Monday, February 08, 2010

Good-bye YA?

So you might have heard that the Indianapolis Colts lost the Super Bowl, and, naturally, that begs us to address the question…

Should we do away with YA literature?

Okay, one has absolutely nothing to do with the other and it was a terrible segue; however, we never promised everything we do here at WMLA would make sense. We are in publishing, after all.


Seriously, though, there have been some changes in the industry that have made this a viable discussion topic. Have you noticed, for example, that the books propping up the industry (Twilight, Harry Potter, etc.) are YA crossovers? Not only do young readers read them, but adults do as well. Editors are now desperate to find—and we speak from experience here—books they can market initially as YA that will attract the adult audience. Given that the last five years have brought about a trend toward more mature YA with older protagonists, what does that say?

I’ve been thinking about YA lately, in a publishing kind of way AND a sociological kind of way. If you know anything about the evolution of children’s literature, you know that youngsters pre-Newberry read, or strived to read, adult stories. Literature written and marketed specifically for children was an afterthought. Don’t believe me? Check out the early versions of fairy tales. Not what I would characterize as child friendly, what with the toe amputations and all. Have you ever read the original Peter Pan? The one by James Matthew Barrie, not the Disney version. Though filled with whimsy, it’s definitely not written at a level young children, or even most teens or adults, could read without a struggle.

YA is a natural extension of the kiddy lit revolution and its newest genre. It hasn’t been around in its current form THAT long, though it’s been around. Prior to someone deciding that teens needed a body of reading material specifically designed for them, kids either read middle-grade or stepped up to reading adult books. There was no in between.

Maybe that was a good thing.

I like some YA lit. I really do. Never liked it as an adolescent, but that’s rather a moot point considering my current age (which is not in the teen range). However, one has to admit that the best YA also happens to appeal to adults. And one also has to admit the YA titles most attractive to YA readers are those that tackle mature issues and include older characters (even as old as the first year of college). Let’s face it: Most kids can’t wait to be adults, and lots of commercial fiction is written at an 8th grade reading level anyway. Teens are fascinated by the idea of having complete autonomy over their lives and making their own decisions—weren’t you? Isn’t this nature’s way of luring the innocents toward the inevitable? If kids really knew how difficult being an adult is, wouldn’t they all pull a Peter Pan?

So what does that say about the genre?

This is not new. Not really. There have always been publishers who insist on pure YA because they market only to teens, and those who are more open about wanting a YA that can appeal to a wider audience (and hope for a Twilight). However, has the time come to admit that maybe the reading population needs more of one and less of the other?

In addition, it’s been said that the last few generations, those would have grown up with YA lit designed just for them, are endowed with more of a sense of entitlement than their predecessors. Less "get up and go" and more "whine until we get what we want." Did we in publishing do that? By designating a genre for teens, did we send the wrong message?

Adolescence is temporary. If a person lives an average life span, he/she will spend way more time as an adult than as a young adult. By cherishing the wonder years just a little too much, by celebrating our growing pains like they were the only pains we’d ever have, have we created a segment of society born of angst and lacking in any comprehension of a world beyond themselves, or beyond their “young” selves that have slyly slipped into their pasts while they were updating their MySpace pages?

Why is it that e-book publishers rarely seek out YA? The newest technology available, which one would assume would explode onto the teen scene (yes, teens do read THAT much), and no e-publisher will touch it. Doesn’t that seem odd to you? Perhaps the reason no one wants YA e-books is because YA readers are reading adult level novels.

What do you think? You can leave a comment or participate in the poll we’re trying to set up (if it doesn't appear, then you know we couldn't remember how to do Yes, it’s that important to us. This is our business and it’s changing, and we’ve found it’s the changes no one talks about that really are the most important and the ones that affect literature the most.


Tamara Hart Heiner said...

that's why I'm so excited about the emerging genre 'new adult.'

Peter said...

