Why is Young Adult (YA) fiction even today sometimes dismissed as lower quality literature compared to that aimed at adults? In her new book, The Necessity of Young Adult Fiction, Deborah Lindsay Williams argues that YA fiction helps us to think about some of the most pressing problems of the twenty-first century by offering imaginative reconceptualizations about identity, nation, family, and climate change; indeed, that the cultural work of YA fiction shapes reader’s perceptions, making them receptive to — and invested in — the possibility of positive social change.
In this extract, Williams describes the ways in which YA fiction is doing some of the most important and creative work in literature today.
Unlike, for example, ‘detective fiction’, ‘YA literature’ is at once a designation of content and audience—an audience that is always in the midst of transforming. We have all been teenagers; we have not all been detectives. We can remember ourselves as teenaged readers, the utter immersion with which we used to sink into a story, an experience that hovers, ghost-like, when or if we return to those books as adults. The books become a mirror not only of the moment when they were written but also of where and who we were when we first read them. Because we read these books when we are young (or younger than you are now, presumably, as you read this), our reading experiences are often more intense, unmediated. The reading is not necessarily ‘innocent’, but it may be, perhaps, unaware of the book’s reviews or the author’s politics. Philip Pullman suggests that young readers are an exacting audience, even if they might not be ‘sophisticated’ in an adult sense: ‘in a book for children you can’t put the plot on hold while you posture artistically . . . . [ These readers] have more important things in mind than your dazzling skill’ (qtd. in Falconer 5). When teenagers engage with fiction (unless they’re reading a book for school and thus probably for some kind of an exam, which we might think of as ‘transactional reading’– reading for a purpose and information rather than pleasure), they can be thought of as ‘lay readers’, people whose reading ‘proffers the possibility of reconnecting with the everyday life of literary engagement’ (Buurma and Heffernan 115). Unlike literary scholars—scholars writing for other scholars—for whom the stereotype of a hermetically sealed discourse is often all too accurate, teenagers see themselves and their worlds in the texts; their reading becomes, as Eric Shouse describes it, ‘a non-conscious experience of intensity . . . of unformed and unstructured potential’ (Shouse qtd. In Anker and Felski 175). I want to focus on the word ‘potential’ here, because that’s one of the key factors that makes YA literature so important: The readership of YA is one of potential. These are readers who do not yet hold any of the official levers of power and who exist, in a sense, on the margins of their societies by reason of their age. Many of them are additionally marginalized by reason of sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, economics, or religion. What I see in YA literature are the ways that the texts render the experience of being sidelined and then offer examples of how readers might imagine themselves as people with agency in the world. We see characters who discover the ability to engage with and sometimes even improve the worlds in which they live. I suppose some would say that it is naïve to think that fiction can change the world, and perhaps that’s true. But people can change the world—and books can change people.
Fiction allows us to inhabit lives that are not our own: When we read, we are inside lives and consciousnesses that may be quite different from our daily experiences. As we read, we do not erase differences between ourselves and the protagonists; instead, we find moments of connection and resonance that enable us to bridge those differences, like a Korean American student did in reading Akata Witch [about a Nigerian girl who grows up in New York and is teased for her accent, and then moves to Aba in Nigeria, where she is teased for her accent}. Reading about Sunny Nwazue’s experiences on the margins gave my student insight and language with which to think about her own life: connections were established across difference. Although she didn’t name it as such, the student had engaged with what I will be calling a cosmopolitan reading practice, which necessitates a willingness to engage, to move away from what is comfortable or familiar. Fiction, as the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, is what develops ‘the compassionate imagination, which can make other people’s lives more than distant abstractions’ (np). It is in abstraction that the threatening Other—the migrant, immigrant, slave—becomes a monster. In Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen stipulates that ‘the monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture’ (4). The monstrous body is a site of ambivalence, in other words, and as such provides the opportunity for negotiation and innovation. In all the novels that I discuss in this book, monsters are at the centre, as is the importance of finding different ways of engaging with the monster. What we see, ultimately, is that the very definition of ‘monster’ is being challenged: The monster becomes less about Otherness and more about those individuals and entities that see the planet and its inhabitants solely as commodities. Once we know how to see them, these monsters of commodification—the monsters that threaten the health of the planet—can be found across genres, and not only in the speculative fictions that I discuss in my book.
This process of engagement is essential to cosmopolitanism, a word that is never used in these novels but is illustrated by them nonetheless. Cosmopolitanism is a term that has been much theorized over the past few decades, although very rarely in the context of children’s literature. I want to stress that cosmopolitanism as I see it is a practice, something that one does—in reading, in conversation, in the classroom. Originally developed as a response to nationalism, cosmopolitanism offered models for thinking about a global conception of citizenship and in its simplest iteration sees difference as an opportunity rather than a threat. Cosmopolitanism asks us to consider our obligation to others, beyond the ties of family or state. In his seminal book Cosmopolitanism (2006), Kwame Anthony Appiah points out that people are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences. Because there are so many human possibilities worth exploring, we neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life. Whatever our obligations are to others (or theirs to us) they often have the right to go their own way.
It is important to note that this acceptance of difference may be more difficult than it seems: ‘cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge’ (xv). How do we put into practice the attitudes that will allow us to find common cause with those who may not share our perspectives or our particular context? How do we put aside those structures of fear that so often (and so easily) preclude engagement? When we find these moments of disgust, discomfort, disidentification, can we nevertheless resist the impulse to isolate ourselves from that discomfort? Appiah suggests that perhaps we may be more naturally cosmopolitan than we know: ‘Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more’ (Cosmopolitanism 113). Intellectually, we may agree with Appiah’s assessment about our cosmopolitan lives, but we need only to glance at the news to see how readily people rally around ideas (however chimerical) of cultural purity and authenticity, with the belief that this ostensible purity confers some sort of cultural power and authority. An essential aspect of cosmopolitan practice—and one that rarely emerges in fundamentalist rhetoric—is the acceptance of fallibilism, the willingness to see knowledge as something that evolves over time and through encounters with ideas and attitudes different than one’s own. Fallibilism requires us to step back from our certainties and be open to alternatives.
I do not mean to suggest that YA fiction offers some kind of cure for fundamentalist certainties or that there aren’t reactionary YA novels that bolster fear of the Other, but I do think that we want to keep in mind that YA is for a readership of potential citizens—people who have not yet, we hope, calcified into rigidity. In art—reading, film, music, maybe even TikTok memes, if my children are to be believed—we can encounter things that nudge us toward new structures of feeling. The phrase comes from Raymond Williams, who references it in several different texts, perhaps most notably in Marxism and Literature (1977). In its most general terms, the phrase refers to the ways that lived experiences may vary from society’s conventional narratives and expectations; that is to say, often our feelings change well before social norms and laws. And it is often in response to encounters with art that these changes begin. In Preface to a Film, Williams writes:
[ T ]he new generation responds in its own ways to the unique world it is inheriting, taking up many continuities, that can be traced, and reproducing many aspects of the organization, which can be separately described, yet feeling its whole life in certain ways differently, and shaping its creative response into a new structure of feeling.
YA fiction, I suggest, often provides the occasion for the sorts of encounters that can produce changes in structures of feeling.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a Clinical Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Paris Review, Brevity, and The Common; she has published widely on children’s literature and US women’s writing, including her book Not in Sisterhood.
© Deborah Lindsay Williams
Extract from The Necessity of Young Adult Fiction: The Literary Agenda published by Oxford University Press in March 2023, available in paperback and eBook formats, £15.99