Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chiming in (again) on the whole "YA ghetto" thing

Ugh, who are these people? And where are they? I'm lucky to never have to meet them, ever ever EVER. I hear about them second-hand (from friends who've done MFA programs mostly), and I read about them in articles like this**. I'm talking about the people who apparently think good books should not be published for teenagers, but only for adults.

I mean, as soon as a YA book is considered "good," they think it should be tagged for adults and rescued from "the ghetto" to be shelved in general fiction. So, teens should only get the dregs, the stuff that doesn't "cut it" for adults? Isn't that what this attitude implies?

This discussion of "What is YA?" is getting so old to me. Why define it to death? Young adult books are books of interest to young adults. Duh. That generally means the characters are of a relatable age. It does not mean they are books for slightly dumb, not-fully-formed human beings with smaller vocabularies than adults. The subject matter is vast, and transcend all genre borders. Is it the books themselves that are either YA or adult, or is it only the marketing that divides them? I think the answer to that is: depends on the book.

Some classic books are now shelved in YA that were once in general fiction or general sci-fi/fantasy. You hear this often said of Ender's Game, or The Catcher in the Rye. There are those out there who cry foul to see these books shelved in YA. To which I say: whatever those authors may have intended, those books are YA all the way. Which is not to say adults shouldn't read them too, but only to say: they should be put where teens can find them, because teens will like them, and we should do everything we can to put books in their hands. They are more important than adults.

Many (most?) YA books, though, are written with a teen audience in mind. Many (most?) authors of these books are happy to sell these books to youth imprints and have them shelved in the YA section. I have no patience for authors who are offended when their books "only" sell to youth publishers and are marketed to teens. I ask you: why write about young characters at all if you despise young people so much as to suggest they're not good enough to read your book?

I know, I know. The argument isn't that teens aren't good enough, it's just that these authors want grown-up validation. They want teen and adult readers both, and adults, en masse, still haven't got the courage to shop in the YA section. So they'd rather the books be shelved with the grown-up, serious works, and any teen who is worthy of reading them will be browsing there anyway, and then these writers can have their literary cake and eat it too, and their MFA friends will not cast them pitying looks. Oh, dear god. I really think that if you don't intuitively feel the tremendous value of writing books for this very important segment of our population, you should not write books that risk getting confused for YA. Write about old grumpy middle-aged academic couples with marital problems. Write about adult children of screwed-up families who have to go home and care for mean elderly parents with dementia. You can have that. Teenagers won't bother you there.

Teens are an audience any writer would be lucky to get. Kids too. Kids and teens aren't going to pretend to like your books because the lit-snob aristoi tell them they should. You have to earn them. And if you do, you will have earned readers who will write you wonderful emails, read your book ten times and tell their friends to read them too, create art about your books, dress up as your characters for Halloween, sneak under the covers with a flashlight to stay up late reading. You will have earned readers who will be transformed, and who will tell you so. If you don't want them, you really really don't deserve them.

Lately, something weird has been happening in the sci-fi/fantasy world, and that's this: YA books have been winning major awards, or at the very least being shortlisted for them. Not awards set aside for YA, but the big awards: the Nebula, the Locus Award, etc. There is some disgruntlement about this (again, I ask, who are you people?), which the writer John Scalzi answers in his typical brilliant way:

"Yes, how horrible it is that some of what’s being hailed as the best science fiction and fantasy written today is in a literary category designed to encourage millions of young people to read for the rest of their natural lives. Because God knows the last thing science fiction and fantasy publishing needs right now is whole generation of new and enthusiastic readers who might actually get hooked into the genre until they die. It’s a goddamn tragedy, it is."

Yeah, what he said.

I want to add, it's the adults who need to get over themselves and read good books regardless of what shelf they're on at the bookstore, rather than making books of interest to teens harder for teens to find. Quit making this about adults. Young readers are vastly important and we should be doing everything-everything-everything to get them reading and keep them reading. Worry less about adults: create readers young and the rest will take care of itself.

There. The end. Sheesh.

[**Updated to clarify: I found the article I linked to above to be a really thoughtful and balanced piece. Please do not think my impatience with authors who disrespect YA was targeted at the author of that article. Not at all. After reading that piece (which I had read when it was new, and came upon again today in some other chain of links on the subject), I felt that the author in question -- Margo Rabb -- did respect and embrace the classification of YA. I included that link because I think it still sums up the *debate* really well. Thanks, Margo! Oh, and this interview she did with Markus Zusak is on topic and quite interesting.]


Kiersten White said...


Seriously, thank you. After the first round of subs for my last book turned up a lot of "the characters are too old for YA" (apparently 18 is the new 80), I debated long and hard about whether to bump up the ages and sub for adult houses or get another YA book prepped for subbing.

