by June 10, 2014 in Books
I love reading books that are commonly categorized as Young Adult. Recently, however, I’ve begun to question the usefulness of the term, and whether or not it should be employed along with other common genres when referring to books. Does it inform potential readers the way describing a work as "science fiction" might? Unfortunately, I think due to a combination of ambiguity surrounding the term, and unfair prejudices readers have about it, Young Adult is at best uninformative, and at worst harmful for the books it is applied to.
As a description Young Adult results in ambiguity because there is no clear indication of what the term is meant to represent for the potential reader. Does it mean the book contains characters who are teenagers? If so, does that mean all books about teenagers are Young Adult novels? Or that any novel that focuses on older, or younger characters cannot be Young Adult? If so the logical extension of this is that all books with children for protagonists are children's books, and those with adult characters are adult books.
Ender's Game, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Oliver Twist all contain young protagonists. Are they suddenly children's books? Is the The Hunger Games no longer Young Adult if Katniss Everdeen is twenty-five instead of seventeen?
Another possibility is that Young Adult doesn't describe the characters, but instead the appropriateness of the content. Even if this is accurate, is it helpful? Do teenage readers choose books because the content is appropriate for them? I would think in many cases the exact opposite is true. I know as a teenager I sought out things beyond both my vocabulary level and my maturity, and I doubt much as changed since.
Moreover, we do not classify classic literature that we task our high school readers with as Young Adult, despite them being appropriate for them to read. And on the flip side, based on the Young Adult novels I have read, the classification has no bearing on the appropriateness of content. The variation between, say The Goose Girl and Unwind, is rather severe.
Most reasonably, the term is applied to books which have Young Adults as the target audience. While it may be true that readers of a particular age will be more inclined to enjoy certain books, is the term helpful when used this way? One could argue that it is as informative as other genre descriptions, giving the reader a general idea of the themes, tone, or style present in the book. While this may be true I think it is also, combined with the ambiguities above, the reason the term can be harmful to the books it is applied to.
Consider this non-exhaustive list of other common genres: fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and romance. If I were to tell you a book is science fiction, you may be immediately reluctant to read it, because your own experience with books in the genre has led you to believe that these are not books you enjoy. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction for you to have. If, however, I mention a book is Young Adult, you may be similarly disinclined to read it. Is this the same thing?
No, because science fiction (along with the other items listed above), tells you very clear things about the book you are going to read. Young Adult, however, does not. Unless the implication is that themes a younger reader might be interested in differ drastically from those of an adult reader. Or, even more absurdly, that adults are somehow above reading about teenage-relevant themes.
Shannon Hale recently went on a rant on twitter about the subject, pointing out that saying adults should be ashamed of reading Young Adult books is like saying they should be ashamed about caring about issues that teenagers are dealing with. I would take this further saying that even if Young Adult, as a genre, means "books that deal with events and struggles that teenagers are dealing with", how does that inform the average reader? Do you approach the book store considering how you might relate to the themes presented in the book? Or do you read in order to better understand, experience, and empathize with countless different perspectives?
As a practical example, take The Book Thief, a novel that I have seen classified as Young Adult. Were I to recommend this to my mother with a description as "a really great Young Adult novel about a girl in war time Germany" she would be less interested than if I were to instead say "a really great fiction novel about a girl in war time Germany". Is this because my mom is not interested in what happens to a young girl? Of course not! Instead, it's because Young Adult does not inform her the same way describing it as fiction would.
In fact, it gives her less information about the book than if I were to just say "a book about a girl in war time Germany" because of the terms ambiguity. Fortunately my mom has read and loved The Book Thief, but this does exemplify how the ambiguity of Young Adult could result in readers avoiding books they would enjoy. On the other hand, if I told her about The Goose Girl, a fantasy love story about a young girl, I completely understand if she doesn't want to read it. This time, however, it's because the genre "fantasy" informs her, accurately, that it's not the type of novel that she enjoys.
Okay, perhaps I'm right. Perhaps Young Adult is at best an ambiguous genre, and at worst it causes unfair reactions from readers. What is the point of writing all of this? I want this to simply serve as a word of caution for those of us who like to write and talk about books. When we are describing a work to friends, family, or writing posts about it, let's be clear and concise in our word choices.
