New website is under construction.

Jun 6, 2011

What Is the Difference Between Young Adult and Just Adult Lit?

I found out about this article in the Wall Street Journal from Michelle Davidson Argyle when she responded to it on The Literary Lab.
I recently read a book by our one and only Scott G.F. Bailey, and I was shocked at the darkness in it. I wrote to Scott and said, wow, this is really dark. He said, yeah, I know. It's an adult novel, and it disturbed me not with the subject matter, but the tones of the novel. Honestly, I have never read a YA book with such dark tones. Usually, even in YA novels that deal with darker subjects, the tones seem to be handled on a lighter level. Maybe, though, Miss Gurdon is really talking about tone in her article, not subject matter. Maybe there are YA books out there that I haven't read that are really, really dark in tone. Teens can handle subject matter. Adults can handle subject matter. I think it's tone that can really make the difference. I appreciated Scott's book. It was amazingly well done. I appreciated the darkness he portrayed because it contrasted the world in a way that helped me appreciate what he was really saying in that book - and I think he did it through tone. I wouldn't have seen those things otherwise.

I agree with Michelle, that there is absolutely a difference between tone and subject matter. I recently finished Speak a young adult novel (from about 10 year ago) that is about a girl who was raped just before she started highschool. So, the subject is dark, I suppose. Yet, I personally wouldn't call it a dark novel.

You can have all sorts of horrible things happen in a novel: rape, torture, murder, the end of the world, etc. Yet it can still be an upbeat, heroic novel if the heroes win out in the end. Although, I should add that tragedy and melodrama can also appeal to young adults, anything with a grand gesture. What is not appealing are stories which are more ambiguous, and neither victory nor victorious martyrdom are achieved.

For instance, the young adult novel Unwind and the adult novel Never Let Me Go deal with the same subject, but in completely different ways. The characters are the same age. Yet the tone of the books are completely different. Unwind is all about the need to fight an unjust authority, and Never Let Me Go is about the impossibility of fighting an unjust authority. Unwind is about winning; Never Let Me Go is about losing.

What is likely to be darker -- a grandiose dystopia, where robots tear the arms off of people and crowds cheer until a cyborg gladiator overthrows the master computer and liberates everyone? Or a story about a real estate agent who gradually realizes her cheating husband doesn't love her anymore but is only staying with her because she's dying of cancer? The first story would probably be gory and lurid and appallingly violent. The second could be tender and bittersweet and realistic, but it could also be much darker and more mature in a way that the cyborg gladiator story is unlikely to be. It depends on the writing, of course, and these are just hypotheticals. But just on that one line synopsis is it hard to guess which storyline is more likely to appeal to teens?

Of course, maybe more adults would be interested in the gladiator as well, and that's the real problem with "Young Adult" these days. Its more a mood than a demographic. Plenty of adults read YA. Some adults exclusively read YA. So writers are basically forced to write YA even if they didn't intend to, and often bring to it an alien mood. Do I have an example? You bet. Gifts, the first in a so-called Young Adult trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. Now, don't get me wrong, I LOVE Ursula Le Guin, and Gifts was a lovely book. But I'll be stuffed and dressed and roasted like a Thanksgiving turkey if this was a Young Adult novel. IT WAS NOT. It was about a young adult, which is not the same thing. I think it's sad that these days publisher can't seem to tell the difference. There was nothing gory or violent or profane about Gifts, and I doubt any parents would object to their kids reading it. But it struck me as a reflective, resigned book, not a victorious epic, and not something I would have enjoyed at all when I was a teen. I already bought the other two books in the series, but I'm not sure I'm ready to read them yet.

Why didn't the publisher market Gifts as adult fantasy? I think it's pretty obvious from a promotion perspective. I've been searching for book reviewers, for instance, and for every reviewer of mainstream, epic or adult fantasy, I've found two dozen YA reviewers. Maybe the numbers are even more skewed, even a hundred to one. So I decided my epic fantasy, The Unfinished Song, is YA. Since my protagonist is fourteen, I can get away with this, although the cagey reviewers have noted that the series is really epic fantasy. On some level I must agree with Gurdon, because I've found myself toning down some scenes that originally would have been a bit more, ahem, explicit. I just feel weird having things too explicit in a YA series. But I can only change so much without imperiling the integrity of the story, which I won't do.

When I think back to what I read as a teen, I have to say it puts the whole brouhaha in perspective. I never read young adult novels. I started reading adult novels in second grade. I read books with rape, torture, death, concentration camps, fascism, adultery, murder, military coups, incest and infanticide. I preferred novels with happy endings. (Still true.) But I didn't mind a rocky road on the way to that happy ending.

So, has YA literature become more explicit and violent? Probably. Are twelve year olds of today reading anything more explicit that what I read when I was twelve? Keep in mind my ninth grade reading list included The Gulug ArchipelagoSlavegirl of Gor,  Clarissa, 1984, Patty Hearst Her StoryLolita,  and a lot of other books, both trashy and classic, that were not aimed at fourteen year olds.

Just think. If Nabakov were writing Lolita today, he'd be told it's YA because Lolita is twelve.

