In the wake of Marvel fans having a big blow-up at Martin Scorsese for not being a fan of Marvel movies, and now Sarah Dessen having a blow-up at a college student for not wanting a YA novel to be the yearly novel everyone at her college reads, it is time to have a chat.
YA and romance (and to a lesser extent other genre fiction writers), as its authors like to point out, are the money makers in publishing. They are also the most widely read.
I must disclaim because it is true and to avoid certain YA multi-million copy selling, wealthy authors melting down at me from their very large platforms the way they did at a student: of course these books are art. Of course they take skill. Of course they are not unimportant because teenage girls like them.
But as YA must continually remind itself, YA is a category for young people, around or before the age of 18. And while it is perfectly possible for a YA book to have literary merit, it is still for people around or before the age of 18. It is just fine for adults to enjoy it. It is fine to study it. But it is also perfectly valid to prefer to read adult material in an educational setting for adults. And it is especially valid to prefer to be exposed to more than what is extremely popular and available outside of a specialized education. The whole point of an education is to give us a depth of knowledge and reading beyond what is popular.
I have a certain frustration that novelists who write genre want to emphasize the differences between genre and literary fiction when the implications may flatter them (consumed by a more diverse audience, accessible, fun, requiring skill and craft to make, part of a codified tradition), but deny or attack any differences which don’t. And note, I must carefully word at least one of those praises: it is consumed by a diverse audience. It is not, generally, made by (and especially not for) a diverse audience.
Popular art is important. Popular art takes skill. Popular art is not under threat at the moment. The de-funding of the arts under Trump has hit grant-reliant publications, and those publications have been mostly literary.
I must emphasize: making and consuming consumer goods is not a marginalization. Sarah Dessen is a popular author with a readership of hundreds of thousands raging at a young woman to her audience. She is not entitled to have a student consider her feelings when advocating for curriculum decisions. That student’s education does not (and should not) rise and set on Sarah Dessen’s feelings. And if Sarah Dessen does not understand that, Sarah Dessen shouldn’t be looking for mentions of herself in the newspapers of tiny college towns.
Increasingly in the conversation, pop culture creators and consumers are the only game in town and are cranky at even the suggestion anyone is interested in consuming and making something else. Martin Scorsese has routinely employed diverse people behind the scenes, and has made it his second career to fund, promote, and preserve global cinema, especially by people from marginalized countries. And multi-millionaire directors should not be raging at him when he (correctly) says Marvel movies are not carefully shot or made, and that’s not to his personal taste. They should not be accusing him of racism because Marvel made one (1) diverse movie. An English Major is within her rights to prefer an adult novel in an adult educational setting. Nobody is saying Mickey Mouse is irrelevant or didn’t take skill to draw if they say it doesn’t belong in the Louvre. There is already a museum to Mickey Mouse, and it is the entire world outside of the Louvre.
Genre has already won. There are already increasingly fewer kinds of stories told by increasingly few people. There are entire courses and sub-disciplines and fandoms devoted to taking them seriously. The major spaces devoted to talking about literature talk about it as solely a consumer product. We are at the point where a wealthy popular author feels comfortable siccing two hundred and seventy thousand followers on a student with none of those privileges because she felt that twenty year old didn’t respect her writing. Let’s say that we’re actually what happened (and it is not): the student has a right to feel however she wants about the book and to advocate it not be read.
I am especially disgusted by rich, grown women and their fans smearing this girl. Let’s take a look at how this author and her fandom and peers are talking to and about this student:
Sarah Dessen is fifty, and she is wealthy. Wealthy adult women and fans old enough to be the mothers of teenagers screaming about and at an actual young woman as faux advocacy for young women. This is not even 1/1000th of the pile-on.
Making consumer goods for women and girls is not feminism (I say this as a writer whose intended audience is mostly women). Consuming them is not feminism (I say this as a consumer of media for women). A rich 50 year old woman woman directing her fans to abuse 20 year old girls is not feminism. (I do not buy she didn’t explicitly say to harass the student and is therefore off the hook— she is an adult and this was an inevitable, foreseeable outcome; if she wanted the action, she wanted the consequence.) Smearing the student isn’t feminism. Attempting to destroy the student’s platform and power in student government over this is not feminism. It is privilege appropriating victimhood and social justice framing to hide that it is being wildly, and without any justification, abusive.
I am especially frustrated that this way of talking about books is so shallow. A book is not and should not be interesting to strangers as the work of your heart. It’s not. There are a lot of badly made passion projects out there, and the world is not our mother, here to validate our passion.
Art is also not purely a consumer good; people may assess its craft and decide it’s not for them. They may decide it’s not good. They may write off entire genres if they want to! It’s their life! And I am sorry, romance novels do require craft, but with enough skill, they can be churned out, completed, four a year. That is craft and skill of a different type than other kinds of writing. And it is appalling we may praise romance for its particular craft, and we may praise genre YA as a category for its particular types of craft, but if we even suggest literary fiction may require a craft unto itself and spaces unto itself, prominent creators and readers of the most cash-flush parts of the industry throw a fit and demand to occupy those spaces too. And they will add insult to injury by pretending this act of privilege is advocacy for the downtrodden. As if publishing is not mostly by white middle to upper class people, writing about middle to upper class white people, for middle to upper class white people. Yes, genre too.
I am disgusted.