Maybe I Don’t Like YA As Much As I Thought I Did.

And again, we come back to YA. We seem to do that a lot recently.

I think I seem to have a lot to say about YA mainly because I’ve had trouble working out what I think about YA. I mean, do I think there are great and awesome YA books? Totally! I thoroughly enjoy a whole lot of them. Do I love that we’re giving a traditionally in-between age group something to read that’s more difficult, both in language and in theme, than a ‘children’s book’, but also speaks to their age group like adult books don’t? Please more, and use this to make more books for all different experiences, not just age-based ones. Plus, it gets people reading, and I’m biased, but I don’t really think that’s ever a bad thing.

I also like that YA has heaps of periphery demographic appeal. Teens read it, adults read it, and both enjoy it equally. Any set of books that appeal to so many must be doing something right.

But it’s exactly this periphery demographic appeal that makes me ambivalent. I mean, think of the huge, blockbuster hits of the past decade (or more!). They’re all YA. The big fantasy movies are all based on YA books (Yes, this means I’m including The Hobbit. Come on, the Hobbit movies aren’t any more adult than the Hunger Games books, and in some ways less so). I can think of one exception – Game of Thrones.

It’s simple economics: YA things are always going to get more popular because of the comparably large amount of spare time teens have, and the larger proportion of their income that they can spend on non-essentials (as a sweeping generalisation). And parents who like to read often like to read the same books as a bonding thing, either as a bonding thing or because the kid can recommend them good books. Or even try to get to them first to check if the book is appropriate. The parent will pick up YA books instead of adult books, in other words, and so YA has the greater uptake overall. This, by the way, is even before getting into the issue of a tired parent picking up a YA book the requires comparatively little effort and emotional capacity compared to a complex and theme-heavy adult book.

This is probably OK. I mean, the anime industry is run on shounen fighting anime (Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, DBZ …) and that never stopped the industry coming out with Kino’s Journey, Mushi-shi, Baccano! or Paranoia Agent, all of which are adult-oriented series of varying levels of seriousness, but all of exceptional quality. I honestly can’t bring myself to believe that YA is going to crowd out the adult fantasy genre (or any other adult genre; I’m talking about fantasy because that’s what I read most, and the direction YA seems to be trending). There are always, always going to be readers who want adult fantasy, and more than enough of those to keep a vibrant and diverse industry running.

At the same time, I can’t really get behind the argument that YA is just as complex thematically as adult fantasy. Does YA address tough subjects? Of course, and I’m glad it does. But no matter what you do to YA, you’re still primarily addressing an audience with less life experience than an adult. It’s kind of part of the definition. You’re writing for a group of people who also have extremely different life experiences, and who usually want something very different out of both life and fiction. YA also tends to have a smaller scope, in terms of characters. The big trend in YA at the moment is first-person narration, and fewer subplots than adult fiction. This is not wrong, but on the whole, the sheer amount of stuff going on you can get away with cramming into an adult novel is going to dwarf what a YA publisher is willing to accept. See also: Game of Thrones.

And this finally leads us to why I think the Dystopian YA trend has to stop eventually. First, the market is going to get bored. But if doesn’t, what is going to happen? YA will need darker or at least murkier themes (which will be … interesting). Which means they’re going to need more examination to pull off without being corny or dismissive, and may even start to fall outside the realm of ‘themes which the YA demographic relates to’. Which means trending towards adult-novel-hood. And then we’re back to separate children’s books and adult books, and that’s not going to help anybody.
If teens want to read books with more complexity and more adult-oriented themes, let them read adult books. You don’t need to cover all the gaps with the YA genre.

Let’s make this a Venn diagram, or a spectrum. I’d love to be able to argue over whether a books is YA or adult with friends. Anime proves that this is a really great spot to be (Death Note, Code Geass, Fullmetal Alchemist…) But every spectrum still needs books at each side; you lose the point if everything starts to gather in the middle.
And everyone involved could stand to be a little more optimistic about life.

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