Sunday, June 15, 2008

Huh. So that's the way you see things?

Monica Edinger highlighted Frank Cottrell Boyce's comments on YA contained in a recent Guardian book review. Monica has a conversation going on at her blog, but as my comment became longer and longer I realized I needed to post on it here, also.

To quote in pertinent part from FCB:

If I have one quibble, it is that I think it should be sitting proudly on the shelf next to these books, rather than being hidden away in the "young adult" ghetto. There's been a lot of fury among authors recently about the proposal to "age-band" children's books, but in a way they're too late. The real disaster has already happened. It's called "young adult" fiction. It used to be the case that you moved on from children's fiction to adult fiction, from The Owl Service, maybe, to Catcher in the Rye. There were, of course, some adult authors who were more fashionable with teenage readers than others - Salinger, Vonnegut, Maya Angelou. But these were chosen by teenagers themselves from the vast world of books. Some time ago, someone saw that trend and turned it into a demographic. Fortunes were made but something crucial was lost. We have already ghettoised teenagers' tastes in music, in clothes and - God forgive us - in food. Can't we at least let them share our reading? Is there anything more depressing than the sight of a "young adult" bookshelf in the corner of the shop. It's the literary equivalent of the "kids' menu" - something that says "please don't bother the grown-ups". If To Kill a Mockingbird were published today, that's where it would be placed, among the chicken nuggets.

This is not just a question of taste. It seems to me that the real purpose of stories and reading is to take you out of yourself and put you somewhere else. Anything that is made to be sold to a particular demographic, however, will always end up reflecting the superficial concerns of that demographic. I've lived through an era in which demographic-fixation murdered popular cinema and replaced a vibrant art form with a kind of digital holding-pen for teenage boys. I think we're in danger of doing the same to fiction. The best young adult fiction - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, A Swift Pure Cry, Noughts and Crosses and so on - strolls out of its category. I've no doubt at all that The Knife of Never Letting Go will do the same. Don't let the demographic exclude you.

Part of me doesn't want to comment at all, from the sense that I'm fast beginning to wonder just what the hell is going on over in the UK with books and reading. Do people really tell teens they cannot read adult books? Is YA Lit really being used as restrictive box to keep teens away from adult materials?

In my experiences, YA Lit offers us more choices, not less. That, at its heart, is my view towards books and reading: what expands our world rather than limits it?

Age banding (along with the implicit using of banding for censoring -- no kisses before 13! No divorce before 11! No death before 9! No GLBT ever!) is voiced in terms of limiting choices, not opening up a world. Yet, FCB uses language that says the existence of YA lit is itself limiting. And for that, I have to disagree; and the only thing I can really point to is my own experiences as a reader, and what I observe with others, and it's all in the US, so FCB may be entirely right for the UK. I don't know.

FCB recalls teenagers going from children's lit to adult lit, and worries that today's teens are being kept from that adult lit. He also seems to be saying that good YA books are really adult books with a bad label.

As a lifelong reader, my choices have always been varied. At ten I was reading adult fiction; but I was also reading children's lit. It was never an either/or; and there was never a "don't read this," either at home, in a bookstore, or in a library. So yes, I did read adult lit as a teen; but I see today's teens doing likewise, reading a bit from here, a bit from there.

As for what YA lit has become.... I look at what we have now and get angry and jealous that I didn't have the reading choices as a teen that teens have today. I recall looking at adult shelves to try to find something that was teen friendly -- so some of my adult book reading was not a choice, but a default. I would have loved to have the books that are available today; and I hope that these books don't go away.


Anonymous said...

