The Triangular Tragedy of YA Fiction

Any reader will be hardpressed to find a novel with a female protagonist whose romantic relationship doesn’t overflow the entire plot.  Authors embrace this formula for heartbreak and success in a variety of ways:  Anita Blake author Laurell K. Hamilton overthrew her supernatural plot of necromancy and sleuthing to highlight Anita’s relations as the only plot; The Selection‘s Kiera Cass made the plot a season of popular television show, The Bachelor.  In the case of Katniss Everdeen, author Suzanne Collins writes her protagonist as a person who both calculates the potential relationships as well as pushing them aside as momentarily distracting and unimportant.  Collins gets kudos from me on that one, because it’s nice to imagine Katniss rolling her eyes.  Still, no matter how you look at it, love triangles have taken over fiction.

Where did this trend begin?  While it’s easy to look back and point fingers at Twilight‘s Edward-Bella-Jacob or Harry’s Potter‘s Harry-Hermione-Ron, a love triangle as a plot device has been around for much longer than that.  Although much more interpretive and subtle, love traingles can be identified in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo  and The Three Musketeers and even in the classic love story, William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  Love triangles even fall into the oral tradition, most famous of which must be King Arthur, Queen Gweniviere, and Sir Lancelot.  It is true that with the popular successes of J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Suzanne Collins, this plot device has come into the spotlight, but it should be understood that the romantic tension of a love triangle is an old tradition.

I recently came across an article written in 2013 by Lauren Slavin for arguing that these overblown love triangle are hurting teen readers, stating that it isn’t the love triangles that are the problem, but the men in them are, and they’re creating a negative expectation for young women and their sexuality, as well as their expectations of their youthful relationships.  Specifically, she says, “reading book after book where competition over affections is seen as romantic could create a generation of young women who aspire for a tug-of-war relationship, which ends in the “friend-zoming” of one potential paramour,” and goes on to add, “Feminists cringe over the concept that a woman owes someone sex if that someone has romantic feelings for them– even romantic feelings that aren’t returned.”  She speaks about how these written relationships create a social view which leads to bullying and slut-shaming of real, feeling young women.  Her article, although a little wandering, makes some interesting points about the way teenagers take stories very much to heart, and a repeated message of the internalizing of literature and our human habit of attempting to replay it in our real lives.

I don’t want to take a feminist stance about the way these stories affect young women.  I don’t want to defend the writers and characters in their handling of these tricky situations of the heart.  I do, however think it is important to acknowledge how quickly the Love Triangle is becoming a required feature in the world of YA Fiction and the reasons why it is there….

Do we do it for the angst?  For the popularity?  I know that many young girls – wish that they might – do not have two debonair suitors at their beck and call.  Seeing these things reflected as normal in literature, but not appearing in their real lives could certainly be detrimental to self-esteem.

However, there is also the possibility that we are simply making a mountain out of a molehill.

Why I Read YA Fiction: An Overview

My favorite conversation topic is and has always been literature.  In high school, it was our love for the written word that may have been the only thread in common betwixt my group of friends.  I am now 25, and a few months ago I found myself in conversation with one of these old friends, and the topic of our book-of-the-moment inevitably arose.  When I know a person well enough, I am completely shameless in my literary loves, and in the course of this conversation, my friend said something along the lines of “now that I’m an adult, I try not to read YA.”

This flabbergasted me.  My immediate response was to shower her with the last five years’ worth of phenomenal YA fantasy releases, many of which are dystopian and are coming to the big screen, if they haven’t already.  Her statement, however, is not uncommon.  The unspoken expectation of “coming of age” is to separate ourselves from the things which defined our childhood.  YA – young adult – literature like the Harry Potter series and Percy Jackson may have dotted our childhoods, but is it appropriate for adults?

The latest newspapers say yes, it is.

Over the last year, a vicious war has been going on across the internet regarding the appropriateness of adults reading fiction geared for young adults (although how young must an adult actually be to qualify for that title?)  In a New York Times article, columnist Meg Wolitzer reminisces about her experiences reading a critiquing YA books with a group of adult friends by saying. “Not only do I feel an intense connection with my earlier, often more vulnerable and intensely curious self, I also feel that I’ve been given access to a pure form of the complications involved with being young, now filtered through the compassion, perceptions (and barnacles) of my older self,” while on a more serious note adding “there’s just far too much variety in Y.A. to define it or dismiss it”.

Wolitzer’s article is a reactionary response to an article written earlier in 2014 by Slate writer Ruth Graham who vehemently criticizes adults who burrow in YA stories, scolding them blatantly in saying “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”  A personal interjection here, reminding my readers that Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy features arenas wherein children and teenagers brutally murder one another in a novel intended for 14-year-olds.  Graham’s concerns lie in the way YA fiction is replacing what she considers to be higher literary fiction, urging others in saying: “Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.”

I reject that.  Why is it that endings need to be messy or characters need to be tragically flawed?  What is wrong with falling into fiction with the hopes of escapism?  Would modern adult readers criticize Tolkien for allowing the One Ring to be destroyed because it ties ends up too neatly, and real life does not have such a happily ever after?  I read Cervantes several years ago, and while I can appreciate the literary significance of his work, I found the writing positively unstomachable.  I revel in the flawed true love story throughout Dante’s Divine Comedy, but is the nobility of the man trying to rectify himself by following his love through Hell to Peter’s pearled gates too much of a noble trait to be considered “adult”?  There are reasons why Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has transcended time, but Hugo’s Les Miserables is better known for the opera than the original work.  The innovation and imagination in the world of happy curiosities is the type that allows a person of any age to escape a stressful, merciless lifestyle, if only for a little while.

Critics like Graham brush aside adults who read YA as those looking for escapism instead of depth.  With a good writer, these two things can be easily combined.  The world of YA is easily shadowed with heartwrenching stories like those written by John Green (The Fault in Our Stars was the book which brought this argument to light from the shadowy confines of the world wide web) and the just-kill-me-now sort of which I describe Meyer’s Twilight.  I understand the frustration of shallow characters and too-good-to-be-true relationships, and I reject them as much as the next adult reader, but this does not mean that an entire genre ought to be shrugged off.  I become equally infuriated with the vivid sexual encounters that seem centric to any adult fantasy novel.

I believe at the end of the day, a good book is simply a good book, despite its intended audience.  Some read to enrich their minds, others for entertainment.  The most important thing is that we do read.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I read YA fiction.