Editorial | Teen Paranormal Romance? Gag Me With a Spoon!

I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading, and occasionally reviewing, young adult fiction—mostly fantasy.  While doing so, I have lamented several times about the eroding quality of YA literature.  After all, I remember reading many fantastic books as a child and preteen.  Our local library was near enough that my siblings and I were allowed to bike there, once our mother deemed us responsible enough.  We would spend hours pouring over the shelves, and then bike back home with backpacks bursting at the seams.  Frequently, especially during the summer, the library system would flash a caution screen, “WARNING:  THIS PATRON IS OVER THEIR LIMIT.”  The librarians never said anything to us; they just quietly clicked OK, and let us take out as many books as we wanted.

The Hero and the Crown, Crown Duel & Court Duel, Half Magic, The Black Stallion, Redwall, Tom’s Midnight Garden—each of these had characters that seemed to leap off the page and into my imagination.  I fell in love with the male leads, or rewrote the story in my mind and superimposed my own characters on their worlds long before I was aware of fan fiction.  These were the pinnacle of young adult fiction.

In current YA fantasy, especially, tropes seem to be worn to the bone.  The most clichéd of these seems to be one of several variations on the idea that the protagonist is not what he/she appears to be.  He can be the “Chosen One,”—the answer to some prophecy, come to save everyone from some great evil—a prince in disguise, or sometimes the unwitting mixed child of a human and a non-human (normal animal, mystical beast, or god).  This seems to be considered most believable if he has been orphaned, split from his family by a catastrophe, or abandoned by his caretakers.  This becomes even more trite if he discovers his magical powers/super-secret heritage right before or immediately upon puberty.

I could probably have just put up this picture with no text at all and y'all would understand.

I could probably have just put up this picture with no text at all and y’all would understand.

Currently, the YA trend (thanks to Twilight and the plethora of vomit-inducing books that followed in its wake) seems to be that this protagonist is a human, but has some abnormal characteristic that renders him irresistible to some magical being, and they fall in love.  (This plot is actually legit.  If I had a nickel for every time a mind-reading vampire informed me that he had to have me then and there due to my opaque frontal lobe activities…)

However, to the young adult reader, many of the plot devices that an adult has seen ad nauseam are fresh and new.  Let’s face it, many of these have become so laughably worn out because they can be used with such beautiful effect when written well.  The first time I read a Xanthian novel, I laughed over it for days.  I recently reread one of Piers Anthony’s books and was horrified at the hackneyed phrases and the threadbare tropes.

CaptureWhat bothers me perhaps the most about cheap YA fiction is that it is no longer being read exclusively by young adults.  Grown adults now gush about the events of Breaking Dawn as though they happened to a best friend.  When grownups cannot tell the difference between beautifully written world building and fan fiction bound between paperback covers and slapped with a publisher’s logo, then who can?  Worse yet, with the advent of online review boards, such as Amazon, terrible books are being recommended willy-nilly.  I have learned that just because the majority of appear to be written by adults does not make them trustworthy.

It also bears remembering that for every wonderful YA book, there are literally hundreds of mediocre, or terrible works.  Twilight is the obvious example here, but there are many others.  For every Anne McCaffrey and Susan Cooper, there are dozens of K. A. Applegates and Suzanne Collinses.  Frank LeVoie talks about this in his article, “Is YA the Death of Epic Fantasy?”

“Our first love was what publishers label as Epic or High Fantasy… Despite the unusual nature of our desired reading, it came with a certain quality. The lexicon, the syntax, and the high-literary value of many of these works was something that most ‘kids’ didn’t quite get. To read and understand them was a challenge and an accomplishment…  One thing that I always appreciated about Epic Fantasy was its exclusivity. Not everyone could read it.”

YA Fantasy has made fantasy marketable, but it hasn’t improved the content of the genre.  My advice to fantasy readers who prefer a higher order of literature to avoid books recommended by obvious bottom feeder readers (on Amazon, these are usually the readers who write reviews full of grammar/spelling/syntax errors and who use too many capital letters and exclamation points), and to be willing to set a book aside if it lacks any pith by chapter three.