We can't change the marketing power of big publishers, but we can improve our own language around books. If a novel has fantastical elements, call it fantasy. If it has elements that are not appropriate for young readers, mention them. Young Adult is not a bad word, but it does suffer from enough ambiguity that I'm going to try to avoid using it, focusing instead upon clearer, more informative terms that let the books stand on their own. In other words Young Adult as a genre either gives us irrelevant information (the protagonist is young) or it attempts to give information that we should simply state explicitly (appropriate reading age or thematic elements).
One of my favorite aspects of reading is the way a good book will permeate everything else I take in, whether other books, music, or just everyday conversations. I recently had one such connection when, while listening to Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue", I considered the relationship between Denna and Kvothe in the Kingkiller Chronicles. Though the connections aren't literal - Denna and Kvothe don't partake in any of the various events or situations in the song - for me there were definite moments where listening to the song feels like reading about Kvothe and Denna's back ...
"The warehouse was coffin dark."
Initially this may strike you as a really solid opener - it gives a sense of foreboding and danger with just a few words. However, as it turns out, I found this first line to be pretty disappointing because of what immediately follows in the one page prologue this sentence initiates. The prologue continues with the sense of fear, finally culminating in "But I didn't want to kill again. And I didn't want to die."
Honestly, this probably wouldn't strike me as such an overplayed, melodramatic start of the book if not for ...
At some point in college I remember thinking "The Lord of the Rings is so well-constructed that you could probably put together a complete, day-by-day calendar of events, so that the age old question of "what happened on my birthday in The Lord of the Rings?" could finally be answered.
Well, 10+ years later and I've finally started down the long dark road of creating such a calendar. The efforts so far, which consist of the first book only, can be found here: Today in the Lord of the Rings. There are a few caveats that I should mention ...
by April 14, 2014 in Books
I'm not keen on spoilers but I can’t say they have 'destroyed' any books for me. And as much as I'd like to not be able to say this, sometimes they improve my reading.
I feel similarly, in that I think any good book will easily withstand any amount of spoilers, though I generally attempt to avoid them, and warn others when they will appear in my posts or reviews. For now, however, I'd like to discuss a phenomenon ...
SATELLITE CITY: THE CITY Of the FUTURE, proclaimed the billboards.
A straightforward first line, but also one that contains some insights into what we can expect from The Supernaturalist. First of all, we immediately learn where the story will take place - Satellite City. From this it's safe to assume that this will be a science fiction novel that takes place in space, or something like space. Both perhaps obvious from the back cover, but if you are like me and don't read such things, it's good to know what you are getting into from the beginning. This ...
Seven or eight years ago I was burned out reading what felt like the same type of book, by the same type of author. In my effort to resolve this I decided I wanted to read something “foreign”, and so ended up picking up Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. Since then I have read over fifteen books written by Japanese authors and, while I am certainly not an expert, I feel like I can at least offer some recommendations on where interested readers could start.
Ultimately, I think there are three different ways to start reading Japanese literature ...
I have previously stated that I think the first line of a book is extremely important. However, for as critical as the first line may be, the ending is even more significant. It's what sticks with you, and in many cases, it determines what you think of the book when you reflect upon it.
In this new feature I'll be discussing the ending of various books, and whether or not I think they "earn" their ending (in the case of a strong ending), or if it is a let down compared to the rest of the novel. Obviously ...
by March 11, 2014 in Books
If you're familiar with the old some smart, some don't, you've probably noticed that the site looks completely different. These changes, however, aren't just superficial. I've completely rebuilt the site using the django framework instead of wordpress. What these means, practically, is that the relationship between everything on the site is much smarter and more integrated.
For example, I've related this blog post to William Morris' Wood Beyond the World, which means if you click through to the single entry view, you'll see the book listed on the right. This relationship works both ...
There are going to be a few thematic spoilers to this book, but I'll be careful not to spoil too much for those who want to read Sanshirō.
"He drifted off, and when he opened his eyes the woman was still there."
Despite its simple appearance, this is a really great first line. Even without being informed by the rest of the novel, we can learn a lot about Sanshirō as a character from this opener. If we build the imagery of what is happening here in our minds, we see that Sanshirō took enough interest in the woman ...