Imaginative Discussions: YA – Damsel in Distress?

Posted March 9, 2016 by Lyn Kaye in Imaginative Discussions, Lyn / 11 Comments

Imaginative Discussions

In today’s book scene, YA is under attack again. Not from adults who roll their eyes and claim that adults need to read more adulty novels, or from parents who thought they might have seen a bad word in the middle of a page on the last chapter, like “underwear” or “damn” or “free will.” No, this time, we have a new breed of invaders who have sounded the war horns and declared that YA will be conquered and destroyed, and that they will become the new kings of Twilight and Divergent land. This new type of invader is….the New Male YA Author.

S. Bergstrom penned a YA book thinking that YA was all about high school, teen drama and homecoming. In a Publishers Weekly interview, he bemoans and humblebrags about his own achievement of writing a YA fictional story:

“The morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA so I wanted to try doing it on my own,” Bergstrom said. “In a lot of YA, the conflict takes place inside a walled garden, set up by outside adult forces. If you think of those stories as a metaphor for high school, they start to make a lot more sense, but that was one thing I wanted to depart from.”

In another interview for The Pen & Muse, he continues his attack on YA novels, and focuses on his dislike for teenage girls:

“I knew I wanted to create a strong heroine for The Cruelty, the opposite of the cheerleader-prom queen. She starts as a lonely, introverted girl, bullied by her prettier, richer classmates.”

“What century were we living in if the feminine ideal little girls learned about was still a woman in a pink dress and a nineteen inch waist? I decided to create a female heroine who was the opposite of all that—a young, strong female who discovers real heroism within herself.”

And he still isn’t impressed with YA books, you know, with all of the imaginary issues and such.

“What troubles me about so much of today’s fiction aimed at young adults is that its set in an imaginary time and place.”

So what YA has he read? Is it a genre he reads? Not according to his interview:

“P&M: What do you like to read?

SB: Espionage fiction, mainly. Alan Furst, Olen Steinhauer, and John Le Carre are favorites. But I spend a lot of time reading non-fiction, too. I just finished Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George. It’s about the modern shipping industry, of all things. But it does an excellent job of explaining how our economy functions. Plus, it has pirates and shipwrecks galore, which we tend to think of as being part of some long-ago century, but are actually still part of the world today.”

So, from what I have seen, he has made a conclusion about a genre that he has hardly touched. So did he just watch the Twilight movies and decide that this was a prime market for some insecure women? It concerns me that a grown man has so much hostility towards teenage girls. There is an issue with female identity in today’s culture, but it doesn’t take a white knight rushing in to save us. Plenty of female authors have already settled into this field and said, “Hey, women don’t have to be frilly and cute and dress in pink to be awesome!”

However, there are girls out there that ARE in dresses, and they are awesome. There are girls with makeup and martial arts. There are women in dresses who save the day. We can be girls who save the world. Not all cheerleaders/popular girls are soulless wenches. Isn’t it better to teach your daughters that it matters what you are on the inside, and not the outside, instead of focusing your book entirely on a girl’s appearance?

“The physical appearance of Gwendolyn, the heroine of the story, is loosely based on a young homeless woman I met years ago in New York as she hustled a three-card monte game outside the Port Authority.”

“Bergstrom’s heroine is Gwendolyn Bloom, a Jewish, slightly overweight 17-year-old, who is transformed into a “lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red,” during her mission to rescue her father, a kidnapped diplomat.”

It just seems a bit much for a male author to try the manic pixie dream girl on steroids bit. He is fixated on the outward appearance of his female MC while bemoaning how a woman should look early on in one of his interviews. This seems very alarming. Also, he is sending a message that this girl was worthless until she transformed herself, that who she was just couldn’t cut it. How is that sending a body-positive message?

As for the “real world issues,” I’m a bit confused on why this male author believes that female authors are avoiding this subject. Bergstrom highlights that he wants to discuss issues that affect women, like trafficking, like women and and girls are afraid to talk about it.  That is something we need in all fiction, not just fiction aimed at women. And what about other issues, such as rape, hygiene (NY is fighting the tampon tax), wage gaps, sexual harassment, and daily gender bias? Oh wait, that’s right. Female authors got this.

