Monday, June 16, 2008

Quotes, an occasional series, #2: Young Adult adventure

I came across an old bookmark last week, one of those beautifully designed freebies they used to send out in the early days. It featured this quote:
"The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it." -- Elizabeth Drew
It helped crystallise some of my thinking about the YA books I've read recently.

I don't very much like most of the YA novels I've read, or tried to read. No, I'm not saying that YA as a genre is bad/shallow/inane or any of those thoughtless pejoratives idiot reviewers sometimes trot out. I'm saying I mostly don't enjoy most of the ones I've picked up. Perhaps I simply need to learn to choose more carefully. (After all, I also don't like most of the adult fiction I pick up, either.) Perhaps it's a taste thing; i.e. there's no accounting for it, in much the same way that I can say I like green better than orange. Though of course, there are some orangey colours in some circumstances that I like better than some disgusting green ones. So I'm generalising wildly, okay? Generalising is what helps me find my way into an idea.

The YA novels I do like are those such as Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, or Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword, or the Harry Potter books: adventure novels (I think 'sword' in the title might be a clue). I don't like angst, don't like breathy first person narratives full of quirky best friends, lists, and offbeat parents. One exception--because yes, Virginia, there is always an exception--is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I've just read three quite different YA adventures. None of them are new. I'm not sure any of the authors would characterise them as YA but they're adventures featuring young adult protagonists. (I don't know what the industry's definition of 'young adult' may be, but mine is a protagonist in their late teens--even as old as 20--someone about to leave home and find out who they are and how to live their life.)

The first was Patrick O'Brian's Road to Samarcand which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was published in the 1950s, and most likely written when O'Brian was about 40. The first couple of pages are very slightly rocky, a little self-conscious, a smidge stilted, but after that it's a rip-roaring adventure tale complete with near-death at sea, political insurgency by land, and marauding hordes on horseback. Many of O'Brian's favourite tropes and characters are on display: the fussy unworldly person who is more than he seems; the Mechanicals-like low comedy types who are nonetheless brilliantly specific; the political machinations; hapless academics who have their uses; manly men's men who can be idiots in some ways; particular and howlingly funny dialogue; and inaccessible and rather magical lost valleys--this one complete with a Yeti. Nothing is too easy or smooth, nothing too grim. Great stuff, but definitely lacking the majesty of his Aubrey/Maturin novels. Is this because it's about a young person rather than adults? No. I think it's because O'Brian hadn't yet entirely found his stride as a writer.

Then there was Stephen Gould's Jumper which I read in lieu of seeing the film (which got such awful reviews). It's skiffy adolescent detail-porn: take a premise (what if an abused kid could teleport?) and follow it relentlessly to its logical conclusion. I enjoyed it. But, oh dear, the dialogue is, well, not a sterling exemplar of the art. And the whole thing felt about one molecule deep. There again, who needs deep when you can get a visceral imagine of stealing more than a million dollars in lovely, luscious cash?

Finally, I read Temple at Landfall, by Jane Fletcher, which is good old lesbian science-fantasy. This is very plainly written--the kind of thing writing teachers used to call camera eye or windowpane prose--but nothing wasted, nothing left out. It's a slender but sweet story of a girl/woman who falls in love with a guard captain (also female--it's a women-only world). Their love is forbidden, of course (isn't it always?), but, hey, love conquers all. And on the way to their happy ending they fight rebels, evil armies, wicked-clawed snow cats, and prejudice. I loved the fact that it's a women-only world where women take all the roles: hero, villain, vain, kind, generous, mean, petty, and so on; this kind of book is thin on the ground.

Each book took about two hours to read. Each book was enormous fun. None of them changed my notions about--my understanding of or feelings for--anything. It seems that Elizabeth Drew's test is also my test for 'literature' these days: do I feel as though my life is bigger because of it? None of these three books made me feel bigger, or denser, or more brilliant. But for two hours each, they certainly put a lift in my day. And that's worth something.

So now I want to ponder this notion of YA fiction and literature. What YA books expand my world? The first thing that comes to mind is Lord of the Rings. To me, it's YA because it's about a young adult (Frodo) and how he leaves home and finds out who he is. LotR is also most definitely art, so the back of my hand to all those cretins who think YA can't be Literature. Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is also about a young adult, but it suddenly veers into real grownup territory when Aerin has to choose between her two loves. So I'm not sure if it's YA or not. There again, isn't that the point of really good YA fiction? That before the end the YA protagonist looses the 'Y' part and starts firmly on the 'A' path? I'm not sure. I haven't thought about this much. I'm hoping others who have more knowledge might be willing to chime in here. Seriously, I know I'm ignorant here. I'd appreciate some gentle guidance.

Okay, I stopped there to eat lunch, and talked to Kelley about what she thinks a YA novel might be. We didn't come to any hard and fast conclusions, but what I took away from the conversation was that the mediocre genre 'YA novel' is a little like the mediocre genre 'lesbian novel' in that they are hothouse books. They are inward looking; they won't lift up their heads and look at the outside world; they wear their themes on their sleeves; they are *about* being adolescent or *about* being a dyke (and usually about How Awful and Unjust that is). I think this is why I bristle when people call my work 'lesbian fiction'. My novels are written by a dyke and are about dykes, but they're not about *being* a dyke. But perhaps that's too fine a distinction for most people.

So here's a question for you all: what books about YA protagonists will rock my world--will entertain me and, more, will change me or challenge me?