Saturday, March 03, 2007

How Bleak Thou Art

Okay, so there’s this generalized assumption that young adult literature is bleak, grim, and seriously unfunny. Now, as an author of funny YA (well, published in 10-14 YA, though my WIP YA is older), and as someone who likes to read funny books, I’ve never had much of a problem finding funny YA books to read. I do tend to agree, however, that the “serious” books vastly outnumber the “funny” ones.

But, I’m an empirical kind of guy, so I decided to examine my assumption in more detail. In particular, I looked at a recent catalog for a major publisher, reading through the catalog copy of the twenty-four (24) YA novels and attempting to distill each book down to its essence.

This is what I found:

A book on paralysis
A book on death of a parent, alcoholism, and unwanted pregnancy.
A book on death of a parent through cancer
A book on alcoholism
A book on armed assault with a deadly weapon
A book on death of both parents in a car crash
A book on death of both parents in a car crash and an unwanted pregnancy
A book whose catalog copy is vague, but appears to involve at least armed robbery and child abandonment
An historical book on suicide
A contemporary book on suicide
A book on death of a parent and economic hardship
A book on censorship. And sex.
A book on death by accidental shooting (or general stupidity)
A book on child abandonment, alcoholism, and an accident of indeterminate nature (resulting in, possibly, death)
A book on divorce
A book on death of a parent, economic hardship, robbery, and risking death.
Two books on (1960s) sex, drugs, and rock & roll (and therefore, at least metaphorically, death)

Of these, only one (1) appears to include any modicum of humor at all. (How do I know this? Because the catalog copy said it was “hilarious.”).

For the record, of the remaining books, one was high fantasy, two appear to be (profoundly serious) love stories, one was a manufactured book, and for two, the catalog copy was so vague I couldn’t tell what they were actually about.

Now, in one sense, I’m being unfair. I have, after all, grossly simplified “what the book is about” based on catalog copy - I could similarly characterize Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo as “a book on science and student court and racial perceptions,” which sounds like a real snoozer, rather than “a romantic science comedy courtroom drama about three friends who take part in their school science fair and end up in student court because of it.”

Further, IMO, a funny book should deal with serious themes and should have all the characteristics of a serious book. A strong beginning, rising action, characters who change and grow, etc. As Lisa Yee put it in her interview on Three Silly Chicks, “[t]he best way to write a funny book is to write an unfunny book first. By that I mean, the story has to hold up without the humor. There needs to be emotion and pathos in it…To test this, take out your best jokes or funniest parts. Does the story still hold up?”

Now, it's also entirely possible that, some of these apparently serious books could have some humor in them, even if they are not funny books with serious themes (And, yeah, only one sample and an anecdote isn't data).


But, I was still struck by the fact that, with this one publisher (at least in this one catalog), "funny" seems to be a dirty word.


Sara Z. said...

When I was a teen, I was totally ininterested in comedy (except for my own, which was bitter and sarcastic). I wanted dramadramadrama. Most kids I know (girls, anyway) feel pretty much the same, though there is always the percentage of those who like the funny. So I think the catalog reflects what the market wants, for the most part... When I think about popular teen TV shows, it's the same thing: drama. At the same time, the best dramas (Buffy is a perfect example) also contain a lot of laughs. Teen movies, OTOH, seem to be ALL about the comedy, and we've heard over and over that the target ticket-buyers for these movies are males 16-25 (or something). There do seem to be more funny boy books than girl books. Will boys not read drama? Maybe it is a gender issue more than anything else.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

You're right, there's a lot more drama out there than humor. Many young girls want this, although I feel most YA books are too serious and adult for teens. There's also a heavy load of witchcraft & horror, which I guess fills the boy's needs for serious.
BTW - "funny" isn't the only dirty word - so is "good moral values".
Guess we just need to keep fighting for what we each do!

Chris Barton said...

Gosh, it's really too bad that there's not some element of contemporary YA fiction that's ripe for parody. Maybe then we'd see more humor.

Norma said...

And people go back to school for BFAs to write this? Thanks for the heads up. A lot of parents (and teachers) may not know what a constant stream of negativism the kids are getting.

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