Dispatches from the desk #10: YA as an adult genre

A journalism student contacted me a few weeks ago to get my thoughts on adult reading of YA books for a paper she was doing. Although in Quests and Kingdoms I discussed books for children and teens that went on being read by adults and had always been read by adults as well as their intended audience, I didn’t talk about the trend for YA books to be almost an adult genre, read by adults in the same way they’d read mysteries or romances or sf, because it hadn’t really happened yet. People who read fantasy also read fantasy for children and teens, and so on; people who enjoyed particular authors went on enjoying them in adulthood; people who enjoyed children’s books sought them out. This wasn’t, I think, from my own observations and those of friends in both the academic and the library world (the latter particularly well-placed to observe changing trends in reading), the same readership which has suddenly now discovered YA books, usually either real-life humorous or dramatic teen-girl books, or fantasy or dystopian-future books, and who regard them as a separate genre. Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging goes along with Bridget Jones’ Diary and Shopaholic very naturally and the readership does overlap. However, quite a number of the adult readers of YA fantasy or dystopian apocalyptic fiction aren’t and never were readers of adult fantasy and science fiction; they’re not reading YA in addition to adult books of speculative fiction, but instead of. Why is that?

I suspect that it may have to do with why the new readers of YA sf are turning to teen books. There are of course many different ways in which children’s and YA books appeal to adults. Some authors have lasting appeal and people go on reading them as adults, because the books have depth and complexity that endures: Rosemary Sutcliff and Diana Wynne Jones are examples of this. Some people reread favourite childhood authors to recapture whatever it was that that experience brought them as a child.

The journalism student with whom I was corresponding wondered if I thought the current trend, of adults who weren’t lifelong children’s book readers beginning to read recent YA books, was a form of escapism. I considered that, but initially it didn’t seem to me to be a form of escape except in the same way that reading any other kind of fiction is an escape; that is, escape is part of the appeal but doesn’t explain it, because reading an adult book in the same genre would also offer that escape. The recent YA books that are acquiring new adult readers are mostly fantasy, dystopian-future fiction (in which science fiction “what-ifs” play only a small role), or paranormal romance — especially paranormal romance. I suspect that part of the appeal is the length. People who are rushed don’t feel they have the time to invest in reading an adult 500 page fantasy novel, for example. A YA book is usually (not always, but usually) shorter — at least at the start of a series! The YA to adult crossover series by recent writers who are not also writers of adult sf are also often — not always or universally by any means! — not deeply complex in their fantasy or futuristic or supernatural elements; they don’t demand great imaginative commitment the way a much longer adult novel, with far more room for complex world-building will do. Therefore the reader doesn’t have to spend nearly so much time in learning the world in order to become immersed in the story, and again, if you’re pressed for time, that’s appealing.

I do wonder if, for a lot of people, there’s a desire to return to that young-and-full-of-potential point of their teen years, which would make a teen hero, rather than an adult beset by adult complexity, appealing. (Look at what those movies did with The Lord of the Rings, making Frodo into a helpless dewy-eyed, passive hardly-more-than-teen. He’s a very intelligent, thoughtful, competent gentleman in his maturity, for goodness’ sake. Anyway …)

The student also wondered if I thought this trend would continue. I said that those adults who have always read children’s and teen books are going to go on doing so, but that I thought that probably the tendency to regard certain types of YA as another genre choice would fade as something else took its place in fashion. It was Harry Potter, once the hype really got going, and Twilight that touched off this current trend, making reading juvenile or teen books something adults didn’t feel they had to apologize for or justify. I suspect that a significant number of the people who read what everyone is talking about will, unfortunately, in time drift away to the latest genre attracting media attention, whatever it may turn out to be. Literary taste goes through fads and cycles just as tastes in music, movies, and television do.

She also asked what I though the main difference between children’s and adult books was. There’s a simple answer there: complexity. I don’t mean that a children’s book should be shallow or simple or easy. It’s partially a matter of length. In 180,000 words you have room to build so much more than in 50,000. Plots can be far more complicated, characters more numerous, worlds vaster and with greater history and geography, because there’s room for it to happen. (I’m talking about my own genre of fantasy, or speculative fiction as a whole, here. You don’t need to do that world-building in a book set here-and-now, so that doesn’t really apply — although a novel set here-and-now isn’t usually so long as your average fantasy or science fiction work these days.) Vocabulary naturally changes somewhat; in a good book it does so without any deliberate dumbing down. The intensity and degree of violence and sexual explicitness does and should change depending on the audience too, of course. However, one of the major differences I see is in the psychological complexity, what’s going on inside the characters. Children aren’t psychologically simple but they don’t have the experience or the self-analytical abilities to understand or analyse a lot of what goes on in an adult emotional world, and that’s really where an adult book will lose child readers — when what’s going on in the characters’ motivations and so on is baffling. That’s what will put children off reading an adult book that they may have the vocabulary for, regardless of whether the sex and violence is more than what they’re prepared for or should be exposed to. It can simply bore them out of the book. That now brings me back to escapism, and the thought that maybe there is an element of escapism in the current trend for adults to regard YA books as a genre of adult fiction; maybe, when people are stressed and harried and feeling beset by the world and things they can’t control, they want that return to the point of burgeoning self-discovery, that borderline between childhood and adulthood when we are only beginning to become aware of own mental and emotional processes in a complex and analytical way, and when optimism that horrors can be overcome and the world saved or changed is easier to come by. Teen books, whether dealing with friends and family and romance, or a future of ruin and tyranny that must be survived and reformed, can give the reader that.

About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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