Why Cultural Attitudes Toward Young Adult Fiction Stem from a Place of Sexism

By Alexis Isaac

The following rant is brought to you by: That girl in my Advanced Fiction class who told me my piece was just “too young adult” for her. That’s right, we started using entire genres of literature as insults because that’s appropriate. Oh, wait, no it’s not.

I really, really love young adult fiction. I firmly believe that YA literature is one of the most important genres of literature—it has the power to influence young people. YA fiction helped raise me, and I am not ashamed of it. So why is it that when I received that comment in class, my immediate reaction was to change my writing to sound not so “young adult”?

It was partially because my professor for Advanced Fiction told me that YA fiction was not “high art.” He never said it couldn’t be, but we got into several conversations about YA before I realized he was never going to admit that anything written for young adults was high art. Here’s my thing: I bet if we took a blind poll of the fifty thousand students at Michigan State University, and asked them if they learned more from Harry Potter or The Scarlet Letter, I’d be willing to bet that at least half would say Harry Potter. But our cultural attitudes toward “high art” force us to want to say The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter was written by a straight white guy and then canonized by other straight white guys. Harry Potter was written by a female and canonized by young adults. But this works for YA not written by a female. Looking for Alaska is a wonderful novel written by a straight white guy filled with meaningful truths and symbolism and all the things we study in our classes—but it was canonized by females. John Green’s readership is largely female and, as a result, the art he creates is marginalized. This goes for a lot of YA fiction and, quite frankly, it makes me angry.

An entire genre of literature should never be used as an insult. In every genre there are great books that can be considered “high art.” We just need to change our cultural outlook on what “high art” means—it doesn’t have to be written by a straight white male to be good. Nor does it have to be liked by straight white males to be good. Let’s lose the sexism and pick up some great YA fiction.

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