Why does YA rule?

I have a basic business writing and grammar class to teach today, so this is short, but I wanted to toss it out for discussion.

This spun off of a conversation I was having with my wife. For those of you who don’t know, Kate’s sekrit superhero identity is Daphne Unfeasible, the mastermind behind ktliterary.com, a literary agency that focuses mostly on YA (Young Adult) and Middle-grade fiction. Those types of books (and, to an extent, the individuals within that target audience) are a passion for her, one which I fully support.

But (as I said while sitting around at my family’s place over Thanksgiving) “YA” as a category of books kind of bugs me because from my point of view (as a consumer and as someone who catches very random snippets of agenting talk when I pop into Kate’s office to ask if she’s seen my shoes), the question of whether or not a book is YA (or middle-grade) pretty much boils down to “how old is the protagonist?” If the protag’s about the right age to fall within the target audience of such books, and the subject matter isn’t too dark, then you’re YA.

(Yes, I know I’m oversimplifying the process. I know. I KNOW. Understand that this is my perception as a consumer, not someone ‘inside’ YA. I will concede that I don’t know as much about the inner workings of the YA publishing industry as someone inside it. However, while I’ll concede that, I’d also like to point out that since I (the consumer) am the one spending money on the books, my (limited) perception matters just as much, if not more, than the people who know all the nuances.)

Anyway, back to the story. I was saying that it bugged me, because the whole thing just kind of seemed like cheating. I think I said something like “The genre of YA is basically nothing more than an age bracket. It’s sloppy.”

To which my super-keen wife said “Sure, it would be, if that were the case, but YA isn’t a genre.”

Then we argued about discussed that for awhile, and the fruitful result of that conversation looked something like this.

  • All the ‘real’ genres of fiction exist within the YA (or MG) age-grouping.
  • While that is true, consumers don’t see that because YA is not usually separated out by genre in bookstores or libraries in the way in which adult books are.
  • That may be one reason why YA books sell so well.

(This presupposes the fact that YA as a category-if-not-genre of books is a hot publishing commodity. Generally, that’s true.)

It looks like this.
It looks like this.

Here’s what I meant by that middle bullet point. Take a look at your local book store. Look at those signs over the book shelves. Mystery. Suspense. Literary Fiction. History. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Romance. Travel…

… and Young Adult.

There, all by itself, with no subheadings to be seen, are all the books aimed at YA readers, lumped together. Sweet Valley High rubbing up against Twilight. Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes next to Two Minute Drill. Catching Fire halfway down the shelf from Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Dogs and cats, living together. Mass hysteria.

Or, possibly, genius.

See, if I’m browsing for books in the local store, I go to the genres I dig, right? For me, that means I go poke around in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section for awhile – a couple hours, whatever – and then I’m pretty much done.

The odds that I’m going to run across an interesting biography during that time? Low.  The same goes for randomly picking up, reading the cover copy on, and buying No Country for Old Men, or the latest hot suspense thriller. Not going to happen. One of my coworkers is a huge Stephen King fan. Huge. Until I mentioned it last week, she had no idea he’d written On Writing. Why? It’s in another section of the store.

Over in the YA section (of the bookstore or amazon.com or whatever), the odds of that sort of thing happening — cross-genre pollination, if you will — are exponentially higher, simply because everything is lumped together.

Let me tell you about me-as-a-young-reader: I was a slut.

William S. Burroughs? I was there. Random “sports” novels? Sure. Catcher in the Rye? Yep. Alfred Hitchcock collections? Of course. Stephen King? Heck yeah. Trixie Belden? All 34 books in the series, baby, and throw in the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew as a snack, and chase the whole thing down with The Lord of the Rings (read 15 times during high school). Then the Old Man and the Sea for dessert.

Today? I pretty much stick to my genres of interest.

Why? Well, mostly because I don’t see the other stuff.

But the YA readers see stuff from all different genres. Moreover, they pick up, check out, and decide to read stuff from all different genres. Because it’s there, and ultimately they are readers and they (like the grown-ups) just like good stories.

I don’t think I’m any less voracious a reader than I was as a kid. I don’t think anyone is.

But I think we read less broadly than we used to, because as we age out of the YA area, our reading selection gets segregated.

Then we buy less, because we’ve ‘read everything’.

Maybe, just maybe, all those subsections in the grown-up section of the book store are stupid. Maybe.

I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

10 Replies to “Why does YA rule?”

  1. Love the insight as to the shelves of books. Interesting. I dunno if it’s precisely practical, but I think as the Internet becomes ascendant and we focus our searches, bookstores gain value by being a browsable, visual, tangible experience.

    On YA trend — it’s a strange one. When I was of the YA-age, I read Stephen King and other “adult” books.

    It’s further odd that there’s really no parallel between something like, say, the PG-13 film rating and the YA tag.

    — c.
    .-= Chuck´s last blog ..Please To Meet Death, The Thief Of Conflict =-.

    1. Yeah, I stopped short of saying that adult-age books should all be lumped together the way YA is.

      I’m not sure that’s a viable solution in a brick-and-mortar store (as much as I’d like to discover some book I’d never otherwise see, I don’t want to wade through piles of romance novels to get to my Dean Koontz competence-porn), but it’s something that virtual stores should be aware of – there’s just no reason for that Amazon screenshot that included in my post to be the norm.

      1. Followed a link here from a DaphneUn tweet, and so glad I did! (Also, I’m one of Kate’s clients– MG-ish rather than YA, but a heavy YA reader.) This is a very interesting post–if nothing else, a wonderful tribute to brick-and-mortar as opposed to on-line bookstores.

        Like everyone else I’m not sure bookstores could stay sane without categorizing the stock. Thank heaven the genre mixing does take place in YA stock, because that’s the age when your reading should be as varied as possible as you develop your tastes.

        My background’s in newspapers, where there’s an eternal debate about where to jump page one stories. Some say you should always jump to the back page of the front section for the reader’s convenience. Others say you should jump every story to a different page inside, thus luring readers in to be caught by neighboring unrelated stories.

        Maybe bookstores could have the best of both worlds by dividing books into genres but placing the genres at random…history next to romance, mysteries next to social commentary, sci fi beside cookbooks, whatever. This would drive everyone just a little big crazy rather than all-out nuts.

  2. Totally agree with your post- it’s so hard to find good books in other genres unless you’re looking for them (or you happen to catch something on a mixed genre Buy 2 get 1 free table or something). Unless I “work” to find stuff like that, I don’t see it. I read a lot of YA and lately it’s been a lot of sci fi/fantasy YA because I’ve been seeing it in the section and I pick up the books because they look interesting. All the bookstores near me (large and indie) have YA by author so I get exposed to a lot of books I might not have even thought to look at otherwise.
    .-= Jessica Capelle´s last blog ..Watch Where You’re Going =-.

  3. This was an interesting perspective. As someone within the Young Adult age bracket, I can see how this works. YA has its own corner, right next to the cafe, in my favourite bookstore. Strangely, though, I tend to only seek out the fantasy and paranormal romance in there. I haven’t bought anything outside of that by just seeing it on a shelf as many non-magical books that interest me have to be ordered in. Maybe this is just local bookstore-itis.
    .-= Ann Elise´s last blog ..Fanfiction =-.

Comments are closed.