Tuesday, May 19, 2015

#IReadYA Week: "Literary Merit"--Who Decides?

It’s #IReadYA week this week, and I’ve read a lot of tweets and posts about the general awesomeness of the YA genre, and that’s not surprising. Actually, what is surprising: given the brilliance of so many YA works, how is it that any of us still need to defend or explain YA—to anyone?

I write YA, but I’m also an English teacher; my students and I talk a lot about what constitutes a “serious” work of literature. On the AP Lit exam, there’s an “open” question—the third free response essay, which gives a fairly broad prompt, then suggests a list of works. Test-takers are directed to select one of these books OR “a work of similar literary merit.” We teachers learn in our training that more recent writers, and mostYA writers, are not considered by College Board to be of literary merit. This means, for example, that J.K. Rowling is not on the list. I always tell my students that she will be—if nothing else, age grants a work that status (consider a writer like Alexandre Dumas, whose work was not regarded as Serious Literature in its own time, but today, it is). 
How different, really, are The Catcher in the Rye and Looking for Alaska in terms of story and emotional resonance—and quality of writing? Yet my students can write about one on the AP exam, but not the other.
Who decides what’s “serious” literature anyway?--is one question my students always ask, and it’s a good one. Time is definitely part of the equation, but if we just look at books released in the past fifteen years, there’s definitely another layer of prejudice at work. Genre, for one: books set in the real world are often automatically viewed as more serious or literary. And the target audience is definitely another factor. Many adults dismiss books written for kids. Of course, many more do not. I have an annual pass to Universal Studios and I never get through the day without running into adults in full Harry Potter regalia. Maybe most YA is just too darn much fun for some folks?
There will always be people out there deciding what’s highbrow, what’s fancy, and what’s Serious Literature. And to me that’s part of what #IReadYA week is all about. It’s a time for those of us who get it—that it really doesn’t matter where a book is shelved—to share our love of not just YA but reading in general. I hope that someday we won't really need the hashtags anymore: #WeNeedDiverseBooks will be redundant, because we’ll already have loads of them. And like all good book nerds, I dream of a world when every day is simply #IRead day.

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