Jennifer Lynn Barnes (jenlyn_b) wrote,
Jennifer Lynn Barnes

YA, Teens, and The New Yorker...

Many of you have probably seen/heard/smacked your head into a wall at the recent New Yorker blog, in which yet another group of "journalists" decides to try to pinpoint the defining qualities of young adult literature without every stepping into the YA section of a bookstore. As is so often the case with such articles, the impetus for doing so is that the journalists have read a YA book that doesn't suck, and they feel compelled to explain how this is an exception to the rule, but don't want to bother with actually reading enough YA books to establish what the norm is, so instead they talk about how teenagers are dumb and self-centered, so of course books written for an audience of people who "aren't anybody yet" can't normally be "morally challenging" or anything like that!

As Sara Zarr pointed out in the comments on the blog, this stance isn't new, it isn't interesting, and it isn't a clever angle that will force people to rethink a subject. It is a horse, it has been beaten, and I'm pretty sure it died like four years ago. It's bad enough that someone writing for the New Yorker wouldn't bother to do any background reading whatsoever before making sweeping generalizations about thousands of books, but you'd AT LEAST think they'd be well-read enough in their OWN field (journalistic literary criticism) to realize that THIS EXACT SAME ARTICLE has been written FIFTY MILLION TIMES.

Seeing as how I've already written my own Love Letter to YA, I'm not going to spend any time rehashing old ground here. Instead, I'm going to address the assumptions made in this article and in the minds of large numbers of adults every day that teenagers somehow aren't real people, or that they're lesser people than adults, or that they're stupid.

As I said on melissa_writing's blog, my reaction to this kind of attitude is usually "Wow, these people either must have really horrible memories, or they themselves must have been the dumbest teenagers ever." Because personally, I wasn't dumb when I was a teenager. I didn't have all of the experiences I have now, but I was just as smart and creative and what-have-you at 16 as I am 25. I was a real person. And so were the people I knew. It was a different time in my life, and I've changed a lot since then, but I'd have to have total amnesia to think that teenagers are some kind of subspecies of human being, because the person I was at fourteen, at fifteen, at sixteen, at whatever age you want to name deserves respect just as much as the person I am now does. And I don't think for a second that I'm an exception to some kind of rule, so it's really not hard for me to respect teens just as much as I respect adults.

It's funny, because this 'teens aren't real people' thing is an attitude that I've confronted in areas of my life that have nothing to do with YA literature, and it baffles me just as much there as elsewhere. Last year, I was sitting in a clinical psychology class, and we'd read some empirical papers on depression in adolescents, and the reigning belief in some of them seemed to be that teenagers' self-reports of depression can't be trusted if those reports don't correlate with their parents' reports of the kids' levels of depression. So, for example, in one study, a scarily large percentage of teen girls said that they'd thought, at least in the abstract, about suicide. But if you asked the girls' parents, almost none of the parents said that their kids had thought about suicide. And the academic psychologists took this to mean that the TEENS' REPORTS WEREN'T ACCURATE.

And I raised my hand in class and said, "I have a major problem with this." And the teacher said, "What is your problem with it?" And I said, "Well, I can see how you might want to get parental reports for behavioral measures- things like how much the kids seem to be sleeping, or how often they burst into tears at the dinner table, or how unpredictable their behavior seems, or whatever- and I can even see how you might ask the parents if they NOTICED things about the kids' emotional states, but I think it's ridiculous to think that the parents are more qualified than the teens or even equally qualified to say what specifically is going on in the teens' heads. The parents are not psychic, and the kids aren't stupid, so I really don't see the rationale here."

And everyone in the class looked at me like I'd grown a unicorn horn in the middle of my forehead. The teacher tried to understand my complaint, but was clearly struggling, so I said, "When you were a teenager, did your parents know everything that was going on in your life?"

And someone was like "God, no."

And so I said, "And who would have been in a better position to report whether you'd thought about having sex, or whether you wished you could disappear most days, or how much time you spent feeling like you just weren't good enough?"

And I could ACTUALLY SEE the psychologists in my classmates battling it out with their memories of what it was like to be a teenager. Because they KNEW the answer to that question, but part of them didn't want to admit that there wasn't some switch thrown when you turned eighteen that gave you the competence and meta-cognitive capacities that adults are assumed to have. I came very, very close to smacking my head repeatedly into my desk, and even though I know that the field of psychology as a whole doesn't consider teens as second class citizens, my blood still absolutely boils when I think of anyone telling a teenager that they're wrong, that they haven't thought of suicide, or that they're actually quite happy and just don't realize it because teens are melodramatic. And while I know that no psychologist would actually TELL a kid this, the idea that there might be EVEN A SINGLE ONE out there thinking it made me absolutely sick to my stomach.

One thing I love about being a YA writer is that as part of the YA community, I'm around a lot of other people over the age of eighteen who have a great deal of respect for those under that cut-off. I feel confident that if I'd been in a room of YA authors that day in class, I wouldn't have been the only one going "say what?" I would have been leading a freaking parade of people talking about how smart, savvy, and underestimated a lot of teens are, how fine-tuned their BS meters are, what discriminating and complex people they are. And that is ANOTHER reason why YA is awesome- because I think that the kind of writers it attracts are ones who ARE likely to remember their past experiences and not to dismiss them or trivialize them. There are, without question, adult authors who feel this way, too. Across the board, I think that the very act of doing so makes someone a more emotionally complex person. Personally, if I had to choose between reading the writing of a thirty year old who felt like they'd been a real person for thirty years (or darn close to it) and one who thought that life had started at 27, as a reader, I'd want the benefit of those extra twenty-some-odd years. And I'd want the open-mindedness and the flexibility in thinking and the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes that comes along with it.

End of rant.
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