Once upon a time, young people who were lucky enough to have the leisure to read what they wanted gravitated toward texts like Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Great Expectations. These books weren’t necessarily written for or marketed to teenagers, but they found (and continue to find) a hungry audience in adolescents. The rise of the modern publishing industry saw a way to feed these voracious young readers, and Young Adult–YA–has since solidified into its own genre, complete with its own set of conventions and tropes, found in fantasies, romances, adventures, and sci-fi novels alike. YA tends to enlarge themes that predominate literature as a whole–alienation, isolation, shame, transformation, and (of course) identity. The best YA literature speaks to adolescent fear, channels it into thought experiments and fantasies that help teens to cope with their changing identities. However, YA, like any genre, puts a writer at risk of being ghettoized, of having her own work thrown in with a good many bad books. In recent years, established writers like Sherman Alexie and Nick Hornby have purposefully written YA books and worked to have their books marketed as such, but perhaps many writers don’t want to be pigeonholed into a genre by having their books directed squarely at teens.
I was thinking about this problem today when I read Michiko Kakutani’s somewhat negative review of Laurence Gonzales’s new novel Lucy in the The New York Times. I received a review copy of Lucy back in March and breezed through it in a few afternoons. It’s an enjoyable read with a preposterous plot that somehow doesn’t come across as a gimmick. The eponymous Lucy, you see, is a genetic experiment, a humanzee born of a bonobo and raised in the middle of the jungle by a (not so) mad scientist named Stone until the age of 14, when insurgents murder her erstwhile dad/creator. Lucy is summarily adopted by another scientist, Jenny Lowe, who takes her to Americaland where she learns to be a normal teen. That is, until her super-chimp powers are revealed to the good American people, who come after her, mob-persecution style. Kakutani insists on reading Gonzales’s work as a Frankenstein story, and picks at it for not explaining its science as well as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. What Kakutani is failing to see is that the novel is not really about scientific hubris–it’s about how hard it is to be a teenager; specifically, it’s about how hard it is to be a teenage girl with a teenage girl body. Kakutani, apparently mistaking books for gravy, also takes Lucy to task for being “lumpy.” If Lucy lacks the finesse, explication, or subtlety that Kakutani would like it to have, then perhaps that is because she misunderstands its audience (to be fair though, Kakutani seems to frequently forget that not all books should be written to her taste).
Again at The New York Times, Tom DeHaven made a similar, if less boorish mistake, earlier this summer in his review of Simon Rich’s début novel Elliot Allagash. Here’s his lede:
If I were in the eighth grade, I’m pretty sure I’d love Simon Rich’s first novel, “Elliot Allagash.” I might even press it on my friends. (“It’s about this 13-year-old evil genius who does whatever he wants because he’s, like, a billionaire. And it’s funny. And short.”) But since more than 45 years have passed since I took up space in a middle school, I simply like it, very much — while wishing this flippant little parable about the puerility of greed had a deeper, sharper bite.
DeHaven wishes Rich’s book had a “deeper, sharper bite” — like Kakutani’s quibble with Gonzales, he wants the kind of acuity that ultimately is not best suited for the eighth and ninth grade boys who will love this book, who will press it on their friends. In my own review of Elliot Allagash, I wrote: “I don’t think that Elliot Allagash is being promoted directly as a Young Adult novel, but it will have a ready audience in the same smart crowd who dig funny, bright novels like C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian .” But even though Elliot Allagash and Lucy aren’t being promoted by their respective publishers Random House and Knopf as YA, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a potential audience of young adults–and it seems impossible to me that seasoned critics like Kakutani and DeHaven could be ignorant of that. Older readers might enjoy Lucy or Elliot Allagash but young readers might love them; critics shouldn’t condescend authors for not overreaching. A pretentious book is a sin and neither of these books is pretentious.