It is not a new statement to say that we, as a society, worship youth. We all want to be on the cover of the magazine, beautiful and ageless and full of potential.
Yet, it isn't just the appearance of youth the is given such space in our public domain, but the thoughts of that time, as well. The hesitation of new sexuality, the awakening of new ideas, the first experiences with the world, the search for identity--these concepts that characterize much of growing up are a dominant force in the world, and emerge in film, music and literature with such regularity that you could think that your entire life was spent in the pursuit of these ideas. The new, the freshness--it is as much a part of what we love about youth as the beauty and openness of such an early age is.
It's not surprising, then, that young adult fiction has become such a dominant force in literature, but its success with adult readers is not an entirely healthy one. This is especially the case when you consider young adult fiction in relation to the genre of speculative fiction, where so much of what is written anyway is YA or of a quality that will appear to a young audience (in the latter here, I am thinking of a particular kind of horror that, with its excessive violence and sexuality, is aimed at a young male audience). Speculative fiction has a long history of being a genre that appeals to the young and a lot of the old writers, such as Asimov and Bradbury and Heinlein--the modern fathers, one could argue--demonstrate that throughout their bodies of work. And truthfully, it is not such a problem: there should be work for kids out there, things that are bright and shiny and awesome, and which draw them to it. That is, after all, how I was drawn to the genre. Just as those authors and more are for teenagers, so are the tie-in novels, films like Star Wars, TV shows like Star Trek and so much more. The success of books and films like the Hunger Games and Harry Potter owe much to those who came before in the genre.
However, as I said, the success and popularity of young adult fiction is not an entirely healthy one. There must be a balance: the sense of childish wonder that is so core to the genre must also be balanced by the intelligent, subversive, keen eye of the adult. The young, simple protagonists must be counter balanced by the older, difficult protagonists, similar to the way that Robert E. Howard's violent, but simple Conan is balanced by Fritz Leiber's violent, sexually characterized and ironic Mouser and Fafhrd. The simple binary comparison I am making here doesn't at all suggest the complex and interesting ways that a genre can be fractured, but it's enough to begin making my point (or not, if you happen to disagree). It's enough for me to lead on to the point that, without this balance, and with young adult becoming more and more dominant, the more interesting writing, in terms of prose and theme and concept, are being lost. Lost because there is no place for that in young adult fiction.
I know, a lot of people don't like to hear that. A lot of people will say that young adult fiction can (and indeed, is) well written and intelligent, and that's true. However, it is intelligent in relation to the things that matter to its audience, and it is well written with the understanding that its audience is not an experienced reader--meaning that it is not, to someone who has a decent understanding of literature, that interesting, or that well written. The argument that there is absolutely no difference between young adult and adult fiction is one that is one that is flawed, which actively seeks to ignore the fact that adults and young adults have differences, and while that difference may vary accordingly to the individuals who are in place (I know teenagers who are more intelligent and articulate than some adults I know) it does not seek to acknowledge that as an adult I can and I do demand more from my fiction than that of someone who is twenty years younger than me.
It is a balancing act, wherein we must ensure that there is work for the young, but that there is also work for those who are not--and that that work receives the proper attention and love that it deserves. The world is not about youth and, just as the covers of magazines are troubling in relation to those who do not fit what they gaze at, so does young adult fiction begin to mirror that.