Inverarity (inverarity) wrote in bookish,

Saturday Book Discussion: Young Adult Fiction -- Won't Someone Please Think of the Children?

Young Adult fiction -- that shiny niche now dominating the most trafficked area of all the major bookstore chains. It's huge. It's lucrative. Its readership is estimated to be about 80% female. It tends to inspire frothing rage for being full of Twilight knock-offs, and most recently, a pearl-clutching freak-out by Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal because it's so full of "darkness." Poor benighted Meghan Gurdon has spent the last week being spanked all over the Internet, so I have nothing to add there.

But I have an issue with YA fiction myself: why are so many grown-ups still reading it?

Okay, just kidding. (C'mon -- I write Harry Potter fan fiction.) I liked The Hunger Games and His Dark Materials. Now and then I'll pick up other YA titles to see what the fuss is. In general I find them entertaining but rarely deeply engaging. (Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It: juvenile in every sense of the word. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother: good, more sophisticated than most YA dystopias, but a bit anvilicious.)

I followed the traditional path of most young readers of my generation (particularly male SFF fans): as I began to outgrow children's books, I went straight into adult fiction, mostly my parents' large science fiction and fantasy paperback collection. So by age 12 I was reading Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert and Anne McCaffrey and H.P. Lovecraft and John Norman and Keith Laumer and Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony and Fritz Lieber and during a weeaboo phase long before weeaboo was a thing, Eric Van Lustbader and James Clavell...

Nowadays, more teens are moving into YA as an intermediate stage between children's literature and adult fiction. Anecdotally, I have noticed two trends: first, that this is more prevalent for girls, with boys being more likely to skip YA and go straight into adult fiction (or, sadly, stop reading altogether). Second, that a lot of people in their 20s and older not only still read lots of YA, but seem to prefer it to anything else.

The first issue (of boys not being into reading) is something for another day. The second is the one that intrigues me -- what does it mean when adults stay in the world of YA literature? Certainly there are plenty of YA books that are enjoyable to readers of all ages. And yet... why would you not want to read the adult stuff as well? Not just "literature," but genre fiction as well. (Let's not get into literary vs. genre fiction here -- I am working on that for a future discussion. ;))

There is a sense that YA fiction is something new. It is and it isn't. There has always been fiction targeted at the demographic between childhood and adulthood (teens, early 20s). The Wikipedia article defines the YA demographic as 14-21, but it's pretty clear that today's YA fiction has a lot of readers above and below that range. This interesting article by Jo Walton on Heinlein's juveniles argues that "juvenile" and "YA" fiction are in fact two separate categories. I think she has a point, though I don't agree that they are so different -- I think the expectations of YA fiction written for previous generations were different because previous generations were different, but that doesn't change the category per se. And Heinlein's juveniles share other characteristics with YA fiction today -- they were primarily aimed at young readers, but widely read by much older fans.

YA fiction is clearly shaping itself into a genre (or rather, a meta-genre) with its own conventions and tropes and, yes, very formulaic series with cookie-cutter covers. But this isn't particular to YA; for decades, lesser authors have been grinding out derivative, formulaic AD&Dish fantasy, science fiction with Freudian rocketships on the cover, romance ('nuff said), mysteries (especially "cozies" with crime-solving cats), thrillers (always written by dudes with names like "Brad Thor" or "Conan Black" or "Vince Flynn" -- of those three names, I only made up one of them)... you get the idea. (And to round out the preemptive "Yes, yes, adult fiction can be shallow formulaic crap, too" disclaimers, let's just assume the name "Dan Brown" is a given and no more need be said.)

So, my impression is that YA dominates the shelves of a lot of readers, even those who are well outside the YA demographic. I've got more thoughts about YA fiction, but I'm sure you do, too. Talk about it below. But first, what will a (totally unscientific) poll say about my anecdotal impressions?

Poll #1751316 Young Adult reading
Open to: All, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 110

Do you read YA fiction?

View Answers
Not since I had to drop "young" off my adultness.
5 (4.5%)
Only occasionally.
33 (30.0%)
I read a fair bit of it, but I read adult fiction too.
58 (52.7%)
I read mostly YA, only sometimes non-YA.
12 (10.9%)
I rarely read anything that's not YA.
2 (1.8%)

Tags: category: young adult, discussion
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