I recently read a great article on BookRiot about which books ought to be considered canonical in the young adult genre—books so influential or important that we need to list them up front as suggested reading. The consensus of the article was that there doesn’t seem to be a way to determine the canon at this point (thanks to the recent appearance of this genre), but we do need to open the discussion about which are the best books in YA, the ones that affected us, changed us, made us feel something.
And to a point, I would probably agree—but at the same time, I think there’s room to go further. Let me explain.
I personally think that the very existence of the YA genre sets people up for failure. Primarily targeted at teenagers (as opposed to middle grade fiction, which targets readers of the junior high age), young adult fiction advertises itself as “the cool thing people your age are reading now,” and as such, readers who get started with this YA stuff tend to never grow out of it. They assume that those are the books that they can read, the books with the red label on the spine, the ones on the special table right out front. YA markets itself to a group of readers that could very well be reading books beyond those which are intentionally handed to them. Why not read Dracula instead of Twilight, or Death Be Not Proud instead of The Fault in Our Stars?
“Well, because Twilight was marketed to me, obviously.”
The same point can be made about literary canons in general, actually. Traditionally a canon is group of books or documents or lore that describe a certain topic, ideal, or movement. Today, the most common usage refers to fandoms and the “real” story of a particular universe (as opposed to fanfiction).
Canons, however, are also found in literary genres: the canon of American literature would probably include greats like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and John Steinbeck. English literature: John Milton, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope. But are these lists perfect? Are they exact? I don’t know that we can be sure.
I’ll concede that, to a point, the definition of a “good” versus “bad” in literature is an absolute one. There is good writing, and there is bad writing—and there are quantifiable differences between the two. But at the same time, perhaps some subsets of “good” literature may be more important to some than to others. Personally, I find Virginia Woolf’s The Waves more moving than any of her other works, but no one seems to remember it in light of the popularity of To the Lighthouse. Yes, the purpose of a canon is to showcase the culturally influential works of a particular genre, author, country, or time period, but how can we be sure that history has remembered these things exactly? How can we be sure that these were not just the particular favorite pieces of the British lit professor on staff?
My point is this: in the literary community, we should let people define on their own canons.
Sure, there are books that are historically important. Sure, there are books that are certainly good. Read those! No one is stopping you.
We cannot run the risk, however, of limiting the reading options. We cannot run the risk of telling someone that “these are the only things to read.” Good books can be found in a number of different nooks and crannies. Beautiful writing can be found in dark corners and out of the way places. Sometimes, brilliance doesn’t get recognized. Sometimes, the words that will be recognized are not the greatest; they will not ring as truly with all those who read.
Good writing is not always popular; good writing is not always canon.
So we cannot limit the reading choices. It should be perfectly okay for an adult to devour a poignant YA novel. It should be perfectly okay for a young adult to take in heavy stuff like Dostoevsky—even though we don’t market classics to kids.
And there shouldn’t be a canon for the YA genre.
Read what you want; read what makes you grow. That is all.
Until next time,