WTF is YA
I was loitering at a bar with a writer colleague the other day, and at some point during my nonsensical mumblings about the dodgy shaky-cam work in the Hunger Games flick, this writer commented “I don’t read YA.”
I didn’t think much of it at the time – I’m not the quickest of cats when it comes to witty comebacks, soused or otherwise. I’m the fellow who wakes up at 4am, brainmeats burning with the riposte I should have launched eight hours previous when the snooty café waiter/part time lit student informs me I’m not a ‘real’ author because I write ‘genre’ (and let me assure you, the eventual riposte won’t be that witty, unless you consider middle fingers Elton-esque). But anyway, literally WEEKS later, I got to thinking about the comment and it struck me as odd for a couple of reasons:
a) Declaring a blanket ban on any flavor of book strikes me as odd –a good book is a good book, to my mind.
b) I’m not sure this colleague knew what YA fiction is. In fact, I’m not sure many people know what YA fiction is. I sure don’t.
That might be a strange thing to admit. But thinking about it, I really don’t. I have my suspicions about what it is, but it seems there should be some kind of concrete definition, given the amount of motion/noise being generated in YA lit atm, and for the life of me, I can’t come up with all but the loosest. A google search will land you with a hit parade of people telling you what time it is in the land of YA, but most of their tirades seem to fall flat, or are just flat out incorrect. But let’s try and break this shit down with a few of the defining traits I’ve seen online:
a. YA novels are books read by a Young Adult audience (someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen according to the American Library Association). Now this one is demonstrably wrong – the legion of adult YA fans out there are testament to that. Hells, I’ve been known to read YA, and while I might look like a fifteen year old when I shave off my facial hair, my days of acne, growth spurts and popping uncontrollable ‘happy pants’ three seconds before the teacher calls me up to the blackboard are OVER, my friends. YA is pretty much read by anyone with eyes.
b. YA novels have teenage protagonists. This is pretty much true. BUT, are all novels with teenage protagonists YA? Take The Lovely Bones for example. This is a story told through the eyes of a 14 year old girl, who after being murdered, watches her family and friends try with varying success to move on with their lives. And while some of the marketing for tLB was aimed at teenagers, it definitely wasn’t pushed solely on a YA platform, nor received as such by critics or the media. So while a YA novel needs a teenaged MC, not all books with teenaged MCs are YA. So insofar as nailing down our definition, I’m not sure how much this helps us.
c. YA novels feature the notion of ‘becoming an adult’ as a central theme. But is this really true? Let’s take a look at the goliath of YA properties out there atm – the Hunger Games. Now, I’m not talking about the trilogy here, I’m just talking about the first book, because a YA book should stand by itself as a YA book without the help of its buddies to prop it up.
Is ‘becoming an adult’ in any way part of Katniss’s story in HG? She’s already pretty much an adult in her mindset and worldview to my mind. She’s pragmatic, capable, possessed of empathy for her friends and family, yet perfectly capable of being apathetic to others. At the beginning of the novel, she hates the Capitol, by the end, she still hates them. She doesn’t appear to come to any dramatic conclusions about herself as a person – she knows who she is before the novel even begins. The only real change in mindset she undergoes is in regards to her feelings for Peeta (sort of), and her increased ability to ‘game the game’. Does this really constitute ‘coming of age’? Can it be truly said that Katniss begins the HG as a girl, and ends it a woman?
In my opinion? Helllllls no. And nobody out there is claiming HG to be anything other than YA.
d. YA novels deal with issues that are important to a YA audience – defining moral/ethical beliefs, acquiring social understanding/developing behaviour, finding emotional independence, sex, drugs, marriage, impending parenthood, claiming responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. This one is kiiiinda similar to “becoming an adult”. And again, I hold up tHG. Does Katniss do any of these things? She’s already responsible, mature, defined in her opinions. She already knows how she feels about most of the pressing issues in her life. Maybe she fails as a typical YA heroine? Maybe tHG isn’t really a YA book at all? Take a look at another YA novel (soon to be movie) I read recently – Ender’s Game. About the only teen issue Ender deals with through the book is peer acceptance, and it’s not really a running theme throughout the novel, more a source of conflict than anything else.
It would also seem logical that, if a book stars a teenage MC, that MC is going to be dealing with issues relating to teen life at some point. If you’ve fulfilled point b. then point d. is logically going to follow. Its kinda like saying if you write a vampire novel, you’re going to mention drinking blood. True, yes, but stating the obvious a little maybe? And it definitely doesn’t seem to be a rule.
e. YA novels are typically fast paced and deal with powerful emotions – Fast paced? No. One skim through Twilight will tell you that not all YA is running a mile a minute (and I know it’s the ‘done thing’ to shit on Twilight, but I suppose the biggest targets are easiest to hit). Powerful emotions? I think that should be true of any novel, right? At least any genre fiction novel. Novels are built around points of conflict – I can’t recall many novels I’ve read recently where the MCs weren’t experiencing powerful emotions at some point. Jealousy, rage, lust, joy, greed, hubris (“Detectiiiiiive. You’re looking for me…” ) these are the tools that most narratives are built around. So yes, while it’s true that YA books contain them, I’m not sure they contain them in greater abundance than adult fiction. Certainly not genre fiction, anyway. Maybe I’m reading the wrong adult books…
f. Parents are usually not in the picture. This seems a logical outcome from point b. If you’re writing a story about a teenager going off and having adventures or saving the world, it’s gonna be a real short book if said teenager gets grounded in chapter 3 for coming home three nights in a row with demon blood all over their jeans. This doesn’t seem so much a defining trait of YA as a necessary construct within the narrative to allow the teenage MC to do whatever it is they have to do without Mother/Father getting all up in their grille. Saying you need the parents out of the picture in a YA book is kinda like saying you need terrorists in a Die Hard movie. Besides which, I’m sure there’s gotta be YA books out there with the parents still in the picture, right? (I obviously haven’t read enough) Wasn’t there a dad in Twilight?
So what are we left with? There are no real taboos (sex, drugs, whatever – Virginia Andrews was writing books aimed at teens with incest as a theme back in the 80s) that YA won’t deal with, so it can’t be something like ‘subject matter’. I’ve seen YA doorstoppers (with leading wide enough to drive a truck through, granted), so it can’t be about length. And in terms of complexity of plot or language, YA might be deemed ‘simple’ by some, but certainly no more simple than the average mass market adult bestseller. Or are you gonna tell me the plot for the DaVinci Code was complex?
So what is it?
Honestly, I think it’s Publishing House fiat more than anything else. A YA book is a YA book because it’s marketed that way. And having worked in marketing for a long time now, let me be the first to assure you that marketing ain’t an exact science. I think much of the decision to market a book as YA comes from ‘gut feel’ or ‘common sense’ or other processes just as nebulous. I’m not sure there ARE many hard and fast rules. I think Inigo Montoya said it best.
So given there are no real hard and fast rules, given there are so many books out there that break the mold of what YA ‘is’, I’m not sure declaring ‘I don’t read YA’ (or ANY kind of book, tbh) is such a smart move.
Especially for a writer.