Thursday, August 9, 2012

Not so Young Adults

Earlier today I was perusing The Atlantic for my daily dose of random inputs and ran across a good article by Meghan Lewit on women dominating popular young adult (YA) fiction. The question posed
by the title was, "Why women in YA?"
and by the author, "What's the draw of YA?"
and by my brain, "Why now?"

I went to write a comment and constructed a treatise. That's my cue to write my words where people who like me want to read them, rather than hijacking someone's article. Also, it's apparently National Book Day, and for someone whose major summer vacation was going to a 500 author booksigning, it would be remiss of me to let it pass unnoticed.

Given that I'll be 40 next friday, I am officially not a young adult anymore. I'm ok with that. I'm getting creaky and my guts are weird and I can afford acupuncture and pretty much whatever I want on iTunes. Anyone between the ages of 16 and 26 who doesn't look 12 looks 25 to me these days. The grey streak is still cool, but it blends a lot more than it used to if I stop dyeing my hair. I'm starting to feel like a grown up.

In these four decades, I've spent a lot of time reading books, discussing books, meeting authors, discussing authors, befriending voracious readers, befriending authors, reading about writing, learning about writing, and getting all excited about writing on my blog only to think so hard about some things that they never get written. I've read two of the three most popular YA series, and gotten an earful on the third. Which is to say I've got some idea of what's going on in the book world and the world at large and I've got something to say about the state of young adult literature.

Starting with the good news:
"[C]ommercially, teen fiction is crushing almost everyone else. Three of the biggest book-to-movie franchises of the last decade (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) are YA series penned by women."

This is fantastic news. I'm pretty sure she says "*almost* everyone else" because I'm pretty sure Romance is still over 50% of the publishing industry, while it remains a miniscule part of the literature that gets critical attention and acclaim. And the wildly popular YA books made into movies take in a looooot more money than Lifetime movies made from wildly popular romance novels.

Then there's this:
"While teen titles may never reach the upper echelons of critical adulation... the phenomenal popularity makes it increasingly difficult to marginalize the genre."

Young Adult literature is still a lower status genre, despite Harry Potter making Rowling richer than the Queen of England. In the article's comments, even the YA supportive folks tend to qualify their support by acknowledging that some find it "schlocky writing" or "childish plotting" implying that these are valid descriptors of a whole genre. They feel compelled to say that because YA is considered lower status. We feel the need to justify that status by claiming it has less-than qualities whether or not the claim is truthful or fair. Because if we want to be seen as knowledgeable about "real" literature, we can't take YA lit too seriously.

The best books in any genre can be held up to the best books in any other genre. Similarly, so can the worst. SciFi/Fantasy has been battling this problem for decades, they just developed powerful allies and superstars over time. Romance is still fighting it, as the powerhouses of literary/review publications don't seem care what "housewives" think (which is stupid because women control 70% of US household spending), but there are Romance superstars and they're gaining power too. Now there's a new kid to pick on, so YA gets bullied even though it's making people money hand over fist in a down economy. Why do we let that stand? It's ok to give a book a bad review. It's not ok to dismiss entire genres. Let's stop marginalizing genres starting now.

Why women?
My top two reasons:
1) larger pool of female authors
2) status implications

1) There are a LOT of female authors who started writing professionally after they had kids and needed the scheduling flexibility that being an author provides but being a lawyer doesn't. Most authors make a pittance - maybe enough to make it worthwhile - meaning there are likely more women writing professionally for low pay than men because even in this day and age men are more likely to be pulling in the family's primary salary. Comparatively fewer family men are able to write full time (or 3/4 time) for a pittance than family women. Not that all YA authors are moms, but there are a lot of moms out there who need a paid creative outlet.

2) Women are culturally "allowed" to be successful at lower status things. (Oh, isn't she cute!) YA doesn't threaten the status quo of "serious adult literature" so women's success, even phenomenal success, in YA doesn't threaten the status of "real" authors because these women aren't seen as writing "real" books. While I observe this to be true, I find this odd considering how many countries Rowling could buy outright because Harry Potter was the number one top selling book series in the world for ages, but I digress.

Men who are (rightfully) worried about not being taken seriously in publishing would not submit YA novels because once they do, most won't be able to sell "real" novels later if the YA thing doesn't work out, for all that well loved adult fiction authors are happily writing YA novels these days. (I'm looking at you, James Patterson.)

Women who were already not being taken seriously by "literary" or "hard science" SciFi/Fantasy publishers had nothing to lose by writing YA over Romance or any other genre. The marginal cost for women to submit in a "secondary" genre like YA is much lower for women than men. A woman can write a young adult novel and still sell in romance, where she can possibly make a living at her craft. (I'm looking at you, Jax Abott = Alyssa Day.)

Why this explosion of success now?

They only populated the "Young Adult Bestseller list" to keep the NYT list open to non-Rowling authors whose publishers depended on their authors making the NYT list. They didn't create a new list for "perpetual bestsellers" or "Long Term Best List", they demoted her to "Young Adult" even though millions of adults enjoyed her stories. (To my knowledge, Dan Brown's similarly long lived novels were allowed to stay on the list.) And for all that's insulting to think about, it has done the young readers of this world a fabulous service.

The YA genre was around before Harry Potter, but it was marginalized for decades to the point that there was no "YA bestseller" list because there were so very few new YA novels being published before Rowling. The library was full of Nancy freaking Drews, Madeline L'Engle, ancient Little House books, and Judy Blume novels - which are all well and good, but we read them all and did so 30 to 60 years ago. It was time for an update, and Rowling's success with HP meant that publishers were no longer afraid to publish young adult books for fear they wouldn't sell.

Why are YAs so popular?

First, J.K.Rowling (who, honestly, might not have been as successful if readers knew at the outset she was a lady author) put Harry in the world, and got a generation of kids back into reading. Then, to paraphrase a quote in the article, youths fall in love with their novels more than adults do. They're passionate about what they read when their world is still fairly new. This tidal wave of readers demanding "give me something just like Harry Potter but different" is calling for new material and a 20th reread of Little House, or even HP, isn't going to suffice. There's a need for more.

The genre is seeing fantastic success with new authors in part because it had a decades long dearth of new material. I know some authors who have 20 year old YA novels that only got published in the last 5 years because no one would touch them when they were written. That buildup of material, meant there was a lot of untapped potential, readily available to start filling the gap.

On top of that, Ms. Lewis makes some really good points about the genre and the genres dominant heroines:
YA lit offers heroines to suit every mercurial mood and developmental stage, from spunky, disaster-prone Anne Shirley to dreamy, bookish Francie Nolan and the modern ass-kicking incarnation of Katniss Everdeen.

And perhaps, therein lies the true appeal of young adult literature: The stories and the genre itself represent a world of limitless potential. As a young reader, I didn't comprehend that the opportunity to disappear into the lives and adventures of strong-willed young women represented a kind of feminist victory. The best young-adult books provide a portal to characters and perspectives that simply aren't as readily available on the adult reading lists

This wealth of stories about strong, complicated, empowered girls and women has never before existed in the history of literature. So women who grew up thinking they could do anything and be anybody are writing those stories now. And teens and adults are buying, reading, and loving these stories now.

Ideally, all the young women and men reading these books with strong, complicated girls and women (and boys and men) in them will grow into adults who will change the status quo because they have a new normal they're bringing with them. Hopefully more diverse starring characters will also come to the fore and be normal because women should be supporting all women becoming all they can be, even if they're fictional.

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