As a literature student, there are plenty of times I’ve been asked what my favourite book is. Whether it’s during freshers in first year, a get-to-know-you segment of a seminar, or just general chats with friends. I’ve been part of countless debates about the ‘best’ genre, the kind of representation we want to see, and whether we should start a friend group collaborative BookTok. It is these conversations that inspired me to start writing this column; A way to share thoughts and ideas about modern reading, and all of its new genres and marketing tools. Essentially just a mad rant from the mind of a reader about all of the above.
One thing I have noticed, is that there have been plenty of times I’ve felt a panicked embarrassment when revealing my favourite books or authors. With romance reduced to smut by the media, and cringe-culture widespread online, there is so much pressure for our interests to be serious and unique. The other day I heard it has even become basic to like Jane Austen! (Me and my Pride and Purrjudice cat tote bag are horrified).
For a lot of science fiction and fantasy fans, YA fiction, despite being a thriving industry, is still considered ‘unserious’. It is often connoted with predictable plots, weak-willed protagonists, and love triangles. However, I think reducing YA to this is outlandish. To me, YA has always been an incredibly accessible way to deal with real world issues. Serious issues that are prevalent and pertinent to an understanding of the adult world. The hierarchal system within ‘The Hunger Games’, for example, acts as an allegory for economic and political suppression, while Katherine Arden’s ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ (a personal favourite) presents a heroine fighting for control of her life from patriarchal oppression. Something that is unfortunately pertinent to politics today. YA fiction is therefore a guide for the issues faced when traversing an adult world. One that teens and adults alike can identify with. I for one, don’t think I’d be half as willing to stand up in protest and demand change if I hadn’t read about so many protagonists doing the same. I would also much rather be reading about brave protagonists in a fantasy land fighting allegorical capitalism, than some adult novel about the crushing weight of a dead-end job and a dismal love life.
It is almost as though the unique way that YA deals with these serious topics is devalued just because it is marketed for a younger audience. However, if you look at The Lord of the Rings for example, some themes it covers are friendship, forgiveness, power, loss, and growing up. Are these not issues we see represented in YA fiction too? Why is it that one is openly mocked, while the other is critically acclaimed? Is it because teenage experiences and concerns are often trivialised and pushed aside, or even further, is it because so much of YA fantasy and dystopia is read by teen girls? The interests of young female fans are often mocked, and the media they engage with belittled. I think this is where a lot of my own insecurity about revealing my favourite books came from.
However, I also find it limiting that ‘serious’ and ‘valuable’ are often considered to be mutually exclusive. Why is it that the reader needs to be confronted with something brutally violent or deeply tragic in order for work to be taken seriously, when it usually just leaves me with a hollow feeling and in desperate need of a terrible rom com? While I would argue that YA is far from unserious, sometimes it is ok to read an enemy-to-lovers novel and be entertained by its trials and tribulations just for the fun of it. Or to enjoy a magic system and predestined protagonist plotline, no matter how simplistic and repetitive they might seem at first glance. I feel like I get stuck searching for an analytical perspective to seem interesting and worldly, forgetting that I can just read and enjoy something designed for entertainment, without having to justify it.
Yes, maybe we’ve read the ‘chosen one’ plotline over and over again to the point where even the cynic in me is exasperated, but then I remember the childhood wonder when I first discovered it. There was a time when this wasn’t generic. There was a time when, for me, it spoke to a little kid who’d moved schools and felt like being an outsider could be something important too. A time when a found family trope filled a young reader with hope for the friends she would find in the future.
I think it’s important not to lump all the books of our youth into the ‘cringe’ category. Plenty of young and older readers alike can find something to relate to within the pages, and it would be a disservice to spoil the magic for those just beginning to find the science fiction or fantasy genres. So, hopefully the next time someone asks me what my favourite books are, I’ll remember this and have the courage to be honest about it!
(A Novel Idea is a monthly literature column by Georgia McHaffie, exclusive to the qmunicate.com. Stay tuned for more installments!)