YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

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Doug Pardee
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YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by Doug Pardee » June 28th, 2011, 12:44 pm

[I'm not a YA author or reader. I ask out of curiosity.]

I've often heard that YA writing isn't held to the same standards as adult-fiction writing. The explanation I've heard is that the YA reader is only interested in the story — they don't care all that much if it's told or shown, if the characters are cardboard cutouts, if adverbs and adjectives are used aplenty, if clichés abound, or if the Point of View is unstable. I'm also told that they aren't concerned about the mechanics of the written English: spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.

I recently read an observation about self-published e-books that weren't worth keeping, and in that article was this comment:
I had to hold a YA book to a higher standard than I might for adult fiction. It’s fine to say that I’m a grown-up and I know better and can ignore the odd typo or quirk of usage, but in a book geared to children, who will learn from and be influenced by their childhood reads, such errors are, in my opinion, unacceptable. I could not in good conscience recommend this story to a young reader who would absorb these errors and truly not know better.
My questions are:
  1. Is it (generally) true that YA writing is held to a lower standard than adult fiction?
  2. If so, does this set a poor example?

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polymath
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by polymath » June 28th, 2011, 1:10 pm

I believe, and in my experience, young adult writing is held to the same standards as adult fiction, which is no standard at all. Any given reader, writer, editor, professor, teacher, etc., has a set of standards which are unique to the individual.

There are basic principles of effective communication by and large all agree on. Standard Written English, for example, has a rigid protocol. It's not necessarily stale. It's one purpose is to uniformly apply writing principles so that any given narrative is universally accessible by English language users. However, how it's applied runs a gamut of possibilities. The language is alive and ever changing, usually generationally.

Young adult novels, narratives, short stories, expository composition essays, etc., are only as standardized as the skills of the writer allow. Take one writer, say a fourteen-year-old, she might barely grasp the principles of standard diction and syntax. S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders. Take another writer, an early adult writing young adult fiction, Maureen Daly, twenty-year-old, Seventeenth Summer. Take another writer, Robert Cormier, forty-seven-year-old, The Chocolate War. Different aesthetics, similar successes, different ages. They are enduring classics because they are still relevant to today's culture. Less well-crafted works are ephemeral.

One difference of note relevant to the topic, they were written and carefully edited before publication, though they also have relevant thematic cultural significance.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by maybegenius » June 28th, 2011, 1:26 pm

In the general writing world, particularly in the literary writing world, kidlit as a whole is generally regarded as "fluff" by other writers. As in, something that kids can read to pass the time until they're old enough for "real" books. Article after article has come out in which "adult" authors casually or pointedly deride children's & YA literature as a lesser art form. One award-winning literary author even went so far as to say he could never write for children "unless [he] suffered significant brain damage" first.

(Of course, some literary writers ALSO tend to deride genre writers in the same breath, so.)

So, to answer your question, yes, it's been my overall experience that many writers and readers hold YA lit to a lower standard. Even writers within the genre have been known to hold it lower -- such as many adult fiction writers who see how lucrative it is and decide to cash in by writing something "simple" for teens. However, within the YA community, it's generally considered insulting to imply that teens don't care if they're written down to, or that they don't want high-quality fiction. It's erroneous to assume that teenagers don't care about sloppy plots or poor crafting, because they do just as much as any adult. True, readership levels vary, just as they do in adults. Teens that don't read for fun very often are going to have lower literary standards than teens who read all the time, just as in adults.

As for your second question, this is tough for me. I don't operate under the assumption that all literature has to be a great masterwork of literary genius. "Fluffy" novels have just as much place on the shelves as "good" novels. I also think children and teens are usually smarter than adults give them credit for. If they read widely, they're going to pick up on the difference between a book with weak prose and a more carefully crafted work. I just have to look at all the teen book blogs out there to know that teenagers DO demand quality in their fiction. But is it setting a poor example to be lax with grammar/punctuation/characterization? I wouldn't say that. No more so than in fiction for adults, anyway. Not everyone is going to care whether or not a book featured pristine grammar. That's just the way of the world. I maintain that people who desire higher quality in their literature will seek it out if it's what they want.

