On writing young-adult fiction

On writing young-adult fiction, much of which is euphemistic and fascinating:

It’s hard to find the same reader gratification as a writer of literary fiction. You have to be thankful to get reviewed at all, even if they pan you. And literary fiction readers are tough. We’ve both had some really appreciative fans, and when they tell us nice things, we want to make out with them. But readers of literary fiction are also very excited to judge you. Like the woman who turned to Katie at a reading and said: “Your writing is really coming along! Your voice is not really developed yet, but keep at it!”

This is another way of saying that readers of literary fiction have a strong sense of history and have spent a lot of time both reading and considering what good writing is. If your reader is someone who’s read thousands of books ranging from, say, The Iliad to Cryptonomicon, you’re going to have a fundamentally different experience than someone whose reading ranges from a handful of young adult novels to today’s Facebook messages. The authors write that they like teenagers because “No one’s forced them to sit through college lit courses yet, so they’re still fresh and unjaded.” That might be another way of saying, “They have no taste.”

By the way, this isn’t a post designed to slander books that have been marketed as “young adult.” The marketing of a book isn’t an indicate of its quality. Novels like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, which is marketed as young adult, or Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which isn’t but deals with teenagers, retain their power regardless of their labels. A lot of throwaway young adult novels won’t.

This is also not to deny that self-consciously literary people can be patronizing, stupid, dense, or various other things. They can also miss the point of novels that offer something new but don’t conform to the pieties of literary fiction. But I still get the impression that the problem is more often that a lot of people writing young adult fiction are happy to write young adult because you don’t have the same standards for quality and insight that you would writing for those persnickety adult literary readers. For writers, I think the real question is how well you’re going to write regardless of your target audience: having fidelity to the craft means writing well, or as well as you can, even when no one is looking.

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