Listen, so there’s some guy in YA who stepped in it — the long and short is, he came out of nowhere, sold a six-figure debut out of a self-published YA book, and then took some time to step up to the podium to maybe kinda sorta shit on young adult literature and bluster about female characters and — well, you know how it goes. This is not really new. If you want to follow the story back more completely, you’d do well by looking at the Twitter feed of someone like @bibliogato, who is unpacking some of this stuff right now and linking to other smart people. Go look. (And you can also check out the #MorallyComplicatedYA hashtag.) (Ooh, also, Victoria Aveyard has a good pulling-apart of the problem here at her Tumblr.)
I’d like to speak about this in a more general sense — and, quite likely, I’m going to be talking more implicitly to my fellow WHITE DUDES who are living up on HETERO WHITE DUDE MOUNTAIN, because while this problem is by no means exclusive to us it certainly seems to gather around us like a cloud of flies who are feasting upon our eye-watering ego-stink.
Privilege is a weird thing.
It teaches us by example that we own the house — the house metaphorically being, well, everything all around us. As such, we view all the things in the house as ours. We own this stuff, we think. We own these rooms. And so we move freely from room to room without hesitation. We muddy the carpets because they’re ours and we can dirty them all we want, goddamnit. We control what’s on the TV, we get to decide what everyone eats, we determine where to piss (toilet, toilet seat, potted plant, sink, the northeast corner of every room).
This is of course an illusion. A pretty gross one, though one that society often goes out of its way to maintain (in part because hey patriarchy and yes the patriarchy is real as it takes very little to see that men control a whole lot more than women and hey by the way, Scott Adams, you wonky Dilbert-fucker, the fact that women possess sexual consent and agency does not make our world some kind of dystopian lady-realm). It also would seem to give us license to saunter boldly into a space that’s new to us and pretend like it’s new to everybody. We take a shit in it and pretend we’re planting a flag instead of, y’know, taking a giant shit where other people are already hanging out. “I claim this space in the name of me!” you scream, hauling up your drawers and leaving behind a steaming present while ignoring everyone else standing around gaping at the horror-struck literal shit-show you just performed.
You must unlearn what you have learned, Jedi.
This isn’t your manifest destiny. You’re entering into spaces that have already been built and shaped by people who aren’t you. You’re not colonizing it — except maybe only in the grossest ongoing historical sense, where you invade territory and overpower those who dwell there already. And you damn sure shouldn’t come into a space with the desire to “fix” it, either. I wrote a YA novel about a teen girl and crime-flavored moral complications. I was not the first to do it and I will not be the one to put the capstone on it. Neither will you, rando. I didn’t fix it. I didn’t make it better. I don’t own it. I’m sharing it. And I’m sharing it by the grace of those who came before me. (And I don’t shit on genre work, or teenagers, or Twilight or Hunger Games or any of it, because I don’t get to exist as I do without them.)
You do not honor or create your own success by ignoring or crapping on the successes of those who came before. That is gross and weird. Don’t do that. Be humble. Look back and point others to look that way. Look all around you at the present and look ahead, too. See that you are not alone — you are not the peak of this mountain and you are not the owner of this house nor its sole occupant.
It’s like borrowing a ladder from your neighbor and then pretending that you built it. Or worse, pretending that you invented the concept of the ladder, or that the mere act of you ascending its rungs has improved it in some incalculable, cosmic way. (Then you kick the ladder away to make sure nobody else ever climbs to the same height. Jerk.)
Don’t be crappy.
Give respect to others.
Admire and acknowledge their success.
Do not overtake their achievements and claim them for yourself.
Whoever you are, see yourself as part of a whole and not the sum of it.
You owe them. They don’t owe you.
Give them thanks, too — that in the spirit of tomorrow’s holiday, perhaps. (Though here I could probably get into the sick moral tangle of a holiday where colonizing pilgrims took over native lands and probably pretended like they invented turkey and corn and dinner, which is maybe altogether more apropos — but, ahem, that can be a conversation for another day.)
In fact, let’s take a moment below to give some thanks to some YA writers and books — in particular, if you care to uncover them, “morally complicated YA” novels, particularly YA novels by women. Pop ’em in the comments below, talk about what those books mean to you.