Monday, December 05, 2011

From the Archives - THE NEW YA

Over the last week I've been involved in many discussions online about what can and can't be in YA, what the expected next trend is going to be etc etc.  And the question always comes about, when did YA first come to be - and how it's actually a very young genre (young as in hasn't been around long, not young as in who it's aimed for).  So invariably I wind up linking people to this blog post I wrote in 2009 on the subject of what I called "The New YA".  

I then thought, "Hmm . . . maybe it's time to just re-post this blog entry for those not interested in going through the archives."  

And . . . here it is:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The New YA

YA stands for Young Adult. It is a literary category. It is tricky to quantify, it encompasses many different genres from fantasy to gritty reality. It encompasses many ages.

YA is not MG.

This is the most important thing that people need to realise when buying books for kids/teenagers.

YA is not MG.

MG is middle grade. Middle Grade is typically 8 -12. My books are Middle Grade. The first three Harry Potters are MG. Again, it encompasses many different genres, and while the age range is more specific, there are divisions within it as well. Within Middle Grade you can also have Upper Middle Grade which can be read too by 13 and 14 year olds (that awkward tween stage of literature).

So what is YA then? YA I suppose is anything above that in theory. And yet a YA will rarely have a protagonist younger than 14. Kids like to read up you see.

So what is YA then?

YA is a very new genre. People might argue that, they point to fiction for kids that has been around for forever. They point even to Judy Blume, who remains quite popular. But the new YA isn't that. I'd argue that these days those books you think of when you think of your childhood as being YA are actually Middle Grade. Even if they involved teenagers, these books were primarily read by kids in the tween age range. Once a kid got to high school, if they indeed even kept up with reading, they moved on to adult books. Teenagers don't much want to feel like kids.

I know. I remember that feeling.

I'd argue that the new YA, the YA of the last decade, is the first time YA is being written for YAs.

So what is YA then?

If we suppose that in the past teenagers moved on from what was at the time considered YA to adult books, and that now teenagers are reading actual YA books as actual teenagers, then how can we assume YA ought to remain in some category belonging primarily to middle grade fiction? If they can handle the adult stuff, why then can't YA have adult themes?

The question is asked all the time, "What is acceptable for YA?", "Am I allowed to do this in YA?"

The answer is very straightforward. Anything. Yes.

But remember these two important details. Your main character has to be a teenager. And the plot must have something to do with coming of age.

I'll also add that a faster pace than some adult literature is quite desirable. But then again in adult literature, there are times, dude, when it could also be quite desirable.

Other than that: Anything. Yes.

The new YA respects that teenagers get that the world isn't perfect. That there is sex, drugs, violence and bad language. That bad things happen. But the new YA still for the most part remains a genre of hope. It is rare you will find a YA book ending on a desperate note.

Granted I think this might frighten some adults/parents. Because we look back to our YA reading experiences, back when YA wasn't really YA but MG. We forget the texts we studied in highschool, the adult books we had to analyse, the adult content we were faced with. In our minds, YA still is innocent, because our YA was much more innocent.

There were authors pushing the boundaries, Ms. Blume of course, and the odd YA actually meant for YAs, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (you could consider both of them the inspiration and forebears of the new YA), but for the most part the books were much safer than they are now. However. They also weren't truly meant for teenagers. Because teenagers, again may I repeat, were reading adult books.

Because YA is also a very new genre we have to understand that books that in the past were categorised as adult, could quite conceivably have been categorised as YA had the genre existed at the time.

All very complicated, I know.

Why am I saying all this? I guess because I see articles like these and I just shake my head. The article is about a "children's book" called Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, and asks whether publishers should not take more responsibility for content. Aside from the absurd notion that it is up to publishers to censor what comes out onto the market to preserve one group's idea of morality, what the author of this article neglects to mention is that the book is not MG, is not a "children's book", but is YA. And the author of this article clearly has no concept as to what YA is. Nor do many of those interviewed. This false premise alone is the greatest frustration I have with this article. It means every argument postulated for or against, is discussing the wrong subject. It's like saying, "I read this slice of life book and was shocked to find dragons in it!" when the book you are talking about is clearly a fantasy.

Look, I write MG, I understand that there are certain topics I can't write about, or at least must handle very delicately. This is simply not the same with YA.