It's nice to get an "inside" opinion on this topic. I'm an author struggling with this very concept. In fact, I recently had a post about it:
Crossing Between the Lines…
In the post I express how I feel the same way as author Neil Gaiman who (in general) writes with only himself in mind as an audience. Since Gaiman is just a big kid (which I say in the highest regard), it makes sense. He also has a great anecdote about an absurdity in the publishing business.

Peter and Wendy (Peter Pan) is the perfect example in my case, not only because it does work on a much deeper, darker and psychologically mature level as well as entertain the kiddies, but my college Honors Project of a scholarly pursuit of Barrie culminated in Peter Pan’s NeverWorld . Based on Barrie's own sequel ideas, it's partially a tale of where the line is drawn between child and adult.

On one level I'd like to see the YA category removed... it does seem like pandering in a way. Or perhaps we just need to broaden our scope of adult youth.

- Peter Von Brown

Jim MacKrell said...

I was pleased when a Dad wrote to me that his 12 year old son stole my novel, Down from the Mountain from him and wouldn't give it back. Dad laughed and downloaded a kindle copy so he could personally keep reading. Down from the Mountain is set in sheep country of Montana and is an adventure where the hero is an Australian Shepherd. Is it a YA? No but kids from 10 to 19 seem to be enthralled by it. The bottom line is that it offers the YA audience a look at a life they have never seen or heard of. Most of our successful crossover YA to Adult books have what I call a nostalgia element or a "glimpse into the supernatural" What is passing is books that try to relate to the teen and pre-teen's way of life. They already know that, and most of them use books to escape.

Scott Jensen said...

My 16-year-old nephew and 13-year-old niece talked about this a bit ago and they said learning that a book was YA was something they'd hold against it. When I pointed out that "Twilight" is classified as YA, they didn't believe me until I showed them online.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Great comments. The funny thing about YA is it seems that it's almost a metaphor for its demographic, growing and changing until it matures into adulthood and disappears forever. As an adolescent who didn't like the YA books available at the time--have always been a BIG escapist reader--I find it interesting that many teen readers are reading books like The Kite Runner and The Notebook as opposed to those marketed as YA.

Anonymous said...

"Did we in publishing do that?" Did publishing create generations of whiners just by offering literature tailored to a younger audience? No way. If recent generations do in fact have "less get-up-and-go" than their predecessors, I am sure it is due to a variety of much larger social, political, and historical factors, not the broadened offerings of the publishing industry.
I would also venture to say that young readers are similar to "old" readers in that readers of their demographic will have a wide variety of tastes in what they like to read. I think the YA category is just diversifying to finally reflect that fact- not disappearing forever. I think difficulties arise when we treat YA as a true "genre" rather than a label for a target demographic.

M.B. Sandefur said...

I think YA fiction/nonfiction is definitely relevant. What else would kids have to read, adult books? Jeez, part of the reason I like being an adult is of all the books I can buy without getting the sideways glance...haha.

KLM said...

This is a very provocative idea, and you make some good points. But. While it's true that kids and teens want to BE older and thus READ older, as with life, is that necessarily a good idea? I think having a "buffer" literary zone of YA or even New Adult is still appropriate. Otherwise, heck, why not just hands the keys of your car to your 13 year old and tell him to have a good time?

Just because you want to BE a grown up, doesn't mean you're READY to be a grown up.
This what stories do for us, after all, prepare us for the world.

The reason some books cross-over is because they're just good stories. It's that complex and that simple. All these categories? They're about marketing, not storytelling. And even if you did away with the YA category altogether, you'd still have the same situation: different books for different stages of life. Read as you choose and be glad to have the choice at all.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. Did you read St. Martin's latest requests for books for the older YA? They are looking for books that are geared toward college age YA.

I review YA books and some of the recent ones have had older characters not the usual high schooler.

What gets confusing is MG or middle grade books.

That said, teens I know don't necessarily go for a book just because it's YA. They like books that are entertaining, just like anyone else. What's funny is a lot of the moms of these teens also have been enjoying Stephanie Meyer's books.

Kim Baccellia

Sheri Larsen said...