Some people are defending the content of YA novels because this reflects the darkness that invades the lives of teenagers. I question that theory. I didn't read those books because they reflected my own personal reality, or situations I was likely to encounter. Fortunately, I was never sent to a gulag, kidnapped by terrorists, seduced by a sadist, or sent to a BDSM planet. I loved Clan of the Cave Bear, I hated Catcher in the Rye. Guess which one involved a character being raped by a Neanderthal? (Another teen experience I inexplicably missed out on.) I don't think teens read for different reasons than adults. They read to find out about what it's like to be human, to find out more about themselves, but also about people who are not themselves.


scott g.f.bailey said...

I have a hard time saying anything intelligent about YA fiction, because when I was a kid there was no such thing. I know that I'm not attracted to any of the YA titles I see although, as you point out, a lot of adults read YA (and some read only YA). I will say that of the YA-labeled books I have read in the last five years or so, I would not call any of them adult novels that have been marketed as YA. Maybe they'd be successfully sold as commercial fiction, which I also don't read, so again I just don't know. Really, this whole discussion is so much on the periphery of my understanding that I can't say much about it. But look at me go on and on!

When I was a kid I read whatever books looked interesting, and this meant some kid's classics like "Call of the Wild" and "John Carter Warlord of Mars" and it also meant antiwar novels and Erica Jong (both "Fear of Flying" and a book of her poetry) and "War and Peace" and "Animal Farm" and "Charlie" and loads of Shakespeare and Chekhov. I read Heller's "Catch 22" when I was 15 or something, right before I read Tolstoy. I don't understand, I guess, the whole idea of "age-appropriate" literature. I don't think kids would read my books because I think they'd be bored by the treatment of the subjects. I don't think they'd understand, really, what the books are. And that by itself is probably enough of a filtering mechanism, because if kids are bored by a book, I doubt they'll be influenced by it.

Bookworm Lisa said...

When I was a teen I read quite a few books that are classified as Adult. I know that I will read anything with a good story, no matter how it is classified. But, I do admit that I seem to read more YA. It could be that there are other parents out there like me who want to know what our kids are reading, and enjoy the stories at the same time.

Tara Maya said...

It occurred to me after I wrote this post that in my genre, sf/f, the fact that there were no distinct YA titles may have actually skewed the whole genre. There's a saying that the "Golden Age of SF is twelve" and if a lot of fantasy and sf books of the 50s and 60s were jejune, it was probably because they were, in fact, written with for an audience of twelve year old boys in mind. One of the things about the genre today is the emergence of postmodern fantasy, very adult in treatment and topic. It's probably no coincidence that this is happening at the same time as the explosion of YA fantasy and dystopia books.

TheSFReader said...

One series of books that help "restart" thye YA genre is the Harry Potter one. And if you look at it closely, you find out that while the first book clearly is each book in the series is "darker" than the first. While HP "matures" in the books, so does the overall theme/threat etc. I think it's one of the major features and a reason of the book's success.
It clearly evolves from early YA to Just Adult ...

Note for example that the last one clearly evocates suicide...

dolorah said...

First, I don't consider myself a YA reader. I like adult fiction - and I'm an avid fantasy reader.

But, I've been reading a lot of reviews and excerpts from YA authors and the novels appeal to me. Despite the fact the characters are under 24 - usually 14 to 20 - I like the story lines. But it's YA b/c of the main and supporting characters are under a certain age bracket.

I guess that makes me a YA reader just cuz all the fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi now features MC as underaged.

As long as agents/publishing houses are perpetuating this trend, I guess I'm a YA reader. But I'm not happy with the label.


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Tara, I really appreciate this post. I did a spinoff of it (well, it sparked in my head) on my blog just now. I think it's so hard that we have to feel cornered or boxed in by these "genres" and "labels." What happened to writing just STORIES? It's all so political these days. It's maddening. I'm trying to step away from that more and more, because part of it is definitely a personal decision.

Tara Maya said...

@ SFReader. I think the way the Harry Potter stories "mature" as the series progresses is just brilliant, but I wonder if this is how she pitched the books, or if she only got away with it because of the popularity of the first titles. I think if an author tried to pitch a maturing series to most publishers today, the answer would be "No."

@ Donna. I know what you mean. It made me uncomfortable for the same reason. But I learned to disregard the labels, which, like Michelle said, are pretty silly.

Anonymous said...

It's a bit funny for me to be looking at this, because I'm an SF/F indie book blogger, and I specifically state that I don't review YA unless it's enjoyable enough for adults. It's partly because before I started book blogging, I looked at the book blogging landscape, and there were the hundreds of YA blogs, and then the few more "official" SF/F review sites run generally by older men, and not much space in between.

I never looked for "YA" as a label of a book I wanted to read, but there are a number of YA books in the past that I enjoy, I just don't find "YA" as a very useful label for me. So I've had several authors submit books and tell me "It's YA but it should be enjoyable for adults", then I take a look at the book. If it's just marketed as YA and they don't specify "this should also be good for an older audience", then I don't really look at it. I'm more attracted to Dance of Dragons than Hunger Games. There are many readers that enjoy both, but again, "YA" as a label doesn't hold much meaning for my personal reading selections.