I will not pretend that YA with very mature themes are not a harder sell, and much harder for a publisher to market. I also will not pretend that even adult works dealing with certain themes do not get the public's ire raised as well. It is much easier to sell a work about chaste vampires, than one that deals in gritty real world issues. It is naive to say what I have said: Anything. Yes. I really should have added, "But you'd better do it darn well."

But we also have to stop pretending that the literary market is anything like it was when we were kids (and I wasn't a kid that long ago compared to some, and even since then, it has changed considerably).

JK Rowling made kids' books profitable. The MG market exploded with the advent of Harry Potter. She actually changed the face of publishing. This seeped into the YA market, which was already experimenting, and now with Twilight, it is not just a force to be reckoned with, but one of the few genres where sales have gone up in this economic climate.

Go into a bookstore and look at the YA section. It is an incredible thing. So many different styles and genres all shelved side by side. The opportunity to try new things is right there at your fingertips, not isolated from each other like over in the adult section. There is lovely PG rated work to be found, it isn't like it has disappeared, but there is the tougher stuff out there too.

And it's okay. It's good to have choice. I know parents are complaining that they need age banding on books so they understand what it is their kids are reading. But I just don't think that's the answer. A child is not universally ready for something at 12, and then ready for something else at 14. It depends on their upbringing, their reading level, their likes and dislikes. Gasp! On being an individual human being. I could not, and still can't, read/watch horror. Doesn't mean there weren't kids back when I was little reading the Goosebumps series. If we age banded based on my example, no one would be allowed to read horror ever at any age.

The answer, in my mind, is understanding the new YA. And the answer to understanding what it is kids are reading is to read what the kids are reading. To understand that YA for YAs is meant to be read by intelligent discerning minds, by teenagers who are far smarter than a lot of adults give them credit for. Let's not forget that many teenagers are heading off to university by the time they are 17.

You don't want your 12 year old reading YA? There is still MG. There is some amazing MG out there (if I do say so myself). But you need to understand that difference between MG and YA. Because it didn't exist before recently. It's new. YA used to be MG. It isn't anymore.

And again, that's okay.

One final thought: Shakespeare is taught in, I'd venture to guess, almost every highschool in the English speaking world. Shakespeare was a genius. He can express thoughts and feelings in a way that is beyond perfect, you just want to roll his words around in your mouth they are so glorious. However. Shakespeare was also a naughty boy, and his plays are rife with blatant sexual jokes and innuendo. He was also a violent boy, writing about eye gouging, suicide, fights to the death. . .

Your teenagers are reading Shakespeare.

Is all I'm saying . . .


Sean Cummings said...

Excellent blog posting. The challenge for YA authors is finding a publisher whose editing team doesn't impart their values on your book. I have a book I am sending to my agent next week that is filled with f-bombs. I expect I will be asked to get rid of a lot of them. I used F-Bombs like crazy back in the day - still do. All my friends did - still do. It's about writing books that resonate with teens in a way that doesn't sound disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

Okay... my gut feeling is that I disagree with Miss A, but I'm not quite sure why. I think it may be based on my own personal experience - something she mentions in the article - and while that may colour my opinions, well, so be it.
My feelings are as follows... I read a lot when I was a kid, and as Miss A mentions, kids always 'read up'. Consequently, by the age of 9 I was reading Tom Clancy novels, and refused to read anything 'for kids'. A degree of childish snobbishness, yes, but it undoubtedly pushed me towards better books at a younger age.
Harry Potter is another aspect of the issue - while JK's efforts to get more kids reading is to be applauded, and while she does come up with some good ideas in her stories, did they have to be so badly written? I find myself cringing everytime I try to read her work.
So I guess my point is this - to me, at least, YA is a non-starter, as any tween who truly wants to read will already be heading for Kerouac and HST by the time they're in the right age bracket. Younger kids who have the book-bug already have a myriad of tales to read (although that doesn't mean new tales can't be written)... and will no doubt be sensitive to having books pitched at them. Which, if they were like me, they would find highly offensive.
I know being a kid/teen sucks, I don't need a book where the protagonist spends half a chapter begging his mum for a lift into town, when in an adult book, the hero has a driving license...
So I wish any YA - or even MG - author good luck, so long as they do have a sincere wish to bring great literature to the world, regardless of the genre they happen to have picked.
Just, please... no more Twilight bull.

