that some books are primarily in the business of entertaining, while others strive to create art, seems to miss something important.

But to say it makes sense to speak of literature, is only to build half a case. Why should we expect literature to respect genre boundaries? Why shouldn’t we expect to find beautiful, wise writing in teen fiction or romcoms? The answer, I think, is that it is tremendously difficult to serve two masters. If you want to construct a thriller, then the primary goal must be to, well, thrill. And, at the point where we accept the thriller challenge, we are faced with psychological constraints, and these  constraints in turn determine the way our story will be built. We are thrilled when the character we care for is in jeopardy, when all appears lost, when every move only makes things worse, and all the while the deadly clock ticks on. The more our righteous indignation is fired, the more intense the thrill. It’s not just that our guy is running away, it’s that our guy is essentially good, and the folk he’s running away from aren’t.  We yearn for his survival both on an empathetic, and a theological level. So immediately, we can see that moral ambiguity has a tendency to work against the thriller element. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that challenges our sense of the world, asks us to view our circumstances from a new perspective. Here then, we see the demands of literature and entertainment pulling in opposite directions. There are ways around this, of course, and the freakishly gifted writer will find them, producing both compelling narratives and deeply challenging works. For most of us though, what we’ll produce is a thriller that doesn’t thrill.

Like the thriller, the teen novel has its own imperatives (although as the readers reach the older end of the spectrum, this is less the case, and it’s here the chances of finding genuine literature improve). One of the great joys of being a teenager is the intensity with which one lives, an intensity that is never matched. To love a new song at fifteen is to love it in a way no functional adult can reach for.  So too it goes for fearing rejection, anticipating glory, or surfing the crest of a hormonal wave. Life is full of fresh first times, the existing template is tantalisingly inadequate, and the ride is at once terrifying, thrilling, elevating, and crushing; a mess of confusion and contradictions. Teenagers are in the business of trying out their new toys: their new bodies, their new intellectual capacities, their new level of access to adult society. They are fearsome advocates, gobsmacking risk takers, both loyal and fickle, tribal and fiercely independent. They don’t seek ambiguity, but rather clash. Their instinct isn’t for contemplation, it’s for engagement. These are the fast food years. One doesn’t linger and savour; one consumes, in great, joyous mouthfuls. And this wonderful creation, the modern teen, is the master the YA writer must serve.

This unique audience provides us with special opportunities, along with a peculiar set of constraints. It is the nature of these constraints, I would argue, that mean that the work we produce often isn’t literature. There are exceptions of course; glorious, inspiring exceptions, that simultaneously provoke jealousy and ambition. For the rest of us, with our stories to tell, engaging the audience is a lofty enough goal.


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