This is the first of your blog posts I've read and I thought I'd add in my opinion as the almost 17 year old teenager from London and avid reader that I am. I find it really worrying that YA fiction isn't generally embraced at all in the UK, but something criticised and dismissed as almost soulless, vacuous books. I'm lucky enough to work in an independent children's bookshop where our teen section is not hidden away and we pride ourselves on having collectively read most of the books, able to recommend the ones we love to the many teens who ask for a new read. The point, though, is that (from what I've witnessed) while the younger generations - the teenagers, the twenty-somethings, the young parents - embrace the idea of this brilliant genre. I know it's not a matter of grouping people off, because teens come in all the time who have, for example, read Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, every Dickens ever published, Kafka and endless numbers of typically adult books, but who want books that excite them in a different way, books with a different target audience. Yet traditionalists in the country bandy about words such as "accessibility" in the illusion that the only thing YA does is tell stories about hormonal teenagers, that it doesn't challenge you in a different way and that it's somehow for the less intelligent kids who can't quite stomach Austen. Boyce has made me sort of angry (and by sort of, I mean very) because he's taken a huge step backwards by almost suggesting in his argument against it that the expansion and growing popularity of YA fiction (although in no comparable scale to the amazing progress the US has done in expanding its YA publications) parents and teachers encourage teens to read only teenage fiction, but that is certainly not the case and teenagers definitely venture outside the YA genre whether parents want them to or not.
I wholeheartedly agree with you that YA literature opens up a new world; one only has to look at the books FCB mentions (Curious Incident, Noughts and Crosses etc.) to see what wonderful books have been created for the young adult audience, whether or not adults read them.
As for your point about varied choices, again, I see teens (and myself) reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Gatsby, 100 Years of Solitude who would happily pick up the newest Cornelia Funke or Eva Ibbotson. I fear that FCB is giving an inaccurate portrayal of what teens in the UK (or London at least) feel about the books they read and of the YA genre. He seems to be the only one affected by those boundaries from my personal experience, and parents here don't seem to worry at all about their kids reading YA books which Boyce posits keeps them from adult lit which is just.. arrgh!!
And don't worry, if these books go away, I will take a stand for sure!
I don't know how coherent that all was; it has been typed out in a thought process rant and I'm feeling a little deflated that I'm not so keen on picking up the copy of FCB's Cosmic that I have an old proof of. But of course I would never do such a think as it belongs in the 8-12 section and as a YA reader I never venture out of my demographic. *throws something* *possibly Cosmic*

Anonymous said...

*thing not think

& when I said "I find it really worrying that YA fiction isn't generally embraced at all in the UK, but something criticised and dismissed as almost soulless, vacuous books."
I meant by many book critics, not by the general public (although this is also probably true for the older generations also.

Liz B said...

Rosianna, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing so much -- and of course I agree with you! I enjoyed FCB's Millions, but liking an author never means agreeing with everything they say -- and he kind of struck me a bit "grumpy old manish, back when I was a teen."

See, I think if the issue is "more adults should read books with the YA label," the answer isnt' to attack the YA label but wonder why those adults feel that label is a barrier.

Again, thanks so much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

The article was not an attack on YA though I can see the extract makes it read like that. It's worth pointing out that the article was giving a blisteringly good five star review to a YA book.
My worry is not about readers. Readers are adventurous creatures. I know that.
From Frank Cottrell Boyce

My worry is about what demographics do in the long term to the writers.
I really do know about this because I work in the film industry.
You start by aiming stuff at a demographic. You end up writing for that demographic. And that's very narrowing both for the writer and the audience.
If you don't believe me go and look at what's on at your multiplex this weekend. And compare it to what was on ten or fifteen years back

Liz B said...

Frank, thank you for stopping by & joining in the discussion. Your review included a number of issues that would make great conversations; and as I was still thinking about it last night, and agree with some points and (obviously) not with others.

I really cannot comment on the film industry. It's a different process – film involves so many more people than a book, and needs so much more money to get a finished product for an audience. I would want to know more about specific data as well as how factors contribute to what appears on the big screen (cost, distribution, ticket prices, salaries, competition from TV, DVD) and then where the parallels are in publishing, especially in publishing YA. Is it that the writers self-limit? Or is it that the sellers (production companies, publishing companies) are narrow in what the work they decide to buy?

I can only look at this via books. I look at what books were available for teens 10 or 15 years ago compared with today (or for me, more like 25 years ago) and see that there is much more for teens to read now than then. It increases the great books that are out there.

Trying to force an author into a narrow category has been going on for ages; I find it quite annoying that when Stephen King writes end-of-the-world books he is dismissed as a horror writer; when Cormac McCarthy does, it is high literature. And authors have used other names for different audiences for ages (tho now, in the celeb-author world, I don't think that is as easy as it once was.)

I don't like the one-genre per book approach to titles, so that a love story between a vampire and werewolf set in 1870 is either a western, romance, supernatural, OR science fiction story – unless it's written for a teen audience, then boom, YA, or if its written by a Real Writer, in which case, it's literature.

I like the approach of shelving crossover titles in multiple places and having displays that cover an assortment of titles; because I really don't think that a library or bookstore that is A to Z by author, without juvenile, teen, adult, or genre listings, would work with most consumers.

As for the publisher perspective, if this is going to narrow the authors or their publishing choices, I'd like to hear from the authors on this one. Because I would hope that the answer to being able to write what one wants to write and connecting with an audience, is not to get rid of the YA area.

Alea said...

I remember being a teen about 6-7 years ago, not wanting to read books from the children's section anymore and moving straight on to adult books because there wasn't much there for teens. Now at the age of 24 I'm reading Young Adult Fiction, taking back what I couldn't get when I was a teen. I'm very thankful for this genre. I feel I was kept from the YA lit and forced into the Adult lit because there was no in between. I don't care who it's written for, that's obviously not why I read a book.

Anonymous said...