Unknown said...

I agree, I really do. I am a librarian in a 6th form college library and also a great fan of alot of YA/teen/and MG books. You're discussion of the differnces between MG (a term I wasn't familiar with but fits) and YA was interesting and showed just how difficult it is to catagorise in this way. I am always on the look out for books for my target age (16+) and although at first I was a bit nervous about getting MG books which might seem a bit young to selfconsciously 'grown up' teenagers but have been pleasently suprised by the uptake of Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter along side the more predictable hits (anything vampire) and really good reads like the Hunger Games and Chaos walking. Fact is kids will find their own level and I am fortunate to be dealing with an age group where self regulation is really the only possibility. I can understand the concerns of parents with younger children but you made good points with Shakespeare, hardly MG reading material.

Eric M. Edwards said...

I remain unconvinced by YA, either as a category, a sub-category, or a genre.

Teenagers should be reading all sorts of things. To say that they need special consideration - let alone a whole category of books - is to suggest they haven't a broad range of reading interests. Broader than you'd find being suggested for YA.

There is more to young adulthood than reading about teenagers coming of age at a breakneck pace.

If I was a teenager, I'd find this insulting.

And so far what we're seeing peddled as YA is a very particular fusion of the romance and fantasy novel, nominally aimed at a "youthful market" but expected to cross-appeal (and cross-sell) to adults. By changing book labels from either simply adult fiction + shelf-category and children's fiction, publishers open up their fare for more guilt free consumption from readers on either side of that fence.

If that's all it amounted to, then fine. I'm all for good books being read no matter what the excuse. Too many people are not reading, and not reading well. But building categories, even inclusive ones like YA, run the risk of encouraging the industry to make the contents fit within the boundaries which they have made.

So again, I suspect that a lot of these YA books aren't being entirely truthful. They're standing there, with shifty looks and worn trainers telling us in mumble-core that it's all about the kids. But it's not. It's as much about the adults who want a frisson of *frequently simple, escapist fiction that's *rarely more challenging than your *standard airport thriller. And that evokes a bit of nostalgia for our own lost years of teenage tittering as it slides down our gullets.

And if real teenagers are reading these, not pre-teens, in-be-teens, and adults, then I'd demand their teenager licenses back. What kind of teenager reads something they're *supposed to?* Come on kids, rebel. Whatever these YA candy peddlers are pushing, it's not what's bad/good for you.

Go pick up The Master and Margarita, Naked Lunch, The Road, Nausea, The Orange Eats Creeps, or a thousand other better, nastier, more subversive novels. Or you can let some oldster in their thirties spoon feed you more pap about the love and angst spewed out by a half-vampire and a fallen angel trying to make good AND rumpy-pumpy, while at some creaky, secret academy for magical privileged youngsters in upper New Yorke (sic) State.

Yeah go on, I dare you.

*And yes, this one way to see it, milage will vary, etc. etc.. And if you're going to try to argue it's all down to taste go argue with someone else. I don't buy that line of BS, nor do I purchase sight-unseen-land in the sinking Florida Keys. Most of the fiction out there is distinctly middling. Fast food for the reading public, and in demand. Adults should make their own decisions about what they shove in their flabby brains, but teenagers hardly need to be encouraged to make bad decisions. From what I've tried of YA, the choices are even worse - with rare exceptions. But that's why they're exceptional and the bulk of the category is not.

Adrienne said...

Fascinating comments by all, and thank you so much for sharing. I'm not going to enter into an in depth debate here, though I might have to write an entirely new post on how "YA isn't just Paranormal Romance".

My main response to both Anon and Eric is that you are very well allowed to have whatever tastes you have in books. But the truth of the situation is teens are reading YA books. You might not like that they are, you might think all YA is schlock (and I'll really try hard not to be offended by that being a YA author myself . . .), but that doesn't change the fact that for the first time you have teens reading books written for teens.

How do I knows this? From the mass of teenagers I've seen at YA events, lining up to get autographs from their favorite YA authors, writing blogs and reviewing YA books. Teen are reading YA. So to say you disagree with my blog post is not quite accurate.

