Steinbeck, The Pearl, and another rant on the internet about YA lit

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The Pearl is a wonderful little novella that is easily devoured in an afternoon. The prose is simple and reads quickly, but surprises with vivid and powerful metaphors. It’s a parable, but it isn’t necessarily instructive; no one is getting clubbed in the head by the Lesson We Need To Learn Today. We gain no insight into the nature of the kingdom of heaven, but we see very clearly into the ruthlessness of humanity when great gain is possible.

I’ve alienated a few people with my stance on young adult literature, but (respective) Johns Gardner and Steinbeck are cementing my position on the issue. Gardner talks about how some of the best writers enjoy pulp and “bad” fiction unironically, but “what makes them angry is bad ‘good’ fiction, whether it’s for children or for grownups.” I feel like most YA novels are harmless fun, light, entertaining reads that require only surface attention. Motivation is obvious, characters are direct and simple, and the narrative follows a familiar arc. that’s fine, but don’t sit there and tell me that reading the things is noble or edifying in any way.

A fourteen year old kid doesn’t have to stretch his mind to imagine a fifteen year old protagonist, even if said protagonist is surrounded by supernatural creatures or lives in a dystopian future or goes to a private school. This is why I wish parents and teachers would embrace books like The Pearl. Kino (the main character) is completely “relatable” (I hate that damn word) but he isn’t the typical YA protagonist. He’s young, but he has a family, he is a father. He lives at the subsistence level. He has no education and because of that people try to manipulate him. It requires more effort to look through the eyes of someone who is as “other” as the illiterate Kino, but unlike most fiction being marketed to teens, the perspective is worth understanding. The prose is beyond approachable and the story is both compelling and easy to understand. Give this book to all the fans of YA lit you know, and read it yourself first if you haven’t already.

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2 comments

  1. I agree, in part, with your take on a lot of YA. It is extremely hard to get anything published that doesn’t appeal to the mainstream. And mainstream means familiar characters, familiar plots, and familiar outcomes. A reason why many young people jump ahead to adult literature where they can imagine having more options and feeling powerful in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, but I don’t think the mainstream necessarily needs to be that way. I mean, Franzen and Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner are all in Oprah’s book club. Updike and Roth enjoyed mainstream commercial and critical success for decades with characters, plots and ideas far outside the “mainstream” as we define it today.

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