This Christmas I have been reading a collection of short Christmas stories by women writers. They are old stories, many from the 1800s and early 1900s. They are nice stories, but I am struck by the fact that that is the best I can say for those I have read this season. The writing styles and vocabulary are archaic, and the plots are typically quiet and a little slow. These things are not weaknesses in themselves, of course, but for these particular stories, one thing stands out to me that has been (thankfully) excised from modern writing: a wet, warm, saccharine sappiness that drains the tales of the kind of truthfulness that moves me. Don't get me wrong. I like sappy stories sometimes. Catch me watching a Hallmark commercial or an old episode of Little House on the Prairie and you'll see tears in my eyes. But in stories like these, I can't help but roll my eyes a little.
This reminded me of old novels I have read or skimmed. Whether beloved or not, many (not all!) stories of yesteryear tend to follow this "unrealistic realism" track. They are stories that could happen, theoretically, but they have been sanitized and glossed to the point that modern readers feel a little nauseous after reading them. The characters are too perfect, perhaps, or the plot threads come together too neatly, or the dialogue just doesn't sound the way people actually talk (even in the olden days). And the writer's voice doesn't even sound authentic; instead, it sounds more like the writer is putting on a false persona to fit into a socially acceptable box. Maybe these stories are "safe" to read for those who want to avoid things like sex and bad language--but great literature they are not.
Today's novels tend to be different, though, including those written for teens. Yes, they often contain themes and content that parents don't feel their teens are ready for or which glorify things that go against their family's values and beliefs. YA novels are often dark and edgy, too, and some are shockingly trashy and poorly written. As a genre, though, YA novels of today do tend to be better written than many of their predecessors. More sophisticated in tone and style, more believable, more layered with meaning, and more artful, today's YA novels take readers where earlier YA authors couldn't (or wouldn't) dare to go. Criticize them in whatever ways we must, a fair-minded reader who has been well-grounded in older literature (not necessarily classic, just older) must admit that this is, indeed, one major bright side of the YA genre.