Personally, I'd like to see YA authors aim for not writing down. Not being lazy with their prose because it's "for teens." As long as they're not operating under the assumption that teens are stupid/ignorant, then I'm okay with most anything they write.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by polymath » June 28th, 2011, 2:18 pm

maybegenius wrote:In the general writing world, particularly in the literary writing world, kidlit as a whole is generally regarded as "fluff" by other writers. As in, something that kids can read to pass the time until they're old enough for "real" books. Article after article has come out in which "adult" authors casually or pointedly deride children's & YA literature as a lesser art form. One award-winning literary author even went so far as to say he could never write for children "unless [he] suffered significant brain damage" first.

(Of course, some literary writers ALSO tend to deride genre writers in the same breath, so.)
The obverse is also true, and equally unfortunate. Low brow bashing high brow, which volume-wise is quieter but higher quantity.

No brow looks at more than age, craft, aesthetics. No brow's focus is on understanding intents and meanings in order to appreciate art in any form regardless of category and communication vices.

Is a painting of a religious icon using excrement as pigment art? Highly objectionable and offensive, yes. High shock value, okay. Perhaps art from its ability to evoke strong emotions from dissenting sensibilities. Surely art from the Postmodern message, self-aware art challenging and questioning presupposed notions of propriety, saying I--the painting, the subject, the medium, the conventions of the medium--am excrement. Though I find it amusing on many levels, I'm okay with it in small doses. I can''t take having my nose rubbed in it much, if at all.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by Sommer Leigh » June 28th, 2011, 2:29 pm

As a writer of YA and a reader of YA, this assumption makes me crazy. (Not yours, your question is an honest and good one. I mean the presumption of those saying YA is held to a lower standard.)

First, I think we need to use different words because "fluffy" has the connotation of "bad, waste of time" and "good" to mean "worth my time, adult literature, or real." I also want to push the terms "low standard" and "high standard" aside because in this setting it is referring to low standard meaning for kids and teenagers and high standard to mean for real readers, adults, and a better sort of people.

These words are the wrong words and they don't mean what we think they mean. So let's just forget all those for a moment.

In YA and in Adult Lit, there are good writers - I mean the really good writers, and there are the really bad writers who leave us wondering how in the world they ever got published. And we are all going to disagree on who the really good writers are and who the really bad writers are. Then there are the really good books, the really bad books, the books that are totally for entertainment, and books beloved in a certain genre. There are both YA and Adult in all of these forms. All writers, regardless of their audience, are held to the same level of grammar, story telling, character development and pacing, but what one agent and publisher believes is a great book, another won't. Same with readers, and so you get books published that are good, bad, entertaining, deep, whatever.

When critics say that YA writers are held to a lower standard, what they really mean is that they think the act of writing for kids is a lower standard. Very often these articles that criticize YA authors and YA books as being "low standard" do not actually cite examples and I believe that is probably because they haven't actually read any of them and that, like I said above, they are criticizing the act of writing for kids, not the books themselves.

I would challenge any critic - reader or writer - who argues that YA books are held to a lower standard to read any of the following books, all YA, all relatively recent, and all would set a critic to the difficult task of explaining why any of them are low standard.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta
Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Looking for Alaska by John Green

And these, I should mention, are not exceptions. I could name dozens of others. I could also name dozens of YA books that are "entertaining" but maybe not what's going to be debated at a book club meeting. I'm horrified by the idea that there isn't room in this world for entertaining books.



So, basically, what I want to say is: It's not true. YA writing is not a lower standard. It's just not true, though some may incorrectly believe it under their own reasonings.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by polymath » June 28th, 2011, 2:48 pm

No brow also puts aside negative emotionally charged value judgements. If it ain't positive, it's a lack of comprehension, and imagination on the parts of the creator's creative vision and the spectator's creative vision failures to connect.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by sierramcconnell » June 28th, 2011, 5:35 pm

Wow, and the majority of those books, Sommer, I see on /adult/ desks throughout the call center and even today at the apartment complex office...

