The Great YA Debate

Last night I went along to the Great YA Debate at Edinburgh Book Festival, which was chaired by Daniel Hahn and featured Anthony McGowan and Elizabeth Wein, with contributions from Patrice Lawrence, Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham and Christopher Edge. It was excellent debate, in that it did exactly what a debate should do: it showed starkly opposing views, it asked uncomfortable questions, and it provoked lots of strong reactions – perhaps extra heightened, given that there was an equally contentious article about YA published in TES earlier that day (I won’t link to it, it’s drivel and you’ve probably read it anyway).

There’s a line between debate and derision, though, and I think Anthony McGowan crossed it a couple of times. I don’t know how much he actually believed what he was saying and how much of it was Katie Hopkins-ing for the sake of a good debate, but he was patronising, misogynistic and at points just downright rude to Elizabeth Wein. He was  also talking some total shite, to be honest. His main points were:

1) YA is almost exclusively written, and mostly read, by middle-aged, middle-class white women. (True to some degree, but not the extent that he was implying.)

2) 90% of YA is crap, and the 10% of YA books that aren’t crap aren’t in fact YA but adult books in disguise (so… all YA is crap?).

3) Adults shouldn’t ever read YA; they should only read difficult books that challenge the way they think about the world. (He mentioned Dostoyevsky about six times. Someone got an ego boost from finishing The Brothers Karamazov, eh?)

Though McGowan claimed to be a “bra-burning feminist” [insert unimpressed eyebrow raise here] there was an implied link between point 1 and point 2: YA is mostly written by women, therefore YA is mostly crap. That’s how it came across, anyway. He did mention Sturgeon’s law, which suggests that 90% of everything is crap, and to be fair he slagged off John Green a lot too… but any attempts at balance were undermined by his disparaging references to “the middle-aged women of SCBWI” and “28-year-old book bloggers with I heart YA badges”. He painted a picture of self-indulgent, infantalised ladies creating facile dross only to be read by people like themselves, while actual teenagers look to more worthy sources for books (a point refuted by several actual teenagers in the audience).

The YA community is pretty homogeneous, and that should absolutely be questioned and critiqued – but McGowan simply attacked that rather than asking why YA attracts so many female writers. I can’t help but feel that if the ratios were reversed and YA were dominated by men, its homogeneity might be criticised but its value wouldn’t. Many things that are enjoyed mostly by women or girls are scorned by men; despite being a “bra-burning feminist” [insert exaggerated eye-roll here] McGowan fell right into that trap yesterday, without even pointing out that there are also some incredible YA books being written by women like Louise O’Neill, Jacqueline Woodson, Malorie Blackman, Julie Mayhew, Sarah Crossan and many, many others. I don’t think I was the only one who thought so, either – it was quite telling that most of the female YA writers on the panel felt the need to defend their books at one point or another, while as far as I remember neither of the other men did.

Then there was his point about what adults should be reading. I have a real problem with book snobbery, in part because it implies that adults should all have the same interests and ability when it comes to reading and that those who don’t are somehow lacking. It’s bullshit. If you’re severely dyslexic and would rather read Maggot Moon than The Trial, do it. If you work nine hours a day in an exhausting, uninspiring job and want to come home to The Fault in Our Stars more than Ulysses, awesome. If you’re going through a tough time and find comfort in re-reading Harry Potter instead of tackling War & Peace, go right ahead. You don’t owe anyone your time or your attention. Read what you enjoy. (Plus, there aren’t many adults who read solely YA – it probably makes up a third of what I read.)

But McGowan’s argument was that enjoyment is irrelevant; that we should be reading books that challenge the status quo and that anything else is just “padding the chains”; that it’s somehow irresponsible to indulge in supposedly easy reading when we could spend our time on taxing books that could help us change the world. But that’s easy to say when you’re someone who writes books and gets invited to speak at festivals for a living, isn’t it?! Other people have less time. Other people can’t think about changing the world; they’re just trying to get through the day. Lots of people going through challenging circumstances will still read difficult books, of course, just as others with lots of time and energy to expend on the classics would never consider doing so – they’re just not interested. My point is that when McGowan says ‘people should do this’, what he’s saying is ‘people should be more like me’. We don’t all live under the same conditions. Stop judging.

I think a more productive debate could have focused on what we should change in YA, rather than asking whether a vast and vaguely-defined category of literature has any value at all. There’s lots to criticise about it, after all. Though it’s doing better than other areas of publishing, YA is still nowhere near as inclusive as it should be: we need more writers of colour, disabled writers and working-class writers, in particular. I forget because I only read the really good stuff, but there are rubbish, derivative rip-offs and books based on offensive stereotypes being churned out (and these are making it harder for excellent writers from marginalised groups to be published). We should also look at who is reading it and why, in a respectful way.

But personally, I don’t think the fact there are so many women involved is the biggest problem within YA. Some of the men who do write it are the biggest earners within the category, or at least get more respect for their work – look at this Telegraph article on must-read YA books, 8 of 10 of which are written by men (a hugely skewed figure when you take into account how much YA is written by women). There was something distasteful to me about a man using his platform at an international festival to insult women writers, women readers, women editors, women bloggers, etc… and then claiming he was a “bra-burning feminist” to boot [insert angry fist-shaking here… that comment really irked me, if you can’t tell].

But like I said, it was a debate and it did exactly what a debate should do, so bravo to the Book Festival for that!





3 thoughts on “The Great YA Debate

  1. A very interesting and well argued reposte. I enjoyed that very much. It’s why I agreed to do what I did – to get a debate going. Of course I utterly deny the accusation of misogyny, and the bra-burning comment was, I thought, obviously meant to be self-parodic. But I suppose the ironist must expect, at times, to be taken at face value. Anyway, great blog. I make my case at greater length, here – and, as you’ll see, most of the writers I praise are women.

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