Very Realistic YA – A Movement in Search of Enemies

A recent argument very critical of YA books in general caught my attention via Ink, Bits & Pixels. Here it goes:

“The conversation began with Hansen’s observation that, despite being geared towards young adults, this genre [YA books] generally doesn’t reflect the reality of being a teenager. Hansen’s observations quickly evolved into #VeryRealisticYA — a widespread exploration of the many sexist, heterosexist and overall problematic social norms young adult fiction often perpetuates.”

To frame the need for more “realistic” YA books, the author went on to say that “YA often romanticizes unhealthy, inequitable relationships.” As well intentioned as the “Very Realistic YA” movement is, I want to wave a GIANT red flag here.

Can we agree that books, films and other media should be depicting a much more diverse array of protagonists? You bet! I’m 100% with anyone who wants to say that. But I take issue with the other premises in the above article. Premises which make some judgmental assumptions.

Is it true that YA books don’t “reflect the reality of being a teenager?” Here’s my gut response. If that’s so true, why do you think teens have been buying so many YA books for the last decade? Hmm? Would they continue to buy those types of books that don’t “reflect their reality”?

Perhaps the answer is yes. Maybe for other reasons, maybe teens want ideals or less realistic situations which they can’t fulfill in their personal lives to be represented in the stories they read about. Okay then, fair enough. If that’s the case, then the “books have to be realistic” crowd needs to recognize that realism alone isn’t necessarily the highest virtue that people are after. If it was, this whole debate wouldn’t even exist, would it?

But my misgivings with the ‘realistic fiction’ advocates go beyond that. There is a certain judgmental premise in their approach which rubs me the wrong way. For example, I looked at a series of tweets, many of which were pointing out what ‘should’ be considered realistic YA plot elements in YA books. As I roved over the list of tweets I found it humorous because some of the “realistic” claims – such as a teen’s first kiss not being at all memorable – struck me as just the opposite of realistic. Personally I remember my first kiss vividly. Is that normal? I have no idea. I’ve never done a poll of all people about their first kisses.

Here’s what I do know: To have self-anointed critics start saying “this kiss in YA books is realistic” and therefore acceptable and another type of kiss isn’t…well, doesn’t that strike you as obnoxious? It’s especially ironic too because the realistic fiction crowd wants to push for their own version of realism and in so doing undermine the very diversity they claim they want to promote.

ya-booksThis is all I’m trying to point out: human experience is incredibly diverse. As soon as someone begins to say “these are the REALISITIC components of teen lives” they are already way, way out of their depth. My response to the John Hansens of the world and all other “veryrealisticYA” advocates is to stop trying to model an average, ‘realistic’ teen set of experiences. It simply doesn’t exist, and trying to impose some sort of standard smacks a little of censorship. Something I’m not a huge fan of, by the way.

One last point and then I’ll call it a day: the realistic YA folks seem to have a big problem with “romantizing inequitable relationships.” Do they not see how judgmental that statement is?

The problem with the people who fixate on whether relationships are “equitable” is that they don’t consider this messy thing called life. Realistic relationships are often not equitable, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! It can even be good! My spouse and I have different strengths. When we go to a party, I am the take-charge leader in our duo. When we work on some professional projects, she usually takes the lead and tends to call the shots.

Equitable? That word might look good on paper, but it sure doesn’t describe most relationship dynamics in the real world. One person may need to be in a relationship where the other person protects them or predominates in certain roles. I’ve known people in relationships which have very different dynamics than my own. Am I going to say mine is superior to theirs? Is the stay-at-home mom who manages her family’s finances in a less equal relationship than a high-powered corporate mom who never sees her kids but makes big money? I don’t know. That’s not my judgment to make.

The “very realistic YA” crowd could use a shot in the arm of simple humility. Realism isn’t an objective standard that someone can dictate to the rest of us. If you don’t like the experiences in YA books, a genre which I love and continue to read, then here’s my suggestion: Write your own books. Put up or shut up. Don’t tell the rest of us what we should be reading or writing about for the sake of realism. There’s room in fiction for a lot of variety in human experience. Instead of trying to narrow that down, let’s celebrate it. ALL of it. Diversity is a two-way street.

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