YA books, supposed to be 'lesser' and 'ignorant' being read by adults. Huh. :lol:

I read and write YA. I didn't plan on it, because I thought YA was all that romance and vampires and stuff my friends read and it didn't have plot. I had been reading above my level for years and surely I wasn't YA. Pfft. Not that. No.

But as I've been writing, years later, I find it's not what I thought it was at first. It's totally different. It's an age group, not a genre. And it's just as varied as the readers it caters to. So once again, saying the books are lower than 'adult' books are saying that the kids are dumb, and that's not only an insult to the future generation of the world, but if you think that, why aren't you doing something about it? Like, oh, I don't know...

Trying to educate someone? Mentoring, or teaching, or writing a book yourself?

Right, sorry. You're too busy for that. My bad.

And then you complain about how the world is the way it is.

(And this is not directed to the OP, but to the people who say YA is lower in the first place.)
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by Chantelle.S. » June 28th, 2011, 7:14 pm

My questions are:

1. Is it (generally) true that YA writing is held to a lower standard than adult fiction?
2. If so, does this set a poor example?
1. Not at all. Considering how many adults there are out there who read YA, the standard ought to be on the same level. Then again, the standard might be held 'lower' by the critics. And they're not the ones writing these books, so what do they really know?
2. IF it's true, all I can say is shame on the writer.

There is no standard except for the one the author and the publisher hold, and also the reader.
I don't believe that spelling and grammar errors should be allowed in published books, whether they are aimed at young adults or adults. If you can't spell, get a spell-checker, if you suck at grammar, find an editor. There is no excuse for butchering the English language. That's my opinion, and that's the standard I personally uphold, both as a writer and an avid reader.

The exception is when the character's dialogue is meant to give the impression of some kind of accent and some grammar/spelling rules are ignored. But the narrative needs to be as close to flawless as you can get.

Considering the content of some YA novels, if authors think kids that age are emotionally mature to read stuff that have adults raising their eyebrows, then how fair is it of them to downplay the YA intellect by throwing decent writing out the window?

I was always told that the more I read, the smarter I'll be. If, at least, the general standard of English taught at schools are not implemented in YA books... well, it'd be a shame on the author if a fourteen year old nitpicks through their work and sends them an email stating how many spelling mistakes they picked up on. I know I'd crawl under a rock if a YA reader knew more about writing than I did. It doesn't say much about the author's skill, and let's face it, writing is an acquired skill that needs to constantly be honed.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by Doug Pardee » June 28th, 2011, 11:54 pm

Chantelle.S. wrote:1. Not at all. Considering how many adults there are out there who read YA, the standard ought to be on the same level. Then again, the standard might be held 'lower' by the critics. And they're not the ones writing these books, so what do they really know?
2. IF it's true, all I can say is shame on the writer.
Here's where I get confused. (Okay, it's one of the zillion places that I get confused; I get confused easily.) You say that the standard for YA writing is "not at all" lower than for adult fiction, yet less than an hour earlier, over here, you wrote, "aside from the...er... YA way-out-there-with-no-explanation-how-this-can-possibly-be ending that is sure to satisfy teenagers."

To me, this suggests that you do accept a lower standard of writing for YA. This is exactly the sort of comment that triggered my questions, although the referenced weakness is usually writing craft (PoV, word choices, dramatization, pacing, etc.) or mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) rather than story.

What am I misreading or misinterpreting?

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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by polymath » June 29th, 2011, 12:43 am

I don't see a contradiction in Chantelle.S' comments regarding differing standards for different age categories. Rather an altogether different principle in the Reading as Writer thread, that of writing for a niche audience's comfort zone. Mechanical style, craft, and voice appropriate to an audience's entertainment and appreciation satisfaction. Decorum, actually, suiting one's thoughts, words, and actions, as the case may be, to the circumstances, the subject matter, and the audience.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by GKJeyasingham » June 29th, 2011, 10:18 am

sierramcconnell wrote:But as I've been writing, years later, I find it's not what I thought it was at first. It's totally different. It's an age group, not a genre. And it's just as varied as the readers it caters to. So once again, saying the books are lower than 'adult' books are saying that the kids are dumb, and that's not only an insult to the future generation of the world, but if you think that, why aren't you doing something about it? Like, oh, I don't know...

