Sunday, September 8, 2013

YA and Epic Fantasy

So, I've been traversing links to blog posts and psychological studies and whatnot, as I'm wont to do, when a link pops up in my Twitter from Mythic Scribes. Its title: Is YA the Death of Epic Fantasy?

I read the article, and it seems fairly innocuous. A narrator, who explains he has nothing against YA Fantasy, tells us that Epic Fantasy, which he describes pretty much just as Tolkien, is dwindling as YA Fantasy takes over the market.

But I hate this kind of thinking. It's so subtle that you want to agree with this narrator. You want to say, "Well, he's sort of right. People gravitate towards YA Fantasy, because it's easier to read, but the real stuff in the adult section, the 'Epic Fantasy,' ends up forgotten in a dusty corner."

The problem is, it recirculates the age-old opinion that YA is somehow less. It's less fantasy than epic fantasy, easier to understand, not as dark. The article describes it as:

  Now, I have nothing against YA Fantasy. I could even see myself writing one. Like many others, I love and aspire to the abilities of Rowling and others like her. And although her pieces became increasingly dark, they don’t contain the true grit of Epic Fantasy. Sometimes I want to see blood, smell death, and feel the sexual tension that might even be expressed in Chapter 1. I want a battle axe to split a skull and a brain matter to splatter across the page as I read. And, I want it all done with a vocabulary and structure that excludes some readers. Sorry.

Do you see me gritting my teeth and wincing?

YA fantasy can be just as sexual, just as bloody, just as "true grit" as epic fantasy. Even in Chapter 1. I've read many, many YA novels, ones that start out viscerally. That continue throughout the book to be visceral. It's YA Writing 101 -- show, don't tell. Make things tense; make things dark. Push the character as far out of their comfort zone as you can, leave them at rock bottom, and then you can pull them out. Maybe.

And, well, let's face it: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series started out as MG, not YA. So did the Percy Jackson series, which he also references. Yes, the elder generation started reading books like Tolkien in elementary school, but I remember that The Hobbit wasn't really offered in my elementary school library. We had these books that are marketed specifically for those younger readers of MG.

In fact, I was so hesitant about reading "older" books back then, that I still struggle with it today. They teach you that reading has levels, that some things are too smart or too dumb for you. Today, I feel self-conscious walking through the MG aisles of my B&N looking for books, because I could swear the parents and little kids are judging me. Sometimes I get the feeling that the adults in the YA aisle feel that I am judging them, even when I'm not.

But it's not true. "True grit" is as likely to be found in YA as it is in adult. The problems in the books -- the torture and the sexual tension and the brain matter -- are not portrayed less in YA, just different, from the perspective of a struggling teenager instead of a world-weary adult.

And, to bring up an example (never leave out evidence when making an argument!), here you go: one of the details that stuck out in my mind the most after reading If I Stay (Gayle Forman) was of the main character hovering over her body after the car accident, looking at the brain matter of one of her family members splayed across the road.

Is that true grit? You asked for brain matter, there's an example. And If I Stay is one of the relatively popular YA novels, not one of those obscure novels I dig out of the library.

Moving on to the vocabulary and structure. Yes, true that the YA market looks saturated with the World of Snark trope from the outside. But just earlier this summer, I read Princess Ben, a story with impressive vocabulary and structure. And there are plenty of others, waiting in libraries and bookstores everywhere, that do not employ the sometimes atrocious slang used in modern teenage circles.

And, in fact, it doesn't exclude readers. Grammar isn't the problem. It's the educational system that doesn't offer such epic books in school libraries, that cuts funding for the English department, and teaches kids to hate reading by requiring that they do so. It's the adults who don't read and set examples for their children, who don't take biweekly trips to a library or bookstore, who don't hit home the fact that language is the most powerful tool we have.

(I've been fortunate enough to have a mother who's even more of an avid reader than I am. and I'm sure there are plenty of parents or guardians or teachers who make an effort to connect a child with a love of reading. But too many don't or can't manage it.)

He mentions:

One thing that I always appreciated about Epic Fantasy was its exclusivity. Not everyone could read it.

 Perhaps it's because of a system, not because it's Epic Fantasy. True, it's not everyone's preference; but I would bet not many have access to shelves of fantasy in the first place. Fantasy is a lovely, misunderstood genre, whether YA or adult.

He also says of epic fantasy:

We continued reading fantasy in a society where fantasy authors wrote for adults and their novels were found in the normal fiction section of our local libraries and bookstores. Many of us expanded our interests, flocking to gaming and other pursuits. But our first love was what publishers label as Epic or High Fantasy. In this genre, we met our elven friends, our grumpy dwarven companions, and our nemesis the evil sorcerer.
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. Reading Tolkien as a kid while others were tackling Where the Red Fern Grows came with a knowledge that we were more advanced readers – if nothing else.

First of all, I've never read Where the Red Fern Grows, so I'm not sure what he means by that last statement, but I don't remember fantasy being a challenge. I've always been a proper-English sort of girl, so I can't attest to it, but I don't believe the high-literary value of the  novels was what I didn't get. Value was just not something anyone attributed to fantasy.

Let's put it this way: not once has my school -- elementary, middle, or high school -- actually had us read fantasy for a school project or during the curriculum. It sometimes comes close, like the mystical qualities the Scarlet Letter* seemed to have at times, but they never assigned it. Nor science-fiction, for that matter. I was ecstatic to be able to choose my own reading material for my AP Lit summer project, and promptly chose The Hobbit. Other than that... I kind of think the school system believes there is no value in it.

That high-literary quality, on the other hand... I know that feeling. The same term came to mind the first time I read Tolkien: a difficult book to read, but lovely to finish. It compared with every pretentious book they threw at us in school, but LoTR was still worth a grin, because it was fantastical, a true escape and other world. But no school seems to attribute the same term to the genre.

Most "kids" would be thrilled to read epic fantasy, if they had been taught the grammar skills to manage it. My lack of faith in the school system informs me that tackling Tolkien in 6th grade would've boosted my
self-esteem a lot more than the thin MG novel Crash (Jerry Spinelli) did. Not that Crash wasn't a lovely novel, it just wasn't challenging to a person like me.

(I know, this started out as a rant against adults who underestimate YA novels, and now has devolved into a rant about the educational system. In my defense, I am still in the public school system, and can attest to the atrocity of it, and the direct effect it can have on choice of reading material, and on grammar skills.)

I wasn't actively discouraged from reading "normal" fantasy or fiction. I just wasn't exposed to it. I wasn't given any chance to like it, apart from the spine of the books on my mother's bookshelves, which I was always slightly intimidated by. (They were grown-up books, they would imply. My mother would've let me read them, but I spent the majority of my childhood in school, where they assign easy, boring books marketed directly for the less-than-average intelligent, and that alone made me think it would be best to avoid the "real" and "smart" books they obviously didn't think I was capable of handling. And this was back when I believed they knew best.)

So, YA and MG are really all I had. It wasn't lowbrow; plenty of it has the "high-literary" quality. But I don't think it's threatening the adult fantasy, unless you think that because of the low exposure to adult fantasy, kids will grow up to be less inclined to read it. And you can't really blame that on YA, can you? You can only blame it on the people who didn't put The Hobbit in my hands when I was eight years old.

Have a blessed day. 

*That's sarcasm, by the way. The Scarlet Letter is one of the most scowl-worthy books I've ever come across, because it's dry, difficult to read, and not an escape at all. The most mystical references involve elaborate metaphors of the letter's aura of ignominy. 

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