YA and Splitting Genres

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.

A Call for Variety

YA does rather seem to be The Topic in the world of entertainment media, doesn’t it? I’ve [link]mentioned before[/link] that it seems every movie is a YA adaptation, and that the most popular books are from this genre, courtesy of multiple demographic appeal.

Unfortunately, we’re still in a bit of a hangover from the ‘00s, and to some extent the ‘90s. These decades, we really haven’t had much truck with this ‘upbeat’ thing, particularly the ‘00s. Coming off the ‘80s, where the defining names in fantasy were Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind, we kind of took a left turn into George R. R. Martin. I’m not saying that Jordan and Goodkind didn’t have bad things happening in their books, or that they didn’t get dark … but I think I’m safe in saying they’re wish fulfilment and just overall triumphant in a way that Martin was actively trying to steer away from. The ‘00s brought us China Mieville and similar works, a renewed obsession with the Industrial Revolution/Steampunk and, of course, the dystopian YA fantasy. Harry Potter gives way to the Hunger Games. The works of Meg Cabot give way to brooding vampires and tortured souls caught between monster and humanity.

I’ve had a few conversations with people who are basically sick of the trend of dystopian YA fiction. The market, according to these people, is glutted with YA books almost in name only, seemingly all trying to outdo each other with how ‘dark’ they can get before people decide to stop giving them to their kids. Someone decided to show swearing and teenage sex, so somebody upped the ante with systemic violent aggression or teen pregnancy, and it all went downhill from there.
I do think there’s a point there. I mean, I love that authors are treating teens basically like adults with less life experience; there’s great value in having books that explore harsh issues, because hey, there may well be kids going through these things. Not necessarily being forced into a nation-wide televised deathmatch, but deaths of loved ones? Regret? People who want to use them for their own ends, rather than for the kid’s benefit? Yeah, that happens. And it’s sometimes nice to know it happens to other people as well, and that it’s possible to work through it even if it may suck. Sugarcoating everything for kids and teens helps nobody.
But on the other hand, note the use of ‘everything’ in that last sentence. Sugarcoating everything? Bad. Having some books that reflect just plain fun and hijinks and whimsy? I miss that. Stuff like the Bartimaeus trilogy, that wasn’t necessarily all happy and shiny, but wasn’t The Harsh Realities of Life, either.

I mean, even if we’re going to keep with this dark-and-edgy thing (and I hope we don’t entirely, because variety is nice), let’s get some other kinds up in here. Dark, but not in a realistic way. Bring back the movies like Jim Henson used to make, books like Darren Shan used to write. Neither of those are gritty realism with dying sisters and parents and abject poverty and cancer, but they’re also not happy and shiny all the way through. Darren Shan’s books had better not be – they’re horror! Terrible things happen in those books, but not in a way obviously connected with reality. Characters can be relatable in their misery without having an experience that it’s possible to have in real life.

I really like it that YA seems to be trusting kids to deal with heavy stuff. I’d just like some variety in the genre.
If anyone has YA recommendations that don’t fall into the standard gritty realism, feel free to drop them in the comments. It might be that someone else is looking for the same thing.

Why I Don’t Write YA Fiction

On the writers’ forums I go on and interact with my fellow pen-pushers, I’ve noticed a trend.  It’s really, really common to find YA writers.  Not to say that other strains of writer are absent, but sometimes it seems like everyone I talk to is a YA writer.  Some days, I’m not sure what to think about this.  I quite like the YA genre. Some of my favourite books are YA (I’m currently rereading the Skulduggery Pleasant series and oh the childish glee I have reawakened).
I’ve had people say to me in the past that I should write YA.  Apparently I have the sense of humour for it, or something.  Or someone’s asked a question about a particular storyline I’m writing, and my response is “It can’t be like that; then I’d be writing YA fiction, and that’s not something I can do.”
This, of course, is leaving aside the people I know who seem convinced that writing YA is somehow ‘easier’, which I am highly, highly dubious about.

But, on the other hand, you can get away with a lot in YA fiction, particularly in the way of interstitial or genre-blending texts.  You’re tapping into a market with way more free time to read books.  I don’t think it’s any surprise that three of the last five huge blockbuster book series have been YA (Harry Potter, Twilight, the Hunger Games, respectively – the odd ones out are Fifty Shades and Game of Thrones).
YA also gets the advantage of periphery demographics.  A great YA series is way more likely to be read by adults than a great adult series is to be read by teens.

And to be perfectly honest, I expect I really could write YA fiction if I tried.  But there’s a few reasons why it’s not my thing.

