The evening had so much potential. We had driven 90 miles to the annual French Prairie Farm Feast, a banquet featuring foods grown in the French Prairie region of the Willamette Valley. If that sounds like a long way to drive for dinner, trust me, it’s worth it. The food is amazing, the setting—outside on the lawn at the Newell House Museum—is beatiful.
We’ve been attending the Farm Feast for years, and it’s something we look forward to. It’s organized with the help of one of my day job clients, so we go to support him as well as fill our bellies with deliciousness. But because it’s so far from home and is mostly attended by French Prairie area folks, we don’t know anyone except my client. And because he’s busy during the event, we generally find a table which has room for two and make the acquaintance of the others there.
So last night we sit with a group, and the introductions go around the table. Nice to meet you, what do you do, etc. My answer is usually a quiet “I’m in graphic design and web development” until my wife pokes me and I mumble something about writing books. That usually elicits a, “Oh, what do you write?” response, at which point I turn the color of a baboon’s fanny.
Last night was no different, but I’ve been trying to be more open about my writing, so I said, “I written four adult mystery novels, and I have a young adult mystery coming out next summer.”
Now usually what happens is people politely pretend to be interested for a moment and then we move on to other topics.
Not so last evening. The woman across from me, upon hearing the words “young adult,” spat, “I hate young adults!”
Naturally, I immediately embarked upon an eloquent defense of both young people and young adult literature.
Not really. What really happened is I made this face.
Then I waited for her to act like it was all a joke. Because surely she was kidding. Right?
Nope. She continued with an actual, honest-to-goodness tirade against young adults. I don’t remember the specifics, because I was too busy feeling like this.
But some key phrases stuck out.
Young adults don’t deserve anything.
They should be reading the classics.
They make me sick.
Let me repeat that last one.
They make me sick.
Her husband and adult son, sitting next to her, basically agreed, though with less intensity. I did catch something about “…with their damn Divergents and Resurgents[sic] and whatever…”
I wish I could say I managed to formulate that eloquent defense. I was too busy making this face though…
…and trying not to end up like this.
The tirade didn’t last too long (a million years is less than a billion, right? … right?) and then we talked about other things. I swallowed several gallons of bile with my otherwise delicious meal, and eventually we made our way home. For the entire duration of the 90 mile drive, I think I made this face.
Here’s the thing. This event is far from uncommon. Romance writers have been taking shit, often venomous shit, for eons. And most, if not all, young adult writers experience some variation on this regularly.
@bcmystery Welcome to the kid's table. 🙂 (Seriously, I've gotten that several times. Ignorance.)
— Susan Adrian (@susan_adrian) August 17, 2015
It’s not even the first time I personally have heard ignorant crap about YA, but it’s usually more of a tsking dismissal, with a contemptuous, “Well, I guess that’s where the money is,” tacked on at the end, as if we’re just trying to jump on the Harry Potter/Hunger Games bandwagon. (Those dumb young adults will throw money at anything, amirite?) My friend Susan above hit the nail on the head, of course. It’s ignorance. It can also be a lot of other things more problematic, like misogyny. Young adult writers are often women, and certainly a majority of romance writers are. As an old white guy, I’m pretty safe from that particular strain of hostility, of course. Compared to the volume and venom of the crap women writers take (well, women in general), what I experienced last night was a gentle pat on the head. That makes it no less troubling though. I was reminded of a Twitter conversation I had a few years ago now, when I made what I thought was a mildly clever comment.
It’s kinda silly to say you don’t read YA cuz you’re not a kid. You’re not a hobbit, but at least a few of you read The Lord of the Rings.
— Bill Cameron (@bcmystery) July 3, 2012
My point then was only that just because a story isn’t about whatever you identify as doesn’t mean you can’t read and enjoy it. I kinda got my ass chewed for it, and tried to respond.
Now, before I go on, I’d like to make the following disclaimer:
Read what you want.
I’m not telling you to read books you don’t want to read. It’s none of my business what you read.
But, having said that, I would suggest that if you’re going to run your mouth off to a total stranger and denigrate the work they do, it would behoove you to know what the hell you’re talking about first. Try, for just a moment, to understand why these books are important to the people who read and write them. It doesn’t matter if it’s young adult, or romance, or F&SF, or a host of other genres (a useful word nonetheless oft spoken by a certain type of person in the same tone you might use to describe something stuck to the bottom of your shoe).
These genres and the stories told in them exist because we need them. Sometimes we need escape, or a sense of adventure or mystery or erotic pleasure, and sometimes we need a tale that explores ideas and experiences outside what we know in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes we want to be challenged, sometimes we want to be comforted. And sometimes we need to see ourselves, or a reflection of ourselves—this is at the core of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. Young people want to read about themselves. People of color do, women do, members of a whole range of marginalized communities do.
And sometimes, we need to see people who aren’t us. People with whom we don’t readily identify. People we don’t understand, maybe even don’t like. This is a statement I am aiming directly at people like me: white, CIS, mostly male(ish), because we’re the kind of folks who are most widely represented in books and other media. Once again, see my disclaimer above, and yet … to hell with that disclaimer. Challenge yourself. Pick up a book written by or about a person of color, by or about someone who is gender fluid, by or about someone who is young, by or about … someone who isn’t like you. Break out of your default, see the world through someone else’s eyes. Grow.
Because if you don’t, you could find yourself being an angry person at a banquet declaring your loathing for a whole group of people who aren’t you.
They make me sick, you might say.
I don’t want to be that person.