Books Culture

“Guilty Pleasures” II: In Defence of Sarah J. Maas

Isolation, it turns out, is really dull. I have watched almost all of Mad Men, and most of The West Wing. As I was running out of things to do – aside from revising for collections, which I am avoiding at all costs – I turned to my bookshelves and reached for an old favourite.

Throne of Glass is a Young Adult fantasy series set in Adarlan, a fictional realm with an evil King who is busy conquering the rest of the continent. As the series develops, so do the themes, exploring sex, violence and identity. The real triumph of much Young Adult fiction is its accessibility, with millions drawn in by the adventure, romance and melodrama which characterise the genre. It is difficult to engage a teenage audience, but in the past decade this genre has expanded dramatically. What began tentatively with Twilight and The Hunger Games is now a fully established genre, with a significant readership.

Why, then, are these books treated with such derision? Why are they so regularly described as a “guilty pleasure”? They are not typically criticised – as they might be – for a lack of LGBTQ representation and diversity, plot-holes the size of the moon, or for becoming a bit by-the-numbers in places. Instead they are criticised for their sex scenes, and their female teenaged protagonists. All of this begs the question: is this criticism based on the writing, or on the inability to take teenage girls and what they enjoy seriously?

These books feature incredible young female protagonists. They are empowered, they know their rights, and they stand up for themselves. They don’t hold many similarities to the women in much classical literature: they are loud, diverse, and act as far more than pretty ornaments to the main plot. Their character flaws are more than simple vanity. On the whole, these characters are far more relatable than those in many admired pieces of literature.

Moreover, Maas’ series, published at the rate of approximately one book a year, grew with us. The themes deepened and became more adult alongside us, which meant that the books remained relevant and enjoyable. Although one of the major criticisms of Maas’ work is that it eventually becomes a fantasy sex-romp, the novels contain a much healthier depiction of sex than can be found in the vast majority of online content. This literature provides teenage girls with a space where they can read about women having positive sexual experiences, and there aren’t very many places on the internet where sex is portrayed with the same level of honesty. The debate about the effect of online porn on boys as they develop often ignores the impact on girls. It is equally important to teach girls about sex and communication as it is to teach boys that online porn is unrealistic and misogynistic, and YA literature like the Throne of Glass series could play an essential role.

A defence of Maas is necessitated by a culture that has ridiculed teenage girls since the invention of ‘Beatlemania’. Some of the criticism levelled at the novels is justified, yes – but, much like The Beatles, there is a lot to like in Maas’ series.