It’s Way Too Hard.
Yeah, yeah, what a copout.  Here’s the thing.  If I were to write YA fiction, I’d be looking at the same themes as I do in my adult-aimed fiction (and I think themes will definitely be the topic of a blog post in the near future).  For the last couple of books, those themes have been themes like friendship, death, duty, self-sacrifice and power dynamics.
Can you write a great book for teens that explores this theme?  I’d smack you upside the head if you said you couldn’t.  Neil Gaiman deals with death in ‘The Graveyard Book’, ‘The Hunger Games’ is all about social power dynamics.
‘Frozen’ is a kid’s movie that challenges social norms about the role of romantic love in narratives.
‘The Secret of Nimh’ is a kids’ movie.  No explanation needed.
It’s practically a badge of honour on the Internet to have cried at ‘The Lion King’ or ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, for goodness’ sake.

Kids’ fiction absolutely can and does touch on some pretty heavy topics.  But the catch is, you’re not allowed the full scope of language to talk about it.

I’ve gone on before about Plain English, and I absolutely believe in putting things in as simple terms as possible.  But there must be a streak of contrary self-importance in me, because the thought of developing prose that’s easily digestible by fifteen-year-olds just turns my blood cold.  Maybe it’s because I have no children myself, maybe it’s because I don’t interact with teens since I left high school, and maybe because you’ll separate me from my pompous metaphors and overcomplicated symbolism over my rigor-mortis’d corpse.  Whatever it is, whenever I write for a young audience, I always feel like I’m doing something wrong.  I’ve seen people use the simplest language to talk about very complex things, and yet every time I try, it comes across trite and simplistic and patronising.  As I said above, I could learn, but it’d take a looooong time and some serious brain reworking.  Maybe I’ll try it one day.

My Characters Aren’t Right.
While YA books can indeed focus on just about any theme you care to name, one of the things they must do is be relatable to teen readers.  That’s not to say they all have to be about high school and relationships and the transition to adulthood (I’d argue that making them all so directly relatable is doing the genre a disservice).  But it certainly helps if you have a main character who is roughly of the right age, or the right period in their life (I’d argue many fantasy protagonists would suit simply because of their naïveté – usually the farmboy type who gets embroiled in conflicts far beyond their experience, without needing to be precisely the right age).

These are not the protagonists I tend to write.  Sure, I love shoving people into situations they don’t understand, but my adults are irrevocably adult.  I don’t go in for bildungsroman stories that much.  My characters come at problems with a wealth of experience behind them to make decisions with, even when the situation is new.

I expect this links back to that “I haven’t interacted with teens since high school” bit I was talking about before.  I mean, I don’t know them, I don’t particularly connect with them, so how on Earth am I supposed to write something that appeals to them?  It will all end in tears, bruised egos, and the shunning looks of people several years younger than me on the street.

Content Is Tricky
I wouldn’t consider myself a writer who relies on shock value.  I don’t tend to use a lot of swearwords in my novels (not to say I don’t drop judicious profanity on occasion), I don’t write a lot of sex scenes, I don’t even have climactic battles in my books to get gory with.

Mind you, when one of my books has a character very symbolically and deliberately remove his own eyeball and present it to another person as a gift, you kind of have to wonder whether I’m not better off somewhere other than the teen fiction section.

Not that I think the teens can’t handle it – not at all.  I’m sure most of them would be positively gleeful.  It’s the parents I’m worried about.  I live with a housemate – if I get my own stuff razed and the earth salted, it’s my own damn fault.  She, on the other hand, might take issue with that.

Flippancy aside, what I actually mean by that title is that I just … what do you even … what do you write?  Somehow, I don’t see any of the books I write appealing to those I know in the YA market (a couple of family friends and my cousins).  It probably comes back to the characters above – but here’s what I think: The problems my characters have aren’t necessarily ones that will grab the readers in the YA demographic (carefully avoiding grouping them all as “teen readers”, since I really, really don’t want to imply that teenagers can’t deal with issues beyond ones they have themselves.  That would be condescending and untrue).  As I said, my characters are adult.  Their outlook is adult, their problems are adult.  I sincerely hope there are teenagers out there who read, enjoy and connect with my books, but I don’t think that’s what the YA genre is looking for.

And now that I’ve dug myself into that particular pit of patronising and condescension, I think I should sign off.  Kudos to the wonderful YA authors out there who do what I could not, and I’m going to go back to unashamedly reading your books because some of them are just plain awesome.  I hope you all keep dishing out plenty more awesome material, keep our kids and teens reading good-quality fiction and all that.

Any YA authors read this blog?  Have I completely misrepresented the genre?  What do you yourselves find difficult, or easy, about writing YA fiction (or conversely, what are the challenges transitioning from writing YA to writing adult?

And now, of course, the next time someone asks me why I don’t write YA “because it sells so well right now”, I’ve got a convenient link for them.