It came down to this: I want to write for teenagers. For all of the reasons you listed, and because, plain and simple, teenagers are AWESOME.

What a great post ; )

Kjersten said...

Hear, hear! Great post, Laini.

da rev said...

WOW! You got ME fired up. BLEH! but now, I must return to what I like to call, "geeky cogent scientific lit."

HEY! PLEASE do me a big favor....have Jimbo tune into at 15:00 (or 15:30?) to hear one of my favorite hyper-talented adult children on the radio!

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

"Id rather have the dreams of a child, than the reality of adults."

Natalie Whipple said...

Awesome. You said everything I believe about writing for teens. I just don't understand "those people" who demean a genre designed to encourage kids to read! What? Young adults have the right to experience good literature, and there is so much out there right now!

I know personally I've been shaped by what I read when I was younger—it turned me into the reader I am today. Huh, what a weird concept.

Carrie Harris said...

Sing out, sister.

I once had someone call me "childish" for writing for teens. I told him that I prefer the term "childlike." What I wanted to add is that it might do him some good to remove the stick from his hoo hoo, but I decided against that part. :)

Amber said...

I love how you just say it out loud-- Child readers ARE more important than adult readers! Because they BECOME adult readers. Duh. Seems pretty clear that if children and teens don't learn to love reading, the whole industry will fail in time. And that is a horrrrrible thought.

Good job!


S R Wood said...

Hoo boy. Where to begin?

Have these people ever seen a "grownup," and I use the term loosely, climb into a tree with a book? Sitting rapt for hours at a kitchen table, under the sheets, in study hall over spring break at the beach instead of TV ... with a book?

Trying to decode lit-critic snobbery is tiresome. What I know is true is this:

When I was young books held more power, more reality, more truth than anything else I'd encountered. Some (repeat, some) of that has faded as I've "grown up" and I can't get lost in a book as easily as I once could.

But I can write the books for others to get lost in. It's like giving back. And writing about adults with boring problems, diverting and "realistic" though they may be ... doesn't quite cut it! If I want something boring I'll go to a meeting.

Shine on, Laini!

Sara Z. said...

YES. Oh my god I am so over it.

Cuppa Jolie said...

Amen! xoxo

Stephanie Perkins said...



I agree with every word.

(I'd marked Scalzi's post for discussion later this week on my blog. Glad you spoke first, because this is so well-put that there's nothing more I could possibly add ;) Also, how badly do you want to read Zoe's Tale now?)

Sara said...

O, Laini, ranting and raving Laini, you made me laugh so hard with this:

Write about old grumpy middle-aged academic couples with marital problems. Write about adult children of screwed-up families who have to go home and care for mean elderly parents with dementia. You can have that. Teenagers won't bother you there.

I'd like to have that on a bumper sticker except it's too long (or I need a wider car.)

R.J. Anderson said...

If I could render my WORD in skywriting, I would. Very well said.

Heather said...

Wow. They make YA sound like an infectious disease in that article.

"I noticed the averted gazes and unabashed disinterest of literary acquaintances whenever I mentioned my novel was young adult."

Ummm....WHAT? They make it sound like she has cancer! And yet some of the best books I have read over the last five years have been YA. I have picked up many an adult novel, started it, only to leave it unfinished on a shelf or in a drawer somewhere. I could make a list of the crappy adult novels I've read that would be longer than my body. Poo on them, I say! YA all the way!

Heather said...

Oh, and one more thing. The story I've been working on forever (and will probably go on working on forever if I don't actually get my act together), started out in my mind as an adult novel but I changed it to YA after reading Blackbringer and Holly Black's trilogy. Who wouldn't want to inspire youth to read; drag them away from their incredibly time wasting and all-consuming computers and cell phones? Not me, that's who.

Chris Hall said...

Huh, since when did YA become Swine Flu?

Laini Taylor said...

Thanks everybody! I know I'm "ranting to the choir" here, but sometimes one simply must rant :-) And I do feel like we can each personally influence others -- families, friends, blog readers -- to begin to perceive YA in a different way.

(And R.J. my Spell Hunter just arrived! Yay!!!)

Lexi said...

HELLS yeah, Laini! And anyway, isn't there a lot of crap adult literature, too? It's not JUST reserved for us teens! Silly adults....

andalucy said...

Amen! I had pretty much given up on modern fiction until I discovered the YA section.

myrna said...

That was a great quote! Personally, I love the growing YA section. I very rarely venture into the adult fiction for anything but non-fiction. Books for adults aren't usually as well written as the books for YA or children. I spend so much time fighting with the editor in my head that it's hard to enjoy them.

And it is a lot of fun to read the same books as my daughter and have inside jokes, ect. You have that to look forward to sooner than you know.

Margo said...

Hey Laini,
Thanks for linking to my essay--it's cool that it's still being talked about almost a year after it came out!