Bergstrom isn’t the only author who decided that YA is a pile of crap. Paul Rudnick wrote his new novel in reply to current YA trends. As he tells The New York Times:

“I want to write things that will be a relief from the earnest torment of typical Y.A. literature,” he said at a diner next door to P.S. 3 where he ordered a glass of orange juice.”

All the while, he doesn’t mind dragging the “oh so cool” teenagers into the mix”:

“If anyone will be tormented by his new novel, “It’s All Your Fault,” it will be those who object to obscenity, sex, booze, drugs and celebrity behavior that seems ripped from the diaries of Lindsay, Miley and Justin with a dose of “Valley of the Dolls” and “Gossip Girl” mixed in.”

How charming. So you insult teenagers because of what they read, then use their celebrities and their TV choices to pitch your book? This is a mixed signal here: you either want to connect with them or you don’t.

On the subject of research, this is the bit the reader gleaned from the article:

“It was time to get going. Mr. Rudnick, who recently shot a pilot for TV Land based on his fictional character Elyot Vionnet (starring Hamish Linklater and Megan Hilty), had to chuckle about a group of high schoolers he’d seen earlier in the day. They were sitting outside their school in a West Village park looking classically disengaged — with pierced noses, tattoos, raggedy clothes and hair that was chopped and shredded for maximum apocalyptic effect.

In the manner of many adults who behave like Margaret Mead around adolescents (whose tastes and interests are so culturally important that their parents are reading “The Hunger Games” and John Green novels), Mr. Rudnick asked what books they were enjoying.

“Divergent”? Check. “The Maze Runner”? Check.

“I liked ‘Dante’s Inferno’ and Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince,’” said one girl, who was smoking and making out with a female classmate sitting on her lap like a tame koala bear.”

Aren’t teenagers edgy and cool? They’re like, not humans, and adults just so don’t get them, because we’re reading all of their books, so they needed something cooler and edgier and more awesome! Something to TOTALLY OFFEND US AND MAKE US SHY AWAY FROM THE UNAWESOMENESS.

It seems that YA has hit a new stage where we are now “damsels in distress.” From what has been gathered from these two articles, YA authors cannot do the following:

Write about real issues
Write about issues women face
Write non-feminine characters
Write about drugs, booze, and sex
Write a YA book that is fresh and unique
Write a YA book with a morally complicated storyline

It goes without saying that this is flat out not true. I read YA because it is richer and more diverse than adult fiction. YA helped bring me back into the reading community, and I know many other bloggers and readers say the same thing. Also, for those who love Twilight/Divergent/etc etc., why do they need to be “saved” from their choices?

For any YA author who believes that YA readers, young, old, middle-aged, male, female, non-binary, whatever, need to be rescued from YA tropes and popular books, the general message is this: No, thank you. We’re good. We got this. We have a whole slew of ladies and guys who are writing some great books, and just because you are overlooking them doesn’t mean that young adults are suffering from a lack of wonderful, rich literature. Write your books, be proud of your stories, but don’t make yourself into a hero because you believe, in your head, that you are slaying a dragon that you created in your own mind. We are not in a tower, locked away from the rest of the world. It is you who is locked in the tower, away from what we have, and the only dragon there is to kill is your own ignorance towards YA. 

Of course, I can’t end this discussion without the obligatory list to help show how far from helpless we are.

YA/MG Stories About Real Issues

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp: School Shooting
Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt: Homelessness
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate: Immigration
The Last Time We Said Goodbye by Cynthia Hand: Suicide
Made You Up by Francesca Zappia: Mental Illness
Bright Lights, Dark Nights by Stephen Emond: Racism/Police-Community Relationship
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson: Loss of a Parent
Speechless by Hannah Harrington: Bullying/Homophobia/Gossip
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (Homosexuality)
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (Poverty)

YA/MG Stories About Women’s Issues

All the Rage by Courtney Summers: Rape
Little Peach by Peggy Kern: Prostitution
Sold by Patricia McCormick: Sex Slavery
After by Amy Efaw: Abandoning a Newborn
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr: Teen Pregnancy
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: Sexual Assault and Bullying
Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton: AIDS/HIV
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy: Body Image
Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr: Slut Shaming


Feel free to add your suggestions below!