You can wish it wasn't true, you can attempt to explain how the writing and content of YA books is terrible (which leads me to think you've maybe not read as widely as you claim - have you read Cory Doctorow's YA? Neil Gaiman's? Libba Bray's? Even the HUNGER GAMES?), you can explain how it is condescending to teens to have books written about teens despite there being many issues unique to the experience of being a teen (but for some reason it not be condescending to adults to have books written about adults) and that the true discerning teen readers out there would never touch YA (though where I ever suggested teens ONLY read YA, I'm not sure).

The fact remains, teens are reading YA. And this wasn't the case even a decade ago. The YA books out there are VASTLY different from the "YA" books in the past. And the variety available is quite astonishing. That's my point. Whether you personally like YA or not.

Eric M. Edwards said...

Thanks for the reply. A few points:

YA isn't Paranormal Romance, but large swathes of YA certainly share its DNA.

Not all YA is schlock. Just as not all adult fiction is schlock, but most of it is. That's statistics at work, few books are exceptional, most are of average or low quality.

SF and Fantasy suffer from this malady perhaps slightly more but not less, than general fiction does.

From my limited unscientific sampling of YA, it suffers as well. Out of your list of examples I've read all but one. Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow are both far from being your typical authors - and even they are sometimes hit and miss. Paolo Bacigalupi, Margo Lanagan, and Garth Nix are all authors whose books for younger audiences work hard to deliver complex, quality stories.

I was not impressed by the Hunger Games, and I've not read anything by Libba Bray.

But I've read five times the output of these authors recently and so much of it has been truly eye-wateringly bad. Again, no need to single YA for a kicking, it's not unique to YA.

But I don't see this diversity - but often the same stock situations and style being spun out over a vast number of costume changes. There are a lot of books and book series, true, and I've only read a fraction but there's been little to suggest that they're embracing real diversity. I suspect if they did, they'd be less palatable for the majority.

No doubt teenagers like YA. I've not argued they don't. Teenagers like McDonald's and Malibu. They like Bruno Mars and the Twilight movies. Popularity in and of itself has never been a guarantee of quality.

Which is partly my point. We don't need to encourage teenagers to consume these products. They do on their own and to excess. They certainly don't need to be given a whole new category of books and pointed that way, I fear, at the expense of a much wider range. This is counterproductive when it comes to training better readers to appreciate good writing, for the reasons I broached in my first post.


Eric M. Edwards said...


I don't think they need to read more about themselves, or their fantasy equivalents, dealing with their problems, interacting with their fellow teens. They already do this, minus the fantastical elements, each day.

People have only so much time, even teenagers. And if YA books are not categorically different from the books of the past which were not labeled or written with YA in mind, then what is the point of YA?

That's my point. I don't agree that it's a meaningful category beyond a certain current push by publishers and publicists of books. That many authors are jumping on the YA float without thinking about whether it's a good thing or not, makes me leery. Some seem happy enough to be sat there, with dead-eyes, a smile, and a slowly waving hand.

I want authors to write good books, publishers to publish them but I have yet to see how YA is going to help. I'm going to go back on my earlier claim that reading more is always good. Reading better is just as important and the two have to find a balance between what is pleasurable and what is challenging.

The one interesting point which YA may highlight is a larger societal shift in how we process our teenage-ness. For generations teenagers always looked to being adults. Not teenagers. Even the problems they were most concerned with were in a real sense the aping of adult issues, addictions, pastimes, and sexual activities, by individuals who still stood on the boundary between child and adult.

No longer. We celebrate and promote a sort of twilight grotto where childhood lasts forever. A robotic Peter Pan presides beckoning us into a neon Never Land. The industry which has grown up around it churns out endless products. The ripening of nostalgia for childhood in adults is sped up, to the point where people in their twenties and thirties are already looking backwards for their consumption of culture, not at the present or forwards to more mature pursuits.

Again, this isn't YA fault, in fact YA may well be a symptom. People will defend YA who have a stake in the process - that's natural as well. No hard feelings, do fight your corner. But I still have the overwhelming feeling that YA as a category is a case of the emperor's new clothes.

I can sense that we are likely to disagree. But I do appreciate your effort to engage in a thoughtful dialogue. My first post was nakedly provocative. But what I'm most interested in provoking is thought.

