I recently “sat down” (virtually) with Michael Cart to pick his brain about the continuing commercial success of YA, its cultural relevance, and his thoughts about the genre’s future.
JONATHAN ALEXANDER: Given the increased popularity of YA fiction over the past decade or so, and given how pedagogic such fiction often is — introducing readers to different identities, issues, and even political situations — what role do you see YA playing in the larger public sphere? Does it teach people about different ways of being in the world? Does it have a social function beyond entertainment?
MICHAEL CART: Young adult literature is indeed pedagogic, not didactic in the worst sense of that word. T. S. Eliot has said there are three permanent reasons for reading: the acquisition of wisdom, the enjoyment of art, and the pleasure of entertainment. Two of these are immediately relevant to young adult literature: it can inarguably be read for the pleasure of entertainment, yes, but, in my opinion, also for the acquisition of wisdom — a wisdom, I would argue, of the heart.
It is a cliché to say that young adult literature is both a window and a mirror, but there is always a kernel of truth in a cliché. The mirror lets readers see themselves, which is a godsend because young adults, being inherently solipsistic, often think they are the only one of their kind; this is especially true of those who are treated as outsiders by their peers. It can, accordingly, be vastly reassuring to see that there are others like oneself. The “window” aspect allows readers to see into the lives, minds, and hearts of others, a process that can (speaking of pedagogic) teach empathy, one of the most important “lessons” of literature.
This is a particularly relevant lesson today when, according to a recent study, there is a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students and a 68 percent increase in narcissism compared to three decades ago. At the possible risk of redundancy, I’d say that the heart has its reasons the mind cannot know (that’s Pascal talking, not me). In other words, we come to understanding others not only through our heads, and it is fiction that offers us essential opportunities for cultivating empathy and for experiencing emotional engagement with others, for forming a community that civilizes. This is an act of urgent importance in a world that today seems no longer to value civilization.
Can you give me an example or two of how that empathy-building works in some of your favorite YA novels?
Sure. One that leaps to mind is Francesca Lia Block’s luminous Weetzie Bat. The novel invites readers into the world of the eponymous heroine and her friends Dirk and Duck, two gay teens who find each other and then nearly lose each other. The novel is almost exuberant in its celebration of love — in this instance, gay love. It is virtually impossible for readers — gay and, more importantly in this context, straight — not to empathize with the two boys as they demonstrate that those regarded as “Other” are, on the contrary, similar to the readers in their heartfelt experience of love, which Block memorably calls “a dangerous angel.”
A second, entirely different example would be M. T. Anderson’s magnificent Octavian Nothing duology, which takes 21st-century teens into the 18th-century life of the black teenager Octavian Nothing. The name itself suggests society’s view of the protagonist, who discovers he is a slave, with all the opprobrium that role imposes. Anderson does a brilliant job of viscerally invoking the life of another character who is regarded as Other, this time one who is not only black but also removed from the reader by hundreds of years, yet who is immediate in his empathy-inducing struggles.
So many YA narratives today are mediated through film, television, even video and computer games. What do you make of this mediation across genres and platforms? Do visual media help introduce kids to the pleasures of reading, or does this development suggest the emergence of a post-literate generation? Along these lines, do you have any comments about fan fiction, especially stories set in favorite YA universes, such as the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series?
One of the joys of young adult literature is that it can offer its readers access to the minds of its creators. It is true, however, that today, more than at any other time in the past, young adult books are being turned into movies. MTV recently compiled a list of 50 such examples. I’m guessing that most young adults have read the books before seeing the movies that are based on them, though adults probably see the films first and then turn to the books. I mention adults because fully 65 percent of YA book sales are being driven by adults buying the books for themselves.
To anticipate a question, I see that the increasing adult consumption of YA fiction has had little effect on the literature itself, except perhaps that stories now feature protagonists who are older than in the past, many of them now being college-aged students.