What makes you love or hate a YA fantasy book?  Do you have any authors you especially love or hate?  Let us know in the comments.

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6 Comments

Filed under Books, Editorial, Tracy Gronewold

6 responses to “Editorial | Teen Paranormal Romance? Gag Me With a Spoon!

  1. Hm. I have mixed feelings about all of this…Starting with what defines “good.” Your definition seems very different from mine, but I don’t actually know your criteria.

    My issue with Levoi’s critique is twofold. 1. It misconstrues the complications of children and children’s literature. It’s actually a complex genre with very little clear definition, mostly characterized by writers having to speak simultaneously to children and to adults. 2. High fantasy is not a distinction based on language or syntax-it is a generic concept marked by the types of worlds the author(s) create.

    That said…We’re all always going to have difference in tastes. Moby Dick got horrible reviews and was out of print for a long time, but we now hail it as the Great American Novel. Shakespeare was just another playwright in his day. The literary canon was set up mostly by T.S. Eliot and accompanying theorists, and it excludes a lot. We read very little of what is written, keeping (for the most part) what we think is the best of a literary past. Particularly now that it’s so easy to produce the written word, there’s a large difference in quality of things that come out.

    It’s important to talk about how and why we choose things as the best and discard others. And it’s important not to separate ourselves from the historical narrative.

    • I think very little modern YA fiction will stand the test of time. That isn’t to say that there is not a place for YA lit. I did point out here that tropes that seem tired to many adult readers are still exciting to new readers.

      I think the problem comes when readers–especially adult readers–don’t recognize trashy fiction for the guilty pleasure it is, and rather elevate it in their own minds and in their recommendations to the level of novels with beautiful prose and solidly built worlds. (As an example of current world builders that excel at their craft I could point to Robin McKinley or even Philip Pullman, who I dislike as a person but admire as an author.)

      • My question is, though, who decides what defines “trashy,” and how do they define it? That distinction changes, and often.

        I’m also not sure that I think any kind of reading is a guilty pleasure but that’s probably my years of teaching composition speaking. I’ve learned to value any and every reading my students do. It all expands their horizon.

        I guess what I’m saying here is that I don’t see any criteria for what you’d consider trashy versus not so, and I wonder what it is that makes the difference for you.

      • Trashy for me is usually lazy writing written for lazy readers. When a book such as Twilight (my favorite example because it is just SO bad–there are no redeeming qualities whatsoever) is merely a series of played out clichés, accompanied by poor grammar, inconsistencies within the world building, and an overall clear lack of effort to create a believable world or do anything besides recount a personal fantasy, it is trash.

        Again, I’m not saying there is no place for it, but I am sad that it is so prevalent and that so few readers (especially self-proclaimed experienced readers) seem to have any discernment when it comes to their choice or reading material.

      • Ok, now I have a better idea of what you mean.

        I guess I just don’t think there are that many books poorly written now than before, really. We’re just seeing a larger sample size of what’s published in our lifetime than those before us.And much of what’s written is like the dime novel and pulp fiction of yesterdays-it’s meant to be quickly read and then moved on from.

        As for the Twlight books, I have mixed feelings. I see flashes of brilliance in them, and their popularity keeps me from easily discarding them. They work very, very well for their audience, and there’s something to be said for a writer who can that clearly market to and entertain their audience. I can’t so easily cast them off on style.

  2. You may very well be right that we are seeing more of the poor writing examples. Technology is lowering the cost of self-publishing and flooding the market with ebooks, some of which have never seen an editor. I think regular dialogue is the only way to promote GOOD books among readers.

    (As for Twilight, my ability to take Meyer seriously crumbled into nothing when I reached the part in Breaking Dawn where she used a series of blank pages to denote four months in which her heroine did nothing because her boyfriend was not in town. The sheer audacity to be so blatantly lazy and still be published is at least awe-inspiring, if not admirable!)

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