Your point is well taken and ingested. It's true. YA seems to be gearing to the more experienced eye. On purpose? Maybe or maybe not. Some, like myself, simply write in that slant.

I agree with Tamara about the stir surrounding the 'new adult' label.
I see it's emergence as a positive evolution and just another alley we as writers can forge ahead, break barriers, and tell our stories. Do I think YA should be canned? No.

Oh, fairy tales of long ago... totally written for the mature eye. Frankly, a few are quite disturbing. :)

holly said...

but they are still good books, twilight is top selling..

Andrea M. Bodel said...

When I was 2-6 I read picture books. Then I moved to Chronicle's of Narnia. Loved that, and began devouring every 'adult' book I could find. Louis L'Amour, classics, basically everything a kid my age was not supposed to read. Read adult books until I was 16 or 17 when I started reading young adult. I haven't read anything else since.

When I rush to the YA section though, my eyes skip over the typical teen books, and go right to what I love--Urban Fantasy. I read the first few pages. If I am immediately annoyed by a research error or a condescending voice, I put the book down.

I don't like "Adult" literature because it's too graphic for me. It seems like everyone who writes fantasy for the mature audience feel the need to describe the entire contents of someones bowels to me just to prove its adult. Blah.

Diana M. Raab said...

I really enjoy your blog posts!

I think YA is a dying genre because kids are just growing up SO quickly and tend to read up. Soon we will teach them to read in the womb!

Keep up the good job and visit my blog, I muse a lot about the writing world.

Diana Raab

Victoria Dixon said...

Great post! I know I went straight from MG to adult. My last novel is based on a collection of well-known Chinese folktales - there are video games and movies based on the same material. There's a huge built-in YA market for the book even though there's only one teen in the book and he's not the mc.

director said...

For me, I think I agree with Andrea's comments the most. I read constantly, but very little of what I read is adult fiction. I get annoyed with the graphic details, or lack of details that are involved in relationships. In an adult book, the people usually meet one day and are passionately in love the next.

Although I feel like a lot of YA fiction tries too hard to get into the mind of the teenager, I really enjoy the books that I can find merit in as an adult. I don't appreciate books about prom dates or a wardrobe crisis, but I do love the novels that deal with real human emotions. Honestly, the YA audience is my favorite group both to read and to write for.

Anonymous said...

As I read all these comments on YA and its "shining examples", a question kept nagging at me. What is it that a YA or an adult enjoys...really enjoys about "Romeo and Juliet?" Is it honestly Shakespeare's torturous, stilted, formalized beyond belief and generally alien prose of the Elizabethan era? Or is it the cinematic story with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and long before them Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting...? Eh, eh, come on - be honest - what do you "love" about this melodramromantic tale? If you've gone through the education system on any part of our globe in the last hundred years, I bet it's not reading it as its author penned it.

And consequently, what is it "all yea who sing praises and worship Twilight" that you really like? Reading the borderline illiterate writing craft, the poorly constructed story with so many inconsistencies it makes you wonder
how did those who had to adapt it for cinema manage this daunting task? Is it really reading a novel that perches on the brim of "drivel-pit" or is it Krisen and Robert Pattinson's cinematic version of the dime-a-dozen story?

To stay close home, consider this. My middle-aged family member gushed about "Twilight" and how she loved it. She read it, natch. When I asked her (having read it as well) what she liked, she said:
Oh, I just love Robert Pattinson.

Need I say more on the topic of "good" YA...? I do, you say?
Well, the second last Harry Potter movie, having been made under the usual strict supervision of its author "true to the book" is about...? Anyone, anyone, anyone...Ferris Bueller, please stand up.

I've watched it at least five times. Many of my friends did too. I can't for the love of life tell you coherently what it's about. It's the only book I haven't bought or read, not having money to waste. But if the movie is a true reflectin of the book --- well, as they say, nothing succeeds like success.

Novels like these are mediocre YA. It's why adults like my family members love them - though what they really love is their cinematic version, not printed word. And it's why YAdults gravitate to reading adult novels. Those are tougher to get agented and past editors who were not born in the last twenty years.