But I digress. You asked about fan fiction: I think this derives from the happy symbiosis of book and film — i.e., fan fiction is inspired by both. I’m not terribly familiar with the phenomenon, though I know that many libraries now offer programs and workshops on how to write it. If it promotes — and I think it does — more intimate engagement with books, then I’m all for it. Well, with one exception: E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey began as fan fiction for Stephenie Meyer’s YA novel Twilight!
I’ve met many aspiring YA writers who either started writing through fan fiction sites or because they were inspired by YA narratives. Now, granted, there’s a great deal of YA writing that isn’t very sophisticated — that seems, frankly, churned out by the culture industry chasing marketable narratives. (Think Hunger Games and its copycats.) But there are contemporary works that strive, it seems, to collapse the borders segregating YA from more “serious” or “literary” fiction. There are also established literary novelists, such as Michael Chabon, who have written YA. What do you make of this trend and the overall quality of YA writing right now?
I would argue that this is a golden age of literary fiction for young adults. I believe this is due, in part, to the empowering influence of the Michael L. Printz Award, which honors the best YA book of the year — “best” being defined solely in terms of literary merit. It is also due to the growing sophistication of the readership, which, it seems, is almost exponentially more worldly than it was in the genre’s early years, when simplistic “problem” novels were too often the carte du jour. This new YA provides an opportunity for “adult” authors, such as Chabon and also Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, and others, to explore fresh territory, further enhancing the YA aesthetic. Of course, more pragmatically, publishers hope that adult authors will bring their established readership to their new YA efforts. But anything that attracts adults to the world of YA is okay by me.
We’ve also seen a real increase in the number and quality of YA books that deal with LGBTQ issues. What do you make of this trend?
You’re quite right that the number of books with LGBTQIA+ content has increased — in fact, almost exponentially. Consider that, in 2017, a total of 88 such books were published; this is 16 more than were published during the entire decade of the 1990s. And the number continues to grow; thus far, through only the first two months of 2018, 32 such novels have appeared, putting us on track to see a hundred or more published this year alone. This reminds us that YA literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it is a product of the prevailing culture, which has seen the greatly enhanced visibility of queer persons and issues. The greater the visibility, the greater the number of books.
As for quality: It is true that, in the early years of the literature, most of the books were single-issue problem novels. But this is no longer the case. Indeed, it is no accident that, to date, five novels with queer content have received the Michael L. Printz Award or Honor Award. Perhaps it goes without saying that I regard both of these trends as being salutary, evidencing, as they do, the increasing sophistication of the literature and the increasing relevance of its content to the lives of its readers.
I totally agree. But what, in your view, is missing from contemporary YA? What are writers and publishers not addressing that should be addressed?
That’s an easy one. We need more diversity in young adult literature. There are not nearly enough people of color in today’s YA or characters who represent different cultures, religions, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, and more. This is partly due to the paucity of such people among authors, editors, and publishers; it is also partly due to the prevailing belief that such literature isn’t popular with young readers and therefore is not marketable. I could go on but the point is surely made. Happily, this lack is now being seriously recognized — thanks in part to such organizations as We Need Diverse Books — and I believe we are now seeing the emergence of a more expansive YA that reflects the realities of an increasingly diverse population.
As for a neglected work, let me recommend a duology: French author Timothée de Fombelle’s two wonderfully atmospheric novels about 19-year-old Vango and his extravagant adventures in prewar and World War II Europe as he flees from anonymous pursuers who, for various reasons, wish to capture and harm him. The story is compelling and engagingly page-turning, so beautifully wrought it reminds us why we love to read. There is no higher praise. The novels are titled, respectively, Vango: Between Sky and Earth (2010) and A Prince Without a Kingdom (2015).
As for a new book, how about M. T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand (2017)? Anderson is one of my favorite authors, but even if he weren’t I’d be touting this one, which posits the notion that Earth has gradually been taken over by aliens, with catastrophic results in terms of the environment and the deleterious impact on the lives of all those who are not among the vastly wealthy (sound familiar?). The book is a singular satire that deserves the widest possible readership.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He has authored or edited 13 books, including the critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017).