Once upon a time, books were written for either children or adults. And mostly this was fine, and some of the children’s books were better suited to teenage readers and that was OK, and some of the teenage readers who liked reading a lot turned to the adult books for their reading material, and mostly the system sort of worked itself out.
Then a series known as the Harry Potter series was published, and 90% of the reading world sort of lost the plot. As these books were released, it became clear that there was another type of reader that the publishing industry had not accounted for, Soon, a new label appeared on bookshelves in stores. “Young Adult”.
That, of course, is grossly oversimplified. Harry Potter wasn’t written in a vacuum, though it was the right thing at the right time to trigger a change. Before Harry Potter, that demographic was reading books like The Belgariad, by David Eddings (a parody I didn’t realise was a parody until much later in life, similar to how many people read Gulliver’s Travels at a young age without realising it’s satirical). But those books were still very clearly modelled on books for adults, that happened to be accessible to teen readers, rather than books aimed specifically at teenagers.
I actually couldn’t tell you how old I was when I started reading Harry Potter. I know I got the book in 1997, soon after its release, because a friend of my mother’s had said her kids enjoyed it. However, at the time I was perhaps a bit young, because I read the first 20 pages and didn’t like it enough to continue. Later, once it started to become very popular, my mother convinced me to try it again and thus began my introduction to what may well have been my first ever fandom. Of course, whether this was when the story really became popular or whether it was just that myself and my peers just matured into the target demographic, I couldn’t tell you.
I can, however, say that it was four years later, in 2001, when other big-name YA titles started to be released. Artemis Fowl was released in 2001, so was the first book in The Bartimaeus Trilogy, and Eragon. The year before, the first Deltora Quest book was published. All fantasy or speculative fiction books, and all of them aimed at the same group of readers: teenagers (and some preteens) who had read Harry Potter and were looking for something else to read between books. We needed a name for the genre. So we called it YA.
Now, the early Harry Potter books, and some others in the genre at that time, were probably closer to what is now labelled, at least by publishers, as middle-grade fiction. That is, for young teens and pre-teens, where YA these days generally means for audiences of 15 to 18 years, depending on whom you ask. YA seems to have aged with the Harry Potter series a bit, and after the series was finished, it started to diversify. First, there was Twilight, which was also fantasy, but then The Hunger Games hit shelves, and suddenly YA was dystopian science fiction, and then The Fault in Our Stars spread the genre into straight-up fiction. Clearly, the genre is no longer “Harry Potter fans looking for more books to read”. The question now is whether it’s time to redefine or split the genre again.
Back when the genre was following on from the Harry Potter trend, it was basically all speculative fiction, and mostly fantasy at that. So, splitting it up into different ‘genres’ really didn’t matter. Twilight came and went and spawned a subgenre (teen paranormal romance), but that really didn’t disturb the YA monolith, even though there have been a few tropes working their way between the groups. But mostly the paranormal romance genre kept to itself. It really hasn’t been until the advent of The Fault in Our Stars (and many other books in its niche, both before and after) that the idea of splitting the genre became a serious consideration, at least for me.
For a long time, I’ve heard this argument: YA isn’t a genre, it’s a demographic! It doesn’t tell you anything about the book content! It shouldn’t be the label for the genre! We should split this demographic up by genre just like the adult fiction section, for clarity!
This is fundamentally missing the point of genres in the first place, and to some extent, of language itself. See, most people would get a very clear idea of what sort of story I’m talking about if I said I read a YA novel last weekend. It’s probably dystopian science-fiction or fantasy, or otherwise in a bleak setting. The main character is between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, and is probably female. There is probably a male Love Interest, and their romance is probably in some way Rebellious in their culture. The main character’s goal is, in one way or another, to destabilise or alter the fabric of society to right some systemic injustice. The themes of the story are probably something to do with corruption and unfair distribution of power, the injustice of treating groups of people like a lesser or separate species, and how passion (not necessarily romantic) overcomes obstacles.
That’s pretty specific, honestly. And at the moment (or, equally likely, the moment a few months ago when I last had a grasp on what was happening in the genre; I’m not discounting the possibility that the genre has now moved on without me), the trendy sections of the YA genre look much like that. That’s hardly “YA is a demographic that could contain anything!”
This is because YA has become jargon, and jargon is a funny thing. If I say to an accountant, “that table is a liability”, it would mean something very different than if I said it to a carpenter. The accountant, if they had reason to believe I was using their jargon, would assume I meant that I owed someone money for the table. The carpenter would probably assume I meant the table was broken or defective in a way likely to injure someone, and thus I would like the table fixed or replaced.
YA is the term for the genre now, because when we first came up with the term, it meant “for Harry Potter readers”, but you can’t use that as a genre title, and given the sheer number of people reading Harry Potter, “it’s everyone between these ages” was probably the only meaningful demographic label it was possible to give. But now the genre isn’t tied up with Harry Potter anymore, the name is a jargon term for a genre of literature that now means something different to the literal translation of the words.
The only reason we’d be looking into splitting the genre up would be if YA has become a useless term – if the category is now too broad. For all that I just described a typical YA novel of the mid-2010s, that really doesn’t describe nearly half the books on the shelf. For all that The Fault In Our Stars has a bleakness to it that wouldn’t be out of place in dystopian fiction, there’s a huge gulf of difference between it and Divergent. Skulduggery Pleasant, though in the YA genre, bears little to no resemblance to The Hunger Games.
The question is: Is the genre a restriction for either readers or writers? That is, would a reader get overwhelmed or confused by the variety on a YA bookshelf, and find it difficult to locate a book they wanted. In this case, this is particularly pertinent, since the readers of the genre aren’t assumed to be the ones buying the books themselves, like in adult fiction. The YA bookshelf doesn’t actually cater to the fifteen-year-old who devours books, has strong opinions on Four versus Gus, and knows how to recognise a particular subgenre from the cover art. That fifteen-year-old will sort themselves out just fine. The YA bookshelf has to cater to the middle-aged relative who walks in looking for a birthday present for that fifteen-year-old, who just knows they’ve seen the kid walking around with Maze Runner and Divergent, and still wants to find something that kid will like. Too much variety on the shelves will definitely be a problem for that relative.
On the other side of the equation, are writers going to find it difficult to find a “market” for books if the YA genre becomes too broad. YA trends, after all, will still happen, and if the numbers say that YA readers like The Hunger Games, would a series like The Belgariad get overlooked by publishers as “not marketable in this environment”? Would those publishers be right?
For now, I would say that the YA genre is fine as it is. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts splitting up soon. It’s only getting more diverse, and this will become a problem in the future.
Me, I’m starting the betting pool on where we draw the divisions.