Trying to educate someone? Mentoring, or teaching, or writing a book yourself?

Right, sorry. You're too busy for that. My bad.

And then you complain about how the world is the way it is.

(And this is not directed to the OP, but to the people who say YA is lower in the first place.)
Haha, so true. People complain all the time about how the next generation is going downhill without doing anything about it. In fact, people complain about everything without doing anything about it (of which I'm guilty, but so is everyone I guess).

As clichéd as it sounds, I think YA and MG writers have a great opportunity to shape the readers and people of tomorrow. Kids are impressionable (which can be both good and bad), and what they read will have a lasting impact on them (it did for me, at least). Those who write for these age groups shouldn't be resorting to half-hearted efforts in the pursuit of a quick buck. They should be willing to work to expand the horizons of their readers. Who says YA and MG works can't qualify as literature? We've seen countless examples to the contrary.

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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by Beethovenfan » June 29th, 2011, 11:30 am

I think all the Newbery and Caldecott winners would have something to say to those who think YA, MG, and children's books are of lesser quality. Some of the best stories I've ever read are Newbery winners: THE GIVER (currently reading), A WRINKLE IN TIME, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHIN, NUMBER THE STARS, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, THE WHIPPING BOY - just to name a few! You can do a search and get the entire list from when they first began giving the awards back in 1922 (Ithink that's when it began). If you have not read some of these, you are really missing out on a wealth of reading material. When I go to the bookstore, the Newbery section is one of the places I go first.
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Re: YA writing: is a lower standard conscionable?

Post by Chantelle.S. » June 29th, 2011, 8:45 pm

Doug Pardee wrote:
Chantelle.S. wrote:1. Not at all. Considering how many adults there are out there who read YA, the standard ought to be on the same level. Then again, the standard might be held 'lower' by the critics. And they're not the ones writing these books, so what do they really know?
2. IF it's true, all I can say is shame on the writer.
Here's where I get confused. (Okay, it's one of the zillion places that I get confused; I get confused easily.) You say that the standard for YA writing is "not at all" lower than for adult fiction, yet less than an hour earlier, over here, you wrote, "aside from the...er... YA way-out-there-with-no-explanation-how-this-can-possibly-be ending that is sure to satisfy teenagers."

To me, this suggests that you do accept a lower standard of writing for YA. This is exactly the sort of comment that triggered my questions, although the referenced weakness is usually writing craft (PoV, word choices, dramatization, pacing, etc.) or mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) rather than story.

What am I misreading or misinterpreting?
Polymath nailed it on the head, but I thought I'd just clarify what I meant (maybe I'm the one who misunderstood the topic of this particular thread?) I don't accept a lower standard of writing for YA, in the sense of writing mechanics and writing craft - the nitty-gritty stuff you don't really take notice of until the writer messes up and it pokes you in the eye.

This comment of mine:
"aside from the...er... YA way-out-there-with-no-explanation-how-this-can-possibly-be ending that is sure to satisfy teenagers."
is aimed at the story-telling aspect, e.g. the content of the plot and subplots. Like I said, it's suited for young adults, the only reason I made comment on it is because I'm an adult reader and so the plot twist that was thrown in there wasn't satisfactory for me. It is also only a personal opinion - who knows, there might be other adults who think it was a great plot twist.

If this thread was aimed at 'lower' standards for YA in terms of story-telling, I'd be inclined to say that writers do need to rein in their imagination/knowledge base to suit that of their target audience. Young adults don't know everything adults do, so it would be difficult for them to truly grasp some concepts or make sense of things. The same goes for children's books - you're not going to be writing about things like hormones and drug abuse, you're going to cut back on what you know to suit the intellect of the reader. This doesn't mean the readers are dumb or anything deragotary like that, either, all you're doing is writing according to their age. Point is, I guess, that young adults lack the experience of full-grown adults. So they won't necessarily 'get it' if you write at the same level as you would for an adult.
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