By the way, for the record, I'm thrilled to be a part of the YA genre-- I have a new YA novel coming out next year ( a lot of people have misinterpreted the essay, mistaking my surprise that my book sold as YA for disappointment. It wasn't disappointment, but it was a real surprise, since I'd really thought it was an adult book.)

I have to say even after doing all that research (I did almost 30 interviews for the piece) and thinking and talking about it for a year, I'm still fascinated by the "What is a YA" topic. In fact my friend Varian Johnson (an amazing YA author!) and I were talking about this subject for hours the other night...we were discussing how Sherman Alexie doesn't consider his novel Flight as YA at all (though it made the BBYA list.) How everyone defines the genre differently is incredibly fascinating to me still.

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Margo! Thanks for your comment. Gosh, I realize now that it might sound above like I was attacking you, but I really didn't intend that! I should go back and clarify. I thought the article was great and really well-considered, and I certainly felt that you had embraced YA by the end :-) as well as showing other authors who had. My response is more targeted toward the general attitude. Since I never encounter it first-hand, I'm always surprised to be reminded how many authors/readers still don't respect or understand YA.

Just today I recommended your book to a therapist friend who does teen counseling.

persnickety_jen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
persnickety_jen said...

...I knew there was a reason I loved John Scalzi. :)

Writing YA isn't a guilty pleasure, it's an HONOR. Some of the most innovative ideas in publishing in recent years have been found on the shelves of the YA section. I started hoarding YA books in college and I remember being blown away by the quality of the stories. And it amused the hell out of me every time a bookstore cashier assumed I was buying the books for a child relative. I assumed that, in a post-Harry Potter world, publishers and academics and fans would be more likely - or even eager - to recognize the 'legitimacy' of YA fiction. Books like Nation and Little Brother and The Hunger Games and The Graveyard Book are so much more than kids' stories - they take reading to a whole other level. They make the experience unforgettable. And really, that's what awards are for - to recognize and acknowledge that kind of excellence.

Deva Fagan said...

Well said! And I am so glad I haven't met them either because I think I'd do something regrettable.

Why can't people just get over it and love books, rather than trying to put everything in little boxes and say this is better than this? Arg!

James Kennedy said...

Scathing. Awesome. And I agree with Sara's +1 for "Write about old grumpy middle-aged academic couples with marital problems. . . Teenagers won't bother you there." Oh how I laughed.

Kim Baker said...

Well said, Laini! It's incredible that authors would react that way. Geesh.

Christine Fletcher said...

Once I started writing YA, I began meeting scads of adults who "secretly" read YA...and all for the same reason. Because YA consistently kicks ass over the majority of adult fiction.

Couldn't have written this better, not gonna try. You rock.

Wyman Stewart said...

Who among either group has written a book that has stood the test of time for 50 years or more? There are topics in various things I have read in the post, the links, and the comments; but I don't feel anyone is addressing the various correct topics. Some are beating about them, but not addressing them, I feel.

An adult book might have limited sales if mistakenly placed in the Young Adult section, where it gets rejected. The opposite is true also for a Young Adult book that finds itself stuck among adult books. With advances for authors maybe that does not matter much. I thought it paramount that Authors write to be read. The reader decides what any author's work truly is. It is important to get before the right reader.

As a reader, if I am looking for a certain subject, I doubt I will go into the Young Adult section. At the same time, if I do not "hear" that a Young Adult work is worthy of an adult reading, I will not fight my way through teens looking for a book I don't know exists.

For example, Laini's writing fascinates me, for I wonder, are her works meant for little kids, teens, or are they filled with so much imagination I would love her books? Then too, do they only appeal to girls/females or would her books appeal to an adult man too or even college age adult males? When you read to a child, surely you want what you read to have some appeal to you as an adult.

Is it the author's job to take it upon himself or herself to try to convince a publisher their book should appeal best to a certain audience it was written for or do you leave it to the folks with statistics who have not read your work? For some of this is surely arbitrary decision making by people who don't know what they're doing, however well-trained or accurate they have been in the past.

Adult writers may have some legitimate reasons for looking down on Young Adult authors, but I have not heard that anyone has asked them, nor that they have volunteered a reply. You are simply serving a "hot mass market" at the moment. When the next hot market comes along, you will either have to switch, persevere, or watch your books die; not unlike the faster pace of Rock Music.

Even in trying to share my thoughts here, I feel I am as far off from the real topics, as any of you. I think the wrong questions are being asked and answered, while the massive audience in this Roman Forum cheers for blood. As Richard Feynman's late wife said to the late Mr. Feynman, "What do you care what other people think?"

Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts. I respect you all as authors, but I think most of the valid points that could be made are being missed. I am still a reader, so maybe my opinion does not count. See you in the bookstore!

P.S.---I do care about you and your works. Honest.