Divergent and a Despicable Bias

"Divergent" opens this weekend, the movie based on Veronica Roth's bestselling trilogy. There's been a fair amount of coverage of what it signifies if the movie fares poorly—that YA books as adaptations are dead, that people are tired of everything YA has to stand for...

This is so unfortunate.

For starters, I really feel for Veronica Roth. Her book has been unfairly singled out for criticism. I read this wildly misleading piece in the New York Times in January and wanted to send her a box of chocolates. It's simply not true that YA is all dystopians, all lucrative, or all written with ease by very young people. The article called this book "threadbare," which is a huge insult to the taste and hearts of the many people who loved the book. Just because you or I don't fall for a particular title doesn't mean it's a bad book. If even one person loves a book, it means the author did something right.

And while I had questions about the way Roth's world worked, I was able to put those aside and see it as a metaphor. Sure, it would be impossible to organize around a complex society around single attributes the way it's laid out in Divergent. But that very often is how high school feels. That we're all reduced to our simplest signifier, and it's hard to escape, and no one wants you to be more than one thing at a time. It's why "The Breakfast Club" was and remains resonant.

To enjoy the movie to its fullest, you have to be able to go into it thinking about things metaphorically, and not literally. For other forms of art, people seem to have no trouble doing this. No one looks at a Picasso and says, "Wow. That guy definitely couldn't paint noses."

With any piece of art, emotional resonance is more important than logic. It's not to say logic is unimportant, or that some books aren't better than others at creating both. But the purpose of a book is to give a reader a meaningful emotional experience, and Divergent did that for a lot of people, as will the movie.

I'm not saying the book or the movie rises to Picasso's level.

This movie is arguably striving more for entertainment than art, and it struggled at times to deeply establish the motivations and relationships between characters that would have made all of the violence and spectacle as resonant as they should be.

But this is true for most movies. And there's nothing wrong with being entertained. The moment that stops being important is the moment we've stopped being fully human.

I'm really bugged by the eagerness people have to dismiss something based on a YA book as inferior or the mere result of a trend. I hate the idea that this work we're doing and these books that so many people love represent a bubble. There's just too much substance there for this notion to persist.

I'm also bugged by the idea that YA is a genre. It's not. It's a marketing category, just as adult books are also a category. Both are split into genres that might include romance, science fiction, mystery, historical, horror, and the vaguer "literary." But YA ... it's not a genre that follows set conventions. The books are as diverse as adult books, as different from one another as people.

I object to the free pass that adult literary adaptations get. Many adult books are adapted into movies, and no one is making blanket generalizations about this practice. No one's saying, "If 'Gone Girl' tanks, no one's going to make adult books into movies."

This is because books written for adults are generally more respected than books written about the teen experience, simply because they are written about adult concerns.

It's an ignorant bias, as ignorant as respecting adults more than we respect teens simply because they are older. To understand how terrible this bias is, think of your least favorite adult. Then think of your favorite young person. Is your least favorite adult seriously deserving of more respect from the world simply on the basis of his age? Let's hope not.

What's worthy of respect is what is honest and true and made with care and skill. This can be a book as seemingly simple as WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE or something as emotionally complex and literary as M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing books.

It's understandable, I suppose, to have this bias against young people. Teens are, by design, still developing. But this doesn't make them inferior. Nor does it make books about their experience inferior. Honestly, if I had to choose company or a book, I'd choose the curious and passionate teen over the jaded and satisfied adult any day. Just as I'd choose a passionately written, from-the-heart young adult novel over an adult novel that dwells in the land of middle-aged settling, where characters pop their pills and agonize about cruises and holiday homecomings, no matter how elegantly it's constructed.

There are some truly great books being marketed to young readers, books that are every bit as good as the best adult books. To lump them all together, making them easier to dismiss, is the same as writing young people off as inferior just because they're young.

I write for young people in part because I remember what it was like to have so much uncertainty in front of me, to have so many questions that fueled me. I write for young people who are deciding who they want to be and what they'll live and die for, because these choices matter. I write for young people because I care for them and believe in them.

And so should we all. Because before long, we will depend on them.

Divergent: The New York Times review of the movie, which I largely agree with.