The Sunday Salon: What Makes YA YA?

Remember last summer, when NPR hosted that poll about the best science fiction and fantasy novels? Well, this summer NPR had another poll—this one aimed at generating the best ever teen novels, according to NPR listeners. While I rushed to last summer’s, if only to fulfill my obligations as a Tolkien fanatic and devotee of Jacqueline Carey, I didn’t to this one. Why? Because of the rather thin criteria. Whereas last summer’s poll focused on two genres that, at the very least, can be defined in broad strokes, this poll focuses on an audience instead—an audience we’ve only recently invented, and have only recently started catering to.

In this post on NPR’s Monkey See blog only a few hours after the poll went live, Petra Mayer addresses several concerns over what qualifies as “young adult” for their poll. Middle grade books are right out; okay, clear enough. Some novels, despite their status as young adult novels, have been disqualified based on their “mature” content, including Ender’s Game and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; I think that’s a poor idea, but their definition of mature is easily quantifiable. The following is a bit more troublesome:

Other books were more troublesome — what to make of Pride and Prejudice, which almost everyone ends up reading in high school English class? While our commenters certainly love it (and so do we!) our judges felt that Pride and Prejudice is just not a book teens are lining up to read. Pride and Prejudice, in the end, is universal. It’s for all ages. On the other hand, there are a lot of books beloved by teens that weren’t originally meant for them, like Lord of the Rings and Catcher in the Rye. Those made the list, along with books like Dune and The Last Unicorn that have become rites of passage for teen readers.

I’m quite ornery when it comes to clear boundaries; I don’t like ambiguity, because, especially in the book world, it can often mean that there’s a wiggle space for people who feel uncomfortable labeling their fiction as what it is, which you can sort of see here here; Pride and Prejudice gets an out, despite Austenmania amongst the young’uns, three of the examples that are considered young adult are speculative fiction, and Catcher in the Rye has a teenage protagonist addressing teenage issues. (I’m told that Catcher in the Rye must be read in adolescence, otherwise you don’t care it. This happened to me with The Breakfast Club, which I think proves the only thing that can remotely harsh my adoration for the eighties is my distaste for teenage angst.) I’m of the mind that we should all call spades spades. In the post that calls for nominations, the following criteria is mentioned:

The judges looked at qualities such as a book’s themes, the age of its main characters, its reading level. But in the end, the most important test was often whether a given book is one that teens themselves have claimed — whether they do, in fact, voluntarily read it.

The themes, reading level, and ages of the main characters offer concrete criteria. It’s just that last one that opens up a whole bucket of worms for me. Like many bookish children, I rarely read anything age appropriate. I once had a copy of Lit Riffs, an anthology of short stories inspired by songs (I’d say it was an early precursor to my interest in transformative works, but I’ve been on the Internet since about the age of nine), confiscated by my parents in my early teens. I remember being just sort of stunned by the opening scene of American Gods, and I remember Good Omens and Wicked fondly as books I constantly read and reread in my teens. None of the those books are young adult, either by NPR’s standards (even the ambiguous ones) or by the marketing practices of the publishing houses that put out those novels, but I voluntarily read and claimed those books. Now, given my distance from teen culture even as a teenager, I’m not exactly bog standard, but I think the point stands—teenagers can and do read adult novels. But does the co-option of an adult novel by a teen audience make it young adult fiction?

What makes this messier is that this poll is conflating two things; young adult fiction as a specific, marketable genre, which has happened in recent years, and young adults as an audience, which has happened in slightly less recent years. I briefly covered this in an old Sunday Salon post from two years ago, but, essentially, the cultural (not physical, mind you, we’ve always had that bit) concept of the adolescent is very recent. In his 1972 article “Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact”, David Bakan argues that it didn’t occur until education began being mandatory (in the United States) and adolescents began grouping as an age group; I myself am pretty sure that the rise of disposable income among adolescents in the 1950s definitely helped. (It must be true. I heard it on a Back to the Future documentary!) But the rise of the young adult genre, with the quick pacing, generous spacing (honestly, I’m still astounded by it), and teenage characters, is much more the rise of a certain approach to telling any sort of story in a way to market to young adults. After all, Malinda Lo’s Ash, which has all the signifiers of the modern young adult novel, was originally pitched as an adult novel. At the end of the day, actual young adults writing for other young adults is extremely rare in mainstream publishing (however, Eragon isn’t exactly a shining beacon of hope), and even this poll is being judged and probably generated by more adults than young adults.

So, in the end, I just don’t know if you can really write up a top ten or top one hundred list of “teen novels” without appreciating the modern young adult novel and the ageless tastes of teenage readers. Or just more stringent criteria.

Of course, all of this could be my reaction to seeing The Lord of the Rings on the list, despite the fact I know many adults who can’t get through it.

I’m in a reading rut, friends; I powered through Under Heaven only to screech to a halt with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But today, I shall power through them all, if only because my buffer is nonexistent, and I’ve got to move back to Agnes, get classes started, and manage Dragon*Con in short order. Complicating matters is my recent fall into The Mighty Boosh, but I seem to be wrapping that up, so hopefully it won’t distract me.

Tor/Forge is giving away a Cory Doctorow bundle until September 4. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What makes YA YA for you?

7 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: What Makes YA YA?

  1. Defining YA is always difficult. I even took a YA Literature class last year and we attempted to define it but never could figure it out. I think my favorite definition of YA book is YA books are about the experience of being a young adult. That doesn’t solve all the problems. I think it filters out books that are enjoyable but really don’t fit in the YA category. Great discussion!

  2. I was also one of those ten year olds who was searching the adult book shelves for my next book, trying to avoid the stink-eye of the librarian.

    I’ve never really gotten behind the YA division. Seems so superficial and obtuse. A good story is a good story, and appropriate for anyone with good taste, whether its a fairytale or philosophy.

    Anyway, I know it’s not as easy as I make it out to be. I thought you presented complicating arguments very nicely, and I’m pretty much on your side.

  3. Categorizng books is always a slippery slope; I often come up against the similar problems trying to label books as Canadian and/or queer for my blog. I feel annoyed by arguments that say a book is not really YA/whatever category if it’s supposed to be if it’s enjoyed by readers outside of that box. Especially with categories that can be devalued, like YA, there seems to be an impulse to say that a really good book (i.e., one that adults like) shouldn’t technically be classified as YA. I run into this a lot with books labeled ‘gay,’ too; authors want to resist that label because it has negative connotations, just like how YA doesn’t have the prestige of adult literature (whatever that is exactly). There’s plenty of books that fall into multiple categories and I don’t see why a book can’t be both for young adults and adults, since that distinction is pretty slippery too!

    Another thing that’s annoying about NPR’s rationale is the implication that teens ‘can’t handle’ ‘mature content’; it’s pretty insulting. Teens deal with a ton of ‘mature’ issues in their own lives. Have they forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager?

    • Oh, man, I hate that. I had a period where I kept seeing Wicked, which is fantasy fanfiction, shelved in “Literature” (?) instead of “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” and wanting to rearrange the entire book store. It’s just so privileging. It’s saying that “here, write your literature in your own writing community while we ignore it, but if it’s good, we’ll ‘rescue’ it”. You gotta call a spade a spade.

      Yeah, that bugged me too.

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