Prescriptive vs. Descriptive YA
Katie Coops wrote a great post at Forever Young Adult last week: YA Books: Prescriptive or Descriptive? Coops applies the "two camps of grammar nerds," prescriptivists and descriptivists, to start a discussion about whether YA is describing how teens act or prescribing how teens should act:
In my thoughts about YA lit, the two camps of grammar nerds came to mind: prescriptivists and descriptivists. In case you’re not as much of a language nerd as I am, the simple way to define those two views is this: prescriptivists want to prescribe the right grammar or spelling based on history while descriptivists want to describe grammar and spelling the way it’s being used now. For example, a descriptivist would blithely write “I’m going home to happily read on the couch” and never think twice about it, while a prescriptivist would never accept splitting an infinitive, instead writing “I’m going home to read happily on the couch”. (An infinitive, just FYI, is when the verb form is “to” something. To mix, to bake, to devour…) [Sidenote: Wow, I love her. Grammar nerds FTW!]
So where does descriptivism and prescriptivism come in to play during our leisure reading when the last thing on our minds is grammar? I’ve been thinking about whether young adult authors are prescriptivist or descriptivist about the lives of teenagers and what the answer to that question means for me and other readers of the genre.
Being part of the YA writing community, I'm fairly confident that most writers come from a descriptivist viewpoint--we are are observers and storytellers first and foremost. Personally, I've never written anything with the end-goal of readers emulating what my characters say or do, although sometimes I might want to draw attention to an issue or viewpoint. I see this as more of a [Comp Lit nerdiness warning] reception theory question. Some readers might read a book and think, This is an interesting story about a girl who decides to have sex with her boyfriend. That's a different choice than I've made. Others might read it and think, This girl is having sex with her boyfriend. Everyone on Skins is having sex. I wonder if I should be having sex, too. But by no means should content be altered so as to avoid a prescriptive interpretation--books don't make choices, people do. I firmly believe that YA lit shouldn't shy away from any controversial issue that teens face or actions that teens do. Yet I do think it's important that overall in the category, a variety of choices and lifestyles are portrayed. Not everyone dates in high school; not everyone goes to wild parties in high school; not everyone fights with his/her parents in high school. Sometimes those people are underrepresented.
This is a topic that hits close to home for me. I definitely read for empathy as a teen. While there wasn't nearly as much YA lit available when I was a young adult, I had trouble finding a YA character I could relate to in a sea of books about eventually getting the boy/getting popular. I distinctly remember the hopefulness I felt each time I found a protag who shared my bookishness and general inexperience--and I remember the twinge of disappointment wallflowery 14-year-old-me experienced when the MC got invited to the dance or kissed by her dream guy at the end. Crap, I thought she was going to show me that the path my life is taking is okay, too. [And for the record, I turned out just fine, thankyouverymuch.]
This post isn't intended as a critique on YA, which I love and read and write. I think YA writers do a fantastic job of inclusive writing as it is, and that's something of which I'm very proud. And it's important to remember that there is realism and then there is good fiction--hence all the wonderful heightened adventures our characters have that wouldn't necessarily be likely in real life. Katie Coops's post just resonated with me, as a former prescriptive reader, and I think it's something useful to remember while we read and write.
What do you think? Do you read for "research or empathy," as Coops puts it? Writers, do you worry about the prescriptive/descriptive issue with your writing?