Is YA Too Depressing?

I confess, this post over at Mother Jones (entitled “Is Being a Modern Teen Really an Endless Slog of Existential Angst?”) made me smile:

I was just at the bookstore, and on a whim I browsed through a bunch of “Teen Fiction” titles. Good God. I’ve never seen such a pile of depressing writing in my life. Everyone is sick, abandoned, kidnapped, bullied, overweight, comes from a broken family, survived a school shooting, or caught in the middle of a gothic horror. The horror books actually seemed the most uplifting.

I dunno. Maybe they all have happy endings? In any case, if these books are typical of what teens read these days, I’m halfway surprised that any of them make it out of adolescence with their psyches intact.

I know that every time YA books are criticized in a high-profile but general way, there’s always a furious push-back from the YA community (and the push-back usually includes many excellent points, often pointing out that there are many, many exceptions to whatever “rule” someone is declaring).

And yet.

I gotta say, this blog post resonates with me more than a little bit. I’ve always had a very low threshold for angst and despair. I have read some wonderfully angst-y books, and I’m sure I’ll read more in the future. But for the most part, the world seems bad enough to me without dwelling on how hopeless and terrible it all is.

geographyclubfrontPart of the reason I wrote Geography Club (in the 1990s) was that I soooooo tired of depressing teen stories, especially stories of gay teens where everything was always so tragic. (I confess I was really disappointed when I first saw the cover that HarperCollins had chosen for the book: the model’s face was so dour and gloomy! I felt like it didn’t capture the humor or the impishness of my book at all. Why couldn’t he be peeking out of that classroom smiling a little bit?)

And, of course, anyone who knows me knows that I thought dystopian teen fiction become very, very tired around, oh, say, 2006.

One of the reasons I loved the movie Tomorrowland was that it directly took on our current fascination with the doom-and-gloom (targeting YA books in particular). I also liked The Martian because it showed us a world where problems were solvable, and our leaders were not all corrupt and inept (which, frankly, I think is more accurate).

I know YA is now a massive genre, and there are lots of exceptions to the “everything is depressing!” rule (including, ahem, my own books). But I still think there’s truth behind what this blog post is saying.

What do you guys think?

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6 Responses to “Is YA Too Depressing?”

  1. @mattbrowning 11 January 2016 at 7:35 pm #

    I have to agree. As you know, I’ve been trying to sell a book for a while now. My books are essentially gay YA rom-coms – breezy instead of gritty. Editorial feedback will both praise that as refreshing and pass because of it. I’ve wondered where I’d be had I set the same stories in a dystopian future.

    • bhartinger 11 January 2016 at 8:04 pm #

      That is both interesting and sad. I don't believe that all teens want depressing stuff, but it does seem to be what "the market" is responding to lately. It becomes a self-reinforcing loop: this sells, so they buy more of it. I definitely feel your pain…

      (My latest sale happened because I happened to write a book in a genre — horror — that was suddenly very hot. Hopefully that will happen to you soon. You deserve it!)

  2. neyronrose 13 January 2016 at 1:40 am #

    A large part of why I read so many books in the romance genre is that I want to read happy endings. I can't afford to get too sad from reading fiction. Have you read Victor Banis' critique of gay literature? I think it was a blog post on the MLR website. From what I hear, a large amount of YA literature is depressing. I know that dystopian stories are popular. Not my thing at all. I like the more cheerful exceptions to the depressing tide.__Em

    • bhartinger 13 January 2016 at 2:08 am #

      I think that has change a little bit with the rise of M/M romance and gay romcom. But yeah, it was/is a problem with gay lit too. I do think it's okay to sometimes be "serious" and even have sad or bittersweet endings. But some writers (both in gay lit and YA) seem to dwell in it, and then end up overdoing it. And, of course, those are the books that the award committees and critics seem to love.

      It is curious. But yeah, I agree with you Amy. I have a low tolerance for the incredibly depressing.

      • neyronrose 13 January 2016 at 2:51 am #

        I was thinking of “literature” as a genre very separate from romance as a genre, despite whatUlysses says about considering some m/m romances to be literature. Uly and I will have to agree to disagree on our terminology, while agreeing thatwe love those romances. Also, you should check out his YA book reviews on Goodreads, if you haven't already. He's a great reviewer.

        • bhartinger 13 January 2016 at 6:38 am #

          I will do that! I know how smart he is.


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