11 responses to “Imaginative Discussions: YA – Damsel in Distress?

  1. Thank you for your comprehensive post. I’ve seen bits and pieces about these authors and their views recently, but this post brought it all together and presented it well.

    It’s a shock and annoyance that they are being dismissive of something they seem to know nothing about and show no inclination to learn. They seem like the type of person that, should you attempt to recommend a book that would show them how deep YA literature can really be, would scoff at it and refuse to read it because they’re opinion “is valid and will bear no argument”.
    Heather recently posted…Top 5 Wednesday: Books That Feature Time TravelMy Profile

  2. Man, I really hoped that this Bergstrom guy would just fade into the shadows and everyone would ignore him and his book when it came out. Buuuut noooo… of course he is makign statements like this and of course there’s idiots like Tommy Wallach also out there acting like he invented YA. YA rarely gets credit and the rare times it does? Usualllllyyy for a male author who is “doing something new” that many of his female peers have already done. coughJohnGreencough

    I love adult fic and I love YA. I hate that it’s so acceptable to sneer at genre fiction when oftentimes it and YA are the areas that move to do something new, or to create a more inclusive bibliography. For these guys (Begstrom, Rudnick just the most recent in a long slew) to come in and think that they’re saving our books is ridiculous! I truly hope their books fall into ignominy, and quickly when/if they do publish.

    Anyway. Obviously, I loved this post and what you had to say. The rec list is great — I have read or already was interested in the majority of them but I got to nab a few new books for the TBR.
    Jessie recently posted…Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine LowellMy Profile

    • Thank you so much, Jessie. One of the things that stabbed me right in the heart was to see all of these female YA writers I love have to sit there, with no movie deal, to have to take this crap, because some smug white asshole got a movie deal, he thinks he is doing something right. But all he did was be born the right color and gender. These gals have been around forever, and making the genre what it is today. Hell, Twilight deserves more credit than this dick!
      Lyn Kaye recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books That Will Make You LaughMy Profile

  3. Jen

    This person actually had his novel published? Bashing a genre that he’s never read? Wow. I’ll never read his books on principle.

    I completely agree with everything you’ve wrote. YA is amazingly diverse and if girls want to wear make up and dresses, how does that make them any less amazing? Yes, there as some books I don’t enjoy, but that’s personal taste not because they’re ‘wrong’.

    (Great post!!)

    • He is getting published, and then he has a movie deal on top of that, so he thinks since he landed all these deals, that he is doing something right. All he did was be born the right color and gender, while the women who made the genre what it is today had to sit there while this ass insulted everything they did because they didn’t get to sell the movie rights with their shitty book from the start.

      Dresses do not make a woman less. Why does a woman have to convert to a masculine standard to be better??!
      Lyn Kaye recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books That Will Make You LaughMy Profile

  4. OMG, those authors (especially Bergstrom) just made me so mad. How is he going to even think about stereotyping YA like that, especially since he never reads it?? The YA that I read is so much more diverse and emotional than adult. And how dare he say that YA doesn’t tackle real life issues?? Holy crap, I can’t even deal with this guy. I have zero interest in reading his book.
    Cynthia @ Bingeing On Books recently posted…February Wrap-Up Round-Up GiveawayMy Profile

    • Why does he believe that a girl has to become masculine to be worth anything? Why is he teaching his daughter that outward appearances still matter? That if you are blonde and skinny that you are a bitch? Why does he think because he is white and male that he is automatically just BETTER than the women who made the genre what it is today? Yeah, I got sick right after I wrote this, because I raged myself into exhaustion all over again.
      Lyn Kaye recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books That Will Make You LaughMy Profile

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