Thursday, November 21, 2013

YA and the Moral Center

I'm taking a little break from my usual speculative fiction posts to discuss why I love YA. I don't think I realized why until recently, when I read a work of literary fiction that really turned me off.

To give you a little history, I used to read and write literary fiction pretty much exclusively. I was drawn to it for all the obvious reasons--voice, complexity, irony, postmodern play, etc.--and also because, as an academic, it seemed like the kind of thing I should be reading and writing.

I know that sounds snobby. But that's academia.

Anyway, after publishing a few literary short stories, I moved toward reading and writing YA. My motivation at the time was that, as the father of young children, I was reading a lot of children's literature--I read all seven Harry Potter books with my daughter over a span of several years--and I had rediscovered my love of the kinds of books I hadn't read since my own childhood. Since my shift to YA, I've focused on reading as widely in the genre as possible, and I've mostly left literary fiction behind.

But then I read about a work of literary fiction that seemed right up my alley. It's about the daily lives of English department adjuncts (which I used to be), and it's set in Pittsburgh (where I grew up and still live). So how could it miss?

But it missed. Oh, man, did it miss.

I hated it. The writing was brilliant, the characterization strong, the voice perfect, the dialogue spare and realistic, the pacing excellent. But I just plain hated it.


Because it was so ugly. So deeply, irredeemably, absolutely ugly.

Here's an example. The narrator, an adjunct, convinces his fellow adjunct and best friend, a recovering alcoholic, to fall off the wagon so he can impress their boss, another alcoholic who believes all writers should be drunks. The idea, I guess, is that if the boss sees this other guy drunk, he'll renew his contract.

When I told a colleague of mine about this, she said, to begin with, "Well, that's despicable." Then she said: "It sounds like that book lacks a moral center."

And she was right. As regards morality, this book is a black hole. Everyone in it, without exception, is an awful, conniving, heartless, egotistical, exploitative bastard. Oh, wait, there's one character with redeeming qualities: the narrator's wife, an obviously idealized portrait of the self-sacrificing helpmate. But she's no moral center either, not only because she's so obviously a caricature but because her self-sacrificing acts make possible the awful behavior of everyone else.

Now, I'm not naive. I know there are plenty of awful people in real life. I also know that not all literary fiction is so nihilistic (though much of it is).

But in YA, I find the moral center.

This isn't to say YA can't get dark. Recent books I've read deal with such issues as war (Eliot Schrefer's Endangered), doomsday cults (Amy Christine Parker's Gated), AIDS and homophobia (David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing), the Holocaust (Markus Zusak's The Book Thief), depression (Evan Roskos's Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets), and ecological catastrophe (Mindy McGinnis's Not a Drop to Drink). YA doesn't shy away from the ugliness of life.

But YA always, always has a moral center. Every YA book I can think of contains a character, a scene, a stray line of dialogue, something that suggests the possibility of adhering to a moral code, transcending the brutality of the real world, discovering the value in life. To quote the most "literary" of the books listed above, Zusak's Book Thief, each YA book is "an attempt--an immense leap of an attempt--to prove . . . that you, and your human existence, are worth it."

Maybe YA is written that way because we're trying to protect the young--or at least preserve them--as they enter a world that seems to lack that moral center.

But I'm not a young adult anymore. I've lived in the adult world long enough to know that, more often than not, it's a desperately ugly place. Maybe that's why, the older I get, the more I need a moral center in what I read and write.

So I'll stick with YA. I'll stick with its faith in the moral center. I'll let literary fiction continue to indulge itself in the absence of light. The world's tough enough with what little light there is.


  1. I couldn't agree more! I read YA, but write adult speculative & contemporary romance. All have a strong moral center. I don't care how well written, I shy away from literary novels where the characters are nasty and unsavory.

    1. Exactly--popular or genre fiction across the board (maybe with the exception of horror) tends to have that moral center that literary fiction so often lacks.

  2. So very true. I've made the same shift as you from literary fiction to YA and for similar reasons. I want to feel a sense of redemption and hope by the time I finish a book, and YA offers me that. I still read some literary fiction and still find much of it good and worth reading, but often, instead of a sense of hope and redemption, it leaves me with a need for a shower.

    1. That's exactly how I felt when I read this work of literary fiction! I'm quite capable of feeling lousy all on my own--I don't need a book to do it for me! And I agree, YA has a redemptive quality to it that's vital for the soul.

  3. Well said! I agree. I love reading and writing YA for this reason (and many other reasons).

    1. Thanks, Carol! I'd love to hear your other reasons.... :)