Phoebe is out in the boonies with limited internet connectivity, to it’s going to be all Sean, all the time for the next week or so. You know what that means – opinion pieces!
Let’s all argue about genre for a while.
I reviewed Midnight City by J. Barton Mitchell last Sunday, but I neglected to mention a key fact about it: namely, that the main characters are twenty and eighteen years old. Yet the book is widely considered to be ‘YA’ despite eighteen generally being considered the upper limit of the age range for main characters in young adult fiction. And twenty? Way too old for a main character, at least according to the conventional wisdom.
The reason I didn’t bring this up is because it didn’t seem to matter. Whether Mitchell intended it or not, Midnight City feels typically ‘YA’ in its pacing, plotting and characterization. In particular, it feels similar to much of the YA science fiction we review here at the Academy. It’s not that the characters aren’t believable as twenty or eighteen-year-olds, either. They are, but that doesn’t detract from the sense that the book draws from a pool of tropes and techniques that, collectively, have come to be recognised as traits of modern YA fiction.
This wouldn’t even be worth bringing up if not for the fact that YA, like science fiction, suffers from something of an identity crisis. Hang around any large writing community long enough and you’ll see people agonising over what constitutes YA, what the limits are in terms of graphic content or character’s ages, what makes a book YA apart from the age of the main characters, and so on. Compare this to the situation in science fiction, whose proponents have historically struggled to both define the genre and to argue for its literary importance.
Right now, I can walk into a bookshop and divide the shelves in the ‘Teenage Fiction’ section (that’s what it’s usually called in Ireland) between books that feel quintessentially ‘YA’ and books that, while targeting the same age range, don’t draw as heavily or as consistently from that pool of themes and techniques I mentioned earlier.
In the former category lies much of YA genre fiction – generally fast-paced, character-driven, often not set in ‘the real world’, and as likely to be read by adults as by teenagers. The authors in this group will be instantly recognizable to anyone who follows the online YA community: Beth Revis, Cassandra Clare, Veronica Roth, Lauren DeStefano.
In the second category you’ll find a lot of authors who don’t seem to be as likely to be read by adults. It’s also where you’ll find most contemporary YA. For the sake of easy comparison, I’ll ignore that and stick to the genre authors. Do a lot of adults read Marcus Sedgewick? He’s written historical fiction and fantasy, although most of it doesn’t ‘feel like YA’. How about B.R. Collins? She’s written contemporary-with-a-touch-of-magic-realism, science fiction and historical faction, all of it fairly idiosyncratic and unusual. Or hell, take a look at almost any shortlist for a major teenage fiction award. The nominees might be read by adults (I guess they’d have to be, or else they wouldn’t be nominated), but they sure don’t get talked about nearly as often.
But the readership question is mostly beside the point. What I’m getting at is that ‘YA’, as the term is generally used, has come to encompass a specific, recognizable style of writing, and that style of writing has become enormously popular among adult readers as well as teenagers. The conventional wisdom is that those adult readers just like reading about teenagers, but I think a book like Midnight City complicates things a bit.
Not every author I mentioned shows every YA quality in their writing (Lauren DeStefano’s books aren’t fast-paced, for example), but they all have enough that you can easily group them together under the same literary umbrella. I would argue that, for many cases, you could age-up the characters significantly while still retaining the appeal that draws so many people to them in the first place.
I should probably mention at this point that I’m not advocating an upheaval in how books are categorised or marketed. I’d rather be descriptive than proscriptive, and I don’t particularly mind if ‘YA’ takes on a double meaning that isn’t always helpful. But it’s worth pointing out that a lot of adult readers seem to enjoy YA, and that there’s probably space in the publishing world for a new category to cater to them. Call it ‘New Adult’ if you want (although I’d rather you didn’t), but the desire for it is there. We’ve already seen that YA science fiction tends to be qualitatively different to its adult counterpart, for better or for worse. I’m curious to see what would happen if publishers and authors took that kind of writing and ran with it.
For a long time, teenage fiction has been seen as a juvenile counterpart to ‘real’, adult fiction. Now there’s an opportunity for it to work the other way around, with ‘adult’ versions of teenage fiction. That could be interesting, right?
What do YOU think? Sound off in the comments!