I think everything that you say is right - so far. My worry is that YA will go from being a shelving category into a genre, with conventions and cliches and then it WILL end up being all about hormonal teenagers. I think anyone who's honest can see this is already happening.
I thought it was obvious that I love loads of the books in this category. I keep giving them five star reviews. And lots of them carry cover quotes from me. Another of my concerns is that they are underestimated (and not read widely enough) because of their YA label. The drift of the article that has caused all this fuss was this is such a good book "Please don't let the demographic put you off".

Anonymous said...

Well, YA is a genre and has been for quite some time. It's just that some people are only now just noticing. I haven't been a teen for nearly thirty years, but back then, Richard Peck, M. E. Kerr and Robert Cormier were in their heyday. They were writing great books for a specific audience that were shelved at my local bookstore under a sign that said "Young Adult." And back then--and really, up until fairly recently--YA was a true ghetto in terms of revenue. Nobody was making any money. So I sometimes think that a lot of this current fuss about YA gettin' no respect comes from people who were drawn to the genre for the wrong reasons.

So YA as a genre has been around for a long time and yes, it has its conventions and its cliches, but I don't think you can look at the current boom in quality, variety and sheer invention without seeing that it absolutely hasn't narrowed the scope of writers who choose to write in this genre.

So there you go. What's the big worry? Thirty-plus years and YA just keeps getting better and better, not narrower.

I have always seen YA as about perspective. There's a terrific passage in Richard Peck's Invitations to the World where he talks about his days teaching in a girls' school in New York. He tried to get his charges to read The Member of the Wedding, thinking they would adore it. After all, they were the same age as Frankie, had her same fears and concerns. Nope. The girls rejected it as a book about a crazy person. Peck spent five nights re-reading the book to figure out why they felt this way and came to this conclusion:

"It wasn't written for the young, of course. It was for readers who'd made a safe passage to adulthood and dared to look back."

There is a clear difference and why shouldn't there be? Why shouldn't teens have a literature that reflects where they are in this treacherous journey? A journey and a perspective that is specifically theirs and not that of their parents.

Most of the YA authors I know--myself included--choose to write in this genre because they love it, because it is what excites, inspires and interests them. They were not pushed into it by demographic marketing. They know and understand the genre and the audience and they choose it. They are not interested in whether or not adults (other than editors, reviewers, librarians and booksellers, naturally) underestimate their work because that is not who they are writing for. Plain and simple. It really doesn't bother them if adults read or don't read their work. The author who writes ostensibly for teenagers but wishes for the approval of adult readers is writing in the wrong genre and should stop it, in my very unhumble opinion.

Jess said...

I agree with Melissa that it IS a genre - and there are always pros and cons to a genre. Some people won't want to touch a genre with a ten foot pole, and other people jump in and swim around and find what works for them in that genre. And if it's a genre - rather than an age label - to my mind that makes YA more accessible for adults. I wonder why no one fusses over children's lit and how adults are afraid of reading it? Maybe because age and reading levels are so much more at the forefront of that category, but I'm just as eager to get adults reading quality children's books as quality YA. There are picture books that an adult can enjoy just as much as a child (even an adult who isn't a librarian/enthusiast) but I'm not aware of anyone bemoaning the fact that they're shelved with the more age-limited picture books.

Libby said...

I love the YA books that are available now--like you, Liz, I am sometimes angry and jealous that they weren't available for me. But as a seriously nerdy, bookish kid, I wonder if I would have read them w/the YA label on them. That is, I made the jump straight to adult books even though there was YA available (not as much as now, but there was some really good stuff) because I wanted to be "mature" and "intelligent." I now see that as a trap (duh! I now spend my life w/children's and YA lit) but at the time...not so much. And it's not that anyone was keeping me from those books--far from it! It was my own misplaced (but, I think, not uncommon) sense that I was "too old" for YA. (Just like you're too old for Seventeen magazine by the time you're fifteen...)

So what I saw FCB as saying was not that the books are bad, but that labeling can be. Maybe the solution is multi-labeling? Because, yes, the YA label is necessary for librarians and bookstores and parents and teachers who want to know where to look, but if it is turning people off (and, honestly, I still think it sometimes is) it wouldn't hurt to shelve those same books (even with the same covers!) elsewhere as well...

Are the same people who oppose age-banding defending the YA label? What's the difference?

Again, I'm not at all opposed to the existence of YA lit--far from it. I think it's really opened things up for readers of all ages. But I do sometimes wonder about the labels--all of them.

Anonymous said...

Libby you have put it all more temperately and eloquently than I did. Thanks

Jennifer said...

I think that the ghettoization of genres is often what allows authors to experiment and take risks and blossom. I think it's weird to question YA sections for hiding away so much good in them; I think if it weren't for these sections a lot of the good wouldn't exist.