As for me, I don't think YA is necessary or of a clear benefit to the people who are supposed to be reading it. Let's hope the cool kids get wind of its ersatz nature and move on.

Eric M. Edwards said...

Some late additions to our debate.

On a more positive note, Jonathan Mccalmont, critic, blogger, and frequent reviewer on Strange Horizons and his own site, Ruthless Culture, made some interesting observations on Twitter. He feels that while there is a great deal of dross out there, there is also some "really really good stuff." Especially in SF where he gives the example of Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker being better than his adult Wind Up Girl novel, the latter which Mccalmont labels as "big, sprawling and saggy."

Along with Ship Breaker he recommends both White Cat and Hunger Games (the eponymous book rather than series) though steers clear of Cory Doctorow's YA novel Little Brother.

He suggests overall that YA "is breathing life into SF because it is forcing SF authors to write for a wider and different audience" - a SF which he fears has become "crabbed and inward looking." And suggests that it is easy to focus too much on the YA's target audience and expected subject matter.

Kevin Mcveigh counters with the observation that much of YA remains market driven, because for the moment it is generating large sales. He talks about how an out of print SF author has had his back catalogue re-released exclusively as YA despite this category having little to do with the original work. The reason given is because YA is selling, and SF for a lot of authors is not.

I think the rising tide brought on by the success of the Twilight franchise and other series which have quickly been penned in its wake - and not all about vampires or paranormal romance, but being marketed heavily as YA, has brought this big push, as much as any effort to tell more relevant coming of age stories or turn away from tired literary adult fiction in the speculative genres.

Adrienne said...

Thank you for permission to fight my corner, much appreciated ;) .

For the record I defend YA not because I have a stake in it, but because I like it. I write it, because I like it. When I first started writing MG, it was the same thing. I didn't write to a genre, I wrote the kind of book I was interested in reading myself. Further I think I'm a rather decent writer, so I don't like people telling me that evidently what I write is bad. Because I have a healthy ego I suppose.

As to your point: It seems to me you think there is a lot bad books out there, for YA and Adult alike, so I'm not sure why you are expecting YA to do better than Adult. A lot of your other issues with YA stem from marketing and indeed those few authors jumping on the YA bandwagon. So I guess I can understand that if you only look at the negative part of any business, you'll see it as a negative.

I don't suppose you've ever spoken with passionate YA authors, who write it because that's the story they want to tell have you? You know what the common thread is with most of them? "I was just writing a book that happened to have a teen protag, it wasn't until I started submitting it that I was told it was YA." Many authors who write YA actually thought they were writing adult books. And there's the rub. YA is a new category. Books that might have otherwise been shelved as adult (say CATCHER IN THE RYE maybe - can't say for sure of course as there's no going to the past and inventing YA to then see where certain books would be shelved) are now being put into YA. Which is actually a very good argument for adults reading them. You postulate there's a new Peter Pan like thing happening with adults, I postulate it's always been there, there has always been a fascination with coming of age, one's first love (hello R & J anyone?), first time standing up to "the man". But before adults didn't need to go to a new category to find it. Books about teens were already mixed in with books about adults in the adult section.

Now that YA exists, those books are being shelved separately. Is it a good thing? Maybe not as it is clear there are people like you who judge a genre based on its mere existence, not on its content. But maybe it is good because it is making a lot of money, and giving persmission to authors that, yes you can be a legitimate author and write about the teen experience. Though, I suppose this thread has proven, you will always have some people who look down on you.

Further, I also maintain your attitude stems from you not being that widely read in the genre. You say you don't see variety, I ask, have you gone into the stacks and not just looked at the prime placement tables in the bookstores?

Nonetheless I maintain my original point. Which I think you never fully understood. I never discussed quality or if it SHOULD exist, my point was there were some people assuming that YA ought to be MG and thus judging it harshly for having *gasp* sex and violence in it. People picturing 10 yearolds reading YA and getting scarred for life by reading such books. While I don't think they would be anyway, my point is that the new YA isn't aimed at 10 yearolds like the old YA was. And we need to change our perspective on what YA is, and not judge it based on old attitudes. It is no longer MG.

