Saturday, September 8, 2012

Canon Fodder

Can YA ever be considered Great Literature? Should it be?

This question is important to me because I teach literature…and I do teach some YA titles to my ninth graders. The question also comes up because I teach AP Lit: one of the three essay questions on the exam is called the open question, and students can select the novel they write about. College Board gives them a short list and instructs test takers to choose a book from the list, or write about “another work of comparable literary merit.” What my students usually want to know is A) can they write about their favorite book?—and B) about that whole “literary merit” thing—who decides?

Sometimes my students ask such great questions.

The answer to A, usually, is of course no. The answer to B is related to the answer to A, and it’s more complicated.

First, of course there are some seventeen year olds whose favorite novel is War and Peace or Ulysses. That happens once in a blue moon. But for most young adults, if they do have a favorite book, it’s usually something more modern, and it’s often a YA title. But unfortunately, I have to give my AP kids the best advice I can, and that advice does not include writing about Harry Potter or Hunger Games on the exam.

So why aren’t these books considered Literary with a capital L? Well, first, though I chose two very well-written examples there, there’s the small matter of the Big Movies that have recently been made of these works. Those books may have some Hollywood cooties on them right now. There’s also the stain of having been written for a young audience. Standing between these books and canonical status is not just the fact that they were written for kids, though—the very fact that they were written with a specific audience at all puts these books squarely in the category of commercial fiction. And if there’s an opposite to Literary Fiction it’s got to be Commercial Fiction.

Great art has to be difficult to slog through, and it certainly cannot appeal to the masses—I’d argue that’s a tacit belief that helps determine which books we’d proudly read on a plane and which one’s we’d rather have on our e-reader, with the title and cover safely hidden. Of course, with some teen titles, there’s no question it’s a guilty pleasure. If I’m reading Vampire Boarding School 6: Hearts at Stake, I’m under no delusion that it’s great art, and I’m glad for the plain black cover of my Nook.

But for writers like Rowling and Collins, will their work ever claw its way into the canon? I think it might, but it will take time. After all, The Catcher in the Rye fits all the parameters of a contemporary YA: teen protagonist, set partially at school; Holden speaks like a teenager, and the book is about dealing with the problems of growing up. But Catcher’s cracked the canon. Why? For one thing, it’s a brilliant book. But for another it was published in 1951.

Time has a way of turning what might once have been popular or commercial into Art. After all, no one bats an eye if I assign Dickens to my students, but we all know he was once a mercenary writer of pulp fiction serials. Time has given the work of Alexandre Dumas a patina of literary merit, but books like The Count of Monte Cristo were the Bourne series of his day: popular adventure yarns that made Dumas a lot of cash. Today, though, the nineteenth century diction alone means the work is now Hard to Read. Boom: canon status.

I think if Dickens and Dumas can earn the serious label one hundred years on, the fact that some of today’s YA was once commercial and was intended for teens won’t be an insurmountable hurdle. Of course, that’s assuming people are still reading in 2100.

In the meantime, if you want to be taken seriously now, you should probably write something very complex, possibly even incomprehensible, about terribly unhappy people and their gritty, gritty problems. I probably won’t buy it, but then again, you don’t want to be too popular anyway.

Although, if your character winds up on the side of a Burger King cup, maybe not even a hundred years will help you break into the canon, if you ask me.


  1. Ah. The eternal YA question. You answered it well AND you made me laugh at the end.

  2. It is the question, and thanks for laughing at the end. I read Twilight well before it became the media monster (pun intended) and I remember seeing that first BK commercial and just thinking, dang, what HAPPENED?