At any rate, thank you so much for your thoughts, but I really don't want to debate quality any further on this thread. That's not what my post was about. In fact I tend to avoid such subjective topics because it can devolve quickly. And while it hasn't done so yet, I'd like to keep the conversation focused on the subject at hand. Like for example what you said in your last post, that YA is breathing new life into SF/Fantasy. That's very interesting to me, and not something I'd been aware of.

Eric M. Edwards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric M. Edwards said...

If you write it, you have a stake in it. It is disingenuous to suggest that categories and the market involved in publishing your book stand entirely separate from the writing process. We do not write in a vacuum.

So categories are important. More than just marketing tools - which is not to say marketing isn't important, it is vitally so. But genre and categories define our expectations both as readers and writers almost before anything else, which is partially why there is endless wrangling about what they mean. Because they are meaningful, and if they were not, we'd hardly bother arguing about it with such tenacious vigour.

I can't and haven't commented on your own work - because I've not read it. It may be brilliant. Actor, Model, Author - I'm sure your ego is fine. A silver lining: I'm tempted to try your books. Which one would you recommend?

And I'm happy to let the overall issue of quality in YA or any of the genres slide. It's not what I'm interested in here.

What I am interested in, is getting my head around what constitutes YA - and what it means for the future of books. Good, bad, or indifferent, YA as a category exists because it is useful to someone involved. I'm just trying to figure out who that is. I do appreciate your time and your thoughts on the subject.

As for empowering authors, I'm less certain. Long before YA became a term you couldn't throw a rock in bookstore (not that you *ever* should, you might injure a book) without hitting a book with a teenager protagonist, especially in SFF. It's not a new trend and I don't see any authors needing permission to pen yet more coming of age stories. They are eternally popular.

I'm less sure than you seem to be, that my failure to grasp YA is not having read enough. I understood the part about people worried about over adult themes in YA - I'm just not interested in that part of your post, hence my lack of comment on it.

Don't let your feelings be bruised by my scepticism of the category. I have misgivings but I'm hopeful that YA may have some positive effect other than just helping to get more books published - which I'm always for anyway, never against.

I'll close my final comment with another positive notation: YA may be linked to an increase in female authors being represented in genre - which is a good thing. Mind you, this is a gut observation, not statically valid.

But I've seen a lot of female authors being published lately under the YA banner. I'm not entirely sure why this is, and what we're seeing could be just the sharp end of the wedge as publishing slowly corrects its long standing bias for male authors. Other newer categories like steampunk seem to be experiencing a similar female efflorescence.

Let us hope it lasts.

*previous post deleted for the presence of typos - not vitriolic content.

Adrienne said...

My feelings are not "bruised" by any of your comments. I realised with your first post that this is you trying to come to terms with something you are still trying to understand, and you are working out your thoughts on my blog. You have your own passion on the subject, so much so that even though you have no desire to comment on what my blog was actually talking about, you have used it as a springboard for your own ideas. It would be silly of me to be personally affected by the opinions of one person. It would be like me saying you were being emotionally bruised by my responses to you, which I think you would agree is silly.

Nor am I being disingenuous when I defend YA. I wasn't always an author of it, but I still defended it even then. And I'll tell you why. Whether or not I convince you or anyone else that YA is a legitimate worthy genre doesn't matter. It exists. It's popular with or without you liking it. It hardly needs me to defend it. I defend it because I think it's a good genre. Because I think there's some brilliant stuff being done. And because I like it. If YA vanished tomorrow, it wouldn't matter to me either, because I would still write the books I want to write. And I know there would be an audience for what I wrote. YA category or not.

As to the silver lining: well none of my books are YA yet, so I'm not sure how you feel about reading books for children (though I do know many adults who like my work, and I think the best books for kids are those that can also be enjoyed for adults - that have inside jokes just for adults too). I'd recommend you start with ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN as that's the first in the series.

Also. I'm not a model, just an actor and author. :) And a temp.

Eric M. Edwards said...

I have two children and I love reading to them. I will definitely give it a go.

And thank you for being such a graceful host.

Adrienne said...

That's really wonderful that you enjoy reading to them, my dad reading to me as a child was a huge part of why I started writing in the first place. I hope you and your children enjoy them.

And you are more than welcome :) .